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Summer Guide: The Best Obscure Tourist Attractions 

Wednesday, Jun 22 2011

So you've got some friends visiting. They're of discriminating tastes, and expect you to show them the town. Sure, you could take them to Fisherman's Wharf and Alcatraz; those places have their own amusing, semi-ironic merits, and the Alcatraz headphone tour is a genuinely fascinating experience, once you actually get to the island.

But San Francisco is an amazingly diverse city with plenty of obscure attractions that even many locals don't know about. So why not take your out-of-towners down one of the roads less traveled? At the very least, you'll avoid the teeming throngs of tourists in ill-advised shorts.

If you do choose to patronize the Wharf, you'll definitely want to visit Musée Mecanique (Pier 45 Shed A, Taylor at Embarcadero, Relocated from its original home at the Cliff House, this quarter-munching trove of archaic amusements and Asteroids-era electronics is truly a local treasure. In an informal poll of longtime S.F. residents, the Musée was mentioned more than any other destination as a place to take guests. From mechanical sports games and elaborate antique animatronics to marionette-o-vision dramatizations, this bunker of bygone is a surefire visitor pleaser. And after you've soaked in the mad cackling of Laffing Sal, the various calliope-like music machines, and other vintage attractions, you can get an electric foot massage or play some modern-day pinball. Winning!

From there, walk west along the shoreline to 3040 Larkin, across from Ghirardelli Square, where you can immerse your unsuspecting companions in the Pop Art glory that is Keane Eyes Gallery. Margaret Keane is the artist who originated those once-ubiquitous large-eyed portraits that became a touchstone of kitsch culture; it all started in San Francisco in the early '60s, and the 83-year-old still paints every day at her home in wine country. The prolific Keane has produced some 15,000-plus works of art in her lifetime and has an incredible backstory; in fact, Tim Burton is producing a biopic, tentatively titled Big Eyes, with Kate Hudson in the leading role. The gallery has the planet's largest collection of Keane-eyed women, children, puppies, and more. Original oils start at around $100,000, but prints, T-shirts, pendants, and even eyeballs hand-painted on rocks by Keane herself are completely within the fiscal reach of mere mortals. The only catch is that the gallery doesn't keep regular hours and is typically closed on Tuesdays and Sundays. To set up a visit, call 922-9309. Be sure to visit; just gazing upon the site's images will make your peepers bug out of their sockets.

As long as you're in that Bay-adjacent neighborhood, scope out the historic vessels at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park (Hyde Street Pier, Hyde at Jefferson) and the colorful, nautical-themed WPA-era murals in the lobby of the Aquatic Park Bathhouse Building and Maritime Museum (900 Beach at Polk). It's free to look at the ships or wander in the museum; $5 to go aboard. Visit for hours and details.

After that, head further west to the Marina Green, where you'll find one of San Francisco's odder free attractions, the Wave Organ (83 Marina Green at Yacht, Located at the end of a jetty near the Golden Gate Yacht Club, this Zenlike tubular installation is a series of PVC and concrete pipes designed to amplify all manner of sloshes and gurgles, depending on the tide.

The jetty was constructed from the granite remains of the demolished Laurel Hill Cemetery, and is a great detour on the way to such top-notch destinations as the Golden Gate Bridge, Crissy Field, and the Exploratorium, which funded the creation of the Wave Organ in the 1980s.


Of course, there are scads of fun diversions in other neighborhoods. Here are a few additional suggestions for out-of-town visitor entertainment that are a hoot for locals as well.

Audium. This place is a corker. You sit in a darkened room as 176 speakers play weird old-school electronic music around you. Lovingly curated by knob-twiddling composer Stan Shaff, this shrine to vintage audio technology is of another time and oddly mind-blowing. Audium happens every Friday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. at 1616 Bush (at Franklin),; tickets $20, cash only.

Randall Museum. The coolest thing about this place is the huge train set in the basement, courtesy of the Golden Gate Model Railroad Club. Somewhat inconveniently, the mini-choo-choo section is open for viewing only from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays, but the rest of this free, kid-friendly museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and is an underappreciated city gem. There are plenty of rotating and permanent exhibits: One current exhibition is all about earthquakes, which seems particularly S.F.-visitor appropriate. 199 Museum (at States),

The crookedest street in San Francisco. No, not Lombard Street, silly. It's Vermont Street on Potrero Hill — between 20th and 22nd streets, to be specific. Supertwisty with seven sharp turns, this new home to the annual Bring Your Own Big Wheel competition is hardly well-touristed. If you look it up on Google Maps, you can take a virtual ride down the street, and even that's a bit discombobulating. A Travel Channel expert once calculated the sinuosity of Lombard and Vermont streets and found that Vermont is indeed more curvy, with a 1.56 rating versus Lombard's lowly 1.2. Plus you don't have to wait in line to drive down it.

Pulp heaven. Paperbacks are the epitome of efficiency: Inexpensive and portable, they provide hours of uninterrupted entertainment without batteries. Kayo Books at 814 Post (at Leavenworth) boasts a stock of thousands of these pocket-size personal entertainment system. The pulpware on offer here is unlike anything you'll find in some newfangled digital format. Visually, this store's offerings are priceless; small wonder that graphic designers frequently troll its wares for inspiration. And the further you delve, the weirder it gets: junkie lit, torrid romance, "love that dare not speak its name"–style 1950s and '60s gay publications , and so much more. Given that the products are reasonably priced, your visiting pals will almost certainly leave with a one-of-a-kind souvenir.

Joe's of Westlake. Okay, so this temple to classic Italian-American cuisine is actually in Daly City (11 Glenwood at Lake Merced,, but it doesn't get much more old-school S.F. than this. Opened in 1959, Westlake Joe's (as the locals often call it) is a longstanding favorite of Bay Area grandparents and hipsters in the know. It seems like most of the tuxedoed waiters have been here for decades, and the menu and well-preserved retro decor probably haven't changed in that long, either. There's a piano bar with river-rock walls and vinyl lounge seats that screams lounge lizard ; the musicians often encourage patrons to sing along. Stiff highballs at a reasonable price add a nostalgic glow to the experience.

About The Author

Mike Rowell


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