When I was in San Francisco in the beginning of June, one of my goals was to find as many free things to do as possible. As I’ve done on previous trips, I consulted a great website, Atlas Obscura, to find offbeat, quirky attractions in the Bay Area. Most of the things on the site are free and off the beaten path: exactly the sort of thing I’m into!
(In Italy two years ago, I visited the oldest running pharmacy in the world, an ossuary (found within a chapel, it’s a chamber whose walls are entirely covered in bones), and the oldest public museum in Europe to check out their anatomical wax collection, to name a few. And all places I found on Atlas Obscura!)
One thing especially nice about the two places in this post is that we had to venture into otherwise innocuous neighborhoods in order to find them. Plus I was showing my friend new parts of the city she inhabits, which is always fun 🙂
First up: the San Francisco Columbarium, in the Richmond district. A columbarium is a structure built for the storage of ashes- human remains. It sounds grim, but I’m always drawn to beautiful places, and sometimes that includes cemeteries and catacombs.
What’s amazing is that this structure was built in 1897, was abandoned from 1934 to 1979, and today it’s fully restored, active, and owned by the Neptune Society of Northern California.
The next quirky San Francisco spot was sort of like a treasure hunt: The “Hidden” Mosaic Staircase. We thought we found what we were looking for when we saw this:
But these particular steps hadn’t been painted yet. Was it a ‘future project’ (technically, yes)? Had I been tricked into thinking it was real already? I insisted on believing that the mosaic staircase existed, and we climbed the plain gray steps anyway, because hey, we’ll still get some cool views of the city!
I turned around as we ascended and captured this:
It was still nice and lovely and all that, but I was determined to keep going, even though there were no signs for the mosaic staircase once we got to the top of this one. And we were still in a (well manicured, well-to-do) regular neighborhood. But I kept the address in mind (16th Ave and Moraga St), and we went around the corner and up the street a little bit…
And we found our mosaic staircase! I was so happy, I couldn’t stop smiling. I felt like I was in this fantastical, stars-align kind of travel moment: a.) we’d finally found the staircase, and b.) look at that thing! This exists because normal people banded together and contributed their time, energy and money to make something beautiful in their neighborhood.
Each step is unique, with messages and the names of the people who designed them. And I love how the whole staircase is basically an ode to Mother Nature, starting with the sea and leading up to the celestial bodies at the top.
And I kept turning around to check out the ever-expanding views of the city. We could see the ocean, Golden Gate Park, and even across the Bay to Marin.
The gardens alongside the steps were pretty, too:
Some more shots of the steps, because I took so many and how could I possible choose?
Ellen and I, with the backdrop of the sun:
It turned out to be a whole afternoon of steps. One we’d reached the top of the mosaic staircase, a friendly local asked us if it was our first time and directed us across the street to Grand View Park (which couldn’t be more aptly named). The park is basically a huge mound with grass and trees at the top and reached only by more stairs! 🙂
But oh my goodness, are those 360 degree views worth it.
We took tons more pictures once we were at the top, but I’ll spare you and just share two more 😉
That afternoon is a travel memory I’m still savoring.
Do you have any favorite travel moments, where you felt like you had stumbled in to something truly amazing? Have you found quirky, offbeat, or free spots in your own city you’d like to share?
One last thing: thank you all so much for the positive feedback for Monday’s post. Yay for women having each other’s backs!