Ruth Carlson shares the secrets of San Francisco and the city's hidden wonders that even locals didn't know about.

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October 14, 2020

7 Secrets of San Francisco

Do you want to get beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, PIER 39, Alcatraz Island and other iconic San Francisco landmarks? Or are you a returning visitor who's eager to discover something new about the city? International travel writer Ruth Carlson has spent her time uncovering the secrets of San Francisco. Check out some of these locations excerpted from her book, "Secret San Francisco: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure," and get in touch with the unexpected side of the Bay Area.

Peephole Cinema: A Hole in the Wall (280 Orange Alley)

Only a tiny sign with an eyeball dangling from it lets you know when you've arrived at the Peephole Cinema. It plays continuous short silent films for anyone willing to look into this hole in the wall.

You can see another early motion picture device, the Mutoscope, at the Musee Mecanique at Fisherman's Wharf.

Art House: Gregangelo Museum (225 San Leandro Way)

The Gregangelo Museum isn't your traditional museum. It's a fun house with hidden doors, circus paintings and spinning time capsules. Colorful broken tiles and jewels cover the walls and ceiling of the house. It's as if you're entering a kaleidoscope. Each of the 27 rooms has a theme: Arabian nights, a spaceship, a bathroom under the sea, and a pink stuffed animal cave, to name just a few.

For the month of October, the Gregangelo Museum is offering a special outdoor tour, "Phantasma: Explore Your Fear". This immersive experience is perfect for small groups. Tickets are now available.

Secret Stairs

San Francisco is certainly a vertical city, but it's also a great one to explore on foot. To conquer some of our famous hills, your best bet is to take the stairs. All throughout San Francisco's many unique neighborhoods, there are staircases that make for spectacular shortcuts. Some are well-known, favorite photo spots, like the Lincoln Steps or the stairs to Macondray Lane. Others are a bit more of a closely guarded local secret, like the aptly-named Hidden Steps at 16th Street. How many can you find?

A True Sense-ation: Audium (1616 Bush St.)

Created by a team of classically trained musicians, Audium is a "theater of sculptured sound." Visitors sit in complete darkness and are treated to a symphony created from everyday noises like wind gusts, horns, and whispers, played through 176 speakers hidden in the walls, ceilings, and floors. It's a surprising and popular way to disconnect in the digital age and let your imagination take hold.

Please note: Audium is temporarily closed. While you can't experience the show from home, you can listen to its creators in conversation with local Bay Area artists on their new podcast.

Squeezebox City: San Francisco's Surprising Official Instrument

San Francisco's icons are all a bit unusual—an orange bridge, a crooked street—but there might be nothing more unusual than the City's official instrument: the piano accordion. As stated in the City's proclamation on the matter, the first piano accordion was manufactured here in San Francisco in 1907. Originally, accordions had buttons until a pianist suggested replacing them with piano keys. This new accordion was showcased at San Francisco's Panama-Pacific Exhibition in 1915. The Chicken Dance would never be the same!

To get your hands on a genuine Bay Area piano accordion, visit Smythe's Accordion Center in Oakland. It's free to peruse the instruments, but Smythe's takes no responsibility for how your roommates may react should you bring an accordion home as your souvenir.

Hot Dog!: Larger-Than-Life Doggie Diner Statues (Treasure Island)

Mannie, Moe and Jack are fiberglass statues that live on Treasure Island, the last turnoff on the Bay Bridge before you leave San Francisco. Born in 1948, these dogs grew up working and rotating on poles in front of Doggie Diner, a hot dog chain in San Francisco and Oakland.

When the restaurants closed in 1986, there were about 30 of the dog heads left, most of which were thrown away. San Francisco resident John Law rescued three of the smiling dogs, who are now enjoying retirement posing for Instagram and occasionally appearing at non-profit events.

How the Bay was Saved: The Bay Model Visitors Center (2100 Bridgeway, Sausalito)

In the 1950s, actor John Reber came up with the idea of damming San Francisco Bay to form a series of freshwater lakes. Congress took Reber's plan so seriously that it gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers millions of dollars to investigate its feasibility.

The Army created the Bay Model to simulate the region's watersheds in various conditions. Tests proved that the Reber Plan was a disastrous idea and the bay was saved. The Army keeps the Bay Model as a museum and as an educational tool. It now lives in a warehouse that is open to visitors along Sausalito's stunning waterfront.

Please note: The Bay Model Visitors Center is temporarily closed. Click here to check for updates.

At age 17, Ruth Wertzberger Carlson moved to the Bay Area and has been in love with the city ever since. In her book, "Secret San Francisco: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure", Ruth uncovers stories and secrets that even San Francisco natives might not know.

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