Last updated on July 26, 2023 by Wandering our World
San Francisco is a bustling metropolis that’s built quite a reputation as a popular tourist destination. But lurking beneath the happy surface of every city is a dark side, and San Francisco – like the USA as a whole – is no different. The sweeping skyscrapers, manicured parks, and gorgeous coastline hide their secrets.
From hauntings to dark history and mystery, there are so many unique and interesting things to explore beyond the usual tourist traps. Unsurprisingly, this little slice of California is a hub for dark tourism.
San Francisco has seen its fair share of strange and obscure happenings throughout the decades, but much to our benefit, this has resulted in many incredibly interesting places to visit.
If you’ve got the nerve for it.
So saddle up those undies and get ready to explore the macabre, the strange, and the interesting dark tourism destinations of San Francisco.
13 Must-Visit Dark Tourism Destinations of San Francisco
1. The Neptune Society Columbarium
San Francisco has a lot of controversy tailing its cemeteries, and the Neptune Society Columbarium was no exception.
When a new law was passed, cremation in San Francisco was prohibited, and further restrictions were placed on burial grounds; so most people moved their loved ones to the newly created cemetary town of Colma.
The Columbarium had fallen into disrepair and only recently has been returned to the grandeur it was once revered for. Originally built in 1989 as a chapel, this is one of the oldest in the city, and with it comes the recognition as a local Heritage Site.
But aside from the beauty of the building and its ornate architecture, tourists flock there for another, more obscure reason. Obviously, any place that houses the dead will have its own legends, and the apparent ghosts that haunt the Columbarium are no different.
It seems as though some of the deceased are a bit pained to enter the light, with one of the most notorious being a little girl who wanders the halls.
Visitors often say they’ve heard her tiny footsteps and chilling laughter. Nobody knows why she’s there; but some speculate she was a victim of the 1906 earthquake.
Location: 1 Loraine Ct, San Francisco, CA
Tags: Grave Tourism; Paranormal Tourism
Most people are familiar with the notorious Alcatraz and its infamy for housing some of America’s most dangerous criminals. An inescapable fortress found in the San Francisco bay area on Alcatraz Island, this former maximum security prison attracts tourists in the thousands throughout the year.
It’s a humbling reminder of America’s darker history, and tours often include the bone-chilling tales of the prisoners it housed, failed and fatal escape attempts, and not to mention the ghosts that haunt the jail block.
Of course, we’re all a little bit morbidly curious to know what exactly happened to the villainous likes of Al Capone and the OG “Machine Gun” Kelly, and we can assure you it’s not pretty.
The treatment of prisoners at Alcatraz was horrendous, which explains why the premises has a reputation for being haunted. After all, if the Winchester brothers in Supernatural are anything to go by, it takes a real tragic death and unresolved issues to make a specter.
Regardless of the spooks and true-crime legends, Alcatraz is a humbling experience and one of San Francisco’s many historical sites and National Parks.
So at least if you find the idea of torture and criminals grotesque, you can go on the search for local wildlife around the island instead.
Location: Alcatraz Island
Tags: Prison Tourism, Dark History, Paranormal Tourism.
3. Hunter’s Point Shipyard
Barely a corner of the world was left untouched by the influences of WWII, and San Francisco is no exception. Hunter’s Point Shipyard was built in the early 20th century and catered to building and repairing Naval Ships to send them and their officers to war.
Shortly after 1945, the shipyard was decommissioned and left to ruin. However, it became the subject of a rejuvenation project before the turn of the century, and that’s when the dark story of the shipyard was revealed.
The shipyard is responsible for a fair amount of environmental contamination in the area, most notably the detection of radioactive waste.
It’s an ecological disaster caught in the knick of time, with the city working tirelessly to remove and correctly dispose of the hazardous material before it affects the surrounding areas.
Now, the Hunter’s Point Shipyard is a vision of hope for San Francisco and the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, with plans to turn the area into a thriving commercial and residential space as part of this massive redevelopment program.
Still, the shipyard is bone-chilling and remains a big dark tourism site in San Francisco. But the urban decay has made it a canvas for graffiti artists, and the abandoned and creepy warehouses stand empty aside from traceurs and urban explorers.
Location: 75 Crisp Rd, San Francisco
Tags: War Tourism, Nuclear Tourism, Dark History
4. The Shipwrecks at Land’s End
The bays of San Francisco made for perfect conditions to make the city a thriving industry for offshore trade. From the minute man stepped foot on the land, ships followed!
Yet Land’s End is a reminder of the times, and not necessarily the poster child for happy memories. Why you ask? Well. Beneath the churning tides at Land’s End sits a mass burial (if you could even call it that) of some 300 shipwrecks.
The combination of fog, hidden rocks, and swelling tides ran aground plenty of ships back in the day. The worst story is that of the SS City of Rio de Janeiro. Over a hundred souls were dragged to Davey Jones’ locker along with the wreckage, which still lies on the ocean floor.
Eventually, the Mile Rock lighthouse was built in an attempt to stop any more disasters. Not that it helped much, as a few more ships saw their final days here.
At low tide, 3 of the wrecks are visible, but it takes some gutsy divers to dare explore the rest, harbored beneath the rolling waves.
Location: 680 Point Lobos Ave, San Francisco
Tags: Disaster Tourism, Dark History
5. Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge attracts tourists in the thousands throughout the year because of its sheer feat of engineering and architectural integrity. It’s a symbol of San Francisco, and most people can recognize it when they see it in movies and series.
But little do they know the dark and twisted tales from the bridge. As gorgeous and spectacular as the bridge is, a lot of tragedy surrounds it.
The bridge was once well-known for its suicide rates, and while the city has taken steps to prevent this from happening further, the safety measures act as a constant reminder. The spirits of some of these tortured souls are said to haunt the bridge at night.
The Golden Gate Bridge is only second to China’s Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge in terms of the number of suicides it has seen.
The bridge’s construction alone resulted in 11 men losing their lives and 19 lucky survivors becoming known as the “Halfway-to-Hell Club.”
Location: Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
Tags: Paranormal; Dark History; Morbid Tourism
6. Aquatic Park Tombstones
Imagine taking a casual stroll along the beachfront; you glance down at the intricate brickwork of the promenade only to see the words “Rest in Peace” cast into stone at your feet.
Freaky right? Well, the Aquatic Park Tombstones are exactly that. The headstones were once a part of San Francisco’s many graveyards before the rules changed in the 1900s.
In an attempt to reclaim some of the prime real estate, graves were interred, and the headstones of sailors were soon put along the Aquatic Park Walkways.
The mystery behind the though-process is still baffling. Some say it was made as a tribute to the dangers of life at sea, while others claim it was simply a beautification process.
Either way, the poor name-bearers of the grave markers will have constant chills running up their spines from people walking on their graves.
Location: 700-898 Beach St, San Francisco
Tags: Dark History; Grave Tourism
7. Crime Tours in San Francisco
Honestly, we can’t deny that the disturbing acts of serial killers are morbidly interesting, much like watching those pimple-popping videos on TikTok. It’s gross, but we can’t stop!
San Francisco is home to a few has-been horrors of its own, including the infamous Zodiac Killer, who stirred waves of fear throughout the ’70s and ’80s.
Of course, clever tour guides wouldn’t let this little fact slip under their noses and have invented interesting crime tours that take visitors to the city’s darkest corners to relive the horrors of gang massacres, serial killers, and more.
Some people think it’s tasteless, but others love the history lessons, and let’s face it, it’s fun to get put your detective skills to work (especially your girl’s so she doesn’t snoop through your phone at night).
Location: San Francisco
Tags: Dark History; Macabre Tourism; Murder Tourism; Morbid Tourism
8. Presidio Pet Cemetery
Weirdly enough, some of the few cemeteries to survive San Francisco’s 20th-century laws were pet cemeteries. Most famously, the Presidio Pet Cemetery.
Why is it famous? It inspired the great horror novelist Stephen King to write the spine-chilling “Pet Semetery.” The concept itself is adorable, but the process is a bit eerie.
Either way, people flock to the cemetery to stare at gravestones marked with the cutesy nickname someone’s beloved sausage dog once had. Maybe it inspires some, but for others, it’s the beauty of understanding just how unbelievably loved these fur babies once were.
Each grave is marked with its headstone, some engraved in marble, others shanty crosses made from wood and twine. But all show the inexplicable love we get for furry freeloaders to absolutely take over our lives.
Besides, there’s something fun about seeing what strange beasts are buried there: hamsters, lizards, and maybe a goldfish or two. Presidio Pet Cemetary is definitely one for the must-visit list.
Location: 667 McDowell Ave, San Francisco
Tags: Paranormal; Supernatural; Dark History; Disaster Tourism; War Tourism
8. Loved to Death
So when it comes to having a Magpie Heart, we’ll admit, we’re hoarders. Collecting unusual items from our travels is something we live for, whether it’s a random shell or a perfectly smooth rock.
When we heard about Loved to Death, we were sceptical, but what better place to mention your one-stop shop for everything weird, wonderful, and downright dreadful than San Francisco’s very own Loved to Death?
This unique little curio shop is filled with vintage trinkets and oddities that’ll make little goth girls squeal, and the average person raises an eyebrow. But, it’s a paradise for strange and unusual souvenirs reflecting the dark interests of long-forgotten times.
Taxidermy, mourning trinkets, and some creepy artwork mixed in with some downright strange antiques; if you’re a dark tourism fanatic in San Francisco, you can’t get souvenirs more fitting to the theme than here.
But if you’re not so frugal with your wallet, that’s okay; the best part of shopping is window shopping. You can look, but you don’t have to buy.
Location: Haight-Ashbury District, San Francisco
Tags: Macabre Tourism, Morbid Tourism
10. Fort Miley
Let’s face it; if we’ve learned anything about San Francisco, we know that cemeteries just meant prime real estate. Fort Miley is no different.
In the late 1800s, the fortress was built on graves dating back to the Gold Rush. Classy, isn’t it? In all fairness, the fort and the batteries that came with it were the city’s first line of defence against potential attacks, but the site was abandoned shortly after WWII.
Now forming part of the wonderful beauty of urban decay, people often hike right past it while enjoying the nature of the reserve.
In the late 20th century, when some salvages were attempted, hundreds of bodies were discovered, much to the workers’ horror.
You see, when the fort was built, the government was supposed to transfer the graves. But it seems only the headstones made the journey.
The site is rumored to play host to some wandering spirits, adding to that creepy charm that dark tourism lovers in San Francisco adore.
Location: Point Lobos, San Francisco
Tags: Paranormal; Dark History; Grave Tourism; War Tourism
11. 1906 Earthquake Refugee Shacks
In 1906, disaster struck San Francisco, resulting in most of the population losing their homes. The earthquake, estimated to be close to 8 on the Richter Scale, devastated the city, and thousands lost their lives.
This was before the fires started, which caused even further damage and destruction in their paths. With nearly 250,000 people sitting homeless, refugee camps were set up to provide some semblance of shelter.
The Earthquake Shacks were chaotically spread initially, before gaining some order and eventually turning into well-run shanty towns to accommodate those who needed it.
While these temporary shelters were mostly destroyed after the city began repairs, there are still a few scattered, converted, and almost unrecognisable remains in West San Francisco, including a preserved shack in the San Francisco Zoo.
So if you were curious about how the resilient San Franciscans overcame the earthquake’s tragedy, why not seek out the old refugee tents? It’s bound to be an awe-striking experience.
Location: West San Francisco
Tags: Paranormal; Supernatural; Dark History; Disaster Tourism; War Tourism
12. Explore San Francisco’s Underground
And we mean literally. San Francisco has always been rumored to have a network of underground tunnels, aside from the sewer systems that separate man from beast.
YouTuber Sierra Hartman initially caught public attention when it came to the deep, dark tunnels. Still, judging by the writing (or graffiti) on the wall, these tunnels have long since tickled the fancy of urban explorers from far and wide.
While this isn’t something we’d recommend any person off the street indulges in, after all, it comes with plenty of danger; if you can find a guide, we’d definitely recommend checking it out.
Mysterious, eerie, and dark, the underground tunnels are often kept secret, with veteran urban explorers keeping rather tight-lipped about the locations of supply tunnels that fed WWI Soldiers or damp and creepy service tunnels.
But what’s the fun of exploring if you already know where you’re going? There is none. So we just hope you’re not afraid of the dark.
Location: San Francisco’s very own upside down.
Tags: Urban decay; Dark History; War Tourism
13. Donaldina Cameron House
The Presbyterian Mission House, now known simply as the Cameron House, is steeped in sorrow and tragedy. Not to mention ghosts, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
In the late 1800s, Donaldina Cameron, a New Zealand native, arrived at the mission to help teach the residents, mainly Chinese immigrants, basic skills and lessons.
She became symbolic to the immigrant community shortly afterwards, harbouring and saving “paper daughters” from trafficking and worse. She’s said to have helped over 2000 girls. Inspiring right? Just wait.
Part of the reason she could do this was through a network of secret tunnels, ultimately leading to tragedy when a fire broke out (post-1906) and killed dozens of girls trapped in the tunnels.
While the mission was rebuilt and continues to empower the local community, the girls’ souls trapped in the tunnels are still said to roam the premises.
Ghostbusters and anyone looking for a chilling experience are enamoured by the paranormal activities in the house, while the residents have simply gotten used to their departed comrades.
Location: 920 Sacramento St, San Francisco
Tags: Paranormal; Dark History
The Best Dark Tourism Sites In San Francisco: Conclusion
So when it comes to thinking outside the box and getting your kicks elsewhere, San Francisco hosts some incredibly unique and diverse dark tourism experiences.
You’ll find horror and mystery, tragic tales, and even learn a little as you go; after all, that’s what dark tourism is about.
However, it’s not all about finding the freakiest and scariest experiences; it’s about experiencing a new atmosphere and being humbled by the experiences you wouldn’t normally try.