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Off The Beaten Track: San Francisco

14 August 2015

San Francisco in Northern California is famous for the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, as well as its Bohemian vibe and hilly terrain. While visitors on rail journeys in the USA won't want to miss the world famous attractions and landmarks, San Francisco also boasts a number of less well-known yet equally interesting highlights. Here are our top picks for San Franciscan charm that is off the beaten track.

The San Francisco Wave Organ

This incredible installation on the shores of San Francisco is much more than just a piece of art. Created in 1986 and dedicated to Frank Oppenheimer, the founder of the nearby Exploratorium, the Wave Organ broadcasts the sound of the sea to its listeners. Reliant on the changing tides, the Wave Organ amplifies and mimics the sounds of the ocean, as the water gushes in and around its 25 PVC and concrete pipes. The stunning structure was designed by Peter Richards and constructed by sculptor George Gonzales, using reclaimed granite from a local cemetery. Best visited during high tide for the full range of gurgles, sloshes and rumbles from the sea, visitors can enjoy the Organ's odd music from nearby benches and listening booths.

The Golden Fire Hydrant

One for the history-lovers, the Golden Fire Hydrant speaks to San Francisco's past, and the city's gratitude to the fire hydrant that saved the Mission District. When an earthquake in the small hours of April 18th 1906 sabotaged many of the city's water mains, firefighters were left in a state of panic. With barely any water to combat the blaze, it looked like parts of San Francisco were doomed to be lost in the fires that had resulted from the earthquake and were quickly ripping through the city. Luckily (some say miraculously), emergency services managed to find a working hydrant on Church Street, and subsequently doused the fires before the district could be destroyed. To commemorate the triumph of the city and the residents' gratitude to the affectionately-nicknamed 'Little Giant', the fire hydrant was painted gold. Every year on the anniversary of the blaze, at 5.45am, relatives of the earthquake's survivors and members of the Fire Department gather to re-paint the hydrant gold, and honour its service to the city. In 2012, the hydrant - which is still in active service today - was accidentally painted silver. The mistake was quickly corrected, and today the Golden Fire Hydrant attracts many historically-minded visitors and passers-by who pause to read a plaque dedicated to its achievement.

Paxton Gate

Filled to the brim with curiosities, Paxton Gate provides a refreshing change from the normal high street gift shops. Part garden store and part curiosity shop, Paxton Gate is one of the most unusual shopping destinations in the city. Boasting a range of novelties, from taxidermied specimens to mounted insects, books on subjects such as exotic botany and gardening tips, shells, bones and even a selection of carnivorous plants, customers can easily get lost in this marvellous store.

Founded by a pair of landscape architects in 1992, Paxton Gate moved from its original location to allow more room for curios and odd treasures. Today the store can be found on Valencia Street in the Mission District, with a smaller annexe, Paxton Gate Curiosities for Kids, located on the same road.

Explore San Francisco for yourself on west coast USA tours with Great Rail Journeys, and don't forget to close your guide book occasionally for the best adventures.