Make Your San Francisco Vacation Quirky

Take a detour from the hotspots and visit some offbeat San Francisco attractions, including a museum bar, a pirate store and a trapeze school.

San Francisco doesn’t have to try hard to win the description, “quirky.” Many business owners pride themselves on offering services and entertainment that’s just a little different than what folks might consider normal. If you’ve already seen the city’s tourist icons on your San Francisco vacation, head on over to these five offbeat attractions for a different take on the city. A couple are even appropriate for family travelers.

Musée Méchanique

Step into the past at Pier 45’s Musée Méchanique, and get a glimpse at a collection of more than 300 antique arcade machines and mechanical musical instruments—from automatons to slot machines to coin-operated pianos. Even some modern video games are included. Among the amusements is red-haired Laffing Sal from the Fun House at San Francisco’s amusement park, Playland-at-the-Beach, which closed in 1972. My childhood favorite (from when the collection was located in the Cliff House) was the jukebox filled with mechanical monkeys that play along to Herb Alpert’s “Tijuana Taxi.”

Pier 45, Shed A, tel. 415-346-2000, Open Mon. to Fri., 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sat. to Sun,. 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is free, but bring quarters in order to watch the machines do their thing.

Specs Twelve Adler Museum Cafe

What sets this dive bar apart from run-of-the-mill dive bars is two things: its location in a small pedestrian alley in San Francisco’s North Beach and its collection of memorabilia. Order your drink (or several) and peruse the collection in this odd museum, which includes maritime artifacts, scrimshaw, a stuffed armadillo, a shark jaw, labor union mementos and a mummy case. There’s a basket full of post cards (which make for great reading) that track the travels of bar regulars, so consider adding Specs to your vacation mailing list and give someone else a little bit of entertainment.

12 William Saroyan Pl., tel. 415-421-4112. Open daily, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Circus Center

How many trapeze artists do you know? Impress your friends and learn how to do it yourself at this circus school. Beginner classes at Circus Center go over the rigging, terminology and a few basic tricks. Flying high not in the cards for you? How about Chinese acrobatics, juggling or trampoline classes—or even a clown workshop? Some classes allow drop-ins for the day; others require a longer commitment. But just think of how great your new skills will look on your résumé.

755 Frederick St., tel. 415-759-8123, Flying trapeze classes Sat. and Sun., 10:30 to 11:30 a.m;. $42.95 per class. Other class hours and fees vary. Private instruction in many of the circus disciplines is also available.

826 Valencia

Ahoy mateys! Here’s your one-stop pirate shop. 826 Valencia is a writing workshop for children ages 6 to 18, offering tutoring, workshops, field trips and student publishing. While that’s impressive in itself, the storefront is a pirate supply store, where you can fill your cart from a supply of glass eyes, eye patches, message bottles, flags for your ship and lard. Don’t leave without paying a visit to Karl, the resident porcupine puffer fish. He might be hungry, and if you ask, you might be able to feed him.

826 Valencia St., tel. 415-642-5905, Open daily, 12 to 6 p.m.

Paxton Gate

What began as an eclectic gardening store, Paxton Gate is more of a treasure trove of gardening merchandise, jewelry and furniture—sprinkled with skulls, taxidermy samples (from piranhas to whimsical mice) and dinosaur teeth. It’s a little like being let loose in your eccentric Aunt Hortense’s very clean attic, but far better, and without all the boring family photos. Kids looking to get your attention can find kits for making volcanoes, rubber band-propelled airplanes and wooden catapults.

824 Valencia St,. tel. 415-824-1872, Open Mon. to Fri., 12 to 7 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. 

Destinations: San Francisco

Themes: Family Travel, Urban Endeavors

Activities: Museums, Shopping, Sightseeing, Pubs and Bars