In many ways, San Francisco is a high-tech city, with Silicon Valley just down the road, Twitter on Market Street and Ubers on every corner.
But it also has a rich religious history and some unusual places to visit if you want to venture further than the Golden Gate Bridge.
Here are some of the places that I found interesting when I visited on a book research trip for my thriller, Valley of Dry Bones.
(1) San Francisco Columbarium
The city banned burial and cremation in the early 1900s when bodies and graves were moved out to Colma, where the dead outnumber the living. The Columbarium is one of the few places left for human remains within the city limits.
It’s a Neo-classical building with a copper-domed roof surrounded by red and white sculpted rose bushes in well-kept grounds. Inside, the circular space opens out into a spacious central hall with three gallery levels filled with glass-fronted niches, each with an urn or casket inside holding the remains of a life.
Decorative columns stretch up to a pink and blue ornate dome with an oculus window through which the sunlight filters down, casting shadows across the marble floor.
Classical symbolism dominates the design. Rooms on the ground floor are named after the winds: Zephyrus, Olympias, and Auster. On the upper levels, Sothis, an Egyptian goddess associated with Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, sits next to Argo, the mythological ship that Jason used to find the Golden Fleece. The Columbarium is a classical history in architecture, and if you enjoy memento mori, wander around and have a look at the varied niches.
If you enjoy a walk, it’s only four blocks to the Golden Gate Park and about 30 minutes walk to the De Young Museum where you can get lunch and see some fantastic pieces of modern art.
(2) The morgue and medical wing on Alcatraz Island
A boat trip out to Alcatraz is a must-do when visiting San Francisco, and there are some fascinating places to see on the island if you keep your eyes open.
Walk the agave trail around the side of the island and up onto the parade ground.
On your way up the ramp to the main entrance, check out the small morgue.
Beyond the main cell blocks and up a quiet staircase, you can reach the second floor where the clinic, psych ward and operating room are. I was up there on my own and it was quite eerie.
Follow the audio tour through the cell blocks and on past the library to the burned out warden’s building.
(3) Grace Cathedral Doors of Paradise and Labyrinth
I always visit churches and cathedrals on my book research trips and I was pleasantly surprised to discover Grace Cathedral with its tribute to those who died in the AIDS crisis, interior labyrinth in the style of Chartres Cathedral, and replica Doors of Paradise by Ghiberti. I’ve visited the original ones at the Baptistry in Florence so it was lovely to see them on the other side of the world!
They also have leaves from a first edition of the King James Bible from 1611; a leaf from the Germantown Bible, the first issue in America of a Bible in a European language; a Spanish-language Bible from Amsterdam in 1602; and a triptych altarpiece by Keith Haring. Definitely worth a visit.
(4) Relic of Saint Junipero Serra at Mission Dolores
Mission Dolores is the oldest building in San Francisco, established in 1776 as part of the California chain of missions, and dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi.
One of the relics of Saint Junipero Serra is kept in a cross reliquary near the altar. His canonization was contested as many see him as responsible for the abuse of First Nation people who were forced to convert and work for the Spanish as the missions were established up the west coast of the USA.
There is a garden cemetery behind the museum with a statue of the friar.
(5) Incredible street art
There’s so much great street art in San Francisco, but I particularly liked the skeletal running demon-dog by Nychos in the Haight-Ashbury, and also the Tiger by the same artist on Geary street opposite the Golden Brains.
(6) Corporate goddess sculptures
I caught a glimpse of these hooded figures from a rooftop in Chinatown. Look up in the financial district and you might just see their empty faces staring down at you.
(7) Bookstores and flying books sculpture
There are a number of excellent bookstores in San Francisco. I enjoyed browsing in City Lights, famous for its role in the Beat generation and full of political works.
Just down the road is the Language of the Birds, a display of flying books next to a fantastic mural.
I also liked Dog-Eared Books in the Mission District, and Book Passage at the Ferry Building. While you’re there, make sure to get some sourdough from Acme Bread Company and oysters at the Hog Island bar. Happy days!
I love to walk and one morning, I explored the route along the waterfront from the Ferry Building through the Embarcadero to Fort Mason. A perfect way to end a book research trip in a fascinating city!
Ideas sparked from this trip and several of the locations above feature in Valley of Dry Bones, an ARKANE thriller. An ancient prophecy. An occult secret. The power to raise the dead. Click here to find out more.
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