A history buff's guide to the haunted Bay Area

Carly Williams

Your guide to discovering San Francisco and its surrounding district's most monumental wonders ...

When San Francisco and the Bay Area springs to mind, many of us think of Zuckerberg and his Silicon Valley.

Hoards of startups-turned-industry-giants have made one of America’s most historic cities gleam with a tech-money sheen.

San Fran's iconic cable cars date back to 1873 and are now a huge tourist drawcard to the city. Photo: Getty

But the streets of San Fran and its surrounding counties boast more than new-age riches, the area is haunted by its rich gold rush past. From speakeasy bars, to haunted hotels and classic Northern Californian cuisine, here are the most historic places to stay, eat and visit in NoCal ...


Union Square Cocktail Tour
Step back to prohibition times and learn about San Francisco’s essential role in the revival of the cocktail culture in the United States. Your guide takes you to four historic stops, each with its own story and cocktail to taste. You’ll want to hear the yarn behind the Vanishing Lady Gin-based cocktail at 1930s art-deco-themed bar Stooky’s Club Moderne.

Jazz vocalist Allegra Band performs at Stooky's Club Modern, a '30s-themed art deco bar. Photo: SCModerne Instagram

Haunted ghost tour
Let Wes from Haunted SF take you through the city’s historic Tenderloin neighbourhood. You’ll visit the Westin St. Francis hotel, where 1920s party girl and model Virginia Rappe is believed to haunt the corridors of the 12th floor. Story has it, Virginia accused famous actor Fatty Arbuckle of raping her at his St. Francis Labour Day party. Virginia died days later – supposedly from aggravated sexual assault. Fatty faced three manslaughter trials over her death and was finally acquitted. Just one of the many stories you’ll hear on a haunted ghost tour of San Fran.

Haunted SF tours take you through the grand foyer of the Westin St. Francis. As well as the ghost of Virginia Rappe, the Westin is also allegedly haunted by an entertainer who died during a poker game in 1950. Photo: Getty

Conservatory of Flowers
Escape the rat race and head to one of the cutest nooks at Golden Gate Park – a delightfully humid glasshouse dating back to the 1870s. The Conservatory of Flowers boasts more than 2,000 plant items and a butterfly room. Eager botanists can visit the nearby Rose and Botanical Gardens for more floral fun.

The Conservatory of Flowers has a butterfly room! Photo: Getty

An obvious choice but The Rock is the best shuttered prison you can visit in Northern America (Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary is a close second place). A former Alcatraz guard hosts the audio tour, spilling all the creepy details of the jail’s life span from 1934 until 1963. Hot tip: you’ll get some of the best views of the city from Alcatraz Island.

The Rock is two kilometres offshore in the San Francisco Bay. Photo: Getty


Portola Hotel and Spa
Head south down Highway 1 to historic Monterey Bay, the first capital of California. It was the place of Cali's first theatre, public building, and public library. These days Monterey is known as a luxe tourist spot and the moody backdrop of the hit show Big Little Lies. At the heart of the charming Fisherman’s Wharf is the Portola Hotel and Spa, a luxurious stay boasting nautical rooms and the biggest day spa in No-Cal. Portola is named after a Spanish soldier Gaspar de Portola who arrived in 1770 – the same year the city was colonised. You can stroll by the statue of Gaspar right outside the hotel on your way down to the famous Cannery Row. Make sure you visit Carmel by the Sea, Big Sur, Carmel Valley, and 17-Mile Drive – all driveable from Portola Hotel and Spa.

The Club Room at Portola Hotel & Spa boasts one of the best brunches in Monterey Bay. The new lobby's design aesthetic serves indoor forest atrium vibes and we can't get enough. Photo: Instagram


Evergreen Cemetery Tour
From gold prospectors, artists, Chinese immigrants, mountain men, and Civil War veterans, these are some of the forgotten souls you’ll find buried at Evergreen Cemetery. These are the adventurous pioneers that helped build Santa Cruz from a small Catholic Mission into a booming modern city.

The youngest person to be buried in Evergreen Cemetery from the gold rush days was an infant just 19 days old. Photo: Carly Williams/Be

Santa Cruz Boardwalk
The seaside theme park has been a summer favourite since 1907 and was the home of the first of many Miss California Pageants.  

The Santa Cruz Boardwalk hosted the first Miss California in 1924 when Oakland's 18-year old Fay Lanphie won the title. She went on to win the Miss America Pageant in 1925. Photo: Santa Cruz Life
The busy Santa Cruz's newest attraction is the Fright Walk – not for the faint-hearted. Photo: Getty

Winchester Mystery House
America’s most haunted house is the focus of Helen Miren’s upcoming film ‘Winchester: The house that ghosts built.’ Legend has it, widow Sarah Winchester was haunted by the many souls who perished at the hands of her husband’s Winchester Repeating Rifle, so she built them all rooms (160 in total). She performed many a séance on the eerily sprawling property.

Winchester House has more than 160 bedrooms. Photo: Carly Williams/Be


Fog Harbour Fish House
You can’t come to the Bay Area without sampling its famous clam chowder. Fog Harbour is a classic spot on Pier 39 to stuff yourself with 100% sustainable seafood while taking in quintessential views of the San Francisco Bay.

Fog Harbour promises sustainable seafood fresh from the Bay. Photo: Carly Williams/Be

* RELATED: Your Big Little Lies guide to Monterey, California
* RELATED: How to spend 48 hours in Mammoth Lakes

Jacks Monterey
Acclaimed Chef Danny Abbruzzese has created a menu using the flavours of fresh meats and produce sourced from purveyors in Monterey County. Try the Monterey Cioppino, a dish of Dungeness crab, prawns, seasonal fish, mussels and clams in a rich tomato sauce with freshly baked bread rolls. All set in the very posh Portola Hotel and Spa.

The slick new Jacks Monterey at Portola Hotel & Spa. Photo: Portola Hotel & Spa

Lolinda, San Francisco
A nod to California’s Argentine influence, a huge range of meats cooked perfectly over the wood-fired asador.

To find out more about the Bay Area head to Visit California.

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