Indiana Jones knew it, rats in a new habitat know it, couples in a new bigger bed know it: When encountering something new, the next natural step is finding out where the boundaries are. A curious thing happens, though, when people move to San Francisco. Instead of going out to the edges and discovering firsthand how big their new home is, they build mental corridors within the city, piecing together a network of BART stations and coffee shops until the map in their brain more or less matches the one on the bus stop. It often takes years to feel comfortable navigating neighborhoods outside our own. Even after that, most of us spend our time moving around a handful of neighborhoods north of Cesar Chavez and never really explore the rest of the city.
Nobody can deny that the best parts of San Francisco are largely contained in the eclectic innards of the popular neighborhoods, but there is something to be said for the outside edges. There are fascinating things just a few blocks away, often in the most unlikely places. These streets and trails give definition to the more well-traveled parts of our neighborhoods and it would be a sad loss to see them paved over and polished up. After all, what is a pie without the crust?
The southeast corner of the city is one of the least accessible portions of San Francisco. Not only is it largely abandoned, a two-mile stretch of coastline is actually contaminated with radioactive waste. Back in the days of WWII, scientists at the Hunters Point Shipyard played an integral part in figuring out just what the hell radioactivity did to people.
This stretch of coastline shows more contrast between old and new SF than anywhere else in the city. Pier 70 is almost entirely disintegrated and some of the nearby buildings were constructed around the time California became a state. A brisk saunter down the street and you can sip some '90s style wine at Sutton Cellars and eat a few bits of heaven at the Chocolate Lab.
Walking along the northeastern waterfront, I can't help but be impressed by the monumental hype the America's Cup people have built up over three challengers. I won’t deny the entertainment value of a big shiny thing going really fast, but I'd have to say that the Giants fans down the road sound like they're having a lot more fun.
Pier 39 exists like a bizarre sort of amusement park without any fences or ticket booths. Tour boats and Segways take the place of roller coasters, and street performers fill in for costumed cartoon characters. Just around the corner, though, Fort Mason brings a ray of food truck sunshine.
If you can catch it on a warm day (yes, it does happen), the grassy knoll near Torpedo Wharf is one of the best picnic spots in the city. Round Fort Point and you will find some pretty decent bouldering along Marshall and Baker Beaches at low tide. If not for California's law prohibiting private beaches, China Beach would almost certainly be only for the wealthy spiffs of Sea Cliff.
Since the days of the original 49ers, more than 300 ships have wrecked all around Lands End. The labyrinth at Eagles Point is amazing on a full moon night. On the western side, the artificial pond at the Sutro Baths was the temporary home last spring for a wayward river otter dubbed Sutro Sam.
The rest of Ocean Beach from Lincoln to Sloat is astoundingly featureless. Every few years, though, a storm pulls a few tons of sand out to sea and all kinds of weirdness comes to the surface. Tombstones and shipwrecks are among the more famous sights.