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20 Best Things to Do in The Bay Area, California

20 Best Things to Do in The Bay Area, California

Calling all Cali-lovers! If you’re heading to California’s central coast, prepare for a whirlwind of fun – because the San Francisco Bay Area has plenty to explore, no matter your travel style.

From touring Silicon Valley and South Bay, enjoying the city’s landscape from the San Francisco peninsula to the cultural attractions of the East Bay, this is one of California’s most popular destinations with all sorts of attractions, activities, and excursions to enjoy.

San Francisco is filled with historic buildings, family-friendly attractions, terrific museums, plenty of outdoor activities, amazing restaurants, and even some hidden gems that don’t appear in many tourist guidebooks – not to mention the famous Golden Gate Bridge and the infamous Alcatraz Island.

And that’s JUST San Francisco. The Bay Area is bursting with more of the same, making it an awesome vacation destination for just about anybody!

Spend your time enjoying sunset views from Golden Gate Park, taking a tech tour of Silicon Valley, or drinking your way through Napa wine country — you’re sure to have a blast in the Bay Area of California.

TL;DR

  • Most Significant Landmark – Golden Gate Bridge
  • Best Park – Golden Gate Park
  • Free activity – Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
  • Activity for kids – California’s Great America
  • Activity for adultsNapa Valley Wine Train
  • Place to eat – Clam Chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf
  • Nightlife – Downtown San Francisco
  • Place to stayHyatt Regency SF Downtown

Things to Do in The Bay Area, California

1. Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

Address: Golden Gate Brg, San Francisco, CA, USA

Probably one of the most notable and iconic landmarks of the San Francisco Bay Area, the Golden Gate Bridge is a must-visit. The bridge, which spans 1.7 miles across the San Francisco Bay, links the city of San Francisco with Marin County in California’s North Bay region and is an iconic symbol of the Bay Area and California at large.

Visitors can take in breathtaking views from on top of the bridge itself or from any number of vantage points around the bay, including nearby parks such as Fort Point and Crissy Field. You can view both the bridge and the city skyline beyond these spots.

If you’re feeling sporty and up for a challenge, you can ride bikes across the bridge or even hike the entire length of the Golden Gate Bridge Coastal Trail. Visitors to the bridge can also walk across it, as there has been a recent movement to reduce traffic to improve pedestrian safety and security.

My favorite place to get the best bridge view is the Battery Spencer Overlook in Marin Headlands, next to Fort Point. From this spot, you can see the bridge, San Francisco Bay, and the gleaming city beyond. For an impressive view from the water, this bridge-to-bridge cruise takes you under the Golden Gate Bridge and the nearby Oakland Bay Bridge on a 1.5-hour tour.

And if you are looking for a place near the bridge to stay while you’re visiting, consider this cozy one-bedroom Presidio apartment. This rental is a great spot to base yourself in a town near the bridge and some of SF’s main attractions.

See Related: Activities for a Girls Trip to San Francisco

2. California’s Great America

great america theme park
Jeremy Thompson / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

Address: 4701 Great America Pkwy, Santa Clara, CA 95054, USA

Thrillseekers in the Bay Area will want to head to California’s Great America theme park in Santa Clara. The park features over 100 rides and attractions, including rollercoasters, Ferris wheels, and water slides.

The park is divided into themed areas such as Action Zone, Adventure Mountain, and Boomerang Bay (which houses the Boomerang Coast-to-Coaster, California’s only double-looping wooden roller coaster). Other highlights include the Flight Deck, a steel-inverted roller coaster, and Firefall, a free-fall attraction that drops guests 140 feet up to 50 mph.

California’s Great America also has dedicated kiddie areas such as Nickelodeon Central and Planet Snoopy, where families with younger kids (or people like me) can have fun without worrying about being overwhelmed (or vomiting or enduring a stress headache) by the bigger rides.

The park also hosts a variety of events throughout the year, from live concerts and fireworks displays to holiday celebrations. Tickets to the theme park are fairly affordable and offer season passes for repeat visitors.

See Related: Northern California vs Southern California

3. Downtown San Francisco

Downtown San Francisco Skyline, one of the best things to do in California
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Address: San Francisco, California, USA

San Francisco has an amazing culture and history, and with so much to do downtown, it’s easy to experience it all. Downtown San Francisco is home to some of its best attractions and eateries. You’ll find many things to do here, from shopping in Union Square to exploring Chinatown.

The area around the Financial District is one of the most popular spots downtown, where you can find everything from high-end boutiques and luxury department stores to small independent shops. Head to Westfield San Francisco Centre for a premier shopping experience, or explore the unique stores and boutiques on streets like Grant Avenue in Chinatown.

For those looking for food or San Francisco nightlife, there’s an abundance of restaurants, bars, clubs, and music venues scattered throughout downtown. The city also has some great breweries and wine bars, so you can sample some of the best local beers and wines while taking in the views.

Downtown San Francisco is also home to many art galleries and museums, including the California Academy of Sciences, the Asian Art Museum, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. There are also theaters like the Curran Theater and The Orpheum that showcase a variety of performances throughout the year.

Head to Twin Peaks (also open to hikers) or Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill for amazing views. You can take in breathtaking panoramas of the San Francisco skyline and the beautiful bay from these locations. If you’re looking for things to do with kids, take a tour over to Pier 39, where you can watch the sea lions bask in the sun, or check out one of the museums downtown.

And when it comes to where to stay, there’s no shortage of options! Hotels like The Intercontinental San Francisco, Hyatt Regency Downtown, and Union Square Plaza Hotel are all located in the city’s heart and offer great amenities.

See Related: San Francisco CityPASS Review: Is It Worth It?

4. Napa Valley Wine Train

napa valley wine train
dewet / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

Address: 1275 McKinstry St, Napa, CA 94559, United States

All aboard for a luxurious journey through the picturesque Napa Valley! The Napa Valley Wine Train is one of the best things to do in the Bay Area, taking passengers on an unforgettable 3-hour, 36-mile round trip from Downtown Napa to St. Helena and back.

The Wine Train offers a variety of unique experiences, including the Gourmet Express Lunch and Dinner and various holiday and seasonal tours.

I rode the Gourmet Express just before the pandemic – a 3-hour journey featuring exceptional cuisine, made with fresh, local ingredients, paired with select wines from the region, as the train mosied through the stunning scenery of Napa Valley. I cannot recommend it enough.

They also offer seasonal experiences like Santa Train Jolly Journey, where riders can enjoy a festive lunch in vintage rail cars with costumed characters, and the Murder Mystery Dinner Train – an interactive event where guests become detectives and help solve the murder most foul!

No matter your chosen experience, it will surely be a memorable journey. The Wine Train is an unforgettable way to explore the stunning Napa Valley, enjoy gourmet cuisine, and sample some of the best wines in the region. I would definitely recommend booking a Napa vacation rental and spending a few days in this gorgeous region of Northern California. Choo-choo!

5. Six Flags Discovery Kingdom

Address: 1001 Fairgrounds Dr, Vallejo, CA 94589, United States

If you’re looking for places to visit with the family that are both fun and educational, head to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo. This theme park and zoological park offers the perfect combination of thrilling rides, animal shows and encounters, and educational experiences.

From roller coasters to water slides, there are plenty of things to do at Discovery Kingdom to get your adrenaline pumping. The popular Superman Ultimate Flight allows riders to “fly” across smooth curves, weightless airtime hills, and a zero-G roll. For those looking for something more relaxed, classic rides like Tasmanian Devil or the Carousel are much faster for me.

The park also offers a variety of animal experiences, like the wildlife show that features tigers, elephants, camels, and other exotic creatures. Visitors can also explore the interactive exhibits and participate in interactive animal encounters, allowing them to interact with sea lions and flamingos.

For a truly unique experience, the park also offers educational programming, such as the Ocean Discovery Lab and Science on a Sphere. These programs are designed to teach kids about conservation and the environment through fun activities and interactive experiences.

See Related: Family-Friendly Spring Break Ideas

6. Walnut Creek

Address: Walnut Creek, California, USA

For a less well-known Bay Area experience, go to East Bay and explore Walnut Creek. This vibrant city uniquely combines trendy shopping, delicious dining, and culture-packed entertainment.

The downtown area is bustling with things to do, from the chic boutiques at Broadway Plaza to world-class art galleries and historic theaters. Check out what’s showing at the picturesque Orinda Theater, or walk through the Lesher Center for the Arts and enjoy the exhibitions of works from local and international artists.

You may not know it, but Walnut Creek is also home to some of the Bay Area’s best restaurants, with everything from gourmet Italian cuisine to classic American dishes. Walnut Creek has everything from quiet, romantic date night spots to quick casual places to grab lunch.

And when you need a break, head to the Shadelands Ranch Historical Museum and explore the area’s history. The museum features permanent exhibits on local Native Americans, pioneers, and ranchers who shaped the area. It’s a unique and educational experience that you don’t want to miss!

7. Japanese Tea Garden

Address: 75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118, United States

No San Francisco Bay Area trip is complete without a visit to the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco! This tranquil oasis in Golden Gate Park offers visitors a chance to experience traditional Japanese culture.

The garden features winding paths, koi ponds, beautiful sculptures, and a pagoda-style teahouse. Explore the grounds, admiring the cherry blossoms and colorful koi fish.

The tea house serves a range of traditional teas and snacks for those looking for a break. Spend the day strolling through the gardens, admiring the statues, and soaking in the peaceful atmosphere.

The Japanese Tea Garden also offers an on-site gift shop featuring traditional items like ceramic teapots and tea sets, origami paper, and handmade jewelry. It’s the perfect place to pick up a souvenir or two from your visit.

See Related: Things to Do in Ridgecrest, California

8. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

santa cruz beach boardwalk
Genevieve / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

Address: 400 Beach St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, United States

What better way to spend a day in the warm California sun than at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk? This classic amusement park is located on the beach and packed with things to do, so it’s no wonder why the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is one of the best Bay Area attractions.

The historic seaside boardwalk has been around since 1907 and offers a variety of rides, games, and attractions. Hop on the historic Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster, take a spin on the Wild Mouse ride, or try your luck at the carnival games. You can also visit the beach and soak up some sun or get a bite to eat at one of the eateries on the boardwalk.

In addition, visitors can enjoy a variety of special events throughout the year, such as concerts, festivals, art shows, and more – not to mention indulging in all the classic carnival treats like cotton candy and funnel cake (I have so much time for the funnel cake here).

One of my favorite Santa Cruz Boardwalk activities is to watch the free beachfront fireworks display every Friday night during summer. It’s a beautiful sight, and I always look forward to it whenever I’m in town for a summer getaway!

If you’re looking for some thrills with the gang or just want to spend a day at the beach, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a great destination. So, make sure to visit the Bay Area on your next trip!

9. Palace of Fine Arts

palace of fine arts san francisco
Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Address: 3601 Lyon St, San Francisco, CA 94123, United States

Next, we’ll return to San Francisco to check out the Palace of Fine Arts. This stunning structure was built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition and is now one of the most popular attractions in the San Francisco Bay Area.

This impressive structure was completely rebuilt between 1964 and 1974 and is now the only remaining structure from the original exposition. Located in the Marina District, The Palace of Fine Arts has an open-air rotunda, a colonnade, and a lagoon with elegant sculptures.

Visitors can stroll around the beautiful grounds and admire the architecture or take in one of the free art exhibitions. There’s also a cafe located on-site for those looking for a break.

And the lush gardens surrounding the palace make it look like something straight out of a storybook! Spend time admiring the ornate architecture and lush gardens, and get lost in its near-storybook beauty and tranquil atmosphere. You won’t regret it!

Not only is it a beautiful place to visit, but it is also a popular wedding venue due to its picturesque setting. Mr. Thompson should be eyeing this up. It’s easy to see why this place has been listed as one of San Francisco’s most popular attractions.

See Related: Budget-Friendly Family Vacations

10. San Francisco Zoo

Address: Sloat Blvd &, Upper Great Hwy, San Francisco, CA 94132, USA

Visiting the Bay Area with kids and looking for family-friendly Bay Area activities? Well, look no further than the San Francisco Zoo! This famous zoo is located on the western edge of San Francisco and has been around since 1929.

The zoo’s collection includes over 1,000 animals from 250 different species, which makes it one of the largest zoos in Northern California. You can find everything from majestic white tigers to playful sea lions here. Kids will love interacting with the animals at the petting zoo or enjoying a ride on the carousel.

In addition to the animals, visitors can explore several unique habitats and exhibits. For example, there’s a tropical rainforest area with numerous species of birds and plants, as well as an African Savannah with zebras and antelopes. There’s also a beautiful Japanese garden with soothing waterfalls, ponds, and bridges.

PRO TIP: If you’re planning on visiting multiple SF attractions, including the zoo, opt for the SF Go City All-Inclusive Pass. It’ll save you time and money to make the most of your trip to the Bay Area.

11. Point Reyes National Seashore

point reyes ca
© Frank Schulenburg / Wikicommons

Address: California, United States

The Bay Area is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in California, but if you want to experience nature at its best, you should visit Point Reyes National Seashore. This stunning national park is located just north of the San Francisco Bay and offers miles of unspoiled coastline, rolling hills, and even a few secluded beaches.

There are plenty of things to do in this beautiful park, from exploring the many trails and beaches to spotting local wildlife and even whale watching. If you’re feeling adventurous, rent a kayak or paddleboard and explore Tomales Bay. Paddle out to the islands and witness the beauty of this remote area. You can also stop for a picnic or swim in its crystal clear waters.

Point Reyes is also home to the massive Point Reyes Lighthouse and is home to some of the best bird-watching areas in the country, making it a must-see spot for nature lovers and bird watchers. You can also see life for the Point Reyes lighthousekeepers, who lived in these remote buildings between 1870 and 1975.

It’s worth spending a day or two exploring Point Reyes. Olema House at Point Reyes is a quaint hotel that offers visitors a unique place to stay. It’s the perfect spot for a romantic getaway or a chance to relax and take in the area’s stunning views.

See Related: Best Romantic Getaways in the USA

12. Half Moon Bay

Moss Beach Half Moon Bay
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Address: Half Moon Bay, California, USA

Half Moon Bay is a great spot for anyone looking to spend the day by the water from one set of beaches to another. Located just south of San Francisco, this beautiful beach offers stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and plenty of things to do.

You can participate in activities like swimming, surfing, kayaking, or kiteboarding, relax on the sandy beaches, and enjoy the views. Half Moon Bay also has some of the best food, so be sure to check out one of the many local restaurants for delicious seafood dishes and other tasty treats.

I recommend stopping at Sam’s Chowder House for a bite of some piping-hot clam chowder served in a freshly baked sourdough bread bowl. I’m drooling just thinking about it!

If you’re looking to explore nature or perhaps relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery, Half Moon Bay is an excellent choice for things to do in the Bay Area.

It is a little less touristy than some of the other places on this list, giving you a more authentic experience and allowing you to truly appreciate the beauty of the Bay Area.

13. Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island view with lighthouse, prison buildings, and lush terrain from San Francisco Bay
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Address: San Francisco, CA 94133, United States

When you think of the Bay Area and San Francisco, chances are the first thing that comes to mind is Alcatraz Island. Another California historical landmark, Alcatraz Prison, was built in 1934 and was once home to some of the most notorious criminals in the US.

Several infamous inmates like Al Capone, Robert Stroud, and George “Machine Gun” Kelly (the gangster, not Megan Fox’s lanky blood bag) spent time in this maximum-security prison. It’s also the star of Michael Bay’s ridiculous 90s-tastic action thriller The Rock. This famous island prison operated until 1963 and has become a popular tourist destination.

Today, visitors can take the ferry out to Alcatraz Island and explore the infamous cellblock as well as the exercise yard and lighthouse. You can also take a guided audio tour through some of the most popular spots on the island and learn about its history and the stories behind some of its most notorious inmates.

If you’re feeling brave, you can even book a spooky ghost tour or join in on one of the many escape games available. Alcatraz Island is an iconic part of the Bay Area and a must-visit spot for anyone exploring San Francisco’s fascinating past. Anyone into history will find this notorious prison fascinating, and the stories you learn on your tour will stay with you.

Just keep an eye out for any unexpected visitors. You know, the ghostly kind…or the Ed Harris and Rogue Marines kind. Watch our summarized video from our visit below. If you’d like to watch the full video, check out the YouTube video for our tour.

See Related: Islands in the US to Visit

14. Fisherman’s Wharf

Fishermans Grotto restaurant in Fishermans Wharf, San Francisco
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Address: 2801 Leavenworth St, San Francisco, CA 94133, United States

You might be surprised to learn that Fisherman’s Wharf is San Francisco’s most popular tourist spot. This famous waterfront district has some of the best restaurants in the city (hello, clam chowder!), souvenir shops, and plenty of things to do.

Stroll along Pier 39 and check out the sea lions sunbathing on the docks or explore the marine life at the nearby San Francisco Bay Aquarium.

For a unique (and delicious!) experience, check out one of the many seafood restaurants located along Fisherman’s Wharf. Some popular spots include Scoma’s, The Codmother Fish & Chips, and Ristorante Ideale, all offering the freshest seafood.

After you’ve filled up on food, head to Ghirardelli Square for some of the best ice cream and chocolate in the Bay Area. This iconic spot was once home to one of America’s oldest operating chocolate factories, and it now houses shops, restaurants, and a museum dedicated to this classic treat.

Nearby, many tourist shops sell San Francisco-themed souvenirs, so be sure to pick up a few things for your friends back home.

Wondering where to stay near the Wharf? Head to Hotel Zephyr or Riu Plaza Fisherman’s Wharf for a modern place to stay near all the action, both views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

15. Museum of Modern Art

SF Museum of modern art
Dllu / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Address: 151 3rd St, San Francisco, CA 94103, United States

One of the largest and most well-known contemporary art museums in the United States, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (or SFMOMA) is home to over 33,000 pieces of art from world-renowned artists like Piet Mondrian and Andy Warhol and many, many more. Founded in 1935, the museum has showcased modern and contemporary art for over 80 years.

This massive museum has seven floors of galleries and exhibitions featuring everything from photography to sculpture. Inspirational works by iconic figures like Frida Kahlo and Jackson Pollock are also featured. From paintings and sculptures to photography and installations, SFMOMA offers a whole lot to see.

The museum has several rotating exhibitions throughout the year, so there is always something new to explore. Plus, spending an entire day here is easy with special events, film series, and educational programs.

If you’re looking for a hands-on experience, the museum offers interactive activities and classes for kids and adults. There’s even a full-service restaurant and cafe when you need a break from all that art!

If you’re interested in painting, photography, or sculpture – or love exploring museums – a tour of SFMOMA is the perfect place to spend an afternoon.

See Related: Museums in the US You Need to Visit

16. Jack London Square

jack london square oakland ca
Basil D Soufi / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Address: 472 Water St, Oakland, CA 94607, United States

An underrated spot in the Bay Area, Jack London Square is a great place to spend an afternoon. Named after the famous author of Call of The Wild, Jack London Square was once a hub for industrial shipping activity.

Nowadays, it’s a bustling waterfront destination with plenty of things to do and see. Get a Drink at Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, walk along the Bay Trail, or hop on the ferry to explore nearby communities like Alameda or Sausalito.

The square is also home to several restaurants and shops, including local favorites such as The Fat Lady restaurant and Blue Bottle Coffee. On Saturdays during the summer, you can find a vibrant farmers’ market filled with delicious produce and handmade goods.

Spend the day exploring its unique boutiques, kayak around the harbor, or grab a bite to eat at one of its many restaurants. The area is also home to museums and historical sites like the USS Potomac – FDR’s famous ‘Floating White House.’

17. Golden Gate Park

golden gate park san francisco
Francisco Anzola / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

Address: San Francisco, CA, United States

For visitors looking for a break from the bustling metropolises of the Bay Area, a trip to Golden Gate Park is a must! Spanning over 1,017 acres, the park is the perfect outdoor escape.

This place has everything from biking trails and botanical gardens to playgrounds and windmills. The park even offers multiple dog play areas and designated picnic spots, so you can make a whole day out of it.

Other things to check out in Golden Gate Park include the Japanese Tea Garden, where visitors can enjoy traditional tea ceremonies, and the California Academy of Sciences, home to an aquarium, planetarium, and natural history museum.

This museum offers a fun and interactive experience for all ages, with exhibits ranging from natural history to science and ecology. You can also explore the winding paths around Strawberry Hill Lake or take a peaceful hike on one of its many trails.

Golden Gate Park is also a popular destination for music lovers. Every summer, the park hosts a number of outdoor concerts and events like the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and the Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival. There’s a jam for every mood, with everything from rock bands to DJs spinning turntables.

See Related: National Parks to Visit in November

18. Chabot Space and Science Center

Chabot space and science center oakland
Don DeBold / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

Address: 10000 Skyline Blvd, Oakland, CA 94619, United States

For all things space and science, the Chabot Space and Science Center is a great place to visit in the Bay Area. Located in Oakland, it’s one of the largest public observatories in the US and a must-visit destination for stargazers and astronomy enthusiasts.

The center houses two large telescopes (a 40-inch and a 36-inch), both available for public stargazing sessions. With some luck, you might even glimpse a shooting star! In addition, the center also offers interactive exhibits, hands-on activities, 3D simulations, and presentations related to astronomy and space exploration.

The Chabot Space and Science Center is also home to an outdoor amphitheater, where visitors can learn about astronomy and space science, as well as the fascinating history of the universe. During the summer, there are even outdoor movie screenings in the evening.

19. Big Basin Redwoods State Park

big basin redwoods state park boulder creek
Sandip Bhattacharya / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

Address: California, United States

California is known for its incredible redwood forests, and Big Basin Redwoods State Park is a great place to experience them up close.

Located in the Santa Cruz Mountains, this park is home to some of the oldest and tallest trees in the world, making it an unforgettable destination for those seeking Bay Area places to visit. Pack a picnic lunch because you won’t want to leave once you get here!

From easy nature trails to challenging hikes, the park offers a range of activities. Big Basin Redwoods State Park is among the best places in the Bay Area to take a peaceful stroll through the woods.

PRO TIP: If you’re here for the hikes, the 30-mile Skyline to the Sea Trail is especially popular, taking visitors on an epic journey from ridge top to beach – with awe-inspiring views and wildlife sightings.

See Related: Places to Visit in the US

20. San Jose 

downtown san jose
Will Buckner / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

Address: San Jose, California, USA

One of the major cities in Silicon Valley, San Jose is a great place when it comes to places to visit in the Bay Area. San Jose attractions exist, from world-class museums and art galleries to beautiful parks and gardens.

Head downtown for a dose of culture and history – where you’ll find landmarks like the San Jose Museum of Art, Tech Museum of Innovation, and San Pedro Square Market. Or stroll through Japantown for delicious cuisine, funky shops, and entertainment.

There’s Coyote Creek Trail for outdoor fun, where you can hike or bike along its winding paths – with breathtaking views of the valley below. And don’t miss the stunning Japanese Friendship Garden, where you can admire its koi ponds, bonsai trees, and stunning pagoda.

Tech nerds will enjoy a self-drive Silicon Valley tour, where you can glimpse the famous housing developments and start-up hubs of some of the world’s leading tech companies. At the same time, fans of the paranormal will love a tour of the infamous and decidedly odd Winchester Mystery House – where you can experience the strange things that allegedly happen here at this bizarre building.

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