SAN FRANCISCO’s BEST ●Attractions●Tours
San Francisco is a walker’s paradise. The city’s naturally intriguing streets become even more so when walked with a knowledgeable guide. Even natives learn something new on such a tour.
Barbary Coast Trail This 3.8-mile self-guided walk focuses on the city’s Gold Rush history, 1906 earthquake and fire, and 1950s beatnik scene. The route begins downtown at the old U.S. Mint building (no longer in use) and is marked by 170 bronze medallions and arrows embedded in the sidewalk. Printed maps and audio tours are available (fee). A guided tour by the trail’s creator is available.
City Guides Free; donations are welcome. No reservations. No pets. Sponsored by the San Francisco Public Library, these informative tours last approximately 1½ hours and cover most areas of the city. Among the many options are: Alamo Square, City Hall, Coit Tower Murals, Haight-Ashbury, Historic Market Street, Japantown, Mission Murals, Nob Hill, North Beach, Pacific Heights Mansions, Presidio Walk, Union Square, and more, more, more!
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Cruisin’ the Castro Walking Tours Castro District. Fee. Reservations required. This 2-hour historical tour of San Francisco’s gay and lesbian community hits all the high points. Everyone is welcome.
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Dashiell Hammett Tour Departs from Civic Center. Fee. While dashing off trivia and anecdotes, guide Don Herron leads walkers to landmarks from The Maltese Falcon and to all Hammett’s known San Francisco residences. Herron, who is always appropriately attired in trench coat and fedora, has operated this tour since 1977. Said to be the longest ongoing literary tour in the country, it lasts 4 hours and covers approximately 3 miles.
Haight Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour Departs from Haight. Fee. Reservations advised. Tour the world-famous area that was hippie-central in the ‘60s. They promise that the “tour is approximately 60% hippy history and 40% general neighborhood history and architecture, but it is always 100% ‘far-out’ fun!” Lasts approximately 2½ hours.
Land’s End and Sutro Heights Departs from Cliff House. Historian and author John A. Martini leads this 1½-hour walk back in time. The tour begins with a continental breakfast at the spectacular seaside Cliff House, followed by a walk up to historic Sutro Heights and then on to the awe-inspiring scenery of Land’s End. The route follows city and paved paths and includes some uphill sections.
Local Tastes of the City Tours Fee. These slow, easy walks are designed to uncover the soul of Chinatown or North Beach and to expose and help preserve the area’s food artisans. The enthusiastic guide also tosses in a bit of enlightening history, architecture, and politics. Stops are made at local bakeries, restaurants, and cafes for tastings and sometimes to observe production. Participants might meet an Asian calligrapher whose family has honed the craft for thousands of years, a baker using old family recipes, or a crab fisherman whose family has been in the business for generations. Each tour ends with an optional restaurant meal. Vegetarians are accommodated.
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Mission Trail Mural Walk Departs from Mission District. Fee. Sponsored by the Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center, this 2-hour walk is led by a professional muralist and views more than 75 of the 300-plus murals found in the Mission District. The afternoon walk includes a slide show and talk.
Pacific Heights Walking Tour
Union Square Cocktail Tour Departs near Union Square. Fee. We sat in comfy chairs in the lobby of the Hotel Serrano while our guide, Zev, began this tour with a background lesson in everything cocktails. The 1860s to 1920s was the golden era for cocktails, but they are coming back, complete with fresh-pressed citrus juices, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that San Francisco is the epicenter of a cocktail revival, since I’ve been enjoying them here for quite a while. But--though it had to start somewhere--it was news to me that it was in S.F. that women first began sitting next to men in a bar. I also learned that it is cocktail-crazed S.F. along with New York and London that are the top three places in the world to drink a cocktail. Our tour took us to three bars I’d never before experienced. In fact, I rarely go to a bar for a cocktail, instead usually opting for one with a meal in a restaurant, so it was special fun to traipse through the Union Square area with a pack of new buddies to bars awaiting us with trays of cocktails and an owner or barkeep to educate us about what we were drinking.
At the Clock Bar in the Westin St. Francis, where central poles display the time around the world, we had a Chartreuse Swizzle topped with a sprig of mint. Made with peppery 110-proof Green Chartreuse containing 130 ingredients, this spirit is produced by French monks and is famous as both a cure-all and a hangover-producer.
In the vivacious, independent, dark and deep Cantina, which boasts having the country’s most complete selection of Latin spirits, we downed a pink Peruvian Pisco Punch with an aromatic slice of orange peel in the bottom—the quintessential S.F. cocktail, having been served here since the early 1800s.
And at chef Charlie Palmer’s brick-walled Burritt Room in the Mystic Hotel, by the Stockton Tunnel, we had a spicy Pequito Picante. It is interesting to know that the space was once a speakeasy as well as an insane asylum, but now, bartender Brian says, “We have fun here.” And the music is really good.
This tour takes about two hours. It is a flat route and covers about ½ mile. No food is served, so consider eating something before and/or after, and bring a bottle of water so you don’t get too hammered. You must be age 21 or older to participate, and group size is limited to 12, which seemed perfect. Bars and drinks on a particular tour can vary. Tips for the bar servers is included, but do tip your guide 10-15 % if you are happy with him/her.
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Victorian Home Walk Departs from Union Square. Fee. Learn the differences between the three Victorian house styles--Italianate, Stick, and Queen Anne. This 2½-hour educational walking tour is over mostly flat terrain in Pacific Heights and Cow Hollow and goes where tour buses and mini vans are prohibited, providing the chance to get off the beaten path and focus on a quiet city neighborhood. After a short public bus ride, explorations begin with the interior of a Queen Anne B&B, include viewing the exterior of the Mrs. Doubtfire Queen Anne, and end on Victorian-lined Union Street--the perfect spot for lunch and shopping. After, you can take a public bus back to Union Square via North Beach and Chinatown, or walk to Fisherman’s Wharf.
Wok Wiz Walking Tours Depart from Chinatown. Fee. Reservations required. Founded in 1986 by the late cookbook author and TV chef Shirley Fong-Torres, these insightful excursions include the basic Wok Wiz Daily Tour (involves no hills, takes participants behind the scenes and into the heartbeat of this colorful and historic neighborhood, and includes an optional dim sum lunch) and the over-the-top foodie delight “I Can’t Believe I Ate My Way through Chinatown” Tour. More theme tours are available.
More Chinatown walks.