Everyone knows San Francisco’s iconic landmarks: Coit Tower, Golden Gate Bridge, Haight-Ashbury, Fisherman’s Wharf.
But if you want to soak up lesser-known history, behind-the-scenes lore and a few crazy anecdotes behind those and dozens of other city sites, then pull on your comfy shoes and show up for a San Francisco City Guides walking tour.
Started in 1978 by Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, the walking tours are now run year-round as a nonprofit with about 300 volunteer docents. Depending on the chattiness of your guide, these highly entertaining walk-and-talk tours last about two hours. They typically draw about 20 people, a mix that includes hipsters, baby boomers, couples with kids in strollers and foreign tourists visiting California for the first time. Sorry, no dogs allowed.
The tours are completely free and there’s no ticket or reservation required: Just scroll through the online menu of tour choices at www.sfcityguides.org for any given day, then meet at the designated time and location. (If you want a paper City Guides brochure map/schedule, they can be picked up at many San Francisco hotels and visitor centers. Or call 415-557-4266 for more information.) The tours run year-round, regardless of weather, and at least one tour is offered most days of the week.
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Whether it’s an iconic landmark or a less-trafficked neighborhood, you can pick your topic from a library-worthy menu: Art Deco architecture, famous fires, “bawdy and naughty” Gold Rush prostitutes, Chinatown’s tongs and gangs, Coit Tower murals, Alfred Hitchcock’s movie locales. With about 70 tour topics, there’s something for every appetite.
The Billionaire’s Row tour, for instance, starts outside U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s home on the Lyon Street steps, then meanders the Pacific Heights neighborhood with stops outside the opulent homes of Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and Gordon J. Getty, among so many others. It encompasses the former Delancey Street Foundation halfway home in a onetime Russian consulate that sparked neighborhood outcry; it ends in a serene 1895 church sanctuary that’s one of California’s early examples of Arts and Crafts architecture.
Another popular tour, of Haight-Ashbury, goes far beyond the obligatory stop at the 1960s home of the Grateful Dead, across the street from the Hell’s Angels’ hangout. You roll back in time to learn where the neighborhood got its name (banker Haight and politician Ashbury) and how it eventually fell on hard times in the late 1950s when the city proposed running a freeway down its parkway. As conventional families moved out, the hippie children moved in, occupying abandoned storefronts and low-rent housing to freely celebrate the ’67 Summer of Love.
The volunteer docents are loaded with current and historical lore; most bring turn-of-the-century photos that peel back the 2017 veneer from many of the sights you see. At tour’s end, you can make a donation, but it’s not required. For free, walkable entertainment, it’s one of San Francisco’s best bets.