Updated: June 1, 2014
If you’re a San Francisco resident, chances are you think city walking tours should be relegated to shivering tourists waving from open-topped tour buses. But sometimes it’s fun to play the tourist even in your own city, especially one like ours that’s so full of storied streets, alleys, and buildings. Walking tours are a great way to get out and about and learn about the city’s colorful, flamboyant history.
We asked local tour operators which tours are most favored by locals, and here’s what they had to say.
DASHIELL HAMMETT TOUR. Fans of noir fiction and Dashiell Hammett, author of the famous mystery novels starring detective Sam Spade, will love this tour, which is the longest running literary tour in the nation. It’s led by Don Herron, author of The Literary World of San Francisco and editor of selected letters of Philip K. Dick – a guy who clearly knows his stuff and has been praised not just for dressing in a snap-brim hat and trench coat, but for leading a tour that, according to The Wall Street Journal, “moved like a drunken cat through the streets and back alleys of the Tenderloin. It passed Southeast Asian diners, tawdry hotels, bars without windows, and places where a twenty will buy you more than the weekend’s groceries.” $20 per person.
COME OUT TO THE CASTRO. It’s hard to imagine now, but the neighborhood we call the Castro was once a subdued, working class community known as “Eureka Valley.” Take this tour with Foot! Comedy Walking Tours and laugh your socks off while you learn about the neighborhood’s history from the 19th century to the present. Stops include the Castro’s very first gay bar, the surprising controversies that flutter with the iconic massive rainbow flag, and of course the Castro Theatre, which first opened in 1922. As the company’s web site promises, “you’ll have a gay old time.” $30 per person.
CITY SCAPES AND PUBLIC PLACES. Some of the city’s most iconic gems are on display, like the Transamerica Building, the Hallidie Building, known for its “glass curtain walls,” and the Hunter-Dulin Building with its late Gothic revival style of architecture; as are some lesser known and even hidden from the street. Take this tour, offered by SF City Guides, on a Friday (10 am or 1:30 pm) and check out the best of the Financial District’s architecture as well as secret spots high and low, from the Transamerica Redwood Park to the rooftop decks such as the Four Seasons at 343 Sansome or the Crocker Galleria Rooftop Terrace, both POPOS (“privately owned public spaces”) that are popular lunchtime spots on sunny days. Free, but donations are welcome.
GOLD RUSH CITY. Back in 1848, the the small village of San Francisco transformed almost overnight into a pop-up city – chaotic and lawless. This tour, from SF City Guides, will fill you in on when and how local militias took the law into their own hands in the 1850; the local eccentric by the name of Joshua Norton who declared himself “Emperor of the United States” and whom residents adored; and how entire crews abandoned hundreds of ships in Yerba Buena Cove in order to join the Gold Rush. Free, but donations are welcome.
THE STINKIN’ RICH AND DIRTY MONEY THAT BUILT NOB HILL.You may know about the dirty ways of San Francisco’s Railroad Barons, the 19th century’s masters of corruption, but have you ever heard about the financial shenanigans of the Bonanza Kings, the four men whose two silver mines produced $3,000,000 per month? Find out all about glittering Nob Hill’s unethical underbelly with this tour from Foot! Stops include the requisite Nob Hill mansions as well as the Fairmont Hotel and Grace Cathedral. $30 per person
TELEGRAPH HILL STAIRWAY HIKE. Telegraph Hill is perhaps best known for Coit Tower, but its residents know that the landmark is just one of the neighborhood’s many attractions. With this tour from SF City Guides, you’ll pound the pavement (and the wooden Filbert Street steps) to enjoy some of the best views of the Bay the city has to offer. Along the way, your guide will point out some of the neighborhood’s most attractive gardens as well as cottages that date from the Gold Rush era. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the flock of wild parrots made famous in the documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. Free, but donations are welcome.
– Meghan Laslocky