Offbeat Walking Tours
The best way to see San Francisco is to get out and take a walk. You can find dozens of companies offering walking tours of different parts of the City. Here are a few of the best and most interesting:
One of the most popular walking tour companies in the city is Foot (800/979-3370, www.foottours.com, $30–45/person). Foot was founded by stand up comedian Robert Mac, and hires comics to act as guides for their many different tours around San Francisco. If you’re a brand-new visitor to the City, pick the two-hour San Francisco in a Nutshell tour for a funny look at the basics of San Francisco landmarks and history, or the three-hour Whole Shebang, a comprehensive if speedy look at Chinatown, Nob Hill, and North Beach.
For visitors who are back for the second or third time, check out the more in-depth neighborhood tours that take in Chinatown, the Castro, or the Haight. You can even hit Nude, Lewd, and Crude, a look at the rise of 18-and-up entertainment in North Beach. Tour departure points vary, so check the website for more information about your specific tour and about packages of more than one tour in a day or two.
San Francisco is famous for its incredibly steep hills. Logic suggests that residents would build stairways to make getting to their homes and businesses easier. And so it went. Today, some of the best and most beautiful walks in the City run up and down these stairways. A great guide to these walks is Stairway Walks in San Francisco (http://wildernesspress.com); with this book, you can plan routes through beautiful residential neighborhoods filled with lush gardens and attractive vintage homes. At the tops of the hills you’ll be rewarded for your efforts with amazing views out over the City — one of the big reasons residents are willing to deal with all those steps and slopes. Just be aware that you’ll need to be in reasonably good shape to tackle the stair walks.
For an inside look at the culinary delights of Chinatown, sign up for a spot on I Can’t Believe I Ate My Way Through Chinatown (212/209-3370, www.wokwiz.com, $80/person). This three-hour bonanza will take you first for a classic Chinese breakfast, then out into the streets of Chinatown for a narrated tour around Chinatown’s food markets, apothecaries, and tea shops. You’ll finish up with lunch at one of Chef Shirley’s favorite hole-in-the-wall dim sum places.
For folks who just want the tour and lunch, or the tour alone, check out the standard Wok Wiz Daily Tour ($40/person with lunch, $30/person tour only).
To check out another side of Chinatown, take the Chinatown Ghost Tour (877/887-3373, www.sfchinatownghosttours.com, Fri.–Sat. 7:30 p.m., adults $24, children $16, tour lasts 1.5 hours). It’s hard to find a neighborhood with a richer history rife with ghost stories than San Francisco’s Chinatown. The whole thing burned down more than a century ago, and it was rebuilt in exactly the same spot, complete with countless narrow alleyways.
This tour will take you into these alleys after the sun sets, when the spirits are said to appear on the streets. You’ll start out at Kan’s Restaurant (708 Grant Ave.) and follow your loquacious guide along the avenues and side streets of Chinatown. As you stroll, your guide will tell you the stories of the neighborhood spirits, spooks, and ancestors. The curious get to learn about the deities worshipped by devout Chinese to this day, along with the folklore that permeates what was until recently a closed and secretive culture. This information delights all walkers, whether or not they actually get to see one of the legendary spirits.
Can’t get enough of the spooky side of San Francisco? Check out a walking tour that’s a favorite even with the locals: the San Francisco Vampire Tour (866/424-8836, www.sfvampiretour.com, Fri.–Sat. 8 p.m., adults $20, children $15). You’ll take a two-hour walk around some of the City sites rich with history, and learn both about that history and some charming stories about the vampires’ role in the creation and culture of the City.
Guide Mina Harker is something of a vamp herself — at least she dresses the part. In fact, goth dress is encouraged for participants in the tour, so break out your black lace, your top hat, and your white makeup and become part of the show! This walking tour sticks mostly to the sights and famous hotels of Nob Hill.
© Liz Hamill Scott from Moon California, 2nd Edition