Do not miss the opportunity to take one of the 80-plus absolutely free walking tours offered in rotation by San Francisco City Guides ★★★ (sfcityguides.org; tel. 415/557-4266), a simply terrific volunteer organization that runs up to a dozen tours a day, from 9:30am to 2pm, plus occasional night tours, all around town. You don’t need to make a reservation; just show up at the place and time listed online on its home page, where the weekly schedule is kept up-to-date by the group’s single paid employee. (Call ahead for groups of eight or more.) Tours include City Scapes and Public Places, on which you’ll discover hidden rooftop gardens and little-known financial museums downtown; a retelling of the history of the Mission Dolores neighborhood, one of the city’s most historic; and Gold Rush City, which takes in the stomping grounds of the original [‘]49ers. Most of the city’s great attractions, from Coit Tower to Fisherman’s Wharf, will have a dedicated tour. These tours are probably the city’s best bargain, and they’re an inviting way to see some windswept places you may not want to go to alone, including the walkway of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Fort Mason complex. Some 21,000 people a year take advantage of this terrific service, and frugal city buffs could easily fill their vacations with two or three a day. Tours are free, but at the end, your guide, someone who loves and studies the city and wants to share that love, will pass around an envelope and hope for a few bucks.
Cruisin’ the Castro (cruisinthecastro.com; tel. 415/550-8110; $30 adults, $25 children 5–12) is an informative historical tour of San Francisco’s famous gay neighborhood, focusing on the contribution of the gay community to the city’s political maturity, growth, and beauty. This fun and easy walking tour is for all ages, highlighting gay and lesbian history from 1849 to the present. Stops include America’s only Pink Triangle Park and Memorial; the original site of the AIDS Quilt Name Project; the residence of Harvey Milk (the first openly gay elected official in California) and also the place where his store, Castro Camera, used to be; the Castro Theatre; and the Human Rights Campaign and Action Center. Tours run Monday through Saturday from 10am to noon and meet at the Rainbow Flag at Harvey Milk Plaza on the corner of Castro and Market streets above the Castro Muni station. Reservations are required.
The Haight-Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour (www.haightashburytour.com; tel. 415/863-1621; $20, free for kids 9 and under) explores hippie haunts with expert local guides who’ve seen it all. You’ll revisit the Grateful Dead’s crash pad, Janis Joplin’s house, and other reminders of the Summer of Love in 2 1/2 short hours. Tours begin at 10:30am on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and on Fridays at 2pm. Reservations are advised and you can buy tickets online.
To explore Chinatown’s less-touristy side, with its many hidden nooks and crannies, sign up with Wok Wiz Chinatown Walking Tours & Cooking Center, 250 King St., Ste. 268 (wokwiz.com; tel. 650/355-9657). Founded in 1984 by beloved late author and cooking instructor Shirley Fong-Torres, its guides today are all Chinatown natives, who speak fluent Cantonese and are intimately acquainted with the neighborhood’s history, folklore, culture, and food. Tours run daily from 9:45am to 1pm and include a hosted, multi-course dim sum lunch (a Chinese meal made up of many small plates of food). There’s a less expensive tour that does not include lunch, but even after your guide pops into bakeries to retrieve piping hot pork buns and custard tarts, you’d be surprised by how ready you’ll be for the grand finale sit-down meal. Since groups are generally held to a maximum of 15, reservations are essential. The tour (with lunch) costs $50 for adults and $35 for ages 6 to 10; without lunch, it’s $35 and $25, respectively. Tickets can be purchased online. My personal favorite is Wok Wiz’ I Can’t Believe I Ate My Way Through Chinatown tour, which starts with breakfast, moves to a wok shop, and stops for various nibbles at a vegetarian restaurant, dim sum place, and a marketplace, before taking a break for a sumptuous authentic Cantonese luncheon. It’s offered Saturdays, takes 3 1/2 hours, and costs $90 per person, food included. The city mourns the loss of Shirley, who passed away in 2011.
Finally, for a tour of the areas where tour buses are forbidden, try Jay Gifford’s Victorian Homes Historical Walking Tour (victorianhomewalk.com; tel. 415/252-9485). As you might guess, the tour concentrates on architecture, although Jay, a witty raconteur and San Francisco resident for more than 2 decades, also goes deeply into the city’s history—particularly the periods just before and after the great earthquake and fire of 1906. You’ll stroll through Japantown, Pacific Heights, and Cow Hollow. In the process, you’ll see more than 200 meticulously restored Victorians, including the sites where the movie Mrs. Doubtfire and the TV series Party of Five were filmed. Tours run Monday, Friday, and Saturday at 11am, rain or shine; cost is $25 per person (cash only).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.