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Chinatown, San Francisco, United States
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Giuseppe Milo

The best San Francisco tours

Get to know the real Fog City on brewery crawls, art excursions, culinary walks and more of the best San Francisco tours

Annalise Mantz
Written by
Bonnie Wach
Annalise Mantz

Though San Franciscans would rather cheer for the Dodgers than get caught riding one of those double-decker buses, it’s still fun to play tourist on one of the best San Francisco tours every now and then. Happily, there’s no shortage of offbeat excursions to quench the local thirst for discovery, from boozy trips to the best San Francisco breweries to strolls through the mural-covered Mission District. There are plenty of options for first-time visitors to the City by the Bay, too: You can get the lay of the land on a bike ride through Golden Gate Park or a walking tour of all the best San Francisco attractions.

Best San Francisco tours

What started out more than 30 years ago as a request from the mayor for librarian-led tours of City Hall has evolved into a nonprofit operation with more than 200 volunteers who lead some 50 different walking tours all over San Francisco—entirely for free (though donations are gladly accepted). Guides are local history buffs who live to share their knowledge and wax poetic about their city. Tours cover every niche, nook and cranny of S.F.—from Russian Hill stairways and Alfred Hitchcock film locations to Chinatown tongs and gangs and the 1906 earthquake and fire. Free

Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Roger

With more than 200 murals canvasing its walls and back alleys, the Mission District is the city’s mecca for political, cultural and just downright beautiful street art. Since it was established in 1977, the Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center has worked with local artists to create and preserve many of the stunning works. On the third Saturday of every month, founder and director Susan Cervantes leads guided mural walks through the Mission. Learn how the art reflects the changing cultural and physical landscape and tells the story of the nabe's Hispanic heritage. $20

Gourmet Walks
Photograph: Courtesy Gourmet Walks

3. Gourmet Walks

Given the city’s rep as a food mecca, it’s no surprise that there are a glut of “eat your way through…” tours in SF. Gourmet Walks stands out by having a great grasp on what people want, focusing on hip neighborhoods, of-the-moment dishes (think salted caramel ice cream, artisan salumi and fresh-baked breads), and of course, chocolate. Local cooks and culinary aficionados lead tasting tours of Hayes Valley, Russian Hill and Alamo Square that offer plenty of samples, plus meet-and-greets with chefs, cheesemongers, bakers and chocolatiers. $55–$90

Regardless of where your team loyalties lie, few can argue about the fabulousness of AT&T Park, which in 2000 kicked off the transformation of South Beach from an abandoned warehouse wasteland into a bonafide five-star neighborhood. Behind-the-scenes tours of the park are offered all year, giving fans a chance to sit in the dugout, visit the clubhouse and press box, soak up the spectacular Bay views and walk on the field where the Giants have taken three World Series victory laps in the last six years. $22 adults, $17 seniors, $12 kids 12 and under

Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Shawn Clover

Teas, Temples and Beatniks Tour
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Giuseppe Milo

5. Teas, Temples and Beatniks Tour

This walking tour pairs up two of the city’s most visited neighborhoods: Chinatown and North Beach. Start at Chinatown Gate, then venture further into the ‘hood to taste mooncakes at a local bakery, have your fortune told at the oldest Chinese temple in the country and taste freshly made fortune cookies at the factory. Then you’ll head into North Beach to see former hangouts of Beat poets like Jack Kerouac and look up Coit Tower. $66

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Giuseppe Milo

The Castro Historical Walking Tour
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Ari

6. The Castro Historical Walking Tour

Though San Franciscans have lived in the Castro for decades, it didn’t become the thriving LGBTQ community it is today until after World War II, when discharged LGBTQ servicemen settled in the neighborhood. Since then, the Castro has become a hotbed for social and political activism and a symbol of acceptance and diversity for people around the world. Discover the nabe’s history on a walking tour that visits cultural and historic landmarks like the Rainbow Honor Walk, Harvey Milk's residence and the Castro Theater. $25


7. SF on Tap Tours

Hop heads can quench their thirst for suds on an SF on Tap brewery tour. Guided walking tours take drinkers to three local breweries and craft beer bars in Haight-Ashbury, SoMa or North Beach, where you'll sip complimentary beers as you learn about the city's beer history. Each tour is capped at 12 people, so you'll have plenty of opportunities to pepper your guide with questions about his favorite local brews. $79

San Francisco Urban Hike
Photograph: Courtesy Viator

8. San Francisco Urban Hike

Thanks to the city’s hilly terrain, walking in San Francisco might as well be considered hiking—just in an urban jungle instead of, well, a natural one. Ascend some of S.F.’s steepest hills on this three-hour tour that requires you to wear hiking boots. You’ll climb Kite Hill, ride the Seward Street Slides, discover a hidden eucalyptus forest and summit Twin Peaks. The sweeping views of the city are worth the perspiration. $49

Historic Sausalito Houseboat Tour
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Jay Sterling Austin

9. Historic Sausalito Houseboat Tour

After World War II ended, the once-bustling shipbuilding operation in Richardson Bay shut down, leaving tons of wood and scrap metal behind. Enterprising locals took the opportunity (and free materials) to build an entire community of floating houseboats in the harbor. Today, Sausalito is still home to more than 200 houseboats—everything from rough-and-tumble shantys to million-dollar properties. Explore the waterfront community that inspired Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” on this walking tour. $58.83

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Jay Sterling Austin

San Francisco Love Tour
Photograph: Courtesy SF Love Tours

10. San Francisco Love Tour

Channel the spirit of peace and love that once enveloped San Francisco on this ‘60s-themed bus tour. Instead of a charter coach, the tour uses a vintage Volkswagen van decked out with neon blue seats, shag carpets and beaded curtains to set the scene. You’ll cruise all over town to landmarks like Lombard Street and Golden Gate Park, plus the former homes of counter-culture icons like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. $48

Golden Gate Park Self-Guided Bike Tour
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Ted

11. Golden Gate Park Self-Guided Bike Tour

Though 13 million people visit San Francisco’s verdant oasis every year, few of them explore all of the park’s 1,017 acres. Instead of hoofing it, hop on a bike to cover more ground in less time. Cycle to the Conservatory of Flowers, National AIDS Memorial Grove, Beach Chalet, Lloyd Lake, Japanese Tea Garden and other lauded landmarks at your own pace. $32

If you’re not a tour kind of person, but you still want to find out the backstory of San Francisco’s wild and scandalous Gold Rush past, take yourself down to the Barbary Coast Trail. The walking path was created in 1998 by local historian Daniel Bacon in conjunction with the San Francisco Historical Society. Bacon worked tirelessly for years to install more than 170 bronze Barbary Coast Trail medallions in the sidewalk that trace a 3.8-mile path through the history of gold diggers, shanghai dens, railroad barons and ship graveyards. The best part is you can do as little or as much as you want and you don’t need to go in order. Pick up a printed pocket guide, a Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail book or download an audio tour. For the full experience, you can also book Bacon for a guided tour ($25 a person, $400 minimum).

Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/San Francisco Maritime NHP

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