Though San Franciscans would rather cheer for the Dodgers than get caught riding one of those double-decker buses, we still love playing tourist in our own town. Happily, there’s no shortage of offbeat excursions to quench the local thirst for discovery—from dark passages ripped from the pages of Dashiell Hammett mysteries to the balmy alleys of the mural-covered Mission District.
San Francisco tours worth taking
Not so much a tour as a mesmerizing audio walk, Detour feels a bit like what might happen if NPR’s “This American Life” and “Serial” gave birth to a travel podcast. The brainchild of Groupon founder Andrew Mason, Detour works via a location-aware smartphone app, so the audio never gets ahead of or behind you. Another nifty feature—you can sync up with friends via Bluetooth for a group Detour. Pick from among seven offbeat and downright odd topics (new ones every month, currently available only in San Francisco and Austin), including Fisherman’s Wharf as seen through the eyes of fishermen, and a satirical romp through the bakeries of the Marina District with absurdist German philosopher and “former Rhineland liver farmer” Ulrich Fürst. Tours $5, detour.com.
Precita Eyes Murals Tour
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 1977, the artists at Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center have created and preserved many of the stunning works. On weekends, they lead guided mural walks through the Mission, reflecting on the changing cultural and physical landscape and telling the stories behind the art, which reflect the area’s Hispanic heritage and immigrant experience. Classic Mission Mural Walk, Sat–Sun 1:30pm, $20 ($15 for SF residents); Mission Trail Mural Walk, Sat 11am, $15 ($12 SF residents); Precita Park Tour, Sun 11am, $15 ($12 SF residents). 2981 24th St near Harrison St, 415-285-2287, precitaeyes.org/tours.html.
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 edibles (think salted caramel ice cream, artisan salumi, fresh-baked breads), and of course, chocolate. Tours are led by local cooks and culinary aficionados and offer plenty of samples, along with neighborhood history and meet-and-greets with chefs, cheesemongers, bakers and chocolatiers. Tours run approx. 3 hours, $55–$85, 415-312-1119, gourmetwalks.com.
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 (donations 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 SF—from Russian Hill stairways and Alfred Hitchcock film locations to Chinatown tongs and gangs and the 1906 earthquake and fire. Offered daily, 1.5–2 hours, no reservations, 415-557-4266, sfcityguides.org.Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Roger
AT&T Park Tours
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. Tours daily 10:30am & 12:30pm, rain or shine. See sanfrancisco.giants.mlb.com/sf/ballpark/tours/ for schedule and blackout dates. Public tours $22 adults, $17 seniors, $12 kids 12 and under. Tours depart daily from Giants Dugout Store, 24 Willie Mays Plaza at Third St, 415-972-2400.Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Shawn Clover
Dashiell Hammett Tour
Since 1977, Don Herron has lurked in the shadows—trench coat collar turned up and hat brim pulled down—hot on the trail of San Francisco mystery writer Dashiell Hammett and his private eyes, Sam Spade and the Continental Op. The Dashiell Hammett Tour, the longest-running literary tour in the country, takes people through the back alleys and fog-shrouded streets to Hammett’s favorite haunts, including the Pinkerton Detective Agency where Hammett worked as a private eye and the alleyway where Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, was gunned down by Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. Tours offered occasional Sundays or by appointment, $20. See donherron.com for current tour dates. Tours meet at San Francisco Main Library, 100 Larkin Street, Civic Center.
Bay Area Brewery Tours
Bay Area Brewery Tours is a great way for craft beer lovers to indulge their passion without getting pulled over for a breathalyzer test. Self-described as “transportation for beer education,” BABT shuttles connoisseurs to a host of haunts for tastings, informative beer banter and tours of some of the area’s most beloved breweries, including Southern Pacific in the Mission, Pyramid in Berkeley, and Lagunitas Brewing Company in Marin County. The $95 fee includes round-trip transportation, visits to three breweries, lunch and a souvenir glass. Tours Fri–Sun. Bus pick-up at Caltrain station, 4th and Townsend Sts, 415-999-4989, bayareabrewerytours.com.
Barbary Coast Trail
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 ($10, available at the Historical Society and Visitor Information Center in Hallidie Plaza), 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). Trail begins at the Old Mint, 88 5th St at Mission St, and ends at Aquatic Park, 499 Jefferson St at Hyde St, 415-454-2355, barbarycoasttrail.org.Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/San Francisco Maritime NHP
First Thursday Art
First Thursday is like happy hour for art lovers, when some 50 different galleries around the city (most of them downtown) stay open late so culture vultures can survey the city’s art scene with wine, nibbles and no pressure. Hosted by the SF Art Dealers Association since 1993, the roving art party takes place on the first Thursday of every month, 5:30–7:30pm. A map and list of participating galleries is available at firstthursdayart.com.