When playing tourist in your own city, plain old walking around may not get as much glory as attractions like crooked road of Lombard Street.
But roaming has spawned some deep connections to this place. How else would you stumble upon that Art Deco lobby off Market Street that caught your eye or read passionate farewell notes attached to a Geary Boulevard tree that’s set to be cut down?
Take a page from local journalist Gary Kamiya’s highly recommended Cool Gray City of Love, which came together in part thanks to his obsession with walking every street in San Francisco. Fitting a mission like that into a single summer definitely isn’t viable — though it’ll be a quick way to build up those calf muscles — self-guided walking tours hit the same tone on a smaller scale. (Kamiya did turn his book into a monthly tour, next offered on June 10. Visit garykamiya.com for more information.)
By nature, walking tours have a narrow focus, but the independence allows for plenty of wandering as you learn more about the city — and with all the summer fog, you may not even break a sweat. Here are the few that are on our list for the summer:
Free Tours by Foot technically doesn’t charge you for its regular tours but asks you to pay what you feel the tour was worth. To avoid all that, take it up on its printable self-guided walking tour of Chinatown. It includes some obvious spots, like Grant Avenue — which was the red-light district before the 1906 earthquake and where traditional Chinese architecture was built to encourage tourism — along with murals on Clay Street. But for locals and tourists who associate Chinatown with cheap knick-knacks, it delves into places like the Tin How Temple, which is one of the oldest Chinese houses of worship in the United States, or Jun Hu’s Barber Shop.
Where Marina residents now jog was once home to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which San Francisco held to prove it had rebounded from the 1906 earthquake and created Muni to accommodate all the visitors. The Palace of Fine Arts is the obvious relic of that nine-month, 24-country fair, but the robust three-hour tour also goes through the Presidio to Crissy Field and to Marina Green. There, ecological habitats gave way to development in order to host athletic contests and cultural performances. One famous stunt performer, Lincoln Beachey, known as the Man Who Owned the Sky, died in March 1915 as spectators at Marina Green watched his plane plunge into the Bay.
In summer, Ocean Beach seldom offers the opportunity to frolic in surf and sun, but visitors trek out there anyway. Hidden SF mostly points out attractions on the north end, from the ruins of Sutro Baths to Land’s End. Two that fewer locals might know are the Camera Obscura by the Cliff House and Kelly’s Cove Beach, the birthplace of San Francisco surfing. Another less-visited gem of Ocean Beach sits on the south end. Walk down to Fort Funston — the largest remaining sand dune field in the area — to imagine what the city’s western edge looked like before the Sunset became built up. Also, bring your pooch to its celebrated dog park or join hang-gliders in the sky.
This six-mile tour is well-suited for when a guest is in town or for new arrivals, as it covers much of the main attractions like Fisherman’s Wharf, Russian Hill, and North Beach. But it comes with a fair amount of tips that even long-time residents may not have discovered, like popping into the Westin St. Francis to gawk at the lobby and attempt to ride the elevators for a view or pausing at an abandoned restaurant in Telegraph Hill. The tour emphasizes visiting on a Saturday to catch the Ferry Building Farmers Market while trying food spots like Cowgirl Creamery and Far West Fungi.