The late food writer, Anthony Bourdain once said: “Anyone who doesn’t have a great time in San Francisco is pretty much dead to me.”
And I’ve got to agree.
A recent trip was my third time in the Californian city and I fall a little more in love with it with each visit.
What’s not to love?
I love San Francisco’s food, I love its beauty, I love its celebration of the arts, and I love its history of activism and inclusion.
I don’t love walking up its hills and its weather could do with some tweaking, but its good traits far outweigh its issues.
This time, I saw parts of the city I’d never seen, ate at places I’d never heard of and had experiences I’d never do on my own. And it’s all thanks to tours.
A reluctant tour-ist.
Full disclosure: I’ve never been a fan of tours. But this trip may have changed me.
It was all tours, all the time and I had a ball.
I don’t even recognise myself anymore.
Flavours and Murals of the Mission Tour
Want to eat doughnuts for breakfast and learn about one of San Francisco’s trendiest, most storied neighbourhoods?
Starting out at Dynamo Donut + Coffee, you’ll sample a mix of unique varieties of America’s favourite deep-fried treat like Passionfruit Milk Chocolate, Maple Bacon Apple and Lemon Buttermilk.
As your sugar high spikes, you’ll begin a walking tour of the Mission District, focusing on the vibrant murals that cover the walls of houses, shops, garages, pavements - any traditionally flat blank surface.
The Mission is one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, with a long history of conflict and oppression. It was originally inhabited by Native American peoples, but is today populated largely by Mexican, Puerto Rican and other Hispanic communities.
The Mission is home to many artists and activists, who document the struggles and triumphs of their communities through beautiful, colourful murals.
From workers’ rights to migration, racism to women’s issues, a walk through the Mission is a history lesson in itself.
Looking at political art can really work up an appetite, and you certainly won’t go hungry on this tour.
As well as breakfast doughnuts, you’ll sample a mix of Latin American dishes and sweet treats that will leave you uncomfortably full but happy.
My heart desired cheese, as it always does.
Teas, Temples and Beatniks Tour
Feeling stocked up for winter, it was time for Teas, Temples and Beatniks with Jim (pictured below), my favourite tour guide in a trip full of excellent tour guides.
Jim was a wealth of knowledge and passion, with kind eyes and a great sense of humour. I could have chatted to him for days. Sadly, he refused to adopt me, but we’ll always have this tour.
Jim’s tour took us on an adventure through Chinatown and North Beach, the birthplace of Beatniks.
Jim relayed the history of Chinese and wider Asian migration to San Francisco and specifically Chinatown, through the mid-19th century Gold Rush, the Great Fire of 1851 and the devastating 1906 earthquake.
My favourite part of this tour was probably our visit to Vital Tea Leaf, a traditional Chinese tea shop.
A quiet respite from the busy streets, city dwellers flock here to cure what ails them. Whether you’re bloated, tired or hungover, owner Uncle Gee and his staff will have a herbal solution for you. And you can sit and try before you buy.
Our host was an acerbic legend named Maggie who refused to tell me her skincare regime. She’s a wealth of knowledge and a delight to chat to.
Just don’t mention English Breakfast, lemon and ginger or any other non-Chinese teas. Actually do, it’s very entertaining.
After drinking copious amounts of tea, we meandered the rest of the way to North Beach.
Jim told us about the beginnings of the beat generation and took us to City Lights, a respected bookstore and literary meeting place since the 1950s.
Leaving City Lights, I could feel the ghosts of Kerouac and Ginsberg around me as the tour ended and we bid Jim a melancholy farewell.
Movie Sets and Locations Tour
The very fun Movie Sets and Locations Tour is a great way to see San Francisco while visiting sites from your favourite films and TV shows.
The lovely Bryan and Marie will pick you up in their white van and drive you around the city, playing scenes from movies on the van’s TV and stopping at the exact sites of those scenes.
You’ll see, among other things:
The house from Mrs Doubtfire;
The school from The Princess Diaries;
The exact spot on the Golden Gate Bridge where Kim Novak jumped into the water in Vertigo;
The Tanner house from Full House (I almost cried with joy);
The sniper’s perch from Dirty Harry.
You’ll also get to walk around City Hall, which is featured in many movies including A View to a Kill and Raiders of the Lost Arc. It’s also the site of legendary LGBTQI activist turned politician Harvey Milk’s assassination, depicted in the biopic, Milk.
City Hall is worth a visit whether you do the tour or not, if only to witness some of the thousands of weddings that take place inside its walls each year.
I counted 15 brides and grooms in the 10 minutes we were there.
Alcatraz Island Tour
Take a leisurely 15-minute boat ride from Pier 33 to the infamous island prison, also known as The Rock, with Alcatraz Cruises.
Upon arrival, you’ll be given a set of audio equipment which will guide and inform you as you wander around the building at your leisure.
Your audio guides are all former inmates and law enforcers, who’ll relay details about what life was really like in the jail.
You’ll see inside cells, learn about escape attempts and stand in the dining hall and kitchen, which is said to have actually been very good by prison standards.
Throughout the prison, you’ll read about the men who occupied the cells during the 29 years Alcatraz was in operation from 1963. Inmates served time for everything from cheque fraud to murder and included famous criminals like Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly.
This was my first visit to the prison, now listed as a National Park, and I found myself regretting not having gone before.
Haight-Ashbury Flowe Power Walking Tour
The Haight-Ashbury district, also known as The Haight, is considered the birthplace of counter culture and was the heartland of the 1967 Summer of Love.
Today it remains a significant cultural and political centre and is largely considered a safe and welcoming space for the disenfranchised.
It’s also very pretty.
To see the sights and learn about The Haight’s colourful history, I can’t recommend the Haight-Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour enough.
Haight native and shop-owner and tour guide Sunshine “Sunny” Powers is a walking encyclopedia and human time machine. After an hour with her you’ll feel like you’ve been transported back to 1967.
Plus, she has a furry assistant, Dr Dave, named for a local (human) doctor who has long championed universal health care and compassionate addiction treatments.
Sunny will show you around and school you in local legend and lore, in particular about the many famous musicians who dwelled in the neighbourhood’s Victorian terraces in the 1960s.
You’ll see where The Grateful Dead lived, where Janis Joplin lived, where Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Otis Redding lived. Plus, you’ll see the venues where they all played.
And lastly, you’ll see Sunny’s “tie-dye emporium”, Love on Haight. Like her, it’s a sensory assault of colour and noise, selling anything that can be dipped in fabric dye and worn in public.
Make sure you check out the pavement running the length of one side of the shop, where hearts have been painted and printed with the names of famous characters from The Haight’s past.
Castro and Twin Peaks Urban Hiking Tour
If you’re going to take this excellent tour around yet another celebrated San Francisco neighbourhood, I cannot impress upon you enough the importance of comfortable clothing and proper hiking footwear.
Don’t be like me and my fellow travellers, who assumed “urban hiking” meant traversing hilly streets and not climbing an actual mountain.
Despite the sartorial confusion, this is a great way to see the Castro neighbourhood, the heart of the LGBTQI community in San Francisco and indeed the world for over half a century.
To be in the Castro is to be in the shadows of giants.
This is where Harvey Milk lived and worked in the 1970s. It’s where members of the U.S. military, discharged for their sexuality, settled during World War II. And it was ground zero during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
As you’re walking along, seeing the sights and enjoying the ambience, you’ll suddenly find yourself in scrubland, climbing a hill.
It will be very cold and steep and when you finally reach the top, the famous San Francisco fog (known colloquially as ‘Karl’, but that’s a whole other story) will prevent you from seeing much in any direction.
But it will be worth it, I promise.
Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf
Our visit to Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf wasn’t part of an official tour, but we were shown around by the delightful Sue from the location’s marketing team.
You really don’t need a tour here. Just walk around, have a chowder and watch the sea lions.
YUP! SEA LIONS!
The pier is home to hundreds of slippery beauties, who sun themselves and flirt with tourists on barges specially built for them all day, every day.
I could have watched them for hours.
Other Pier 39 highlights include The Flyer, a “flying theatre” or flight simulator that takes you on an aerial tour of the city through a combination of motion seats, live-action and computer-generated imagery.
If you’re a wimp like me, it will terrify you, but you’ll quickly grow to enjoy it and stop wanting to vomit.
And lastly, if you happen to be at Pier 39, make sure you go to The Fudgery. Not only because they sell fresh hot fudge, but also because you might be lucky enough to catch a show.
Whenever they work together, “Baby Fudge” and “Sunshine” put on an all-singing, all-joking show a few times a day and it’s honestly worth the trip to Pier 39 just for this.
You can fly direct to and from San Francisco with several airlines including Qantas, Virgin Australia and United. Return flights start at around $950 AUD.
The writer was a guest of San Francisco Travel Association.
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