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San Francisco: 5 walking tours

By Justine Sharrock
updated September 29, 2021
blog_100310_sanfranstreet_popup_original.jpg
Courtesy <a href="http://mybt.budgettravel.com/_Lombard-Street-from-Coit-Tower/photo/7344127/21864.html">rlsantucijr/myBudgetTravel</a>

San Francisco is a walker's city. So think like a local and try a walking tour when you're in town, instead of taking a stereotypical bus tour. Walking tours are an excellent way to get an insider perspective of the city, whether you're interested in must-see landmarks or more uncommon sites. In our opinion, the five listed here are well worth the money.

Downtown: San Francisco Architecture Walking Tour

Even people who work downtown don't know about most of the hidden rooftop gardens, unmarked passages, outdoor sculptures, and architectural wonders in the area, like the Hallidie building, which was the first structure in the world to use a "glass-curtain wall". Guide Rick Evans's knowledge of the history and architecture of the city is impressive, and he often includes tidbits on future city plans in this two-hour tour. If you're staying downtown, this is an easy first activity—and you'll be an expert by the end. $20. Reservations required. Meet at the lobby of the Galleria Park Hotel, 191 Sutter Street.

Mission District: Latino Mural Art

The arts organization Precita Eyes offers walking tours of more than 50 of the Mission District's famous public murals, which are a testament to the neighborhood's rich Latino culture. See the murals up close; scenes and styles range greatly, from celebrations to children's art to modern works by local emerging artists. The guides on the hourlong tours explain the history and significance of each mural and also include information about the artists and how the murals are made. from $10 for adults, $5 for kids and seniors, $2 for children under 12. Reservations not required. Tours are offered Saturdays at 11 a.m. and Sundays at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Various meeting locations. Private tours available by appointment. Note that maps of the Mission's murals are also available at the center for self-guided tours.

Pacific Heights: Victorian San Francisco

The iconic Painted Ladies are a must-see for any visitor, and this guided tour takes tourists around the neighborhood to see even more beautiful homes. Guides describe what life was like back in the Victorian era. Wear comfy sneakers: The hilly tour offers ample opportunities for fabulous views of the city and the Bay. Free. No reservations required. Tours offered Sundays at 2 p.m. Meet at 1801 Bush at Octavia. Want more? Check out sfcityguides.org for 50 free walking-tours.

Chinatown : Alleyway Tour

Young tour guides who grew up in this San Francisco enclave lead you through the hidden back alleys of the "real" Chinatown while sharing the history and culture of the 'hood—plus a few secrets. The non-profit company also cares about current community issues, giving this two-hour tour a socially conscious bent. Highlights include Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat Sen's former house, old opium dens, and Ross Alley, where movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were filmed. $18, cash or check only. Reservations required at least five days in advance. Tours are offered Monday–Saturday. 11 a.m-1 p.m. Meet at the upper level of Portsmouth Square (near Washington and Kearny), across from the Hilton Hotel's bridge.

Downtown, Chinatown, North Beach, and Fisherman's Wharf: The Barbary Coast Trail

This tour follows the historical society's gold sidewalk markers that point out important landmarks. Get the backstories behind sights like the North Beach hangouts of the Beats (including Jack Kerouac's favorite barstool) and the Pony Express Headquarters, plus a few historic ships and Coit Tower. You'll also hear the seedy side of the Gold Rush days. You can opt to only do parts of the tour or tackle the whole 3.8 miles from downtown to Fisherman's Wharf. $22. By appointment only. The tour is one way, but it parallels the Powell-Hyde cable car line, so you can hop on the cable car to get back. For a self-guided option, MP3 audio tours and maps are available for download, starting at $9.

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Will you like a destination? Scientists say, "Ask a stranger."

Researcher Daniel Gilbert is one of the world's foremost authorities on how ordinary people can learn to make smarter decisions. He studies decision-making in lots of different situations. But the first paragraph of this new profile of Gilbert in Harvard Magazine has relevance to travelers in particular. Your parents recommend taking a Caribbean cruise and tell you about a discount deal. You've never taken a cruise and aren't so sure you'd enjoy it, so you dig up some information on the Web and even watch a couple of videos. You recollect the times you've been on ships, and your past visits to Caribbean islands&mdash;rum drinks, aqua waters. But will you really enjoy an eight-day cruise? Turns out there is a better way to answer this question: ask anyone who has just gotten off a cruise boat&mdash;a total stranger is fine. That way, you'll be 30 to 60 percent more likely to accurately predict your own experience than by basing your decision on painstaking research and inner speculations. Another traveler's verdict is "a useful guide because we are far more similar to each other than we realize." A key part of the cruise example is that you need to ask people who have just gotten off a ship. According to Gilbert's study (published in a recent issue of the journal Science), the other traveler's experience must be recent. "People are very poor at remembering how happy they were," Gilbert says. "So it's not very useful to ask, 'How much did you like something you experienced last year?' People get most questions about happiness wrong. But there is one question they get right: how happy are you right now?" This research may sound counter-intuitive to some people, though it certainly explains the popularity of user-review sites like TripAdvisor. What do you think? Will you ask a stranger (or friend or family member) who's just back from a destination whether you should go there? Or will you make up your own mind? MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL Get Psyched! Even storm clouds and crying babies can't dim the glow of a getaway if you follow these sometimes-counterintuitive strategies&mdash;based on scientific research. MORE ON DANIEL GILBERT'S RESEARCH Read the blog for his book Stumbling on Happiness

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London: Street art beyond Banksy

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Paris: Macarons at McDonald's?

Since 2007, the macaron&mdash;the elegant, diminutive, and quintessentially French dessert cookie&mdash;has been sold at Paris McCaf&eacute;s, the mini-McDonald's where you can also find free wireless internet and coffee served in porcelain cups. But a recent marketing campaign from the fast-food giant has brought new attention (and disdain) from macaron aficionados, who argue that these "little macs" bear little resemblance to the delicate treat they adore. That's because an authentic macaron, made of whipped egg whites, ground almonds and sugar, has a shorter shelf life than is demanded by an industrial food franchise, so the classic ingredients have been tinkered with. Phyllis Flick, a local food writer, visited a McCaf&eacute; last week and posted this critique on her blog The Paris Notebook: "I stopped by the McCaf&eacute; at the Louvre today and tried the caramel; it wasn't bad, but a bit too heavy and sweet for my taste." Since that visit, Flick has returned again to Pierre Herm&eacute;,one of the local pilgrimage sites for true macaron fans. Her experience there put the McDonald's macaron in stark and unflattering relief. She explained by telephone today that, "the Pierre Herm&eacute; macarons are subtle, delicate, and meant to be savored. You have to eat them slowly so as not to miss the many intricate flavors. I worried that some of them, like the (green tea) matcha and sesame or the strawberry and balsamic, might be overpowering, but in fact they were delicate, light and airy, and absolutely delicious. By contrast, the McDonald's macaron tasted like sugar. It was chewy and heavy, almost the opposite, unfortunately." It's true that the McDonald's macaron is cheaper than you'll find at Pierre Herm&eacute;. A single industrial cookie costs $1.22, while the handcrafted treat from Herm&eacute; costs $2.15. For true macaron nuts, however, two dollars isn't too much to pay for a bite of authentic artisanal tradition. A real macaron, as Flick points out, is "one of the few luxuries that everyone can afford." To try a McMacaron, visit: McDonald's McCaf&eacute; 140 avenue des Champs-Elys&eacute;es in the 8th arrondissement, 5 avenue du G&eacute;n&eacute;ral Leclerc in the 14th arrondissement. There's also the one inside the Louvre. For some of the best macarons in Paris, visit: Pierre Herm&eacute; &ndash; 72 rue Bonaparte in the 6th arrondissement, 4 rue Cambon in the 1st arrondissement, and185 rue de Vaugirard in the 15th arrondissement. Ladur&eacute;e &ndash; 21 rue Bonaparte in the 6th arrondissement, 16 rue Royale in the 8th arrondissement, and 75 avenue des Champs Elys&eacute;es in the 8th arrondissement. So, where are you headed? Would you try a macaron from McDonald's? FOR FURTHER READING: The Wall Street Journal &ndash; Mon Dieu! Will Newfound Popularity Spoil the Dainty Macaron? Serious Eats &ndash; Interview With Macaron Specialist Dorie Greenspan Slate &ndash; How McDonald's Conquered France

Inspiration

Rome: 5 best March values

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