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.