In a city with such good public transport, and such steep hills, it might be thought eccentric to spend much time walking. But San Francisco also has a wonderful institution known as City Guides. Originally started when the city librarian was asked by the mayor to provide tours of city hall, more than 200 volunteer guides now offer over 70 walking tours. Free tours, led by locals, in a city full of interesting buildings – of course I walked!
I actually took five tours over the four days I was in San Francisco, although on one occasion the guide didn’t show up. That turned out not to matter as it was the Landmark Victorians of Alamo Square tour, which met outside one of the two Victorian houses open to the public. The proud owner, formerly a guide himself, was only too happy to show us round his remarkable residence, crammed full of “finds” and with gorgeous wallpaper and paint. Since it started to rain while we were inside I was just as happy to forgo the tour, and came back in the afternoon to salivate over the Alamo Square houses on my own. (Of course, I looked at plenty of other Victorians as well, and was a little disconcerted to find that the elaborate gables were sometimes just facades!)
The first tour I took was of the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, and I loved it. The garden was looking beautiful, and the guide, married to a Japanese man, full of useful information. She even had a handout on Japantown, where I was staying. That afternoon I was less impressed by the Nob Hill tour, which I found heavy on history (most of which I knew), and light on buildings. I did, however, get to see a handsome set of doors on Grace Episcopal Cathedral, replicas of Florence’s famous baptistry doors, and also found a walkable labyrinth inside.
Extra tours are offered in May and October, and the Sacred Places tour I took was one of them. I had to rush to make it, as it started at 1:00 instead of 2:00 as I had thought. Good thing I checked as I finished lunch (in a noisy but cute cafe on Fillmore St.). The modern St. Mary’s Roman Catholic cathedral alone was worth the hustle. A marvelous, light-filled space, with excellent modern stained glass, I could have happily stayed longer.
We also stopped outside the First Unitarian Universalist Church, an old stone building, and I was amused to learn that “Universalist” had only recently been added to the carved stone sign outside, although the denominations merged back in the ’60s. I got to visit my first Buddhist “church”, which did indeed look a lot like a church, as did the synagogue we visited. These attempts to fit in with the then prevailing cultural fashion reminded me of the Great Synagogue in Budapest.
On my last day my final tour (after checking out the busy Farmers’ Market at the Ferry Building), was of the Castro district. Although I had thought of it as the generic “gay” district, I was interested to learn that it had always been a male preserve. By the time the lesbian community looked to move in, property rates had risen too high. But our guide said that although many in the LGBT community lived across the Bay, the Castro was still its center of gravity. (Note: she also expanded LGBT by at least another four letters, but I didn’t quite catch what they were.)
After that tour I walked over to the Mission Dolores area, thinking that I would check out the Cinco de Mayo festivities. Since it was a very hot day, and the craft and food tents were set out in a grassy area with no shade, I soon abandoned that idea, and trekked on up (very much up) to 24th Street, in the Noe Valley area, where I ate an odd but tasty crepe at Savor for lunch.
There is a request for donations at the end of the City Guides’ tours, to help support the minimal organization involved, but the donation and amount are optional. Although there are plenty of other possibilities for self-guided walking tours in San Francisco, it’s hard to beat enthusiastic locals, and I even had a post-tour coffee with one of my fellow-walkers.
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