Greetings from San Francisco, a city that has long been one of our favorites. It is compact, enjoys good public transportation, offers unmatched vistas and is home to excellent restaurants.
It can also be expensive. Hotels tend to be costly and restaurants aren’t cheap. According to some estimates, San Francisco is the most costly city in the U.S. to live, and one of the most expensive to visit. Fortunately, many of the city’s most enjoyable activities are either free or entail only a nominal fee.
One of San Francisco’s great bargains is a program of guided walking tours devoted to the city’s history, architecture, parks, facilities and more.
Offered by San Francisco City Guides, the tours are interesting, educational and free. In addition, they allow participants the opportunity to meet travelers with similar interests. Today we completed the sixth guided walk of our current 12-day stay with plans for several additional tours before returning home to Georgia.
During one tour, we talked with Minneapolis resident Wayne Schoeneck, a frequent visitor to the city, who told us he has taken 33 tours with San Francisco City Guides.
City Guides is a 40-year-old program that didn’t come to our attention until a 2016 visit to Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Tea Garden. We encountered a tour in progress, joined the group and discovered yet another reason to visit the city.
San Francisco City Guides was established in 1978 to offer free history and architectural walking tours of the city. The program, currently operating under the auspices of San Francisco City Library, started with guided tours of San Francisco’s beautiful City Hall and its Civic Center. City Guides now offers more than 60 different tours led by 300-plus volunteers.
We decided to devote much of our current San Francisco trip to sampling the City Guides program. In addition, we wanted to experience two hotels where we had not previously stayed.
One was Lodge at the Presidio, a former military barracks recently renovated and converted into a contemporary hotel. The other was the Palace Hotel, an iconic and beautiful downtown hotel dating from the early 1900s.
The remainder of our stay would be in our usual San Francisco hotel, the Hilton in the financial district near Chinatown.
City Guides walks typically number from eight to 15 daily, with the higher number scheduled during weekends. Topics are diverse, ranging from a history of Fisherman’s Wharf to city locations associated with Alfred Hitchcock movies.
Other subjects include rebirth of the Ferry Building, the golden years of Nob Hill, an overview of the 1906 earthquake and fire, and bawdy houses of the gold rush years.
Regardless of the tour, we discovered the guides have a great affection for their city along with their subject. Guides are all unpaid volunteers who enjoy telling others about the city where they live and work.
Some of our guides were retired and offer several tours a month, while others have full-time jobs and offer only a couple of tours per quarter. Each tour guide we encountered had an outgoing personality and seemed to enjoy interacting with the participants.
Tours require walking and typically last from one-and-a-half to two hours. Prior registration is required for only a few tours. You simply show up at a designated location and sign a sheet.
We were required to pre-register for a tour of the Fairmont Hotel since the number of participants is limited. Participation in our own walking tours ranged from four individuals during today’s morning tour of San Francisco’s famed Haight Ashbury district to a group of 30 for a tour that highlighted French influence in the city.
No fee is charged for joining the walks, although guides do pass around an envelope for donations at the conclusion of each tour. We were told donations from walkers fund appropriately 80 percent of the organization budget. Keep in mind, with only two paid employees and everyone else being a volunteer, this is a low-budget operation.
So, next time you are planning a visit to the city where Tony Bennett left his heart, check the San Francisco City Guide free walking tours scheduled during your stay. For a city that already has a lot going for it, this is near the top of our list. We only wish we had known about it years ago.
David and Kay Scott are authors of “Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges” (Globe Pequot). Visit them at mypages.valdosta.edu/dlscott/Scott.html. View past columns at www.facebook.com/DavidKayScott. They live in Valdosta, Georgia.
If You Go
Lodging: We spent two nights at the Lodge at the Presidio, a newly renovated hotel with views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Hilton’s financial district hotel is handy to China Town, one of our favorite places to stroll and eat. Our final two nights will be at the Palace Hotel, one of the city’s great historic lodging facilities.
Getting around: Crowded streets and expensive parking mean you should avoid driving into town. BART offers cheap and fast transportation from the airport into town. The city’s extensive bus system offers an easy way to get nearly anywhere you want to go. Consider a bus pass if you plan to spend more than a couple of days in the city.
Additional information: An overview of San Francisco City Guides with a schedule of upcoming walking tours is available at www.sfcityguides.org.