tour san francisco: walking tours

During our last months in San Francisco, we made a point to do something new every weekend. We didn’t want to leave San Francisco telling each other, “I wish we would’ve done [x]…” We went whale watching, hiking in Land’s End, ate at various restaurants, visited museums, and went on a series of walking tours. I always assumed that walking tours were rather corny, but once I took one in my own neighborhood, I got hooked and signed up for three more.

The prices listed below are the full charge prices, check Yelp, Groupon, and Groupon-esque clones for discounts. I didn’t pay full price for any of the tours.

FYI: if you’ve never been on a walking tour before, most guides will accept tips at the end of the tour. Cory and I rarely carry cash and it took us a couple times to remember to have some extra money on hand.

haunted haight

Haunted Haight walking tour – $25 // official site // Yelp – As a kid, I surrounded myself with ghosts. Living in an old house, every unexplainable creak and crack were the spirits of the house’s former residents. I was an only and sometimes lonely child, and would weave together elaborate stories in my head about all the ghosts in the house… and scare myself with them. When I moved out of my parents’ house, the ghosts didn’t follow me and every rational part of me no longer believes in ghosts, an afterlife, or the paranormal. But I still love scary stories and have been known to waste entire evenings reading creepypasta.

When I discovered that there was a haunted tour in my very own neighborhood, I jumped on it immediately. The tour guide is Tommy Netzband, the president of the San Francisco Ghost Society. He’s a charming and affable Chicago-native, who truly loves San Francisco and the Haight Ashbury neighborhood. The tour starts at 8 pm every Saturday, rain or shine. Regardless of what you heard Eric Burdon say in that one song, bring a thermos full of hot cocoa or tea. It’s going to be chilly. The tour lasts about 2 1/2 and really flies by.

Touring my own neighborhood was such a treat. I never knew that I passed Jim Jones’ former residence on a weekly basis on my way to get groceries. Besides tales of the paranormal (which are always backed up by as much historical information as Tommy has been able to gather), the tour includes lots of information about the history of the Haight Ashbury neighborhood and architecture. Once the guide discovered we were locals, he was quick to divulge more secrets of our neighborhood’s past. I regret that we hadn’t taken the tour sooner, I would have loved to shared certain stories and landmarks with family members who had visited us over the years.

I didn’t manage to take any decent photos during the tour, but Tommy did mention the two places pictured above — the Mission Dolores Church and Cemetery, the oldest building in San Francisco and the Columbarium, the largest repository of human ashes in the city. We ended up visiting both places a couple weeks later… on my birthday. It turns out I’m still a 15 year old goth at heart.

victorian homewalk

Victorian home walk tour – $20 // official site // Yelp – Do you know what a Queen Anne is? Or an Edwardian shoebox? I didn’t and it turns out I lived in an Edwardian shoebox. Our tour guide was Jay, a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan (the little town we currently call home!), who moved to San Francisco in the 70s. He purchased and restored a Victorian home of his own in the 80s and started the Victorian Home Walk tour in the 90s to share his love and knowledge of local architecture to others.

For me, the highlights of the tour included a walk through of the Queen Anne Hotel, located in Lower Pacific Heights. The hotel is a former finishing school, and is of course said to be haunted. I was considering staying there for our wedding night, but ended up choosing another boutique hotel, so I was really glad to have seen it in person. Other highlights were information and remaining relics of the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair. Oh, and at the end of the tour you get a couple fridge magnets. Hell yes they’re on my fridge!

Before the tour began, a man dressed in strange period clothing approached our tour guide and chatted with him a bit. I assumed he was just some colorful eccentric, but he was actually the tour guide of the Emperor Norton Fantastic Time Machine, a walking tour we took a couple weeks later. Oops. I’m glad he approached Jay, otherwise I might not have heard of the Emperor Norton tour.

emperor norton walking tour

Emperor Norton’s Fantastic Time Machine – $20 // official site // Yelp – If you live in San Francisco or you’re at all familiar with San Francisco history, then you most likely know who Emperor Norton is, the failed businessman turned beloved eccentric. The tour is led by the Emperor himself and highlights various landmarks (the birthplace of the city, the former red light district, the Barbary Coast, remaining remnants of the great fire/earthquake of 1906, etc) and notorious figures from San Francisco history, including Lotta Crabtree and the gift she left to her beloved city, Lola Montez and her erotic Spider Dance, and of course lots of information about the Emperor himself.

The tour spans a lot of walking ground – Union Square, Financial District, SoMa, North Beach, and Chinatown. My favorite part of the tour was the excursion into the Palace Hotel, which I had walked by hundreds of times on my way to and from work. It’s such an unassuming place on the outside, and from the looks of it you wouldn’t have ever guessed that it had a bit of a macabre past and an absolutely beautiful tea room (pictured above). I was so taken with the tea room, I ended up having afternoon tea there a few weeks later with some friends. Not sure if I’ll ever pay $50 for tea and scones again, but having an old money San Francisco experience was a lot of fun.

The weekend we went on our tour was a very memorable one for our guide, it was his last week at his day job and he was taking on his walking tours full time. Emperor Norton mentioned he had another tour in the works, set in Alamo Square. If you’re not really familiar with that area, that’s where the “Full House” houses are located. I do hope we’re able to take that tour someday and I certainly hope part of it includes a tour of the Chateau Tivoli, the bed and breakfast where Cory and I spent our wedding night. We stayed in the Luisa Tetrazzini suite, named after the opera singer who would frequent the hotel and was mentioned frequently during the tour.

haunted chinatown

Haunted Chinatown tour – $48 // official site // Yelp – Chinatown is not my favorite neighborhood. Besides going there for the occasional cheap eats during lunch hours, Chinatown was always low on my list of destinations – it’s crowded, full of kitschy shops that sell the same things, and catching a crowded a bus home is an ordeal in itself. I always wanted to like Chinatown more than I actually did and the walking tour helped give me a new appreciation for the neighborhood. The tour starts at the Four Seas restaurant. Sadly, I’ve forgotten our tour guide’s name but the tour was very personal for her, relaying several stories from her family’s past.

Some of the highlights and information in this tour had already been included in the Emperor Norton tour and more time was spent talking about Hollywood films than I thought necessary. It was still a really entertaining tour, though. Not only did it cover local paranormal legends, but history about the 1906 earthquake, history of Chinese immigration, information about underground tunnels, and feng shui.

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