San Francisco Bay Area Free Walking Tours


Our neighborhood walking tours began in December 2020, borne out of pandemic restlessness and a desire to trick myself out of hibernation and into exploring my surroundings (safely) again. I researched free walking tours or assembled various articles and book chapters to make up my own background reading on various places around the San Francisco Bay Area, and when we had a couple free hours we would embark on a little walk.

First for the new year, an audio tour of Fort Baker, provided by the National Parks Service.

It’s hard to picture now, but back when the Coastal Miwok and the Southern Pomo were the only people on this land, it was a sand swept place with no trees. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that all of these eucalyptus and thousands of other trees were planted by the US government. Eucalyptus are quite controversial because they were not native; they have now spread everywhere in the Bay; they alter the soil chemistry, and they often present a fire hazard with their highly flammable oily leaves. Just one of the many hazards of colonialism.

The buildings at Fort Baker, the former military outpost, are now part of Cavallo Point Lodge, a very nice hotel (and wedding venue).

You can also go crabbing and fishing at the pier seen here under the Golden Gate Bridge (and on the other end of the bridge at Fort Point as well).

Next, a walk over to San Francisco’s newest park, Crane Cove Park. A former shipyard turned industrial coastline recreation grounds.

Here is a little blurb about the park in SFGate.

Here is one of the two former cranes anchoring the park that gave it its name. They were cranes 14 and 30, nicknamed Nick and Nora after the “Thin Man” films of the 30’s and 40’s.

Ships would be built in factories here and then slipped into the water, until shipbuilding became less of a thing after WWII.

Next, we visited Buena Vista Park, the oldest park in San Francisco.

It was originally known as Hill Park, since it is indeed atop a hill, as many SF parks are. It was renamed Buena Vista Park in 1894, and it was then that most of these trees were planted here. As we keep learning, most of the trees in SF were planted in the early 1900s and are not native to the blowing sand dunes of the day.

Beautiful light through the woods.

There are many different paths through Buena Vista Park, but they all connect eventually.

Beautiful homes surround the park. But I cannot understand the purpose of this white house’s front gate.

Next, a walk through Salesforce Park, which sits atop the transit center in SoMa, spanning four city blocks. We have already been here before, but it was lovely to revisit during the pandemic where it becomes obvious this place has yet to live up to its potential. It closed soon after it opened in 2019, after structural problems were discovered. And then of course it hasn’t had the traffic from office workers nor transit-takers since the pandemic started.

At any rate, the park has a lot of interesting landscape architecture and plenty of plaques to explain the different garden sections along the way. There is also a garden guide by the park. But I also found this tree tour with more detailed information about the different plants. First up, the super odd looking monkey puzzle tree.

I love this fountain design, which has little water spouts that spring up as busses pass through in the transit center below.

Next, a long walking tour through Alviso, a place I would’ve never thought to visit otherwise. Thank you to Dan and Jeri for joining us! We followed this wonderful tour provided by the San Francisco Bay Trail. It was GPS enabled so the stops would be automatically triggered by us arriving at the corresponding locations.

They apparently thought this place was going to be a city as big as Chicago when they named the marsh New Chicago Marsh. It is still a marsh. :)

Stilts! (That’s the actual name of these leggy birds).

We saw lots of bunches of ducks swimming in circles like this. Perhaps it’s a food gathering strategy?

Many of these marshes used to be owned by Cargill for salt manufacturing but have since been returned to public lands for restoration and protection. It’s a refuge for billions of animals now.

Odd and beautiful, all at once.

Glen Canyon. Land of big rocks and nature tucked away in the city. 

Incidentally, this was also one of my pre-pandemic hikes just about one year ago.

This used to be the first dynamite factory in the United States. Then railroad tycoon Charles Crocker opened a pleasure garden and zoo here, but people complained about rowdy behavior, so the city purchased it for a park in 1922. In 1959, the park narrowly avoided having a highway run through it thanks to a local woman’s efforts.

And last but not least for our January hikes, a walk through Chinatown. A neighborhood of both manufactured exoticness and real, rich immigrant histories. Here is one free tour page to start from. We began at the Dragon Gate, which is the southern end of Chinatown.

San Francisco Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown in North America. It was the only place early Chinese immigrants were allowed to live by the city. But after much of Chinatown and San Francisco burned down in the 1906 earthquake, the city realized the value of this real estate and tried to push Chinatown down to Hunters Point. Chinese immigrants won the fight to stay, partly by resigning Chinatown to be a shiny touristy version of itself. A parody of Chinese architecture as envisioned by white architects. And they tried to rebrand from the seedy prostitution and gambling hall-filled Chinatown that had stood before.

In many ways, this manufactured Chinese-ness has served its purpose. Pagodas atop buildings (an SF Chinatown invention) have been replicated in Chinatowns all over the country. But of course during the pandemic, Chinatowns have all been struggling, not only from restaurant closures and loss of tourism, but also from racism. The 100-year-old Far East Cafe only recently postponed its shuttering thanks to some last-minute reprieve from donors and from a new fund from the city in support of Chinatown.

Recently, there has been a whole string of violent attacks on elderly Asian men and women in the Bay Area and elsewhere. This latest manifestation of racism is devastating to witness, although the racism is far from new. But I am heartened to see the internet building its capacity for antiracism education, activism, and mutual aid. Some great local orgs doing the work to support Asian Americans and Chinatowns in these times:

Save Our Chinatowns
Good Good Eatz
Asian x Black x Unity

Portsmouth Square. With a replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue created during the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989.

Waverly Place.

The touristy Grant St. sections of Chinatown are pretty quiet these days, but the hustle and bustle hasn’t left Stockton, where the Chinese residents do their shopping and living.

Finally, a walking tour/comic book project by artist Christine Wong Yap. Beautiful.

Join back next month to see what walking tours we explore in February. But don’t wait. You can start exploring your own surroundings today.

Anna Wu is a wedding and portrait photographer based in San Francisco. She compulsively documents and blogs all of her daily adventures, even in quarantine. Follow her on instagram and view more of her professional work at