Neighborhood Walking Tours of San Francisco


I am often quite happy to hibernate and never go outside– especially in the winter, but I’ll admit, generally too. This serves me well during a shelter-in-place pandemic. Alex, however, dissolves away inside. He says he is fine with staying in, but he is a natural extrovert, an outdoor person, and all of this has dragged on far too long for him. So, to motivate myself to breach the front door and to get us both out and exploring our own surroundings (in a safe, socially distanced manner), I began compiling a list of neighborhood walking tours we could take ourselves on. It’s just like traveling, but in our own city.

Much of this was inspired by Gary Kamiya’s books Spirits of San Francisco and Cool, Gray City of Love. Kamiya famously traverses the whole city on foot, and he writes about the places he encounters and their paths through history. So in addition to some of Kamiya’s chapters and suggestions on places to explore on foot, I looked for other online sources that would inform our tours. Ideally, we would have audio tours to listen to while we wandered, but often I would just find maps with descriptions or information we would have to read out loud to each other (looking like truly lost tourists). Regardless of the clunky DIY format, this has been a really delightful way to learn about our surroundings, and indeed, remind ourselves in our little home bubble, that an outside world still exists.

Our first tour: South Park. A very strange little oval park in the eastern part of Soma that has had its shares of ups and downs. It was even briefly a Japantown. Read a little about it in Kamiya’s Chronicle guide or more in Chapter 44 of his book Cool Gray City of Love

Next, a tour of North Beach, San Francisco’s Little Italy. Here is a self-guided tour we took ourselves on.

The iconic pointy building of SF, formerly the Transamerica Building (but I know it by no other name). I love that there’s a whole redwood grove hidden here on the building’s eastern side. 

We got detoured when I spotted Shinola Detroit, and I had just been eyeing their grid notebooks. So we stopped by and got a couple notebooks, custom embossed on the spot.

Back on track. The historic flatiron building formerly known as the Sentinal Building and currently owned by Francis Ford Coppola.

A Bruce Lee mural in Jack Kerouac Alley, where North Beach abuts Chinatown. Home of the Beat Generation. And a look inside City Lights Bookstore.

We stopped in to buy our own copy of Cool Gray City of Love.

We ended our North Beach tour in Washington Square Park, looking at the Sts. Peter and Paul Church. Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe famously didn’t get married in this church because they had both been divorced so the Catholic church wouldn’t have allowed it. But they did take pictures in front of the church.

Next, a visit to San Francisco’s official Christmas tree, which is a Monterey cypress at the eastern end of Golden Gate Park and looks nothing like the typical pine tree you might imagine. 

We also visited “Entwined,” a temporary lights installation at Peacock Meadow in the park.

Next, a visit to Russian Hill. We used parts of this guide and map, beginning at Ina Coolbrith Park.

Up the Vallejo Street stairway.

Russian Hill was so named for the Russian sailors who were buried there.

Macondray Lane. A strange and wonderous verdant little alley that inspired Armistead Maupin’s fictional 28 Barbary Lane in “Tales of the City” which was recently reprised for a sequel tv series on Netflix.

Around the corner from the famous section of Lombard Street, a quiet little park called Fay Park. Plus, the actual steepest street in SF — Filbert St. between Hyde & Leavenworth, just a couple blocks from Lombard with a grade of 31.5%.

Next, we went over to Pacific Heights for a self-guided architecture tour of th eastern end of the neighborhood. This place is packed with Victorians, diligently detailed on a map from SF Heritage. We began at the Haas-Lilenthal House, which under normal circumstances is a tourable museum.

We also learned about the later art deco mid-sized apartment complexes that populate this area.

Some “quoins” (from the French word for “corners”) on the Golden Gate Spiritualist Church built in 1895. Plus, a view of Sutro Tower from Lafayette Park.

The wild parrots of San Francisco! Yes, we have a flock of wild parrots in the city. They were originally either released or escaped from being house pets but are now just wild and multiplying, squawking loudly along the way.

We also encountered a man with a giant bubble wand creating delightful bubbles for all to enjoy. These are great examples of why I should leave the house more often so I can happen upon more of these wild and wonderful moments in the world.

Next, a walking tour through San Francisco’s newest trail, the Quartermaster Reach in the Presidio. We found a little library box near the visitor center with paper pamphlets containing this walking tour, but we just did the short segment from the Presidio Visitor Center down through Quartermaster Reach Marsh and over to Crissy Field.

Quartermaster Reach doesn’t look like much yet… just a whole lot of mud under the highway overpass. But it’s being reclaimed from asphalt back into marshlands. They’ve planted many varieties of native marsh plants, which are still tiny babies but will fill in the whole space soon.

Over at Crissy Marsh, we started an audio tour of the whole Crissy Field area. I highly recommend the tour, which is provided by the San Francisco Bay Trail (one of many tours along the trail which encircles the Bay). It’s actually a Vizzit tour, which has a GPS-enabled web app feature that allows you to just walk and have the audio information automatically play for you at the appropriate locations.

We learned that Crissy Field actually used to be a functioning air field.

It also happened to be crabbing season, with plenty of sea lions staying nearby for leftovers.

And for our final walking tour of December, a stroll through Noe Valley. I didn’t have a formal tour for this neighborhood, so we just read this little blurb about it and walked around the commercial areas of 24th St.

We purchased this SF map puzzle we saw in the window at folio books and completed it later that night.

We also drove over to Billy Goat Hill, which is perhaps technically in neighboring Glen Park but offers a stunning view!

And that’s it for the December walking tours. Hop over to see what the rest of the month looked like and stay tuned for more tours in January.

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