I wanted to package my love of San Francisco into a Self-Guided Free Walking Tour and this is the result. This tour starts at Union Square, and visits Chinatown, Grace Cathedral, the Cable Car Barn and Museum, North Beach (the Little Italy part of San Francisco), Lombard Street, Pier 39, and Fisherman’s Wharf.
This is based on an audio guide I did a few years ago:
- San Francisco Walking Tour (part 1) – Self-Guided Tour
- San Francisco Walking Tour (part 2) – Sound Seeing Tour 2
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Union Square is one of the centers of shopping in San Francisco. Union Square gets all decked out for the holiday with a giant Christmas Tree and an ice skating rick. It’s right near the St. Francis Hotel, but it’s also the home of Macy’s and Neiman Marcus, and several other high-end stores. Park in the Parking Garage under Union Square or in the large Parking Garage at 5th and Mission which always has space.
If shopping is your thing, stop for some shopping before you head out or when you get back. Macy’s, I think, is one of my daughter’s favorite places to shop in the city. Grab a quick lunch in the Macy’s basement or go up to the Cheesecake Factory on the top floor with its inevitable one-hour wait. There are a number of other stores in the area including the Apple Store, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nike, and Gucci.
Pro-Union rallies were held in this square just prior to the Civil War which is where the name comes from.
The model for the victory statue was Alma de Bretteville Spreckels who married into the Spreckels Sugar family fortune. She donated the money to build the California Palace of the Legion of Honor art gallery over by the Presidio (and rumor has it buried her wealthy late husband on the grounds in defiance of the San Francisco prohibition on burying bodies within the city limits).
Walk north on Stockton Street for one block, turn right on Sutter St, turn left on Grant Street, and walk to the entrance to Chinatown.
Look for the “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil monkey statue” at the corner of Sutter and Grant.
Grant is the main street for Chinatown and the more touristy part of Chinatown. This area was originally settled by Chinese workers who were mostly from the Canton area. They came to mine gold or to build the Central Pacific Railroad. The area shrunk during the period of Chinese exclusion from the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 until its repeal in 1943. These days you are more likely to hear Mandarin rather than Cantonese from new waves of immigration.
When translated into English, the gate to Chinatown says “All under heaven is for the good of the people” which is a saying by the former President of the Republic of China Dr. Sun Yat-sen.
On Grant, you will see lots of little shops with items mostly from China. knickknacks, curios, fine arts, t-shirts, luggage, etc. If you’re looking for your cheap t-shirt, Chinatown’s probably the best spot to buy one. Find a Chinese bakery and get a sweet red bean bun or stop for some Dim Sum.
Walk two blocks north up Grant Street through the Dragon Gate and to California and Grant.
As you stand at California and Grant Streets you will hear the rumble of the cable car lines. One of the cable car lines goes through here. The cable cars in San Francisco really are an interesting feat of engineering. Cable cars have no motor, the rumble you hear is that of the moving cable under the street. The cable car has what amounts to a big pair of pliers (the grip) that they use to get pulled up the hill. As they descend the other side of the hill, their weight helps lift other cards going up. We will learn more about the Cable Cars in a bit. Cable cars are one of a few moving National Historic Landmarks.
Turn left and walk up four blocks to Nob Hill at California and Taylor
Walking up Nob Hill will be a bit tiring, but honestly, I prefer to walk the hills of San Francisco than drive them. Even in an automatic, driving San Francisco’s hills can be scary, and with a manual transmission… just forget it.
When you get to Taylor and California streets, the Gothic cathedral rising in front of you is Grace Cathedral, the Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco. There are two cathedrals in San Francisco. St. Mary’s Cathedral, the Catholic Cathedral, is a very modern style and is also worth a visit but is not on this tour.
If you want to go into Grace there is a $5 admission, but you can just peak in the back if you prefer to see its stained glass and very quiet ambiance. There’s a labyrinth outside, maybe 25-30 feet across that you can walk as you meditate. There is a second labyrinth inside as well.
Historically, Nob Hill was where the richest people in town had their mansions as one of the nicer parts of San Francisco historically. It was a great place to hobnob. The only one of the original mansions still standing is the James C. Flood Mansion on the other side of Huntington Park from Grace Cathedral. It was built by silver baron James C. Flood. It is now the private Pacific-Union Club.
At Mason and California is one of the older hotels in town, the Mark Hopkins Hotel. The Top of the Mark would be the restaurant at the top, named after one of the Big Four. The Big Four are the robber barons prominent businessmen who built the Central Pacific Railroad (Stanford, Hopkins, Huntington, and Crocker). The restaurant in the Top of the Mark rotates for great views of the city.
Backtrack one block down California Street to Mason Street and turn left. Head 3 blocks north on Mason Street down the hill to Washington Street.
Cable Car Barn and Museum
When a cable car passes you, look at the bottom of it. You see wheels like railroad car wheels and in between them, you’ll see the brakes and the brakes are basically pieces of wood that rub against the track. In the event they really need to slow down in a hurry, they actually have a wedge that they can shoot into the track ahead of them. That will stop the car quickly, but then you’ll have to stop and dig out that wedge so it’ll take a little while to get a cable car freed again that has used that method to stop. That’s really just the emergency brake.
To learn how the cable cars work and see the big motors that drive them we are going to visit the free museum at the Cable Car Barn. All of the cable car lines in San Francisco are driven by the huge motors you will see in the Cable Car Barn. Here you can learn the history of the cable cars, try your hand at ringing the bell, and see how they work. You can learn how two cable car lines can cross (one cable car operator has to let go of the cable and coast through the intersection). I think nerds like me will enjoy a cable car ride much better after a quick stop at this museum.
Head downhill (east) on Washington Street back to Chinatown. Turn left onto Stockton Street and walk one block to Jackson Street. Turn right on Jackson and head half a block to Ross Alley. Turn right into Ross Alley.
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
Stockton Street to your left as you come back into Chinatown is more of the real neighborhood than the businesses that are there just for tourists. Peak in the grocery stores or stop for a treat at one of the bakeries. The fruit and vegetables will look different and many of the signs will be in Chinese only.
Just inside Ross Alley, you will come to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory where fortune cookies have been made by hand since 1962. Fortune cookies don’t come from China. I have heard claims that they come from Japan, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, but don’t tell that to locals who are certain that San Francisco invented the fortune cookie. You can pick up a batch fresh from this diminutive bakery.
Continue east on Jackson, turn right on Kearny, and left onto Columbus.
We have left Chinatown now and are heading into North Beach. If you turn and look back down Columbus Ave you will see two of San Francisco’s iconic buildings. The Transamerica Pyramid is the pointy one and the green old building is the Sentinel Building which was where the movie studio American Zoetrope was founded by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. American Zoetrope (now Zoetrope Studios) was the studio behind The Godfather movies, American Graffiti, Apocalypse Now, and many other well-known movies.
Across the street from Columbus is the Barbary Coast neighborhood, parts of which can be pretty seedy. This is the area that was filled with bars at the time of the gold rush. During the gold rush when the ships were being abandoned in port, and the captains needed crews to sail with them, they would “Shanghai” people. A sailor would get drunk and wake up on his way to Shanghai.
Head away from the Transamerica Pyramid north up Columbus Street to Lombard Street.
North Beach is a confusing neighborhood name as there is no beach in North Beach (I did once have someone pitch me an article about San Francisco talking about how the surfing was good at North Beach… no). But the shape of San Francisco today is very different from its original shape when the city ended and the bay started around what is Francisco Street. After the 1906 earthquake the bay was filled in and this became an Italian neighborhood. You will pass Joe DiMaggio Playground at Mason and Columbus. Before he was “The Yankee Clipper”, baseball player Joe DiMaggio grew up on these streets and started his career with the San Francisco Seals which predated the San Francisco Giants.
This is another great neighborhood to grab a meal, especially if you like Italian food. I like Calzones and the Stinking Rose, but as of this writing the Stinking Rose may not survive COVID-19.
One of the city’s most celebrated bookstores is City Lights Booksellers which is at Columbus and Broadway which is the southern border of North Beach. The bookstore is associated with the publishing of beat poets and counter-cultural authors and is a historic landmark.
The heart of North Beach is Saints Peter and Paul Church and Washington Square Park (above) in front of the church. From here you can get your first views of Coit Tower at the top of Telegraph Hill where they used to watch for the ships to come in and signal their arrival. Coit Tower was dedicated to the volunteer firemen who died fighting the 5 big fires in San Francisco history, including the fires after the 1906 earthquake that burned for 3 days. We won’t cover it on this walking tour but you can walk or take the bus up the hill to enjoy the view or the murals inside which were painted as a New Deal project.
Pause when you get to Lombard Street and look up the hill to see the “crookedest street in the world”. It’s about three blocks walk uphill if you want to go to the base of Lombard Street where the best photos can be taken. Better photos can be taken at the bottom of Lombard Street than from driving down, you can see the people who are driving along this very curvy, brick road with flowers. Driving down Lombard Street is fun, but driving up the backside… is not as fun.
If you didn’t go up to Lombard Street, just follow the cable car lines down Columbus turn right on Taylor the cable car lines turn and we’re heading down to Fisherman’s Wharf. You will come to the Powell/Mason Cable car turnaround. Keep heading north on Taylor to Jefferson and the Fisherman’s Wharf Sign.
If you did go up to Lombard Street, just go straight down the hill on Leavenworth from Lombard Street, you’ll see Alcatraz Island walk north towards Alcatraz to Bay Ave. Turn right on Bay and Left on Taylor to get to the Fisherman’s Wharf Sign.
Make a mental note of the location of the cable car turnaround at Taylor and Bay. This is the cable car that has a much shorter line to get on. The more famous cable car turnaround is between Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghiradelli Square, but the line for this cable car is usually shorter and not as well known by tourists.
I have a love/hate relationship with Fisherman’s Wharf. You’re going find a lot of tourists, t-shirt shops, and things like the Hall of Wax and the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum that are very touristy. You will also find great boat tours of San Francisco and the boat to Alcatraz (reserve well in advance). You can pick up a walk-away shrimp cocktail or a sourdough sandwich from Boudin Bakery.
There are also actually still boats that head out fishing from here so the seafood in the restaurants is, in many cases, today’s catch. If you dive into the things to do in the 8-block area on the shore between Ghirardelli Square and Pier 39 there is more to do than you can do on a single walking tour or in a single day. So this tour will only hit some of the highlights. When you have more time:
- Visit Alcatraz, the former prison island in the bay
- Take a bay cruise
- Visit the Exploratorium hands-on science museum at Pier 15/17. The Exploriyotium or the Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39 is included in the San Francisco City Pass.
There are a lot of street performers in this area between Ghiradelli Square and Pier 39. Some are very talented and some are… well… unusual. Acts in the latter category include the Bushman who will hold a bush and jump out at you and try and scare you. If you find him… or if he finds you… it will be near the Fisherman’s Wharf sign. If you see a crowd gathering across the street from you and pointing in your direction… watch out.
I’d recommend you turn right at this point, we’re going to go over to Pier 39.
Pier 39 is a bit more upscale shopping area than Fisherman’s Wharf, but even if you are not looking to do some shopping there are a few things you should check out here.
Pier 39 has a stage in the back and to get on the stage at Pier 39 as a street performer you have to audition so some of the best performers can be found here. You don’t get paid anything, so you still have to rely on the kindness of the tourists at the end of your act.
Also at the end of Pier 39 on the left side as you face the bay is where a colony of California Sea Lions entertain the tourists with their laziness.
As you make your way back along the waterfront you will pass the Blue and Gold Fleet (Pier 39.5) and Red and White Fleet (Pier 43.5). If you are interested in taking a sightseeing cruise of the bay. The Red and White Fleet is the older of the two companies but both of these companies will offer you a good option.
Leave Pier 39 and head west (right) back along Jefferson Street towards Fisherman’s Wharf.
Pier 45 – WWII Ships
There are two collections of historic ships in the Fisherman’s Wharf Area. At Pier 45, you can find the USS Pampanito and the SS Jeremiah O’Brien which you can pay to tour. The USS Pampanito is a WWII submarine that saw action in the Pacific against Japan.
The SS Jeremiah O’Brien is a Liberty ship. In WWII, 2,710 of these freighters were built for military use. The local shipyards, particularly in Richmond, CA built a good percentage of the Liberty ships and the later Victory ships. At one point they were launching one ship a day for the war effort, but only 2 Liberty Ships still survive. In Richmond, you can tour the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historic Park and one of the last 2 Victory ships, the Red Oak.
Also at Pier 45 is the MusÃ©e MÃ©canique which has a collection of 300 old coin-operated arcade games and machines. Admission is free to the MusÃ©e MÃ©canique.
Hyde Street Pier
Hyde Street Pier across from Ghiradelli Square is part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park.
The pier has a collection of historic watercraft:
- 1886 square-rigger Balclutha
- 1895 schooner C. A. Thayer
- 1890 steam ferryboat Eureka
- 1891 scow schooner Alma
- 1907 steam tug Hercules
- 1914 paddlewheel tug Eppleton Hall
- 1890 (circa) San Francisco Bay Ark
The entrance fee is $15 for adults. Children 15 and younger are free.
Domenico â€œDomingoâ€ Ghirardelli arrived in San Francisco in 1848 just as gold rush pioneers were arriving. Ghirardelli started a general store including the making of chocolate that he learned in Italy. You can no longer get a shovel or a gold pan from Ghirardelli… but you can still get chocolate or better yet an ice cream sundae. After this walking tour… you have earned it.
Also check out the Cartoon Art Museum in the Ghiradelli Square complex.
Head back to the cable car turnaround at Taylor and Bay.
Cable Car Ride
It is time to head back towards Union Square and it is time to ride on a cable car. Wait in line and purchase your fare in advance. A ticket is $8. A cable car will hold about 50 people. The ride is about five minutes. The most thrilling ride is definitely hanging on the outside. It is a perfect way to end a day exploring San Francisco.
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