Walking tour reviews


I love San Francisco, I love history, and I love walking. Luckily for me, there are a billion walking tours out there. Every so often I participate in one of these, try to pick up a thing or two, and take some notes for you. Ratings systems provide a useful shorthand, but your mileage may vary.

subject: San Francisco Ghost Walk
time: 3 hours
cost: $20 adults, $10 kids, discount for groups (cash only)
contact: www.sfghosthunt.com
tack rating:

NOTE: A couple of weeks ago an email from a regular reader dropped into my inbox. She was curious about this Ghost Walk, and had unsuccessfully scoured the Sparkletack website for a review. Well, I’d heard of the tour, but — though curious — just never got around to putting on my calendar. In a flash of inspiration (call it laziness if you must), I wrote back: “How about you go on the tour and write it up?”

So. Allow me to introduce the very first “Guest Sparkler” to this blog: EB of SpiceDish — San Franciscan, Sparkletack fan, and highly entertaining writer about eating and living in the Bay Area. Take it away, Erin …

It was a dark and rainy night …

… no really. It was. It was raining last Friday night when a troupe of my friends and I decided to partake in a ghost hunt!

Since 1998 Jim Fassbinder has offered the San Francisco Ghost Hunt tour. A walking tour that introduces you to the city’s illustrious departed who refuse to leave.

Our host, at first, had a goofy touch of ‘Disney’s Haunted Mansion’ about him (costume and all), but soon we were taken in by his infectious enthusiasm. Fassbinder takes his job very seriously, it’s obvious he loves not only deceased of San Francisco, but also the city and it’s history as well.

After an introduction to what he does and how, the tour starts with Fassbinder encouraging everyone to investigate the 2nd & 4th floors of the Queen Anne. These are reportedly the most haunted floors. Mary Lake, the spirit who walks these halls, has apparently taken to tucking in guests with a fresh blanket while they sleep — all out of love of course. He encourages picture taking and tells you what to look for (a glowing orb or figure) to see if you’ve captured a ghost. My photo from the 4th floor does seem to have few ghostly orbs floating around there. Sparkletack note — This is the same mansion that I visited as part of the Victorian Home Walk in January … have the owners got their PR ducks in row or what?

The rain, adding to the atmosphere of the evening, accompanied us as we left the hotel and walked about 1 mile around the gorgeous neighborhood of Pacific Heights learning about the some ghosts with illustrious and infamous pasts:

Claudia Chambers, a murdered heiress (a gruesome family secret), Flora, who haunts the corner of California and Pine in a white Victorian dress (she once scared an entire cable car full of tourists by walking straight through them!), Gertrude Atherton (yes that Atherton) a moneyed widow known for partying, who’s still at it in her gorgeous mansion and Fassbinder’s personal patron saint…. Mary Ellen Pleasant “The Voodoo Queen of San Francisco.”

Fassbinder gleefully shares the ghosts’ history, why and where they haunt, and how they make themselves known. He imparts all the information he knows about the dead (except their ghostly appearance—how else could he verify that you really saw one or just imagined you did?) He even attempts to attract the spirits to make your experience all the more intriguing.

Fun Facts that were uncovered:

  • Dead husbands can be delivered in booze barrels.
  • You really can have too many cats.
  • Young girls don’t want to marry old men.
  • Blackmail and insider trading may just be good career options, and
  • If you are good to your Voodoo priestess she will be good to you.

Do I recommend going on a ghost hunt?

Yes. Even if you’re more into San Francisco history, than ghosts in particular, Fassbinder really is open to any and all questions, he allows you to take pictures freely and he engages tour-goers at every turn. There are a few parlor tricks to be had (or supernatural experiences depending on your point of view) and while he doesn’t guarantee that you will see ghosts, he guarantees that you will have one of the more unique evenings you can have in San Francisco. For 20$ per adult and 10$ per child you get 3 full hours of entertainment.

The tour even enticed me to take advantage of the 25% off coupon you are given for a stay at the Queen Anne. I booked an in-town weekend ‘away’ and while I won’t be staying in room 410 (the most haunted room)… I do hope to see myself a spirit.

More San Francisco Ghostie links:
» San Francisco Ghost Society
» Top 10 Haunted San Francisco Locations!
» “Is There a Spirit Here Tonight” — SF Chronicle
» “Haunted San Francisco Ghost Stories”

I love San Francisco, I love history, and I love walking. Luckily for me, there are a billion walking tours out there. Every so often I participate in one of these, try to pick up a thing or two, and take some notes for you. Ratings systems provide a useful shorthand, but your mileage may vary.

subject: Victorian Home Walk
time: 2+ hours
cost: $20 (cash only)
contact: www.victorianwalk.com
tack rating:

I know, I know, the last tour I reviewed was a Victorian architecture walk, but what can I say? I enjoyed that one, still have a lot to learn, and was just curious how some of the others might stack up.

Here’s how it works

You assemble in Union Square and are “transported” (more about that later) to the corner of Sutter and Octavia. After a short history of the building, you get several minutes to scramble around the venerable (and haunted!) interior of the Queen Anne Hotel. The remainder of the tour consists of a gently-paced walk through Pacific Heights, organized around learning the characteristics of the three major styles of Victorian-era homes. The walk is not a loop, as many others are, but ends up at the corner of Steiner and Broadway, across the street from the famous “Mrs. Doubtfire” house at 2640 Steiner Street.

The tour company

“Victorian Home Walks” was launched by Victorian-owner Jay Gifford after being “downsized” from a job in the computer industry in 1993. Our guide (Shonna Sinclair) has been leading the tours for almost a decade, and it showed; she was patient, knowledgeable and extremely generous with stories and information. And once she outed herself as the kind of person who likes to spent her free time digging through old census records, I was on board!

(more…)

Here’s the thing — I love San Francisco, I love history, and I love walking. Luckily for me, there are a billion walking tours out there, and every so often I take one. I do my best to keep my know-it-all mouth shut and learn a thing or two, pick up a few ideas for the podcast, and take some notes for you. And though ratings systems can be problematic, they do provide a useful shorthand, and I promise to ruthlessly avoid “grade inflation”. That said, your mileage may vary.

subject: Pacific Heights Walking Tour
time: 1.75 hours
cost: $8
contact: San Francisco Architectural Heritage
tack rating:

It’s a little embarrassing, but I don’t know a Queen Anne from an Eastlake-Stick. Despite having lived all over San Francisco, I just never got around to learning anything about the architectural style that defines this city: Victorian. That’s what attracted me to the “Pacific Heights Walking Tour” offered by San Francisco Architectural Heritage.

Pacific Heights is a neighborhood that I haven’t focused on, historically speaking, so I hoped to learn a little something, and yes — pick up a story idea or two. This tour seemed like a great place to start — San Francisco Architectural Heritage is a non-profit organization which (according to their website) “encourages appreciation of the built environment and understanding of the value of preserving significant San Francisco architecture.” You may already be familiar with their headquarters, the gorgeous Haas-Lilienthal House on Franklin Street which also serves as a Victorian house-museum. Tours of the House itself are also on offer, which I will certainly take advantage of at some point in the future.

I was a bit early, and Vikki, our guide, made an excellent first impression by inviting me to wait in the garden and directing me to the best-smelling rosebush in the place! She began with an inspection of the mansion’s exterior and a potted history of the Haas-Lilienthal family. I lost track of who was who almost instantly, I’m afraid, but this turned out to be perfectly okay — the cavalcade of building facades and associated stories to follow provided information enough to keep everyone interested.

(more…)

Here’s the thing — I love San Francisco, I love history, and I love walking. Luckily for me, there are a billion walking tours out there, and every so often I take one. I do my best to keep my know-it-all mouth shut and learn a thing or two, pick up a few ideas for the podcast, and take some notes for you. And though ratings systems can be problematic, they do provide a useful shorthand, and I promise to ruthlessly avoid “grade inflation”. That said, your mileage may vary.

subject: San Francisco Ferry Building (foot of Market Street)
time: 1.5 hours
cost: donation
contact: sfcityguides.org
tack rating:

It was a rainy Saturday and I had only a two-hour window, so imagine my delight when the one tour offered at that time was indoors! I have a somewhat geeky interest in things urban-transport related, so the Ferry Building Tour was right up my alley. As I mentioned to our guide after we’d tramped around the premises for an hour, at their very worst the tours offered by the San Francisco City Guides are pretty good — and this was a great one.

a self-contained history

You might imagine that a tour of a single structure might be lacking in interest, but the Ferry Building is packed with visual interest and history. And we were lucky enough to have Paul Cooney as our guide, not only a knowledgeable and very personable volunteer, but someone who’d actually helped develop the tour after the building’s 2003 reopening. The tour outlines a brief history of San Francisco public transportation, the history of the building itself through the years, culminating with its recent restoration and resuscitation as a high-end marketplace. There’s a terrific information display located right inside the front doors, but this tour took us even further.

(more…)

Here’s the thing — I love San Francisco, I love history, and I love walking. Luckily for me, there are a billion walking tours out there, and every so often I take one. I do my best to keep my know-it-all mouth shut and learn a thing or two, pick up a few ideas for the podcast, and take some notes for you. And though ratings systems can be problematic, they do provide a useful shorthand, and I promise to ruthlessly avoid “grade inflation”. That said, your mileage may vary.

subject: 1906: Phoenix Rising (Civic Center area)
time: 1.5 hours
cost: donation ($5 suggested)
contact: sfcityguides.org
tack rating:

First of all, let’s hear it for the San Francisco City Guides! A wonderful bunch of volunteers, dedicated to tramping around this fine city and sharing their knowledge with you. They’re a non-profit organization with more than 200 trained volunteers leading dozens of history and architectural walking tours, sponsored by the San Francisco Public Library. Visit their website to learn more about their offerings. Sooner or later I’ll be taking every single one.

Todays tour was one established especially for the Earthquake centennial year of 2006. It hits some of the high points of that fateful period, from famously corrupt city officials to details and lore of the fire itself. The point of this walk is to acquaint the casually interested tourist with the time period of the quake, some of the more famous characters, and with the general environs. And in this it succeeds.

(more…)

Here’s the thing — I love San Francisco, I love history, and I love walking. Luckily for me, there are a billion walking tours out there, and every so often I take one. I do my best to keep my know-it-all mouth shut and learn a thing or two, pick up a few ideas for the podcast, and take some notes for you. And though ratings systems can be problematic, they do provide a useful shorthand, and I promise to ruthlessly avoid “grade inflation”. That said, your mileage may vary.

subject: Dashiell Hammett’s San Francisco — Nob Hill & Tenderloin
time: 4 hours (!)
cost: adult $10 (see website for current costs)
contact: www.donherron.com/tour.html
tack rating:

An enormous amount of ink and pixels has been spilled over this tour, and deservedly so. Don Herron has been showing up with a brimmed hat and trenchcoat for over a quarter century now, leading groups of tourists and locals alike through the gutters and over the hills of Dash Hammett’s 1920′s San Francisco. Famous? The man’s even been the subject of a Jeopardy question! (Answer: “The city in which Don Herron leads a Dashiell Hammett tour”).

We met on the sidewalk in front of the Main Library, and as the group assembled, Don’s introductory lecture began. It lasted half an hour, and that was just the beginning. This tour is not something to be entered into lightly — it’s a marathon.

Herron’s mastery of the subject is encyclopedic, and he is absolutely committed to giving you your $10 worth — as we hiked, the biographical information and trivia came so thick and fast that my notebook pages began to scorch and wilt under the assault.

(more…)

Here’s the thing — I love San Francisco, I love history, and I love walking. Luckily for me, there are a billion walking tours out there, and every so often I take one. I do my best to keep my know-it-all mouth shut and learn a thing or two, pick up a few ideas for the podcast, and take some notes for you. And though ratings systems can be problematic, they do provide a useful shorthand, and I promise to ruthlessly avoid “grade inflation”. That said, your mileage may vary.

subject: Chinatown
time: 2 hours
cost: adult $18, children $12 (see website for current costs)
contact: www.chinatownalleywaytours.org
tack rating:

One sunny Saturday morning a few months ago, several friends and I stood looking around hopefully, trying to pick out our prospective guides in the clamor and jangle of Portsmouth Square. At 11:00 sharp a trio of smiling young people strode up and cheerfully introduced themselves as Alan Tam, Calvin Yan, and Diana Pang — our guides-to-be in the notorious and romantic alleys of Chinatown.

There are dozens of Chinatown tours in San Francisco, featuring everything from double-decker buses to cooking classes, but the idea of a tour focused on the alleys attracted the side of me that’s always seen San Francisco as a “noir” city, a city of fog, shadows and intrigue — so “Chinatown Alleyway Tours” it was.

A unique approach

A lot of the charm of Chinatown Alleyway tours is that the history is served up by enthusiastic young San Franciscans — 16 to 21 years old — all San Franciscans, and mostly from Chinatown. What’s more, we quickly discovered that our wallets were aiding a good cause, and one which explained the Tour’s back-street focus: the non-profit Adopt-An-Alleyway Youth Project.

(more…)