Mansions of Pacific Heights (credit: Laurie Jo Miller Farr)
Contemporary history buffs and lovers of urban lore, both visitors and residents alike, can explore San Francisco as once seen through the eyes of Gold Rush diggers, earthquake survivors, movie directors, urban planners and folks from many walks of life who shaped this place. Expert volunteer guides in our remarkable City by the Bay offer members of the public dozens of free walking tours every month all throughout the year, just for the love of it. Here are some of the best tours to join this winter. And, if you’re smitten, you can ask how to become a docent or a San Francisco City Guide.
Pacific Heights Mansions
San Francisco City Guides
Alta Plaza Park
Jackson St. and Steiner St.
San Francisco, CA 94115
Meet your guide, rain or shine, atop the steps of Alta Plaza Park any Saturday morning at 11 a.m. to spend 90 minutes or so learning about the different architectural styles that make the mansions of Pac Heights into an outdoor museum. By the time you’ve climbed up and down a few neighborhood hills, you’ll be able to distinguish Queen Anne Victorians from French Baroque observing details such as rinceau frieze, egg and dart and clinker bricks. Find out what happened in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake and discover what you can pick up yourself for $39 million. The Saturday tour repeats weekly, also on the third Tuesday of each month at 11 a.m. No reservations are required for groups fewer than eight.
Legion of Honor
100 34th Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94121
Before walking in past the courtyard’s bigger-than-life bronze statue of “The Thinker” by Auguste Rodin, pause outside the Beaux-Arts structure to take in the gorgeous Golden Gate views. With 4,000 years of ancient and European art on view inside, a guided tour seems like an excellent idea. The fine art museum’s permanent collection is free of admission on the first Tuesday of every month from opening time at 9:30 a.m. Free docent tours begin at 10:30 a.m. with “Three Masterpieces in 30 Minutes,” followed by several more guided talks throughout the day.
de Young Museum
Golden Gate Park
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
San Francisco, CA 94118
Kids love the grassy lawn of de Young’s Osher Sculpture Garden, where whimsical works include representations of ceramic apples and a giant diaper pin by 20th century greats such as Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Claes Oldenburg and Joan Miró. Entry to the garden and its adjoining café are free, as is the Hamon Tower Observation Deck for views of Golden Gate Park and the city. On the first Tuesday of each month, gain free entry to the permanent collection where free tours accompanied by docents include “Around the World in 50 Minutes” as well as “Highlights of the deYoung,” and a 30-minute masterpiece tour.
Japanese Tea Gardens (credit: Laurie Jo Miller Farr)
Japanese Tea Garden
Golden Gate Park
75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
San Francisco, CA 94118
Escape the city and the 21st century. Every Monday and Wednesday at 9:30 a.m., a San Francisco City Guide leads one of the most popular free walks through the glorious five-acre Japanese garden, the oldest public garden in the nation. As a double bonus, admission to the tea gardens is free before 10 a.m. on these mornings. Complete with a photo-worthy romantic moon bridge, koi pond, bonsai, pagodas and ishidoro, you’ll appreciate and experience the tranquility, harmony, symmetry and symbolism of Japanese landscape design such as roji and tsukubai. Hear about the garden’s origins and the disruption caused by World War II before settling in at the ceremonial tea house.
Inspiration Point, The Presidio (credit: Laurie Jo Miller Farr)
First Wednesdays Presidio Shuttle Tour
50 Moraga Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94129
Get to know the Presidio. Covering five percent of San Francisco, this national park is even larger than Golden Gate Park. At noon on the first Wednesday of the month, a driver and guide from The Presidio Trust take members of the public on a free 60-minute mini-coach tour around much of its 1,491 acres, pointing out foresting and conservation, watersheds and wildlife, hiking and biking trails, outdoor sculpture installations, coastal scenic overlooks, two cemeteries (one military, one for pets) and more. Discover the new free admission Heritage Gallery in The Officers’ Club and learn what’s in store for the Presidio’s future. Reserve ahead of showing up.
Laurie Jo Miller Farr loves walkable cities. A tourism industry professional and transplanted New Yorker by way of half-a-lifetime in London, she’s writing about the best of the bay and beyond for Yahoo, USA Today, eHow, and on Examiner.com.