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Is it sensible to take a tour of your own city?

I found myself contemplating this question in the lobby of the Galleria Park Hotel as I prepared to set out with Rick Evans on his Architecture Walking Tour – my first guided jaunt in San Francisco. I had lived in the city for more than three years, but paying someone to show me a new side of things had only just occurred to me.  

I chose Rick’s tour for a couple of reasons. I was interested in San Francisco’s architecture but I knew almost nothing about it. I’d also done some research and found out that his guidance had won a slew of awards, press, and good reviews.  Travel + Leisure recently named him “one of the world’s greatest tour guides.” 

As we strutted through downtown, it became clear that Rick had earned his reputation. He was a natural raconteur – knowledgeable and funny – and he knew a lot of secrets. He pointed out San Francisco’s most architecturally renowned but generally unrecognized structure, the Hallidie Building, which features the country’s first-ever glass curtain wall. He imparted the mysterious tale of the POPOS (privately owned public open spaces) and took us inside the Mechanics’ Institute Library and Chess Room – a historic membership library founded in 1854 to serve out-of-work gold miners.  

I think it’s strange that when most people travel far from home, they spend all their time studying guide books and scheduling tours – but at home, few do these things, even in San Francisco, arguably one of the world’s most interesting and beautiful cities.  
Curious about what other amazing tours, hidden spots, and strange facts I might unearth in my own city, I started stalking tour guides with unique perspectives on the city.

Tour guide: Andrea Nadel, Gourmet Walks
Specialty: food, beverages, chocolate
Favorite “secret” place: Fog City News. “They have chocolate bars from all over the world, and the staff is so knowledgeable,” Andrea says. “It’s a wonderful place to go to appreciate good chocolate.”
Favorite unknown SF fact: San Francisco’s obsession with food dates back to the gold rush, when prostitutes distinguished themselves with their cooking.

Tour guide: Richard Biolos, aka “Captain Crabby,” Ride The Ducks
Specialty: amphibious wanderings
Favorite “secret” place: McCovey Cove – especially when there’s a game, and a “splash hit” flies out of the stadium.   
Favorite unknown SF fact: San Francisco Bay is the largest landlocked bay in the world, but its average depth is akin to a swimming pool – 12 to 15 feet.

Tour guide: Tommy Netzband, Haunted Haight Walking Tour
Specialty: spooks
Favorite “secret” place: San Remo Hotel in North Beach. “It’s a great place to stay on a budget with some fascinating ghost stories,” he says. Ask about the retired madam who haunts room 33, and the little girl who likes to knock on doors late at night.
Favorite unknown SF fact: The Wave Organ located on a jetty in the bay is made from rejected graveyard monuments that were left behind when San Francisco’s cemeteries were transplanted out of the city.

Tour guide: Bryan Rice, San Francisco Movie Tours
Specialty: SF movie-related trivia
Favorite “secret” place: City Hall. Although many people are aware ofCity Hall, they don’t realize how often it has been used in filming. In addition to its role in Milk, City Hall appeared as the U.S. Capitol in the final scene of Indiana Jones: Raiders of Lost Ark, as Chicago’s Cooke County courthouse in Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker, and as San Francisco’s Opera House in Foul Play. It was also set on fire for James Bonds’ A View to a Kill.
Favorite unknown SF fact:  The high school from The Princess Diaries is actually a single family dwelling in Pacific Heights.

Tour guide: Queena Chen, Chinatown Alleyway Tours
Specialty: Chinatown
Favorite “secret” place: Doh Ho restaurant sells premade dim sum that you can prepare at home.
Favorite unknown SF fact: The fortune cookie was created not by the Chinese, but by Japanese-American Makoto Hagiwara – the same landscape artist who designed the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.

Tour guide: Jay Gifford, Victorian Home Walk
Specialty: Victorians
Favorite “secret” place: The Casebolt Mansion on Pierce Street. Henry Casebolt, erstwhile inventor of the cable car grip, constructed this enormous white Victorian out of salvaged ship timbers in 1865.
Favorite unknown SF fact: Before the 1906 earthquake, there were 58,000 Victorians in San Francisco. Now there are 14,000, and that’s still enough to declare San Francisco home to the most Victorians in the United States.

Tour guide: Mina Harker, Bride of Dracula, Vampire Tour of San Francisco
Specialty: the undead
Favorite “secret” place: The decrepit tunnels beneath opulent Nob Hill (Mina claims she resides there with other vampires).
Favorite unknown SF fact: There used to be four cemeteries covering about 160 acres in San Francisco, but they were moved to make room for the living.

Tour guide: Karen Lester, San Francisco City Guides
Specialties: homo-a-go-go, LGBTQQSA
Favorite “secret” place: For its amazing views, the Kite Hill open space at the end of Corwin Street in the Castro.
Favorite unknown SF fact: The city’s signature song made famous by Tony Bennett, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” was written in 1954 by Douglass Cross and George Corey, a gay couple nostalgic for San Francisco after moving to New York.

Tour guide: Eric Schaefer, Mr. Toad’s Tours
Specialties: hydraulic mining, the origin of cioppino, the ecology of the bay
Favorite “secret” place: The roof of the San Francisco Art Institute on Chestnut Street. In addition to great views of Alcatraz, Coit Tower, and the Transamerica Building, there’s also a huge Diego Rivera mural in one of the galleries up there.
Favorite unknown SF fact: After Chinatown was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake, most of its structures were rebuilt by Caucasian architects with no training in traditional Chinese architecture. The chinoiserie style of gaudy pagodas and curlicues conformed to a uniquely Western image of the “exotic Orient” and made Chinatown a world-renowned tourist attraction, which saved the Chinese from being evicted.

Tour guide: Rick Evans, San Francisco Architecture Walking Tour
Specialty: architecture, history
Favorite “secret” place: In Russian Hill, a hidden public right-of-way called Havens Street leads to an even more hidden public stairway, which leads to an incredible and very well hidden garden.
Favorite unknown SF fact: Our city contains the first office building in the country with a glass curtain wall. Willis Polk’s Hallidie Building is currently undergoing renovations at 130 Sutter Street.