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Free Walking Tours: Daily Walks by SF City Guides & the SF Public Library

Jill on a windy day at the Golden Gate Bridge

by Jill Loeffler  •

Updated: February 10, 2024

Every day of the week, SF City Guides (part of the SF Public Library) offers a number of free walking tours. They range from the famous Golden Gate Bridge tour to one dedicated to the impact of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire.

All guides are volunteers. Many of them have outstanding stories. They are typically either from San Francisco or have been in the city for a very long time. Because of this, they each know their tour and its route better than anyone else. 

I take these tours often as I learn something new every single time. They offer a wonderful look into SF's past as well as what the local communities are up to now. It's one of the best ways to get an "insider's look" at the real San Francisco.

Some of them offer you access into places that you would not be able to enter on your own. They also point out hidden gems and other lesser-known attractions or locations throughout the city.

An antique Chandalier inside an Alamo Square VictorianThis beautiful antique Chandelier was inside an Alamo Square Victorian. We were able to get an inside look at this private home on the Alamo Square walking tour.

Joining a Tour

First off, you will need to make reservations to join most of these free walking tours. You will find the times and dates on their website.

They will see that you signed up and put you on the list, or you can be put on a waitlist if the tour is already full. Your time and date tour will be blacked out if the waitlist is already full.

Therefore, you should plan your walk as far out as possible to get the exact one you want to go on. You should also show up about 10 to 15 minutes before they start.

The guide is usually there by this time. They are easy to find and are looking for tour participants. They often have a clipboard in their hands.

Check in with them so they know you are on the correct tour and have already reserved a spot. They also use this to measure each tour's success and determine what they should offer in the future.

All tours start on time, so please arrive on time, as they will not wait for you. If you find yourself running a little late, you are welcome to catch up and join the tour. However, do your best to not interrupt if it is already in progress.

Donations

Even though these tours are free, they do ask for a donation at the end. The donations do not go to the tour guide but to the SF Public Library to keep this operation running.

They have one full-time staff member who helps manage the volunteers, the website, and other organization details.

How much should you donate? That's up to you. According to the SF City Guides website, they suggest a donation of $15, so I always try to give that amount because these tours are so impressive. 

You are welcome to donate more or less depending on your experience with the tour and your personal budget. If you are low on money, please still go as it shows people are interested in these tours and they are essential.

A colorful mural in SF's Mission districtThis is one of more than a couple dozen colorful murals we learned about on the Mission District Murals walking tour.

My Experience on These Tours

Since all guides are volunteers, you might be asking yourself about their reliability. Believe me when I tell you that these guides LOVE giving these tours and teaching others about the city. 

The SF Public Library has a strict policy for its volunteers. It's considered a privilege to be accepted as a tour volunteer. Each one has to go on several other walks before they are trained to give one of these free walking tours on their own.

Many of them have also had to develop and submit a new tour idea before they are able to give a tour. Simply stated: These are some of the most reliable volunteers you will find. They are super friendly and helpful, too!

I've done dozens of these tours and only one time has a guide not shown up. We later found out they had a family emergency and didn't have time to cancel the tour before we arrived. This is a rare occasion, and I doubt it will happen to you. 

chinatown templeWe had the chance to step inside and learn more about this temple during the Chinatown walking tour.

The only other issues I've had on these tours are when the group size is too large or when we walk down a really busy street and can't hear the guide as well (as they don't use sophisticated sound equipment).

If you are not enjoying the tour or it's something different than what you expected, you can quietly walk away in the middle of it. 

Disclaimer: I receive a small commission from some of the links on this page.

Most Popular Free Walking Tours

They try to keep a very consistent schedule for their free walking tours from one month to the next. They sometimes add or cancel these free walking tours, but this is rare.

The Public Library updates their list every Spring and Fall. In addition, they offer specialty tours in May and October as well as when they test out new tour ideas.

Here are just a few of their most popular tours.

Golden Gate Bridge Walking Tour

This tour will tell you all about one of our most famous attractions, the Golden Gate Bridge. This two-hour tour will teach you about its history and interesting facts (such as how long it took to build and how much it cost). You will also walk part of the way across the bridge to the southern tower, which is where the tour ends.

Tour Schedule: Every Thursday and Sunday at 11 am (plus a few other select dates throughout the month). Visit their site to confirm your date

Meeting Location: Strauss Statue at the Golden Gate Bridge Visitors Plaza (the San Francisco south side of the bridge)

>> Cruise under the bridge on one of these cruises 

Chinatown

Chinatown is often known as a city within a city. It's the most densely populated portion of San Francisco. This two-hour tour will take you through this interesting community and the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. You will learn about its history and more about the daily lives of its current residents.

Tour Schedule: This tour is not consistent; it's offered on different days and times. You'll find them on most Mondays and Wednesdays. It's best to visit their site to confirm your date

Meeting Location: Portsmouth Square in Chinatown at the parking garage elevators on the park level

>> More about visiting Chinatown

>> Other fun tours of this colorful district

Fisherman's Wharf, A Hidden History

The Fisherman's Wharf tour is another two-hour tour that starts at Ghirardelli Square. The tour begins with the history of this former chocolate factory. You will then walk through Aquatic Park and down to Jefferson Street.

Along the way, you will learn all about the original settlers in this part of San Francisco, what their life was like, and more about the fisherman that call this area home today.

Tour Schedule: This tour schedule changes quite often, so you'll want to check ahead. Some are on Mondays at 10:30 am. Others are on Fridays at 11 am. Visit their site to confirm your date

Meeting Location: Main courtyard of Ghirardelli Square at the Mermaid Fountain

>> 50 of the best things to do in Fisherman's Wharf

Castro, Tales of the Village

The Castro District is the heart of the LGBT community. It was the home to one of SF's most famous residents, Harvey Milk. On this two-hour tour, you will learn about Milk and how this district became a meeting place for the LGBT community.

Tour Schedule: Most Tuesday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings at 11 am. Visit their site to confirm your date

Meeting Location: The giant rainbow flag in Harvey Milk Plaza at Market & Castro Streets

>> Discover the best things to do in the Castro

Coit Tower Murals

Many visitors don't realize the extent of the murals inside Coit Tower and the history behind them. On this tour, you will walk along the tower's first floor to learn more about the murals and what San Francisco was like in the 1930s. You will also learn about why they were controversial at the time.

In addition to seeing those open to the public on the first floor, you might also get a sneak peek at some very different looking murals in the private stairwells. These are closed to the public and will give you an even better idea of why this SF attraction is such an essential work of art.

Tour Schedule: Wednesdays and Saturdays at 10 am. Visit their site to confirm the date of your tour

Meeting Location: At the entrance to Coit Tower

>> Pictures from my tour and what else there is to see at Coit Tower

Nob Hill

Nob Hill sits high above the downtown area and features some of the city's most distinguished hotels. It was home to San Francisco's wealthiest families and the "Big Four" when it was first developed.

Learn about how this area was developed, why this was the first location where they installed cable cars, and what the district is like today. This two-hour tour starts at the Stanford Hotel entrance and includes some uphill walking (don't worry, you will walk slowly).

Tour Schedule: Thursdays and Sundays at 2 pm. Visit their site to confirm your dates.

Meeting Location: Outside the entrance of the Stanford Court Hotel at 905 California Street between Powell and Mason

>> More about visiting Nob Hill

North Beach

North Beach is another fascinating district to explore during your visit. On this tour, you will learn about the Beat Generation and the Italians that initially settled in this area. You will get some great recommendations on the best places to eat and some of the locals' favorite places to go. 

Tour Schedule: This tour is only offered a few days and times. Visit their site to check the dates.

Meeting Location: Steps of Saints Peter and Paul Church at 666 Filbert Street between Powell/Columbus and Stockton

>> Details on visiting North Beach

City Hall & Civic Center

San Francisco's City Hall is not only an important place of civic movement, but also an architectural marvel. Did you know that its iconic gold dome is the tallest in the country, even taller than the U.S. Capitol building?

For your tour of the Civic Center campus, you won't need to walk a ton to see and learn a lot about this institution. All within the same area, you'll get to admire the history and architecture of the War Memorial Opera House, the Asian Art Museum, and the State Building.

Note: I recommend not bringing a backpack or large bag on this tour, since the security screening at City Hall can be time consuming, and you don’t want to slow your group down.

Tour Schedule: Tuesdays at 1:30 pm and Thursdays at 10:30 am. Visit their site to check the dates.

Meeting Location: Steps of the Main Library on Fulton Street between Larkin and Hyde.

>> More about the Civic Center district

Full Schedule: You will find additional tours on the SFCityGuides website at www.sfcityguides.org. Also, please use this link to confirm that the tours above are still running on the day you plan to go. They don't cancel often, but it does happen sometimes, and I would hate for you to show up and have it cancelled that day.

Monthly Events in SF

Are you interested in finding additional events to attend during your stay? Click the links below to check out the fun events planned that month!

January

March

May

July

September

November

February

April

June

August

October

December

Comments? Questions? Suggestions?

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