San Francisco Native Tours is a new walking tour company in San Francisco that focuses on locally-led walks around this popular city. They strive to be different from many other walking tour companies by only hiring native guides who have grown up in the city, being actively involved in the local community, and keeping the group sizes small and friendly. Now, of course, there are dozens of walking tours companies in San Francisco and visitors have a large range of options. Although the large array of tour company choices can be overwhelming, it is great that there are options available to suit every taste and preference. We’ve taken a number of tours in the city over the years, and we’ll give you all the information you need to learn more about San Francisco Native Tours to find out if they are a good fit for you, and Laurence will provide a full review of the walking tour we took which had us drinking many pints and visiting three of San Francisco’s most colorful neighborhoods.
Table of Contents:
Basic Information on San Francisco Native Tours
San Francisco Native Tours is a small local tour business founded by Stuart Watts and Trevor O’Donnell, both natives of San Francisco. They launched their tours in 2015 in order to share their passion and enthusiasm for the city of San Francisco, and to help give back to the community that they grew up in. All guides for the company are natives to San Francisco, and many can trace back their San Fran roots for many generations.
What tours do they offer?
San Francisco Native Tours offer a number of small group walking tours around the Financial District, North Beach, Chinatown, Union Square, SOMA, Haight, Castro and Mission districts of San Francisco. The list of available tours is evolving and expanding as the company grows. All the tours are themed, guided by a native of the city, and many include a culinary aspect, either food, drink, or both. They are also happy to customize a private tour, just contact them via their website.
Who should take these tours?
The tours are geared to people looking to get an insider’s view of San Francisco. There are a couple of tours more focused on beer, so if that’s your thing, these tours would be perfect for you. Many of the tours require quite a bit of walking and some include a number of hills (such as the one we took), but they have a helpful “Hills Scale” to help you choose the best one given your fitness level and tolerance of hills. In addition, for each of their tours, the company provide ratings related to amount of food and alcohol provided, family friendliness, community culture, and landmarks.
How do I make a reservation or contact San Francisco Native Tours?
The easiest way to make a reservation is online at http://www.sfnativetours.com. You can also find them on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, call them at +1 (415) 797-7368, or reach them via their contact page.
Our Tour Experience with San Francisco Native Tours
If you read this blog often, you’ll soon notice a change to the usual writing style and organization within this post. Today, you’ll have the pleasure of a review by Laurence, my new husband and fellow blogger who writes at Finding the Universe and is also responsible for many of the great photos on this blog.
Passion. It’s one of the things I absolutely love encountering when traveling – finding people who are truly passionate about what they have chosen to do with their lives.
In the case of Stuart Watts, founder of San Francisco Native Tours, and our guide for the afternoon on their wonderfully titled Parks, Pints and Politics tour, his passion and enthusiasm for showing guests around his city just shone through.
I should mention that Jess and I love walking tours. We’ve been on plenty, and will no doubt go on plenty more. Often, we have noticed, companies will set to seek to set themselves apart in some way – be it something weird like the dress of the tour guide, or the content on offer. In the case of San Francisco Native tours, the key difference they strive to highlight is that all the tour guides who give the tours are natives of the city. They were born there, they grew up there, and they are still living there.
For Stuart, a fifth generation San Franciscan, this was absolutely crucial. This way, he explained, visitors to the city would get a truly “local” experience, rather than a scripted walk-around. Tour participants should quickly feel like they are visiting a long-lost friend who had offered to show them where he or she had grown up. Of course, many tours in many cities across the world are led by natives of that city, but this is not always a given. In addition, the concept of “local” travel is very much au-fait at the moment in the tourism world, so the real test was how well the concept played out in real life.
Another highlight of the San Francisco Native tour concept is that they aim to give back to the local community. Be that via offering tours that have a community focused aspect (such as tree planting), or through direct financial contributions, the goal is to ensure that the tours benefit and contribute to the local economy and community in some way.
Back to the actual tour, and the one we chose: Parks, Pints, and Politics. Despite what you may think, the “Pints” part was not the key draw for me (even if it was a good second) – it was the promise that the parks we were visiting would offer some of the best views in the city.
We started out meeting up in the Haight-Ashbury district of the city, at around 3pm. On the morning of the day, we were sent a detailed e-mail with instructions as to where to meet, a photo and map of the meeting location, and a photo of our guide. All very handy.
We arrived somewhat early, which worked out very well, as it gave us some time to explore the Haight Ashbury district, a part of San Francisco I had never visited before, and which felt a little like Camden in London for those of you familiar with that part of the world. If not, think hippie – this was the epicentre of the summer of love in the sixties, and whilst that movement has moved on, the spirit is very much alive and well in Haight Ashbury, with alternative clothing stores, excellent coffee stores, vintage stores, characters of all natures selling wares of an even more interesting nature, and well, just about anything you could want on sale it seemed.
Finally, the time came to meet our group, which was rather easy, being as the meeting point was in front of the only giant mural of a colorful dog in the area. Stuart was very welcoming, and after some introductions all around our small group of six (including the guide) set off to our first stop – a pub, for our first pint.
A couple of points to make here quickly, that made a great impression on me. First, all the drinks and food on the tour are included in the price. Second, you’re going to get a pint in each establishment, of a beverage of your choice, assuming it’s available by the pint. If you want to drink – don’t forget to bring ID with you whatever your age, as establishments in the US often check ID as a matter of policy, regardless of how obviously over 21 you are.
Back to the tour. Our first stop was the Magnolia Gastropub and Brewery, a pub with an excellent selection of ales where I tried a rather strong IPA and Jess went with a Guinness. During this time, Stuart gave us some information about the history of the area and the building we were in, which he supplanted with a series of historical images he had on his iPad, which really helped us visualize what he was talking about.
Then, it was on and up into the hills behind Haight Ashbury, into Buena Vista Park. I admit that a strong IPA was probably not the wisest choice I could have made, as this part of the tour was the most challenging, given that we had to scale a series of steps up to the top of the park. Still, I had been promised excellent views, and given the name of the park this seemed likely, so up we went. It wasn’t a hike by any stretch of the imagination, but Stuart did say it was the hardest part of the four mile tour, and I wouldn’t want to mislead you into thinking this was a flat stroll in the park.
We reached the top of the hill where we were indeed rewarded by quite magnificent views of downtown San Francisco. San Francisco is a marvelously pretty city, given how she stretches herself over myriad hills, and being surrounded by water, and I was delighted to have such a wonderful view that I might not have discovered myself.
Of course, this being a tour, there was naturally some knowledge to be gained. Again, Stuart brought us up to date on the history of the park itself (I won’t give too much away!), as well as the development of San Francisco over the years, and he showed us a variety of historical images taken from the same vantage point that we were standing on. My favorite was of a pair of gentleman, taken late in the 19th century, standing just where we were and gazing out at the view. So much has changed since then!
Then it was on again, along the ridge, through Buena Vista park, and on to Corona Heights Park. On the way, Stuart, and his partner in the company, Trevor, shared their stories of growing up in the city, pointing out places they had played, where friends and family lived, and the changes they had noticed over their years here, from climate to gentrification. Their enthusiasm for the city was infectious, and it was easy to see why someone would love to be a native here.
Our view from Corona Heights Park was one of the finest views of the San Francisco skyline I have seen without resorting to a helicopter. Whilst a little blustery, the afternoon sun, gorgeous blue of the sky, and the ridge of fog looming behind us made me feel like we were on top of the world. That could also of course have been the remnants of the IPA coursing through me. Anyway, the view was excellent once again.
Now though, the time had come to descend through the San Francisco suburbs, to pass through the narrowest street in the city, and to enter the Castro district. Anyone familiar with the gay rights movement will of course be familiar with the Castro, essentially the epicentre of LGBT life in the city. When we visited, a mere week after the supreme court ruling on marriage equality for all, there was an explosion of rainbow flags flying proudly everywhere you looked. Of course, having never visited before, it’s possible that there are just rainbow flags flying everywhere all the time in the Castro. I’m not sure, but I sure hope so, because it’s so darn colourful.
Here, we peered at the sights, learnt about the history of the area, and stopped off at the world famous Hot Cookie shop. Ok, so maybe not world famous. But there were certainly plenty of photos of folks trying out their signature penis cookie whilst wearing the famous Hot Cookie underwear. It was a welcome sugar injection as we learnt more about the Castro area, again accompanied by historical photos of the area.
Our route then took us from the Castro towards the Mission district, home to the popular Mission Dolores Park and the oldest building in San Francisco – the Misión San Francisco de Asís. Built in 1776, this building has survived everything history has thrown at it, including the great earthquake and fire of 1906 which laid waste to much of the rest of the city.
As we entered the Mission district, we made our second pub stop, before reaching the above mentioned Mission, at the Cervecería. This is a tiny, Argentinian styled brewpub serving up beers from the Woods Beer craft brewery. They also offer Argentinian style food so we shared some delicious empanadas, and had our second refreshing brew of the day. This was in a smaller glass than the full pint, largely because the beer was a little stronger. We found the flavors of the beer to be quite interesting here and Jess really enjoyed her choice! I love a bit of craft beer, and there were enough options for everyone to find something to suit, including beer with caffeine for that extra bit of a kick! We chatted with the group a bit, enjoyed our beer, and then wandered on.
The Mission district itself was fascinating, as it has undergone so much change in the past couple of decades. Once one of the more dangerous parts of the city due to gang violence, the process of gentrification has made this a more desirable, if still somewhat gritty, part of town. Our guides explained how they had spent time here when growing up, and how wearing different colors, in this case blue and red, showed your particular gang allegiance. Wearing the wrong color in the wrong part of the Mission would pretty much guarantee trouble!
After looking at some of the street art in the Mission, we arrived at the last drinking hole of the tour, Zeitgeist Bar, and also the point where the tour ended. Finishing off in a pub was an excellent idea – if you make friends on the tour, you can carry on from this point with them and have a few more beverages if you are so inclined.
This last pub was quite characterful, feeling fairly grungy, with a large outdoor beer garden seating area that we took advantage of. Unfortunately they had a no photography policy, so I couldn’t take many photos, but the evening sun made for a nice finish to the evening as we enjoyed our last pint of the tour.
Overall Thoughts on the SF Native Tours
If it’s not obvious from the above, we really enjoyed the tour. By the end of the tour, we felt like we’d made new friends, shared some experiences, tried several new beers, and learnt a good deal about the city from folks who were both passionate and knowledgeable. We walked four miles during the course of this tour, with some hilly sections, so this particular tour does require a bit of fitness and would not be appropriate for someone with mobility difficulties. It’s also much more suited to those who love beer of course! Finally, we really loved the fact that all the food and drink was included in the tour cost, so we didn’t have to worry about that, and that all the places we visited had an excellent selection of beverages to choose from. We also liked the use of the tablet with old photos on, which helped bring to life the history of the locations we were visiting. So overall, yes, we loved this tour and are delighted to recommend it! We think that this tour company has a lot of potential with use of local guides, competitive tour pricing, community involvement, and inclusion of food and beverages. We especially think that San Francisco Native Tours will have great appeal to younger, active visitors to San Francisco.
Have you taken a walking tour around San Francisco? As always, feel free to share you own tips and advice about walking tours in San Francisco or ask us any questions about our own experience with San Francisco Native Tours or anything else related to visiting San Francisco.
**Disclosure: We were invited to go on a complimentary tour by San Francisco Native Tours in order to review their tours and provide feedback; however, this article contains only our own honest thoughts and opinions. We were not financially compensated for this post.**