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Fun foot tours of San Francisco

Being bound to a motor vehicle in San Francisco is a sure recipe for aggravation.
A Tour Along San Francisco 49 Mile Scenic Drive
A boy plays in the water at Baker Beach near the Golden Gate Bridge March 25, 2005 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Being bound to a motor vehicle in San Francisco is a sure recipe for aggravation.

The withering steepness of the streets - nine with a grade of 24 percent or more, some as precipitous as 31.5 percent - wreak havoc on your transmission, emergency brake and nerves.

Cable cars and streetcars rumble through traffic lanes. And the last available street parking space is usually gobbled up by, oh, 6:17 a.m. or so.

A much wiser course is to lace up some comfortable shoes.

For visitors and residents alike, there is no need to wander aimlessly and cluelessly. Dozens of guided walking tours are available, and the quality is extremely high.

So everybody try to keep up now. Off we go ...

A terrific resource in this city is a nonprofit program of free walking tours, led by volunteer guides with a passion for their subject matter. Sponsored by the San Francisco Public Library as a project of the Tides Center, the outings are offered 52 weeks a year, nearly every day, and span the gamut from familiar subjects (Chinatown, North Beach, the Golden Gate Bridge, Nob Hill) to more obscure ones (Sutro Forest, the murals of Coit Tower, art deco in the Marina).

The Mangia North Beach Tour is more of a languid neighborhood stroll. It covers only a few blocks of San Francisco's Italian enclave but delves deeply beneath the neighborhood's surface, poking around in shops and chatting up bakers and butchers.

It delivers a jarring progression of tastes. In order: cookies, coffee, Parmesan cheese, Sicilian sausage, salty focaccia bread, sweet truffles, then a lunch of antipasti and red wine at Washington Square Bar & Grill. I would have preferred to crisscross the neighborhood to sample those in a more sensible order.

But the small, folksy establishments that serve up the morsels are delightful nonetheless. We were ushered into the kitchen of Liguria Bakery to sample the focaccia among the brick ovens. And at XOX Truffles, owner Jean-Marc Gorce was ladling creamy chocolate onto his creations.

"Flashback: A Mind-Blowing Trip Through Haight-Ashbury of the 1960s" is one of several comedian-led Foot! tours, which explore such subjects as the strippers and beats of North Beach or San Francisco's original red-light district.

On our tour of the Haight, guide Nick Leonard, clad in a tie-dyed T-shirt, pointed out the pink Victorian that was the former home of Janis Joplin, paged through a notebook of psychedelic concert posters and vintage photos, and, best of all, played archival music from a boom box slung over his shoulder.

Vivid murals of the Mission District are perhaps best perused with a representative of Precita Eyes Mural Arts & Visitors Center, an organization that oversees the work and trains many of the artists.

The transformation of Balmy Alley (the actual name of the street) began in the early 1970s, when a muralist began painting the surfaces of the narrow passageway walls, fences, garage doors and buildings. It since has been transformed in brilliant colors, exotic images and poignant themes.

While examining the murals, it's easy to forget that you're in a working, urban alley, not a gallery. This point comes home when a door in the middle of an elaborate scene suddenly opens and a resident steps through on the way to fetch groceries.

Tour participants learn of the history and culture of the neighborhood, with visits to herb shops and a Buddhist/Taoist temple, a sit-down tea-tasting and a dim sum lunch at an establishment that might not even print its menu in English.

Don Herron's got the Dashiell Hammett tour down cold. Clad in a weathered trench coat and fedora, he leads pulp-fiction buffs into the shadowy world of private investigator Sam Spade.

A tour highlight is a visit to Burritt Alley, where Miles Archer, Spade's partner in "The Maltese Falcon," was plugged by a femme fatale. Herron recites a long stretch of the story from memory, and you can almost feel the chill of the fog in the story. Then, at the climactic moment, he whips a rubber-dart gun out of his coat pocket and guns down one of the tour guests.

In the novel, the killer simply melted into the streets of San Francisco.

On foot, of course.

If you go ...

GENERAL INFORMATION: Tours in San Francisco are held nearly every day, rain or shine. (415) 557-4266 for San Francisco City Guides

TICKET INFORMATION: To order tickets: (415) 793-5378 for Foot! tours; (415) 925-9013 for Mangia North Beach tours; (415) 285-2287 for Precita Eyes Mural Arts & Visitors Center tours; (650) 355-9657 for Wok Wiz Chinatown tours.

ON THE NET:  San Francisco City Guides; Foot! tours; Dashiell Hammett tours; Precita Eyes Mural Arts & Visitors Center tours; Wok Wiz Chinatown tours.