Accessibility links

Volunteer Guides Share Love for San Francisco

San Francisco is a city built atop steep hills, and many say the city should be seen on foot. Mike O'Sullivan reports that volunteer guides share their love of San Francisco on walking tours that explore the city's many nooks and crannies.

Ken Becker is a retired businessman who spends much of his time working without pay on his favorite causes, from a medical charity that helps children overseas to a local organization that offers free walking tours of historic San Francisco.

"I am a tour guide for City Guides, and I specialize in Nob Hill tours. And I do this tour anywhere from one to four times a month," Becker says.

The neighborhood of Nob Hill sits high atop one of San Francisco's many hills. Becker points out its sites, including the Fairmont Hotel, where delegates from 50 countries wrote the United Nations charter in 1945. The San Francisco story goes back much earlier, of course, to Native Americans and Spanish colonial settlers, to Gold Rush millionaires and the wealthy railway barons who built mansions on Nob Hill in the 19th century.

Today, magnificent Grace Cathedral, which hosts concerts and recitals, sits on the site of a mansion destroyed by the Great Earthquake and fire of 1906.

A brisk walk down the hill to San Francisco's civic center finds another tour group, led by retired engineer Leif Isaksen. He points to city hall, a massive domed building that replaced an earlier structure destroyed in the 1906 quake. Across the plaza is the civic auditorium, which first opened in 1915 for the Pan Pacific Exposition. The fair marked the completion of the Panama Canal, but also offered San Francisco a chance to celebrate its rebuilding.

"San Francisco took the opportunity to tell the world 'We are back in business, and anything that Europe can do, we can do better,'" Isaksen says.

The group City Guides offers dozens of free tours, led by volunteers who want to share their love for San Francisco. The groups explore Chinatown and North Beach, the Italian neighborhood, and climb the stairways of Russian Hill, once a burial ground for Russian merchant sailors.

For Leila, a university student visiting from France, San Francisco lives up to its reputation as a cultural center.

"I think it is like a city in Europe, you know. The people are not very different, the culture. But it is good. It is a great place," Leila says.

San Francisco is a compact city, just 127 square kilometers, but volunteer guide Ken Becker says there is much to see. He says you can tour by cable car or by automobile, or better yet, on foot.

"To drive does not take you very long, and yet, to walk around with the hills, it is not easy to walk up and down the hills, and so it takes you time," Becker says. "So you always want to give yourself plenty of time here in San Francisco, and if you can, not rush, and see plenty of things. And depending upon what you like, I think there is something here for everyone."

He says walking up and down San Francisco's hilly streets is well worth the effort.