If you want to keep a few steps ahead of the summer crowds, you have to know where you’re going and sometimes where you’ve been.
You might think a tour would be the last place for a native to get re-acquainted with his or her own surroundings. How often, though, do you get to run about in tunnel ventilation ducts (well, at least see them), lounge in the Green Room of a theater, or get a socio-cultural perspective on mural art? If you do mingle with some out-of-towners, you might as well do it in grand ostentatious style, like on the back of a fire engine. Here are our suggestions to get out there, and be sure to call ahead.
On the road again: If you get stuck in it, you might as well know what’s behind the walls. The Caldecott Tunnel Tour takes six or more visitors past giant ventilation ducts running above the bores of the Caldecott Tunnel, jet-engine size fans pumping fresh air into the tunnels at more than 50 miles per hour and the crew members who monitor the tunnels from the Control Station. The tour takes two hours, which is about how long the average backup feels like (Free, 9 a.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 510-286-0315).
If you’re looking for a more elevated view, there’s no beating the chance to ride a bright red 1955 Mack fire engine. San Francisco Fire Engine Tours And Adventures either goes through the Presidio and over the Golden Gate Bridge or along Fisherman’s Wharf and through North Beach ($24 general; $12 ages 12 and under, The Cannery, 2801 Leavenworth St. 415-333-7077 or www.fireenginetours.com).
Sweet tooth and suds: Visit the Herman Goelitz Candy Company’s Candyland down Blueberry Lane, over Candy Corn Alley and onto Taffy Avenue in this 45-minute tour of gourmet jelly beans. You even see Jelly Belly Art, namely giant mosaics of famous people and subjects (9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily every 15 minutes, free, 2400 North Watney Way, Fairfield, 707-428-2838, www.jellybelly.com). Get the scoop from cow to cone with the Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream Factory Tours (appointment only, Monday-Friday, 9:15 and 11:15 a.m. and 2 p.m., $2, 1250 Whipple Road, Union City, 510-471-6622). The secret recipe may not be unveiled, but the San Francisco favorite’s history is in the Ghirardelli Square Walking Tours (2-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, July 8-Sept. 4., free, plaza level, Ghirardelli Square, 900 North Point, San Francisco, 415-775-5500, www.ghirardellisq.com). Those with a thirst for San Francisco might want San Francisco On Tap: The Beer Lovers Tour. The four-hour tour sensibly drives through the sights and stops long enough for a pub lunch and beer samples at local brew pubs ($72, 415-626-7837).
Going on with the Show: An art deco masterpiece in a time when movie palaces were movie palaces, the Paramount Theatre opens up its velvet curtains for a two-hour behind-the-screen peek (10 a.m. first and third Saturday, $1. 2025 Broadway, Oakland. 510-465-6400, www.paramounttheatre.com). Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts invites people to “Take a Walk” once a month on stage, in the dressing rooms and down the opulent spiral staircase. ($2, reservations required. 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. Audience services 925-295-1400) The American Conservatory Theater offers some of the boldest productions around, and one of them is the 75-minute backstage tour of Geary Theater. Tours are wheelchair accessible but reservations requested for specific accommodations. (10:30 a.m. Wednesday and Saturday. $8 general; $4 seniors and students; $2 for ages 6-12. 415 Geary St., San Francisco. 415-749-2228 or www.act-sfbay.org). If you want to see the rafters when the performers aren’t raising it, the San Francisco Performing Arts Center Tours travels through the Davies Symphony Hall, the War Memorial Opera House and Herbst Theater. (10 a.m.-2 p.m., on the hour. Monday, $5 general; $3 seniors and students. Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, Grove Street entrance, 415-552-8338).
Cover the waterfront: The Oakland Historic Downtown Walking Tours, which run through October, go far beyond the waterfront and into the administrative and historical heart of this East Bay city. The July schedule follows, and unless otherwise noted, meet at the City Hall front steps, One Frank H. Ogawa Plaza at 14th Street: Chinatown, July 1 and 26, Pacific Renaissance Plaza Fountain at 9th and Webster streets; First Tuesday Tour, July 4; Jack London Waterfront, July 5. Meet in front of Colors Restaurant, 101 Broadway; Preservation Park, July 8. Meet at the park entrance, 13th and Martin Luther King Jr. Way; Downtown Historic District, July 12; City Center, July 15; Uptown to the Lake, July 19. Meet in front of the Paramount Theater, 2025 Broadway; Historic Churches and Temples, July 22. Meet at the First Presbyterian Church, Broadway at 27th Street; Old Oakland Historic District, July 29. Meet at Ratto’s, Washington and 9th Streets. (10 a.m. free, 510-238-3234,www.oaklandnet.com).
My Kind of Chinatown: With all those side streets and crammed store fronts, no wonder San Francisco Chinatown has so many guides leading the bewildered about. The Chinese Culture Foundation leads both the Chinese Heritage Walk and, for those who get a craving, the Chinatown Culinary Walk/Luncheon (10:30 a.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m. $15 general, $30 tour and luncheon; $6 ages 11 and under, $15 with luncheon. Holiday Inn, Third Floor, 750 Kearny St., San Francisco. 415-986-1822). All About Chinatown Walking Tours goes through the usual routes from Buddhist temples to herb shops (10 a.m. daily, $25 general; $10 ages 10-17; $35 general for tour and dim sum luncheon; $20 ages 10-17 for tour and dim sum luncheon. Departs from 812 Clay St., San Francisco. 415-982-8839). Shirley Fong-Torres, who calls herself the Wok Wiz, leads the long-running 90-minute Chinatown Walking Tours (10 a.m. daily, $25 or $37 for tour and lunch. Wok Wiz Cooking Center, 654 Commercial St., San Francisco. 415-981-8989, www.mim.com/wokwiz).
Open your golden gates: As the name attests, the nonprofit City Guides Walking Tours Of San Francisco (free, 415-557-4266, www.sfcityguides.org) cover the City and its slices of history, like “Brothels, Boardinghouses and Bawds” (noon, second, third and fourth Monday, Maiden Lane Gate, Kearny Street between Post and Geary streets). Other tours range from ethnic enclaves like Chinatown, Japantown, North Beach and Mission Dolores area to elaborate estates like the Sheraton Palace Hotel, Pacific Heights Mansions and the Victorians of Alamo Square.
Fiesta Tours practically guarantees that its Haight-Ashbury tour, “The Summer of Love Continues …”, will be led by a former hippie ($20. 415-775-6773). If you want to go on a second trip, so to speak, Flower Power Tours leads the Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood Walking Tour ($15. 9:30 a.m.-11:30 a.m. Tuesday and Saturday, Stanyan and Waller streets, San Francisco. 415-221-8442). One of the most popular tours, now 11 years strong, is “Cruisin’ the Castro with Trevor Hailey” (415-550-8110, www.webcastro.com/castrotour). The Foundation for San Francisco Architectural Heritage Tours takes a Victorian and Edwardian Pacific Heights Walk, 12:30 p.m. Sundays, except July 2 ($5 general, $3 seniors and ages 11 and under, 415-441-3004, www.sfheritage.org). The $20 price of “A San Francisco Walkabout” includes the price of admission to the San Francisco Historical Society Museum. Veteran tour guide Gary Holloway leads downtown walks 10 a.m. Friday-Sunday and 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. for July 7 and 21, Aug. 18, Sept. 8 and 22 (415-357-1848, www.calhist.org).
Language Arts: The Footnotes Street Theater re-enacts “The Living Literature Tour” 7 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, to transport visitors back to San Francisco’s beatnik era ($55 includes meal, meet at Washington Square, corner of Union and Columbus Streets, 415-381-0713, www.tactileheart.com). For a more visual tour, Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center (2981 24th St., SF, 415-285-2287, www.precitaeyes.org) provides the Mission Mural Walks (1:30-3:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, $10 general; $8 students, $5 seniors; $2 ages 17 and under, meet at the Center), BART Mural Tours (11 a.m. Saturday, $5 general; $4 seniors, $2 ages 17 and under, meet at Cafe Venice, 3325 24th St.) and Mural Bicycle Tour, (11 a.m. second Sunday of the month, $10, bring your own bike and helmet).
Suburban Explorer runs once a month. Send suggestions for favorite neighborhoods and hidden spots to Vera H-C Chan at firstname.lastname@example.org, P.O. Box 8099, Walnut Creek, CA 94596-8099, or 925-977-8428.