“Take all your pride and embarrassment, fold it up, stick it in your pocket, and leave it there.”
As soon as the zebra-striped vehicle pulled up in front of Union Square, I knew this tour was going to be different. With a safari hat and animal-print blanket laid out on each seat, a driver with dreadlocks down to the ground, and a guide with more enthusiasm than anyone should ever possess at 9 in the morning, this was definitely not your average city tour.
This was the Urban Safari, an “off-the-beaten-track adventure” through the hilly jungle that is San Francisco.
If you know me at all, you'll know that not only do I affirm that guided tours are not the devil, but I also love ones that don't take themselves too seriously. And that's definitely the case with the Urban Safari (refer back to the quote at the beginning of this post).
This tour company is all about character. From the safari hats to Mfalme the dreadlocked driver to the rousing renditions of “That's Amore” that are sung as the vehicle drives through North Beach (San Francisco's “Little Italy”), a trip with the Urban Safari is all about having fun while catching glimpses of parts of San Francisco that many tourists simply don't see.
Yes, you'll roll past the gates of China Town, slow down as you pass the bottom of crooked Lombard Street, and be snapping photos as you coast by City Hall and the “Painted Ladies” of Alamo Square. But you'll also see so much more.
Highlights of this tour for me included:
Okay, so this wasn't actually a stop on the tour. But, since I wasn't staying downtown, I couldn't be picked up at a hotel, and instead was picked up at Union Square. The square was fairly quiet before 10 a.m., and I enjoyed soaking up the sun as I strolled through the artwork on display.
The Palace of Fine Arts
Craving some Greco-Roman architecture in SF? Look no further than the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina District. This pillared and domed structure was originally built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition, and was so beloved that it was preserved when most of the other exhibition buildings were demolished. My favorite part is the weeping women at the top of each pillar. Today, the Palace houses artwork, as well as the Exploratorium, a hands-on science museum.
A stop we were all looking forward to was Fort Point, located right at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. The weather was perfect and the photos basically took themselves.
But it was a bit of knowledge our guide Eric shared with us that was my favorite part of the stop. As soon as we got out of the zebra bus, Eric invited us all to jog with him to the end of the walkway, where we all slapped “Hopper's Hands” a high-five. These hands, placed on the fence that was erected post-9/11, were put up by a man by the name of Ken Hopper.
Prior to the fence, joggers and walkers exercising along the waterfront would run all the way up to the wall of the fort, tap or touch it out of habit, and then turn around and continue their run. Once the fence was built, they began tapping the fence. Hopper decided to give them something else to tap. But the hands aren't really the whole story. Hopper was an ironworker on the Golden Gate Bridge for 17 years, and has been responsible for talking down dozens of would-be suicide jumpers. A true hero.
The perfectly-manicured Presidio was especially photogenic on such a sunny day. This used to be a series of Army barracks, but today the buildings are rented out. In one, a museum celebrates Walt Disney — check out the Academy Award he won for Snow White and the Seven Dwarves if you have time to pop inside!
While you won't always get great views like this from Twin Peaks (it's often “in the fog”), a visit up here with the Urban Safari will always be fun. While everyone else was taking photos of the skyline, our guide Eric was helping us take my favorite sort of photos — the dramatic “I'm falling!” kind. If I wasn't already sold on this tour, this would have done it for me.
After a morning full of sightseeing, one of our last stops was in the Castro District for lunch. We stopped at a little market, where I bought my cheapest meal in San Francisco — $7.35 for a chicken/avacado wrap, a bag of chips, and a bottle of water. We were joined for lunch by the owner of the Urban Safari, Dan, and his wife, Sandy. They bought me “the best brownie in the world,” and definitely made me like the company even more. Passionate people always get my stamp of approval.
The Urban Safari tour I was on was coupled with a trip out to Alcatraz (more on this later), but our time with guide Eric and driver Mfalme ended at the Alcatraz pier. I think it's safe to say that all 17 of us on board were sad to leave them behind.
So would I recommend the Urban Safari? Abso-freaking-lutely.
If you're looking for a comprehensive city tour of San Francisco that's both silly and informative at the same time, then this is the tour for you.
The other guys don't give you safari hats.
Would you go on an Urban Safari in San Francisco?