The 8 Best Historical Tours in San Francisco and the Bay Area for Seniors

San Francisco is a town of endless reinvention, from a muddy piratical outpost to a Gold Rush boomtown to a shipping epicenter to a wrecked and burnt-out husk to a phoenix reborn. It’s been a counterculture haven and the beating heart of a new tech and capitalist revolution.

San Francisco is a town of endless reinvention, from a muddy piratical outpost to a Gold Rush boomtown to a shipping epicenter to a wrecked and burnt-out husk to a phoenix reborn. It’s been a counterculture haven and the beating heart of a new tech and capitalist revolution.
But reinvention doesn’t mean ignoring its past. San Francisco is layered, each era impacted by the ones that came before it and affecting the next. The past is still alive, here. The counterculture still dances and the Gold Rush still attracts and pirates still reach scabrously from the muddy bay…

You know all this already because no matter what else, San Francisco is home.
If you’re an older adult living here, you’ve been witness to some of San Francisco’s transformations, and you know the way the city has changed. You probably have a good working knowledge of some of San Francisco’s history. But no one can know everything.
That’s why we encourage you to take a historical walking tour of San Francisco. These can shed more light on parts of the city you thought you knew, and illuminate times and places you had no idea existed.
Walking is great exercise for older adults, and if you can do it, this summer and fall is a great time for it. You can work out your body and your mind, and see beneath the top layer of the city you call home. You’ll love what you discover underneath.

8 Great Historical Tours of San Francisco

To be honest, there are more great historical tours in San Francisco and the Bay Area then we can really keep track of. This is just a small sample to get you going, and hopefully, we have a little something for everyone.
The Castro: Gay and Lesbian History
Price: $25
Duration: 2 hours
Time: Year-round
Location: Castro District
San Francisco was one of the leading cities in the long struggle for LGBTQ civil rights. It was a place where people could be themselves, and be free to love whom they wanted. It wasn’t always easy, as the killing of Harvey Milk and the horrors of the AIDS crisis showed, but the community thrived in its strength and togetherness and changed the city and the world.
This guided tour takes you all around the world famous Castro District, the heart of San Francisco’s LGBTQ history, showing you places like Milk’s home and offering a moving visit to the original AIDS quilt. It is solemn and joyful, a celebration of love, sadness, and courage. And it’s fun. It’s important. It’s a vital part of America.
Emperor Norton’s San Francisco Time Travel
Price: $30
Duration: 3 hours
Time: Year-round
Location: Depart from Union Square
Joshua Norton was a British citizen and vagabond who came to San Francisco in the 1840s. In 1859, tired of politics as usual, he declared himself Emperor Norton I, Ruler of America and later, Protector of Mexico. While neither of these proclamations exactly took, he became a local celebrity, and continued to make declarations befitting an emperor. He was treated with amused deference in the city, not being mocked, but accepted as one of San Francisco’s great characters.
And you can get a tour of history with him, as a Norton I impersonator takes your group on a rollicking time-travel tour of the city, the Barbary Coast, the earthquake regions, and more. You’ll hear about Norton himself as well as other characters who have added so much flavor to San Francisco. Who, really, have given it life.
Chinatown Walking Tour
Price: $35 (does not include optional lunch)
Duration: Around 2 hours
Time: Year-round
Location: St. Mary’s Cathedral
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to learn that San Francisco has always attracted immigrants from the west as well as the east. Many people from China moved here throughout the centuries (including, of course, before California was a state or a part of the United States). They aren’t separate from mainstream San Francisco history; they are a vital part of it.
That’s why a tour of Chinatown is important. It isn’t a tourist area; it’s a living, breathing section of the city, rich in history, filled with character and characters, and a hugely important contributor to San Francisco and the region. On this tour, you’ll see stores you may have missed, eat food you may not have tried, and see the splendor and quiet beauty of a temple.
Computer History Museum
Price: $17.50
Duration: Varies
Time: Open Tuesday-Sunday, 12-5pm
Location: Mountain View, CA
This is the only non-walking tour, although all museums are sort of walking tours. But it’s ok that this one is idiosyncratic: the whole museum is. It’s a tribute to self-proclaimed geekery, to tech wizardry, and to the combination of rigorous science and incredible information that transformed Silicon Valley and altered the world.
Of all of the regions transformations, this one might have been the most dramatic, and the Computer History Museum captures all of that with equal parts reverence and irreverence. You can see how determined women and men had the vision to create a new technology, and the world they bequeathed us.  
San Francisco Silent Film
Price: Free (donations welcome)
Duration: 2 hours
Time: Saturdays
Location: Pacific and Kearney
Bullit. Vertigo. Dirty Harry. 48 Hours. The Maltese Falcon. The Conversation. San Francisco is one of the most famously cinematic cities in the world. Often, we really only think of films from the 50s to the 70s. But from the earliest days of cinema, filmmakers recognized the potential of the fog and the hills, the bustling city juxtaposed against the ferocious bay, and wanted part of it.
This free tour from San Francisco City Guides shows you the alleys and buildings in which some of the most famous silent films of all time were shot. You’ll walk in the footsteps of Chaplin, Pickford, Chaney, and Valentino and see where Fatty Arbuckle created the first modern media scandal. It’s a salacious and enlightening tour and not to be missed.
1850’s San Francisco
Price: Free (donations welcome)
Duration: 2 hours
Time: Sporadically throughout the year (see calendar)
Location: Transatlantic Building
We don’t often think of San Francisco in the 1850s, but that was the time of its first real boom, in the echoes of the Gold Rush. It was a time when people from around the world flocked to make their fortune. Some did; most did not. Those who did created the city we know today.
Like so much else of the world in that time, there was a decided French influence, and the architecture and culture of San Francisco’s first great boom took on a decidedly Parisian air. This free tour shows you how this made the city and still influences it. This is one of the first layers built up after the depredations of the Gold Rush turned native villages to muck and grime, and it is surprisingly elegant and continues to impact San Francisco today.
Fisherman’s Wharf
Price: Free (donations welcome)
Duration: 1 hour
Time: Sporadically throughout the year (see calendar)
Location: Mermaid Fountain
Fisherman’s Wharf is another one of those places that seem sanctified by tourism and bleached by ubiquity, but it isn’t, really. It’s an active market, bringing in fresh seafood that goes out around the country, but especially makes its home in San Francisco’s restaurants, from the hottest haute cuisine to the greasiest spoon. This tour shows you behind the scenes.
What’s more, The wharf area has long been a slithering and scaly place, from the earliest days when this was a fishing village, and a coastal haven, before it turned to finance and computers. The tour will remind you that the stubborn reality of San Francisco is that it is a port town, tied to the ocean, and beholden to the bounty of the sea.
Also, the fish are absolutely delicious.
1906 Earthquake Tour
Price: Free (donations welcome)
Duration: One hour
Time: Sporadically throughout the year (see calendar)
Location: 525 Market Street
One of the most important events in San Francisco’s history is the 1906 earthquake that shattered the city and ravaged it with fire. San Francisco was not yet old. It was a new city, barely removed from the death of Emperor Norton, and still acclimating to the end of the frontier. And then it was burned rubble.
But that didn’t matter. It rebuilt and became stronger. It didn’t forget what was under its feet and instituted more and more stringent earthquake protections. This tour is a reminder that earthquake preparedness for older adults is crucial, but also a reminder of the indomitable and renewing spirit of this great city.

You and Historic San Francisco: Always Changing but Still The Same

In a lot of ways, a city is like a person. Many people might only see one facet, whether that is Silicon Valley or the LGBTQ community, just like people might say you’re just like your mom or reduce you to your profession. But we all know neither of those is true. A person, like a city, is a collection of everything that has ever happened to them, building and growing on itself, and facing the next day with the weight and blessing of accumulated experience.
Because a city, like a person, can age and change but still remain the same, with the same beating heart and the same indomitable spirit. No matter how you see yourself in the mirror or how many skyscrapers have risen where ramshackle gambling dens and fancy Parisian mansions once stood, it’s still the same.
So celebrate San Francisco. Celebrate its oft-sordid past and its gleeful present, its booms and busts, its characters and catastrophes, its death and rebirth. In doing so, celebrate yourself. You’ve earned it. You’re here, in this great contradictory sprawling wild city. You’re still you.
At Institute on Aging, our programs and services help older adults, their families, and caregivers explore aging together, through good times and bad, as an adventure and a journey. Contact us today to learn more.

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