By Marguerite Richards
From Chinatown to Little Italy, the Ball Park to the Mission, the neighborhood walking tours led by HI USA’s San Francisco hostels cover the best of the City by the Bay. Our Mission District Walking Tour, led each week by HI SF Downtown Activities Coordinator Ellysa, is a favorite with guests from all over the world. We sent travel writer Marguerite Richards out to get the scoop on what makes this tour so popular, and she’s taking us along for the ride.
Our tour of the Mission was going to be slightly off kilter – it was Saint Patrick’s Day, after all. This meant that the entire population of 20-somethings living in the Bay Area would be funneling into San Francisco that afternoon for the annual parade, wearing green glittered T-shirts with clever messages like “It’s time to get this patty started.” Our tour normally would have started with a trolley ride, but our guide, Ellysa, made the right call to take MUNI and avoid the unwieldy green-beer drinking crowds to plunge right into the city’s Mission District.
We left from HI SF Downtown (you can also take this tour from HI San Francisco City Center and HI San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf) with a motley crew of hostellers and a few token strangers with a good story to tell.
We emerged onto Market Street at Van Ness Ave., turning the corner at Valencia, where our guide stopped us to make mention of the rapid changes the neighborhood has been going through over the last few decades. As tech companies have moved into the area and rents have increased, gentrification has taken a quick and noticeable hold. These days, the culture in the Mission is changing fast.
Our first stop was a beer garden called Zeitgest. A mainstay of both the Mission and SOMA (South of Market) neighborhoods, it’s one of the last spots the locals will tell you has survived gentrification. “Where the beer is warm and the girls are cold” goes the slogan, an in-your-face reminder of who’s in charge here. Bloody Marys already pre-made and lined up on the bar when we arrived, this place was ready for business. Brazilian hosteller Bruno Bioni began to ask questions about the strange-looking drink, and Ellysa let him have a taste before he ventured to order one on his own.
“Too spicy!” he frowned, wide-eyed in surprise. And it’s true. The Bloody Mary is one American cocktail that has a lot of character. We dawdled outside for a time—this was no stuffy, fast-paced tour.
While murals, street art, and graffiti cover walls in many parts of the Mission, a walk down Clarion Alley reveals a particularly high concentration of ever-evolving art. As we strolled the lane capped off by Mission St. on one end and Valencia on the other, our guide noted the difference between the artistic styles closer to each end. Mission St. marks the more traditional part of the neighborhood, still greatly unchanged since the 1980s. At the Mission St. end of Clarion, the art is more free form in comparison to the perfectly framed pieces near gentrified Valencia St.
Halfway down the alley, we came to a halt to watch a rap video being filmed before our eyes – a testament to the cultural relevance of the location. We caught artists working in the hot sun, some shaded by umbrellas, and locals lingering along, probably post-brunch and in no hurry on this Saturday afternoon.
Mission History Stops
Next stop was the San Francisco Armory, a gigantesque Moorish-style castle originally constructed as an arsenal for the United States National Guard in 1912.
Another notable landmark, the Mission Dolores Church, actually gave the neighborhood its name. Built in 1776, it’s one of the few buildings that survived SF’s famous 1906 earthquake and fire; today it’s the oldest building still standing in the city.
On hostellers’ budgets, we skipped the paid tour of the church, but admired the 20th-century parish next door through a chain-linked fence. In the background: the oldest remaining cemetery in San Francisco, with its graves of Native Americans, Spaniards, Mexicans, and Gold Rush immigrants.
Tacos & Dolores Park
Because this part of town has been the heart of the Latino community for decades, it’s also a center of Chicano culture – and food. We stopped at El Torro at Valencia and 18th St. to talk about (and eat!) burritos, the quintessential California-meets-Mexico meal. If you stop by any of the Mission’s local taquerias to sample the fare on your own, don’t be shy to ask about the sizes of these mamas – they can be huge!
Our last stop was Dolores Park. Normally, you would find it busy with sun worshipers from all over the city, but today, considering the holiday, the park was an overwhelming sea of San Franciscans. One hosteller in our group, a visitor from Hong Kong joked, “It looks just like home!”
I laughed, also surprised. “This is not normal! But I’m glad you feel at home.” After all, it’s easy to feel that way here.
Tours run every Saturday, leaving from all three of our SF hostels.