The Side of San Francisco Most Tourists Don’t See

A Mission District walking tour for travelers from around the globe…and this local.

It’s an all too familiar scene.

Friends visiting San Francisco text to ask if I’d like to join them somewhere in the city. They know I love sharing my city with visitors, especially those who haven’t been before. Yet a small part of me cringes when I hear their list of plans: Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, Union Square, Ghirardelli Square, riding in a cable car, clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl.

I resist the urge to text them back with “No! Don’t do it! It’s a trap!” …Those are all parts of San Francisco that I have fond memories of, especially as a child. And for those who haven’t been before, they’re essential parts of the SF tourist experience.

The moment in which I shudder has less to do with any given person’s San Francisco itinerary and more to do with thinking back to when that was all I knew of the city. It’s all that most who visit know of the city.

Walking Tour Mission District

mission district housing mural

I grew up within a day trip’s driving distance of SF. While certainly no local, I made enough trips to the city to know (or to think I knew) about where to go and what to see. I visited often, with a quiet but magnetic draw to someday living in the city (though I wouldn’t become the person who could thrive there until later in life — I know this now.) Yet it wasn’t until I eventually made the move…when I fulfilled my dream of being a real San Franciscan…that I learned how little I actually knew about it.

Perhaps the biggest case in point — and the first place I send visitors to — is the Mission District. The neighborhood doesn’t tend to conjure up the classic visions of San Francisco that we see on postcards, but that’s exactly what I love about it. And while it has changed significantly since I was a child, and arguably even more in the last few years that I’ve lived here, to me it’s still one of the most interesting and exciting places in the city.

Another large part of why I love living in San Francisco is how walkable it is (car-free for three years here!) So when HI USA invited me along on one of their walking tours of the Mission District, I leapt on over there to take part.


Mission graffiti, San Francisco

First Stop:


San Francisco’s best beer garden is also an eclectic, locals-only bar and patio with one of the best Bloody Marys in the city. It’s the kind of original joint that is getting harder and harder to find. It’s the anti-trendy. Stop in for a beer, stay for the shaded back patio and people watching.


The Armory

One of the most intriguing buildings I’ve ever stumbled upon in SF, there’s certainly more to this historic building than meets the eye. Once an arsenal for the United States National Guard, it was built to replace the one destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. From there it functioned as a sports and events venue, a filming location for The Empire Strikes Back (this is a true story,) and then was threatened until purchased by (you can guess the business they’re in.) A fascinating landmark with many lives, you can tour the studios or simply get a drink next door at The Armory Club (recommended!)

clarion alley, san francisco


Clarion Alley

One of my favorite places in the entire city, Clarion Alley connects Mission Street to Valencia Street — and in some ways, it acts as a bridge between the two streets (traditional and gentrified…) and a symbol of the changing city. Social and political issues both local and national are present on its ever-changing walls, where beautiful art meets strong statements. Some sections of the alley’s walls, which are covered entirely with street art, rotate regularly while others claim their permanent place. The tension between the old and the new SF is palpable, and the expressions of the community can be clearly seen. If you’re lucky, you may even see one of the artists working as you walk down the alleyway.


Valencia Street

Other than Mission Street itself, Valencia Street is the main drag of the Mission District. Home to many of the shops, bars, and restaurants that have gentrified the area, it’s where you’ll find much of the city’s trendiest spots. It’s enjoyable to walk down Valencia and see old vs. new, classic vs. modern throughout.

Mission District street art


Taqueria El Buen Sabor

I was particularly excited for this stop on the tour — one, because food, and two, a taqueria I hadn’t been to yet! It’s the sister stop of another favorite of mine (Pancho Villa, near 16th and Mission) and it has an excellent taco happy hour daily from 3-5pm. The first and only thing I knew about the Mission when I first arrived was the Mission burrito, which to this day remains one of my biggest delights. This is the true San Francisco treat, folks.

Mission burrito, San Francisco


Mission Dolores and Dolores Cemetery

For all the times I’ve walked through the Mission District, I hadn’t ever realized the history behind the neighborhood’s namesake. Mission Dolores is both the oldest intact mission in California and the oldest building in all of San Francisco. It was one of the only structures to survive the 1906 earthquake. Aside from that it’s just amazingly beautiful. We were also told the history of the Dolores Cemetery, another one of few within SF.

See, locals can learn something new, too!

Mission Dolores, SF


Dolores Park

If there ever was a place that summed up the Mission, it’s Dolores Park. Perhaps it’s because at times it feels like the entire city is hanging out there — from tech bros to families to artists and hipsters. There’s the coconut rum man, the Macaw parrots, and any combination of yogis and lawn games to suit your style. If you can tear yourself away from the people watching, it also has one of the best views you’ll find of the city skyline. Foodies may feel so inclined as to grab ice cream from

Foodies may feel so inclined as to grab ice cream from Bi Rite or pizza from nearby Delfina and take it with them to the park (beware, everyone else does too.) Dolores is also one of the best spots to get some sunshine, even when fog creeps in on the rest of the city.

Dolores Park view, San Francisco

I couldn’t have been grateful to the other travelers who allowed me to join them. Germany, New Zealand, China, Australia, and Russia were some of the many countries represented on our walk. Thank you for the gift of seeing my city through traveler’s eyes!

The tour guides Mel and El were excellent, bringing to life some of what makes this my favorite city on Earth (and what might easily be overlooked by visitors.)

HI USA Downtown gives this Mission District walking tour to its guests every week on Saturday. I encourage you to learn more about HI USA’s Green Footprints and sustainability initiatives in San Francisco and throughout the US!

And I hope the next time you’re in San Francisco, you’ll give the Mission some of your time. I’ll meet you there… 😉



Other favorite Mission spots….

  • Al’s Place
  • Mission Chinese
  • Foreign Cinema
  • Beretta
  • Bar Tartine
  • Flour+Water
  • Taqueria Cancun
  • El Farolito
  • La Taqueria
  • Pancho Villa
  • Trick Dog
  • Evil Eye
  • Southern Pacific
  • El Techo (Rooftop!)
  • Elbo Room
  • Four Barrel Coffee
  • Ritual
  • Sightglass
  • Revolution Cafe
  • Bi Rite Market (ice cream!)
  • Samovar Tea (get the chai)
  • Arizmendi Bakery
  •  Tartine
  • Salumeria
  • Dandelion Chocolate
  • Dogeared Books
  • 876 Valencia (The Pirate Store)
  • Therapy (clothing and accessories)
  • Aquarius Records
  • Dijital Fix

Note: this was not a paid partnership, just something I believe in!


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  1. You might not be aware of this knowledge but I too have seen a side of San Francisco that not many others besides myself have seen. When I arrived from Hamburg, Germany for a quick trip to sample the jewel of Californian cities, I ended up being taken in by a group of my fellow countrymen. They showed me their house, including the two trash cans: The blue one for all the recycling stuff, the black one for the rest. I was impressed – my German prejudices about American’s ecological awareness were disproved within the first hours of my arrival. Truly travel is a destroyer of prejudices.

    • Anne Lowrey

      Thanks for your comment, Hans! We do love our recycling here 🙂 Glad you enjoyed SF!

  2. Love love love this article. I’m in a similar situation of having been associated with San Francisco as both a visitor and resident! I love seeing the older side of the city, and this article highlights these older and newer neighborhoods/restaurants really well 🙂 I would love to talk to you more about it if you want to shoot me an email at [email protected] or message me on my travel blog, Golden Poppy Photography & Lifestyle 🙂

    • Anne Lowrey

      Hi Camellia, thanks so much for your note! It’s great to connect. I love that you appreciate both sides of the city as well – I think too often one or the other can get lost here! We can definitely talk in more depth about it. Cheers!

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