SAN FRANCISCO — It's the question no local wants to hear when entertaining friends or family from out of town — "Can we go to Fisherman's Wharf to see the sea lions?"
Or even worse — maybe your loved ones suggest a Segway or double-decker bus tour.
Nothing sucks the fun out of a Saturday afternoon like fighting through hordes of tourists pointing cameras at enormous, barking marine mammals, lugging armloads of shopping bags, and chowing down on clam chowder.
But, thanks to a new feature from Airbnb, there's now an alternative to traditional sightseeing. Since launching its "experiences" feature in November — a major step that put the home-sharing start-up on track to become an all-inclusive travel platform — Airbnb has tripled the program's reach and now offers more than 1,800 offbeat activities hosted by locals in 30 cities around the world. That includes 300 experiences in San Francisco, ranging from a ramen-cooking class to a sailing lesson on the bay to a tour of Mission District murals. There's also a handful outside the city, including a trip to a Watsonville farm, a cultural walking tour of Berkeley, and a beer-making class in Santa Rosa.
I tagged along on two to get a taste of what these excursions are like.
On a recent Friday morning, two groups of strangers met on a street corner in San Francisco to check a unique experience off their sightseeing itinerary: "forest bathing."
Started in Japan as a way for urban dwellers to reconnect with nature, forest bathing essentially means taking a leisurely hike, with plenty of pauses to do things like talk to a tree or listen to the sounds of nature. For this group of four tourists, it meant a walk through the Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve — a little-known eucalyptus forest near Twin Peaks.
"For people visiting San Francisco, I think it's a great way to see a side of the city that you might not otherwise see," said the day's host, 29-year-old Julia Plevin, who lives in the Mission District.
Plevin started the trip by inviting everyone to spend 15 minutes walking slowly and silently through the eucalyptus trees shrouded in early-morning mist. Later, she instructed her charges to imagine that they had just landed on Earth and asked them to make observations about the plants growing in the foreign landscape around them. Yvonne Scharf, 54, of San Diego, quickly got into the game, pointing out a fern- and a moss-covered log to her friend ,Linda Rickard, 57, as though it were the first time she'd seen such things.
Scharf, a lover of trees, had wanted to show her friend Muir Woods but decided it was too difficult and expensive without a car. Paying $25 per person for a forest bath at Mount Sutro seemed like a perfect alternative.
The group walked a total of about 3.5 miles, stopping periodically to nibble wild blackberries and nasturtium blossoms growing along the trail.
For Plevin, these weekly walks allow her to make money doing what she loves — sharing tranquil nature experiences with others. She started a forest-bathing group in 2015 — one of the first in the U.S. — and the concept has exploded since then. Her group has 500 members now, and NPR, CNN, and even WebMD have written about it.
Heather Bailey, 69, of Vermont, said the walk gave her a chance to experience a tranquil part of a seemingly busy city.
"It was really awesome," Bailey said. "I felt like we really connected with the Earth while we were walking through the forest, and there was really no city here."
When you think of "painted ladies," chances are what comes to mind is the famously stunning — and famously touristy — row of Victorian houses across from Alamo Square Park. But the city has many more hidden Victorian gems if you know where to look.
The first stop of this historic walking tour was the Queen Anne Hotel at Sutter and Octavia Streets, where the group of about a dozen tourists went inside and got a firsthand look at an ornate Victorian interior. From there, the tour wound through the lower Pacific Heights and Pacific Heights neighborhoods, following host Jay Gifford as he skillfully avoided hills. Impressive Victorians were scattered all along the walk, and Gifford, 61, a self-taught architecture expert who has lived in San Francisco since 1979, seemed to know the history behind most of them.
Gifford even showed the group the house where Mrs. Doubtfire was filmed, and the house a few doors down where Robin Williams once lived.
Gifford has been giving his Victorians walking tour for 20 years — ever since he was laid off by IBM. But it became increasingly hard for his small business to compete with the tour buses and large platforms, like TripAdvisor. Business has spiked since he began listing his tours on the Airbnb platform in May. These days, nearly every tour has 10 people — up from the three or four, or sometimes zero, he saw before.
He charges $25 per person, $5 of which goes to Airbnb.
If you take his tour, you might learn architecture nuggets such as:
The tour packed in a lot of information, but it didn't bore Bob and Sue McQuillen of Melbourne, Australia. They were staying at an Airbnb in Pacific Heights and used the Victorians tour as a way to learn about the neighborhood they called home for a few days.
"All the little things you don't know and can't even read in a book," Sue McQuillen said, "it brings the place to life a little bit."