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San Francisco Walking Tours

Home > San Francisco > Walks | Tours | Free | Cinema | Architecture
by Nadine Cresswell-Myatt (subscribe)
Freelance writer exploring Melbourne and beyond. If you enjoy the following article click on the Like button, Facebook it to your friends or subscribe to my articles. I'll update you with lots of fun and often free adventures in your home town.
Published August 2nd 2018
Free Architectural and Cinema Related Walking Tours
James Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock
Image from SFC Guides used to promote their Hitchcock walks


What captivates tourists visiting San Francisco are not always the amazing bay views, Alcatraz or even the girders of the Golden Gate Bridge shining like red-hot pokers in the sunset.

San Francisco architecture fire escapes
San Francisco's fire escapes have a beauty all their own @nadinecresswellmyatt


Instead, for film director Alfred Hitchcock and today's tourists such as myself, it is the intricate web of fire escapes. It is the tourist attraction Sanfrans don't even realise they have. Yet they are an intricate part of the city's fabric, a filigree of external landings, stairs and ladders crisscrossing the facades of some of the city's most notable buildings.

San Francisco architecture fire escapes
Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt


Alfred Hitchcock was obsessed with these fire escapes. Although English born, Hitchcock fell in love with San Francisco when he visited to shoot Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca in Monterey County in 1939.

Hitchcock and his wife bought a ranch and vineyard in Scotts Valley. They regularly flew into San Francisco, where a chauffeured black limousine would whisk them down to their estate. One of Hitchcock's favourite pastimes was wandering the streets of the City by the Bay with an eye for film settings.

San Francisco architecture fire escapes
Chinatown firescapes- photo @nadinecresswellmyatt


In Vertigo (1958) the city is as much a character as James Stewart or Kim Novak. Rewatch the famous film and note that it starts with a close up of a roof parapet and the curved rail of a fire escape. And while Rear Window was set in New York, the inspiration could easily have come from San Francisco where Hitchcock loved his architectural wanderings.

Like James Stewart in Vertigo, you also need to look up and not down! Some fire escapes are pink, others green and the diagonal slated shadows these fixtures create in the early light of morning or just before dusk is mesmerizing.

San Francisco architecture fire escapes
Don't look down as you could get vertigo - photo @nadinecresswellmyatt


There are many tours where you will get to see such charming scapes. But before panning to these it is worth noting why there is such a preponderance of beautiful and ornate fire escapes in the city.

It has to do with history. In 1906 the famous earthquake on the San Andreas, Fault decimated the city ripping gaping fissures in the streets. Toppled candles fell on broken gas lines that ignited what became a furnace of flames.

San Francisco architecture fire escapes
Chancellor Hotel -photo @nadinecresswellmyatt


When firemen attached hoses to hydrants, they found there was little or no water because of burst mains after the quake. The fires grew into an inferno so intense that temperatures reached upward of 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. Flames soared and crackled, producing a huge black plume of smoke that some claimed rose five miles into the sky. When it cleared, the decimation was evident as 80% of the city had been destroyed.

It could have been a funeral pyre, as some 3000 people had lost their lives in the tragedy, but instead, the once grand city rose from the ashes. Buildings were rebuilt or refurbished. A wonderful example was the luxurious Fairmont Hotel atop of Nob Hill, due to open its doors just as the earthquake hit. The structure remained but fires tore through the building. When this luxurious hotel reopened its doors in 1907 - exactly a year after the Great Earthquake and Fire, it symbolised San Francisco's rebirth.

San Francisco architecture fire escapes
Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt


After such a catastrophic event fire safety became an incredibly important element in new buildings and so the intricate web of fire escapes came into play.

They became an important element of San Francisco's urban culture. Landings were a place for residents to chat with their neighbours or sit out on warm summer evenings. They could string out their washing (you can still see this colourful sight in Chinatown today) or create little gardens, totally illegal of course, as these blocked egress.

San Francisco architecture fire escapes
Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt


Today the fire escapes provide not only an amazing sight but also many photographic opportunities, as their horizontal slats form a play of light and shade on some of San Francisco's most stunning buildings.

For a chance to see some of the city's intricate web of fire escapes take a free tour with City Tours. It is run by locals that love their city so much they are proud to show it off to tourists.

San Francisco architecture fire escapes
Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt


The following tours will allow you to walk past some of the most stunning fire escapes in the city.

Alfred Hitchcock's San Francisco

Jay Sherwin spent 40 years watching Hitchcock films and taking Hitchcock film classes before then deciding to use all this knowledge as a basis for these walks. From Nob Hill to Union Square, you'll see some of the hotels, clubs, retail stores and other locations featured in Vertigo. You will hear why Hitchcock chose these settings and how he filmed them. Other films covered in this tour include The Birds and Family Plot, but a prior viewing of Vertigo is helpful to gain the most from this tour. For free tours, click here.

Fairmont Hotel Tour

Fairmont Hotel San Francisco
Fairmont foyer with guests who are rich enough to take their dogs to fancy hotels @nadinecresswellmyatt


Despite her age, the Fairmont is still one of San Francisco's grandest old dames. The architect, Julia Morgan was the first woman to graduate from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and went on to design Hearst Castle. Standing in the lobby, it looks so ritzy you feel like you are standing in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby set. It has bedded presidents and politicians, royalty and dignitaries, and entertainers. In fact, it is where Tony Bennett first performed his song 'I Left My Heart in San Francisco'. The cast and crew of Vertigo stayed at the Fairmont hotel and Hitchcock when he was in town for the night. With its intricate web of fire escapes one cannot help wonder how many patrons escaped without paying their steep hotel bills. For the free tours, click here.

Fairmont Hotel San Francisco
The outside of the Fairmont Hotel - photo @nadinecresswellmyatt


[BA Touch of Glass: Glass in San Francisco's Commercial Architecture.[/B]

In this tour, you will witness the legacies of more than 15 architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham and Timothy Pflueger. Learn how the 1906 Earthquake created a new city blueprint that allowed the Chicago School, Gothic Revival, Arts and Crafts, International, and Post-Modern styles to emerge downtown. One of the most impressive buildings on the tour is the

Hallidie Building with its beautifully ornate lace-like Gothic fire escapes inspired by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement.

San Francisco architecture fire escapes the Hallidie Building
San Francisco architecture fire escapes the Hallidie Building- photo @nadinecresswellmyatt


While the above tours are all FREE, small donations to help with the running costs are accepted. For most of the free tours, you simply meet at a designated time and street corner, but due to restricted numbers, you do need to register for the popular Fairmont Hotel tour. Click here.

For a timetable of all the free walking tours run by City Tours, click here.


There are 200 trained volunteers who lead, FREE history and architectural walking tours in San Francisco. Tours are offered 52 weeks a year, rain or shine. Approximately 30 different walks are offered each month.

San Francisco architecture fire escapes
Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt


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Why? San Fransciso has some beautiful architecture including may ornate fire escapes
When: Throughout the year
Phone: Not available
Where: San Francisco
Cost: Mostly Free
Your Comment
Oh my gosh, Nadine, what a unique idea for an article - I can't believe the variety of staircases!
by Elaine (score: 3|5597) 104 days ago
Beautiful descriptions and great photos!
by elivi (score: 1|73) 94 days ago
Beautiful descriptions and great photos! I love that you found a William Morris connection.
by elivi (score: 1|73) 94 days ago
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