A more joyful way to tour the Bay — In a vintage VW Bus

(November 6, 2021) Josh Armel and Virgine De Paepe, the married couple behind San Francisco’s Painted Ladies Tour Company, have countless stories about how their tour fleet of brightly hued vintage Volkswagen Buses brings joy to guests and passersby alike. There’s the tough-looking biker who suddenly grinned and flashed the peace sign when he spotted one of the buses. There’s the Bay Area tech company that rented the Painted Ladies fleet for the Pride Parade, tossing daisies to the crowd from one of the Buses.

Then there’s the group that booked a tour to celebrate a sister’s birthday. The sister “loved Volkswagen Buses so much,” recalls Josh. “She had no idea there was a company that could take you around in one. When she saw it pull up, she almost broke down in tears; she was so excited.”

Moments like these are what make Painted Ladies Tour Company—named after a much-photographed row of colorful Victorian houses in San Francisco’s Alamo Square—so popular with Bay Area visitors.

Fully licensed as a charter and sightseeing business, Painted Ladies Tour Company offers a San Francisco city tour exploring key attractions such as Union Square, Chinatown, The Presidio, The Haight, and The Castro, while including photo stops for capturing iconic images like Lombard Street, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Alamo Square.

The company also operates a Sonoma Valley wine country tour, visiting smaller, award-winning wineries and tasting rooms. And it hosts private, customizable experiences for everything from weddings to corporate events.

The compact size of the buses allows them to get close to city sights that larger tour buses can’t, from the vibrant murals in The Mission to the actual “Painted Ladies” houses in Alamo Square. Their smaller capacity — a maximum of six or seven people — also affords a more personalized experience for guests. Josh says that each tour provides “an intimate experience where you’re building personal connections,” while still maintaining careful health and safety protocols.

Eclectic backgrounds, shared values

Virgine, a licensed therapist originally from Belgium, and Josh, a nearly lifelong Bay Area local with a background in music and hospitality, bring the complementary perspectives of visitor and insider to Painted Ladies, as well as a shared passion for facilitating people’s joy and well-being.

These influences help to ensure that Painted Ladies tours capture the genuine spirit of the city that Josh and Virgine love so much. “It was important for us to win our community’s heart,” Virgine says, reflecting on the days when they were first envisioning the company. “We wanted [the tour experience] to be very authentic to what San Francisco is about.”

The company’s tour guides add to that sense of warmth and authenticity. According to Josh, they’re not only able to share local insights, but also express their winning personalities. “We try to have [guides] who are fun and bring the good vibes,” he explains.

Stars of the show: the vintage VW Bus fleet

The tour guides are not the only draw. The company’s fully restored vintage Type 2 Transporter Buses, each with its own charming character, have gained their own diehard fans.

The buses all have names with California connections. Among them are Pearl, a 1968 model whose moniker comes from an album recorded in California by Janis Joplin; Poppy, a 1975 model named for the Golden Poppy, California’s state flower; Skye, a 1971 model whose name references the Golden State’s ultra-blue skies; and Buttercup, a 1974 model inspired by the California Buttercup flowering plant.

Before joining the active fleet, each bus gets a makeover typically involving a new engine and transmission, along with upgrades to tires and brakes if needed. To enhance safety, each vehicle gets lap belts for every seat, plus shoulder restraints in front. Add a new sound system and convenient USB charging ports — “which weren’t standard in 1968,” Josh notes with a laugh — and the result is a unique roadgoing experience that blends classic and modern.

It was Virgine’s idea to add whimsical eyelash extensions to the headlights. Josh, meanwhile, transformed some of the vinyl headliners of the Buses by replacing them with birch wood panels, which he then covered with distinctive wallpaper prints to create overhead murals. Hot-pink Buttercup, for example, has a beautiful floral headliner.

Painted Ladies tours are in high demand, so it’s a good idea to reserve as far in advance as possible. The company’s scores of positive online reviews suggest that the wait is well worth it.

As Virgine says, spending time with Painted Ladies Tour Company is a chance to “just be in the present moment and enjoy it.” The couple’s primary focus, Josh adds, is to “put a big smile on your face.”