No vehicle is more closely associated with San Francisco’s hippie history than the Volkswagen bus. Nostalgic for a time they never experienced themselves—the Summer of Love—local couple Josh Armel and Virgine De Paepe decided to transform a fleet of VW buses into roving time machines. They’ve owned and operated the Painted Ladies Tour Company since 2017.
Armel and De Paepe, who playfully finish each other’s sentences, had been renting out a room on Airbnb in their Mission District home and found themselves fielding perennial requests from their guests for a locals’ tour of San Francisco. They briefly considered squiring folks around town in their beat-up Ford Explorer but then lit on a brighter idea.
The couple’s son, Max, helped recruit their first customers. One day, the family parked a white VW bus in front of the Ferry Building, and Max, who was 5 years old at the time, held a cardboard sign that read “free tours, free coffee.” They hung out for a few hours before a family from New Zealand hopped on board. Soon after, Painted Ladies started to build up their fleet.
The buses, which are gussied up with vibrant paint jobs and headlight eyelashes, each have their own name. The first was Pearl—a reference to the Janis Joplin album. There’s also Poppy, an orange van named after the California state flower. Each bus seats around seven people, and Armel and De Paepe emphasized that even if tour goers start the day off as strangers, they leave as friends.
Armel, who was raised in San Francisco and Marin, also sees the tours as an opportunity to reach across the bench seat, if you will. “We’ve seen in the years past how divided things in the country have become,” he said. “No matter where people are from, or what their views on the country are, we try to set that aside and find common ground.”
Winding through storied neighborhoods like Haight-Ashbury, Chinatown, North Beach—and of course, the company’s namesake row of Victorian houses—the tours offer a 360-degree view of San Francisco history. Armel said his favorite sight on the tour is Twin Peaks, while De Paepe, who hails from Belgium, said she loves to show visitors Fort Point, particularly if any surfers are out catching a wave. “I’m always amazed when they don’t crash!” she said.
Armel added that he and his partner also feel a responsibility to prop up their neighbors. “What we’re really focusing on for next year is really supporting the small businesses in San Francisco that are really struggling because of Covid,” he said.
It’s no secret that these Ladies are mechanically mercurial. The couple told The Standard about an early comical mishap from when the company was first starting out. The gas gauge malfunctioned, leaving the bus out of fuel while ambling down a hill. The group banded together to push the bus to the safety of a nearby gas station. Nowadays, Armel and De Paepe have a roster of specialized mechanics on retainer to make sure the buses remain in pristine working condition.
Inspiring joy. Courage and determination.
Negativity, naysayers and the meter maid.
Impatience, stubbornness and 1960s German engineering.
Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, Allen Ginsberg, John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter.
Trying to be the best we can with the time we have here. And no more breakdowns.