San Francisco is one of the most visited cities in the U.S. and it is easy to see why. If locations were photogenic, The City, as the locals love to proudly call it, would be right up there with the best of them.
But we’ll call it picturesque, because it is strikingly beautiful, and not just in photographs.
With a majesty nestled against waters, islands, rolling hills, skyscrapers, colourful neighbourhoods, sunshine, sailboats and more sunshine, SF simply has no bad angle from which to capture it.
If you are on a sightseeing mission in San Francisco, time may be your only issue because the city is not short of beautiful attractions to revel in.
Luckily, there is a myriad of tours of the city that will ensure you milk every second out of your short sojourn in the City by the Bay.
Here are a couple of our favourites.
1. Golden Gate Bay Cruise
The Golden Gate Bay Cruise has been a favourite fixture in San Francisco since its launch in 1939, two years after the opening of what has become the archetypal postcard depiction of San Francisco: the Golden Gate Bridge.
The one-hour cruise departs every day from 10:00 am, making 8-14 trips a day.
Despite what might seem like a short duration, the cruise reveals a lot about the city through an audio commentary offered in 16 languages via personal headset.
You will learn the intriguing history of San Francisco and the cruise is guaranteed to be a feast for the eyes.
You will sail under the imposing Golden Gate Bridge (one of the new Seven Wonders of the World), past North Beach and the swimming clubs of Aquatic Park, and around the Alcatraz.
You will get a chance to catch a glimpse of the historic vessels at San Francisco Maritime National Park and Hyde Street Pier, as well as take in the stunning views of the lush hillsides of Presidio and Crissy Field.
Expect close encounters with the marine kind, including whales, dolphins, sea lions and pelicans.
A fully stocked bar on board offers drinks at reasonable prices and the boat carries snacks and merchandise to ensure you are fully sorted out during the cruise.
2. Gain Admission at the Legendary Monterey Bay Aquarium
Book the Monterey Bay Aquarium tour to skip the line at the busy aquarium widely regarded as one of the best in the world.
This is primed to be one of the most awe-inspiring tours you will take in San Francisco, and it won’t take you long to understand why this aquarium was the setting for Pixar’s Finding Dory and HBO’s Big Little Lies.
The undersea world offers stunning views of marine life that range from whales to fish so colourful they resemble underwater pop art.
3. Escape from The Rock Cruise of San Francisco Bay
If you are doing San Francisco, make sure to factor in a tour of the infamous Alcatraz.
The island is home to the famous maximum-security prison that housed the likes of Al Capone, Harvey Bailey (aka The Dean of American Bank Robbers), George “Machine Gun” Kelly and more.
This cruise will take you on an hour-and-a-half tour of the island, sailing underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.
It will paint a vivid picture of what the penitentiary was like at a time when it was deemed the most feared institution in the American penal system.
Stories of the criminals are narrated on board, as well as the chilling escape attempts made by notorious criminals like Clyde Johnson and Billy Cook the Killer whose escape attempts remain the stuff of legend.
4. San Francisco Hop-On Hop-Off Tour
In a city as rich in attractions as San Francisco, visiting all the major draws is a challenge in itself.
But that’s what the San Francisco Hop-on Hop-Off Tour is exactly designed to do: simplify it all for you by condensing it into a capsule of two-and-a-half hours.
The route stops at over 20 notable points of interest scattered around the West Coast city.
You will learn about the city’s history, get to absorb the sweeping views of San Francisco Bay, enjoy the beautiful parks, immerse yourself in the diverse culture and marvel at the city’s stunning architecture atop an open-air sightseeing bus.
You have the option between a Classic, Premium or Deluxe Ticket and most buses have either live guides or pre-recorded commentary in 10 different languages via headphones.
5. San Francisco Grand City Tour with Alcatraz Ticket
We get it, San Francisco can feel overwhelming at times if you are not sure where to start. And even if you do, there is the hassle of renting a car, putting up with traffic and contending with parking tickets.
In such a case, we would recommend the SF Grand City Tour with Alcatraz Ticket.
This is an eight-hour guided tour of San Francisco that takes you to all the famous landmarks in the city aboard a luxury coach.
The tour affords you the chance to get off the coach and take photos of the sights at each stop. These include, among others, North Beach, Chinatown, Union Square, Palace of Fine Arts, Nob Hill, and of course, the Golden Gate Bridge.
This ticket also covers a tour of Alcatraz Prison, which was used as a federal prison between 1934 and 1963.
6. Napa & Sonoma Valley Wine Tour from San Francisco
Looking for a stimulating day trip in San Francisco?
Why not head out on a day-long tasting adventure in the picturesque Napa Valley and Sonoma vineyard country?
This guided tour will give you a detailed account of the history of winemaking in these two regions, from the time early Spanish settlers carried grape vines from Europe to the intriguing tales of the Forty-Niners (gold seekers during the Californian Gold Rush) who served wine in saloons.
The tour involves a stop at three wineries, each of which will involve a walkthrough of their winemaking craft. A tour of the winery cannot be complete without some good ol’ tasting, and you will be glad to hear that this is included in the ticket.
There will be a stopover for lunch either in the heart of Napa at Vintage 1870 or the Historical Sonoma Square.
Just don’t forget to bring along a bottle of water so you don’t get too tipsy.
7. Half-Day Golden Gate Catamaran Cruise & Alcatraz Visit
San Francisco is a city surrounded by water on three sides, so it makes sense to spend some time viewing the city from this angle.
A one-and-a-half-hour-long catamaran cruise is sure to unlock the beauty of San Francisco Bay as it provides an up-close view of the idyllic San Francisco skyline.
Look out for sea lions during the cruise, and if you are the kind of person who loves to get their pulses racing, you can spend some moments on the canvas trampoline nets as you feel the waves beneath your feet.
There is a snack bar on board should you feel thirsty or hungry. If you fancy being captain for the day, the captain and crew might just offer you the chance to steer the boat yourself if you ask.
This tour also involves a ferry ride from San Francisco’s Pier 33 to Alcatraz Prison, where you are taken on a 45-minute award-winning audio tour of the cells.
8. San Francisco to Yosemite Park Small Group Tour
Yosemite is the perfect complement to the urban surrounds of San Francisco. It is dotted with iconic scenery that it would take more than a lifetime to exhaust it all. Seriously.
The good thing is, it is possible to discover some of the park’s highlights on a day-long expedition.
This is a 15-hour fully guided group tour that involves hotel pick-up and drop-off by bus, assigning priority to the waterfalls and rock formations of Yosemite Valley.
But it does a good job of giving you a little taste of much that Yosemite has to offer.
This includes a stop at Central Valley, the largest agricultural region in the U.S. Here, you can enjoy the valley’s trademark fruits such as cherries, walnuts, almonds and strawberries.
This will then be followed by a visit to the rolling foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. The tour proceeds to the mountains through gold country and makes a pit stop at Yosemite National Park.
You will be guided on a 1.5-hour coach tour of the famed glaciated valley as you take in the stunning views of the notable rock formations and waterfalls, including Yosemite Falls, which is North America’s tallest waterfall.
Other highlights include Bridalveil Falls, the Half Dome, El Capitan, Sentinel Dome and more, and the tour is sensibly designed to allow you 3-4 hours of free time to discover the valley by yourself.
9. San Francisco: Bridge to Bridge Cruise
Hop on a 90-minute cruise along San Francisco Bay and catch a glimpse of the two prominent bridges in the city: the illustrious Golden Gate Bridge and the colossal San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
The boat ride sets off from Fisherman’s Wharf, one of the most graced tourist attractions in San Francisco, with a personal audio headset guide offered in 16 languages.
You will learn about the city’s landmarks and get the scoop on the history, architecture and Native American culture as you delight in the views of the magnificent San Francisco waterfront.
10. Alcatraz and Big Bus Premium 1-Day Hop-On Hop-Off
The Big Bus Premium is a combined hop-on-hop-off ticket that allows you to get the most out of San Francisco for a bar
It is a full-day tour that involves 20 stops, starting off at the corner of Jefferson & Mason Street and ending at Pier 39 Fisherman’s Wharf.
The combined premium ticket includes a self-guided audio tour of Alcatraz Island, along with four walking tours of some of the most fascinating neighbourhoods in San Francisco – the historic Barbary Coast, Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach and China Town.
What’s more, you also get to see the city come to life at night with a two-hour panoramic night tour that will offer you a glimpse of the other side of San Francisco.
11. San Francisco Dinner Dance Cruise
If there is one thing San Francisco is known for, it is the awe-inspiring sunsets that have bonded many a romantic interest and ignited a flame in others.
And nothing beats watching the San Francisco sun go down than enjoying it from a boat.
The party starts as the city lights from the Golden Gate and Bay Bridge usher the night into existence, marking the start of a scrumptious four-course gourmet dinner that showcases the best ingredients this part of the state has to offer.
Live music serenades you in the background as your boat slowly glides past the Golden Gate Bridge, Angel Island, Alcatraz, the Bay Bridge, the scenic Sausalito, and Tiburon, marking a perfect night out.
12. Muir Woods Tour of California Coastal Redwoods
A trip to The Golden State feels incomplete without enjoying a piece of its interesting topography.
In San Francisco, few locations provide a better opportunity to enjoy the natural splendour than Muir Woods National Forest.
This tour will see you cross the Golden Gate Bridge and into the wilds of California, where the famed ancient redwood trees await you at Muir Woods.
The excursion takes three-and-a-half hours. You will have 90 minutes all to yourself to explore the hiking trails in the national forest and relish in the tranquillity offered by the 1000-year-old trees.
Once you’re done with the forest, the tour will take you to the coastal city of Sausalito, which is known for its sprawling views and a sophistication most popular waterfront cities can only aspire for.
13. Bay Sailing Tour with Drinks
Sometimes, all we need is to kick back and soak in the surrounds without being overwhelmed with a new city.
The Bay Sailing Tour allows you to do just that as you sip on two complimentary drinks of your choice: soft beverages, wine, beer, water, or whatever suits the mood.
This is a two-hour cruise on a beautiful 28-passenger sailboat that lets you unwind on deck as you catch the best views in the bay.
It sails past Angel Island and Alcatraz while guaranteeing you million-dollar views of Marin’s lush landscape and the charming Sausalito.
You are certain to get some good photo opportunities as you sail parallel to the Golden Gate before you get back to enjoy the incredible views of the San Francisco waterfront.
14. San Francisco Bay Aerial Tour
They say you haven’t seen the whole of San Francisco until you see it from above, especially Downtown.
Hayward Flight, known for the safest and most exciting flights in SF, offers you a bird’s eye view of San Francisco with this 45-minute helicopter ride.
That’s just enough time to enjoy all the city’s highlights and snap them from above.
The seasoned pilots will whisk you over the Golden Gate Bridge, Downtown San Francisco, Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39 and along the waterfront.
From there, the Cessna 172 Skyhawk, which accommodates 3 passengers and a pilot, will fly over Alcatraz and Angel Island, as well as the two must-see towns of Sausalito and Tiburon.
15. Seaplane Flight + Alcatraz Cruise & Tour Combo
This tour combo remains a bestseller for a reason.
It combines a 30-minute aerial tour of San Francisco and two cruises in one exclusive package deal, compressed into four hours.
The first bit of the tour involves a 30-minute flight over the beautiful city of San Francisco by seaplane, making sure to cover a little bit of everything the city has to offer.
You will see it all: The Golden Gate National Reserve; Pt. Bonita Lighthouse; Downtown San Francisco; Crissy Field; AT & T Park (home of the San Francisco Giants); an aerial view of Alcatraz which is a popular destination here, and of course, the Golden Gate Bridge.
You will then ride the ferry across the bay to Alcatraz, with a quick lunch break sandwiching this and the second cruise that will take you to Alcatraz Prison.
At Alcatraz, you can tune in to audio commentary from the former residents to get a handle on the history and living conditions at this infamous penitentiary.
You can explore Alcatraz for as long as you want and when you’ve had enough, a ferry will be awaiting you at Pier 33 (ferries depart in intervals of every 33 minutes or so).