San Francisco is full of neat places to see and interesting things to do. Depending on the amount of time you have set for your visit to the city, you might want to consider taking tours to give you a good introduction to the city. In my experience these either provide you with a more in-depth visit to see certain landmarks or a way to simply get a broad overview of the various things the city has to offer.
Either way, you can choose from these tours to customize how you want to spend your time while in the city.
I found there were several benefits to going on a structured tour. You know what you'll be seeing, you won't get lost and you'll receive the personal knowledge shared by your tour guides. We also spent a lot of time self-touring as well.
Here are a few of the tours to consider to take while visiting the city on the bay:
One of my personal favorite ways to tour San Francisco was a trolley tour. There are a couple of different car companies to choose from which gives you the opportunity to customize your tour to maximize your visit. In my experience, the trolley tours are narrated by locals who are very familiar with both the history and current events in San Francisco.
Trolley tours are terrific, especially if you have children. The kids love the open window structure of the trolley car and it is an interesting way to see as many areas in the city as you can without tiring the kids out through hitting the pavement. One benefit of the trolley tour is it gives you an opportunity to see highlights of "everything" and then you can later choose which areas you want to return to in order to enjoy a more in-depth visit.
On the trolley tour you'll be taken to various places throughout the city to see landmark sites. Our particular tour included the Golden Gate Bridge, Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory, Presidio, Exploratorium, Coit Tower, Fisherman's Wharf and Lombard Street (to name several landmark places in the city). We were also taken through the many neighborhoods in San Francisco, including Chinatown, Japantown, Nob Hill, Union Square, North Beach, Pacific Heights and more.
Some of the tours offer a few stops, such as the Golden Gate Bridge or the Exploratorium, where you can get out and walk around for short periods of time to stretch your legs and/or get a closer look at the sights.
We got out at the Golden Gate Bridge to stretch and take a look around. Was glad we were able to do this as we didn't get back over to that area during the rest of our week's visit.
If you are only going to visit San Francisco once in your life, taking the Alcatraz tour is a great sightseeing activity to put on your "must see" list. The infamous former jail and military location is San Francisco's top attraction. Before going, one of my friends told me to make sure we made time to take this tour and to check early since tickets can sell out (we took her advice and bought the tickets upon arrival, we did have a 2 or 3 day wait).
The view of the island from the shore is rather pretty, but when you take the ferry across the bay and tour the island itself and view the city's shore from afar, it's spectacular. Visiting Alcatraz Park is free, but you do need to buy a ferry ticket at the pier to get there (if you're arriving during a busy season, you can also make reservations online).
The ride across the bay is only about 10-15 minutes and a scenic ride. After your arrival at the island, you can stay as long as you like and explore the many exhibits and the prison itself. The history of Alcatraz is interesting and the tour offers an audio accompaniment for a small nominal fee (I believe this has changed and audio is part of the tour now - but double check this if you buy tickets in case it's changed again). We found the audio enhanced our visit as it gave us a distinct feeling of how life in the prison was, whether as an employee or a prisoner.
View inside one of the cell blocks at Alcatraz (2006)
Most famous cities usually have some sort of "ghost tour" and San Francisco is no exception. If spooky stories are your thing, you might want to consider going on one of the local ghost tours offered in the San Francisco neighborhoods. Haunted Haight Walking Tour is offered on Saturday nights at 7 p.m. (rain or shine according to the website)1 and is led by locals who are versed in the neighborhood's history to offer a re-telling of the area's best paranormal events.
The San Francisco Ghost Hunt takes place in Pacific Heights and starts at the Queen Anne Hotel. The tour is led by a local who decks himself out with trench coat and top hat to lead the way while he recounts chilling tales from the neighborhood. The tour is currently being advertise as 3 hours and the walk is about a mile. 2
These tours are $20 per adult (check for prices for kids' tickets. Some tours are not recommended for the little ones).
Walking tours are another excellent way to experience San Francisco. There are several walking tours available for you to be guided through the city. Many tours charge a fee in the area of $20, but the there are some free tours. For instance, City Guides tours are given by volunteers who share a passion for the city. The organization does indicate donations are welcome if you wish to give one. Current schedules of the various free tours offered are listed on the organization's web page. 3
Of course, you can always grab a map and create your own itinerary to do a self-guided tour. We spent a large portion of our week doing just that.
There are many fantastic tours you can take when visiting San Francisco in the various neighborhoods or landmarks. The best way to decide is to read up on the many places you want to see and then try and customize your tours to match your interests. I'd definitely recommend the trolley tour though (especially if you are like me and like to plan trips on an "as you go" basis). I found taking this ride really helped us pinpoint the things we wanted to see and it turned out to be interesting, informational and a great time saver.
[Related reading: 5 Not to Be Missed Sights in San Francisco ]
USS Pampanito WWII submarine located at Pier 45 on Fisherman's Wharf. This was one of the many interesting tours we took during our week in San Francisco.