The 49-Mile Scene Drive
This self-guided drive is an easy way to orient yourself and to grasp the beauty of San Francisco and its extraordinary location. Beginning in the city, it follows a rough circle around the bay and passes virtually all the best-known sights, from Chinatown to the Golden Gate Bridge, Ocean Beach, Seal Rocks, Golden Gate Park, and Twin Peaks. Originally designed for the benefit of visitors to San Francisco’s 1939 and 1940 Golden Gate International Exposition, the route is marked by blue-and-white sea gull signs. Although it makes an excellent half-day tour, this 49-mile-long mini-excursion can easily take longer if you decide, for example, to stop to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge or to have tea in Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Tea Garden.
If you are in the area, the San Francisco Visitor Information Center (www.sftravel.com), at Powell and Market streets, distributes free route maps, which are handy since a few of the Scenic Drive marker signs are missing. Otherwise, you can download a great PDF map from their website. Try to avoid the downtown area during the weekday rush hours from 7 to 9am and 4 to 6pm.
San Francisco Segway Tours
Segways are those weird-looking upright scooters you’ve probably seen on TV. The two-wheeled “human transporter” is an ingenious electric-powered transportation device that uses gyroscopes to emulate human balance. Riding a Segway is fairly intuitive: lean forward, go forward; lean back, go back; stand upright, stop. Regardless, don’t worry, there’s a free 45-minute training session before you get on your way. The San Francisco Electric Tour Company offers Segway-powered narrated 2-hour tours—choose from Wharf and Waterfront, Golden Gate Park, Chinatown at Night tours, and more. There’s even a Hills & Crooked Streets tour for advanced riders. For $75, it’s not a bad deal, and it’s the closest you may ever come to being a celebrity (everyone checks you out). Just FYI, you must be at least 12 years old, weigh between 100 and 250 lb., and can’t be pregnant to join the tour. No heels, sandals, or flip-flops. For more information, log onto https://electrictourcompany.com/ or call tel. 415/474-3130. (There are many other companies offering Segway tours, but this one consistently gets the best reviews.)
Do not miss the opportunity to take one of the 80-plus absolutely free walking tours offered in rotation by San Francisco City Guides (tel. 415/557-4266; www.sfcityguides.org), a simply terrific volunteer organization that runs up to a dozen tours a day, from 10am to 2pm, all around town. You don’t need to make a reservation; just show up at the place and time listed online on its home page, where the weekly schedule is kept up-to-date by the group’s single paid employee. Tours are free, but at the end your guide, who will be someone who loves and studies the city and wants to share that love, will pass around an envelope and hope for a few bucks. Some of the cooler tours include a walk through the historic Palace Hotel; City Scapes and Public places, on which you’ll discover hidden rooftop gardens and little-known financial museums downtown; a retelling of the history of the Mission Dolores neighborhood, one of the city’s most historic; and Gold Rush City, which takes in the stomping grounds of the original ‘49ers. Most of the city’s great attractions, from Coit Tower to Fisherman’s Wharf, will have a tour dedicated to their explication. Tours are probably the city’s best bargain, and they’re an inviting way to see some windswept places you may not want to go to alone, including along the walkway of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Fort Mason complex. Some 21,000 people a year take advantage of this terrific service, and frugal city buffs could easily fill their vacations with two or three a day.
Cruisin’ the Castro (tel. 415/255-1821; www.cruisinthecastro.com; $30 adults, $25 children 5–12) is an informative historical tour of San Francisco’s most famous gay quarter, concentrating on the contribution of the gay community to the city’s political maturity, growth, and beauty. This fun and easy walking tour is for all ages, highlighting gay and lesbian history from 1849 to present. Stops include America’s only Pink Triangle Park and Memorial, the original site of the AIDS Quilt Name Project, Harvey Milk’s residence and photo shop, the Castro Theatre, and the Human Rights Campaign and Action Center. Tours run Monday through Saturday from 10am to noon and meet at the Rainbow Flag at the Harvey Milk Plaza on the corner of Castro and Market streets above the Castro Muni station. Reservations are required.
The Haight-Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour (tel. 415/863-1621; www.haightashburytour.com; $20, free for kids 9 and under) explores hippie haunts with Pam and Bruce Brennan (aka “Hippy Gourmet”). You’ll revisit the Grateful Dead’s crash pad, Janis Joplin’s house, and other reminders of the Summer of Love in 2 1/2 short hours. Tours begin at 10:30am on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and Fridays at 11am. Reservations are advised and you can buy tickets online.
To explore the less-touristy side, and get the hidden nooks and crannies of Chinatown, sign up with Wok Wiz Chinatown Walking Tours & Cooking Center, 250 King St., Ste. 268 (tel. 650/355-9657; www.wokwiz.com). Founded in 1984 by the late author and cooking instructor Shirley Fong-Torres, its guides today are all Chinatown natives, who speak fluent Cantonese, and are intimately acquainted with the neighborhood’s history, folklore, culture, and food. Tours run daily from 10am to 1pm and include a seven-course dim sum lunch (a Chinese meal made up of many small plates of food). There’s also a less expensive tour that does not include lunch. Since groups are generally held to a maximum of 15, reservations are essential. The tour (with lunch) costs $50 for adults and $35 for ages 6 to 10; without lunch, it’s $35 and $25, respectively. Tickets can be purchased online. Wok Wiz also operates an I Can’t Believe I Ate My Way Through Chinatown tour, which starts with breakfast, moves to a wok shop, and stops for various nibbles at a vegetarian restaurant, dim sum place, and a marketplace, before taking a break for a sumptuous authentic Cantonese luncheon. It’s offered Saturdays, takes 3 1/2 hours, and costs $90 per person ($50 for children 6–10), food included. The city mourns the loss of Shirley, who passed away in 2011.
Finally, for a tour of the areas where tour busses are forbidden, try Jay Gifford’s Victorian Homes Historical Walking Tour (tel. 415/252-9485; www.victorianhomewalk.com). As you might guess, the tour concentrates on architecture though Jay, a witty raconteur and San Francisco resident for more than 2 decades, also goes deeply into the city’s history—particularly the periods just before and after the great earthquake and fire of 1906. You’ll stroll through Japantown, Pacific Heights, and Cow Hollow. In the process, you’ll see more than 200 meticulously restored Victorians, including the sites where “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Party of Five” were filmed. Tours run daily at 11am rain or shine; cost is $25 per person (cash only).
Several Fisherman’s Wharf companies compete for biking business, and frankly, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between the ones listed below, either in price or quality of the rental equipment. They are Bay City Bike Rentals (baycitybike.com; tel. 415/346-2453), San Francisco Bike Rentals (bikerentalsanfrancisco.com; tel. 415/922-4537) and Wheel Fun (wheelfunrentals.com; tel. 415/770-1978). Along with rentals, the first two offer identical guided bike tours over the Golden Gate Bridge and down into Sausalito. The guided portion of the tour ends in Sausalito, and you are then free to ride more, eat lunch, browse the shops, and take the ferry back at your leisure. (Note: The $11 ferry ride back to Pier 39 is not included in the price, but the two companies can sell you the ticket if you want one—or you can ride back!). Tours start at 10am and take about 3 hours; helmets, locks, maps, and a safety training class are all included. On the other hand, Wheel Fun offers a GPS-guided audio bike tour along the same route, with the added bonus that you can drop off your bike at the Sausalito Bike Return and ride the ferry back, unencumbered.
One of the best ways to look at San Francisco is from a boat bobbing on the bay, where you can take in views of the skyline and the dramatic topography. There are several cruises to choose from. Regardless of which you take, dress in warm layers; it can be freezing cold on the bay.
Blue & Gold Fleet, Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf (blueandgoldfleet.com; tel. 415/705-8203), offers a range of options including a 60-minute tour of the bay that traces the historic waterfront; a 90-minute cruise around Alcatraz Island; and a “guaranteed to get soaked” bay adventure on the flame-covered RocketBoat. Prices for tours range from $31 for an adult on one of the cruises to $42 for a combo ticket of a cruise plus the RocketBoat. Ferries are available to Sausalito, Tiburon, and Angel Island for $20 to $24 roundtrip (adults), $11 to $15 (kids and seniors), and free for ages 5 and under.
The Red & White Fleet, established in 1892, departs daily from Pier 43 1/2 (redandwhite.com; tel. 415/673-2900), offering a variety of bay cruise options including the 90-minute Bridge 2 Bridge ($40 adults, $28 kids 5–17, free 4 and under), 2-hour California Sunset Cruise ($68 adults, $46 kids 5–17, free 4 and under), and Golden Gate tour ($32 adults, $22 kids 5–17, free 4 and under).
San Francisco’s public transportation system can be hard to master for newbies, so these Hop On/Hop Off tours fill a niche, especially for those looking to see just the major sites. A number of different combinations are offered by a number of different companies, but none is significantly better than the others. So before you book think about what you want to see: Do you want a funky old trolley or an open double-decker bus? A tour that crosses the Golden Gate Bridge and visits Sausalito? Look, too, at how many stops are en route and how often the busses start. In the off-season, that might be just twice a day, making a hop-on, hop-off tour more of a "stay on," so study the bus schedules before booking. Companies to compare include Big Bus Tours (www.bigbustours.com), City Sightseeing San Francisco (www.city-sightseeing.us), and the San Francisco Sightseeing Company/Gray Line (www.sanfranciscosightseeing.com). Prices vary depending on the tour. Tip: A second day of hopping on and off can often be added for only a few more dollars, though many people find 1 day on these buses is more than enough.
San Francisco Seaplane Tours (seaplane.com; tel. 415/332-4843), the Bay Area’s only seaplane tour company, is a perfect choice for thrill-seekers. For more than 60 years, this locally owned outfit has provided its customers bird’s-eye views of the city, flying directly over San Francisco at an altitude of about 1,500 feet. Sights you’ll see during the narrated excursions include the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, Alcatraz, Tiburon, and Sausalito. Half the fun, however, is taking off and landing on the water, which is surprisingly smooth. Trips depart from Mill Valley; the company offers complimentary shuttle pickup at Pier 39. Prices range from $149 per person for the 20-minute SF City Sites Tour to $289 for the 60-minute Norcal Coastal Tour. There’s also the 40-minute Sunset Champagne Tour, which includes a bottle of bubbly and a cozy backseat for two. Children’s rates are typically about $20 less, and cameras are most welcome.
Equally thrilling (and perhaps more so if you’ve never been in a helicopter) is a tour of San Francisco and the bay via San Francisco Helicopters. The Vista package ($195 ages 13 and up, $150 ages 2–12) includes free shuttle pickup from your hotel or Pier 39, and a 20-minute tour that takes you over the city, past the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, and Alcatraz Island. After takeoff, the pilot gives a narrated tour and answers questions while the background music adds a bit of a Disney-ride quality to the experience. Tip: The view from the front seat is the best, so you may have to yell “shotgun!” as soon as you spot your ride. Picnic lunch and sunset dinner packages are available as well. For more information or reservations, visit sfhelicopters.com or call tel. 650/635-4500.
A Whale of a Tale
Not many people outside of California know about the Farallon Islands, nor do many people get to visit up close. The entire Gulf of Farallones National Marine Sanctuary is off-limits to civilians, so visitors must gaze from the deck of a fishing or whale-watching boat if they want a peek firsthand.
SF Bay Whale Watching, a veteran eco-tourism company offers trips (starting at $125) out to the desolate outcropping of rock off the coast of San Francisco that is home to birds, sea lions, seals, dolphins, and the ever-present great white shark. Typically on the search for migrating gray, humpback, or blue whales, expeditions leave from Pier 39 at 8am sharp and pass underneath the majestic Golden Gate Bridge on the 27-mile trip out to the islands. A crew of trained naturalists accompany each voyage, and will stop at the first sign of water spouts on the 5- to 6-hour trips.
For more information on the different tours offered, call tel. 415/331-6267 or visit www.sfbaywhalewatching.com.
GoCar Tours of San Francisco
If the thought of walking up and down San Francisco's brutally steep streets has you sweating already, consider renting a talking GoCar ★ instead. The tiny yellow three-wheeled convertible cars are easy and fun to drive and they're cleverly guided by a talking GPS, which means that the car always knows where you are, even if you don’t. The most popular computer-guided tour is a 2-hour loop around the Fisherman's Wharf area, out to the Marina District, through Golden Gate Park, and down Lombard Street, the "crookedest street in the world." As you drive, the talking car tells you where to turn and what landmarks you’re passing. Even if you stop to check something out, as soon as you turn your GoCar back on, the tour picks up where it left off. Or you can just cruise around wherever you want (but not across the Golden Gate Bridge). There’s a lockable trunk for your things, and the small size makes parking a breeze. Keep in mind, this isn’t a Ferrari—two adults on a long, steep hill may involve one of you walking (or pushing). You can rent a GoCar for 1 hour (standard GoCar: $58; Sport GoCar: $68), or for as long as you want (every hour after the first is $44/hr., prorated in 15-min. increments. If you have the car for 5 hours, you’ll be charged the day rate of $200!). You’ll have to wear a helmet, and you must be a licensed driver at least 18 years old. GoCar has two rental locations: at Fisherman’s Wharf (431 Beach St.), and Union Square (321 Mason St.). For more information call tel. 800/91-GOCAR (46227) or 415/441-5695, or log onto their website at www.gocartours.com.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.