The Best Guided Tours in San Francisco

See a different side of San Francisco with each of these unique experiences.

By Jenna Scatena, ContributorApril 12, 2017
By Jenna Scatena, ContributorApril 12, 2017, at 9:00 a.m.
U.S. News & World Report

The Best Guided Tours in San Francisco

Curved Lombard Street and gardens in San Francisco.

Whether by foot or by air, you'll experience all the city has to offer with these tours.(Getty Images)

San Francisco – a city of hills and skyscrapers, coastline and colorful neighborhoods – has virtually no bad angle from which to view it. Whether you're walking, pedaling or strapped into the window seat of a canary yellow seaplane, there are limitless ways to see and experience the City by the Bay. To help guide the way, U.S. News asked local experts to weigh in.

By Foot

Wild San Francisco Walking Tour.(Courtesy of Simon Thollot)

"The best way to explore San Francisco is by foot. It's one of the most walkable cities in the country," says Joe D'Alessandro, president and CEO of the San Francisco Travel Association.

Even locals sign up for Wild SF Walking Tours, led by artists and historians. Stroll through San Francisco's iconic neighborhoods with a guide, who on any given tour might also be a dancer, musician or community organizer. Their unique perspectives help shape the tours, ensuring you stay away from the tourist traps while focusing on the city's history.

Explore San Francisco's famously tie-dye-friendly neighborhood on the Haight-Ashbury & The Free Love Movement tour, or breeze through North Beach, Chinatown and the Barbary Coast on the Classic SF: Chinatown + North Beach tour.

Public tours are capped at 25 people, but parties of seven or more must book a private tour. Ticket prices range from free to $25, depending on the tour.

By Boat

Tom Wolfe, chief concierge and director of heritage at the Fairmont San Francisco, says, "Taking a ferry ride around the bay allows you to see the city from an entirely different scenic perspective."

It's true: One of the best ways to take in the city's myriad majestic views is from the water. The Red and White Fleet is one of the oldest businesses in San Francisco, dating back to 1892, and offers four main scenic tours and one seasonal Fourth of July tour departing from Fisherman's Wharf. Cruise past iconic landmarks while learning about them via an audio tour.

The 90-minute Bridge 2 Bridge Cruise sails beneath both the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, passing Alcatraz on the way. The two-hour California Sunset Cruise turns it up a notch with live music, drinks and appetizers.

Ticket prices range from around $30 to $95.

By Bike

Streets of San Francisco Bike Tours.(Courtesy of Daniel Watson-Weller)

"Streets of San Francisco Bike Tours is a great local company that takes you along the same biking routes the locals and commuters use," says Rachel Ward, editor at Where San Francisco magazine. Cover a lot of ground in a reasonable amount of time, all while fitting some exercise into your itinerary – just watch out for San Francisco's infamous hills. The company provides a range of options, including electric bike tours and customizable private tours that take you through the city's most scenic neighborhoods along safe biking routes.

Tours start at $74 and last between four and six hours, depending on the tour.

By Air

Skip the traffic and the lines, and instead see San Francisco's legendary landmarks from a seagull's-eye view. Seaplane Adventures has a fleet of six-passenger seaplanes that soar over the Golden Gate Bridge, around Alcatraz, across San Francisco and up the majestic California coastline. And for special occasions, the company offers a sunset champagne tour. No Instagram filter needed.

Tours depart from Sausalito, and shuttle transportation from Pier 39 is available upon request. Tours start at $189 per adult.

By Bus

First-time visitors, or just travelers on a tight schedule, can get a quick and informative overview of San Francisco's neighborhoods with the City Sightseeing San Francisco Hop On-Hop Off bus tour. For $54.99, a San Francisco Official City Tour one-day pass circumnavigates the best points of interest, from the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre to Union Square to Chinatown, with many more in between. The pass allows you to get off the bus and explore on foot, then pick up the next bus to another destination at your leisure. Several other loops make for good options to suit your schedule and interests, like an abbreviated Downtown City Tour ($32.99), or a jaunt across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito ($32.99). Prices are further discounted if you buy passes online.

With a Small Group

Wanderlusters looking to explore what's beyond the city limits can find a number of options with the boutique Great Pacific Tour Company, offering a choose-your-own-adventure-style tour.

Guided small group tours pick up travelers at their San Francisco hotel and then venture down the scenic Pacific Coast Highway to Carmel and Monterey ($129), wine country in the Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley ($169), Muir Woods National Monument and Sausalito ($89) or around San Francisco ($79).

By Flavor

When it comes to destination dining, San Francisco has an overwhelming array of amazing restaurants – which, to the visitor, is a blessing and a curse. Any time-crunched traveler with culinary curiosity is likely to end up with a case of indecisive paralysis, so you may want to consider a food tour. Companies like Avital Tours invite travelers to sample the city's variety of cuisine on a progressive meal journey. Enjoy four courses, each at a different restaurant. Try tacos in the Mission District, cannolis in North Beach and craft cocktails in Union Square. Peek into the kitchens to meet the chefs along the way.

The cost is $72 to $89 per person, with an optional alcoholic beverage pairing upgrade on the food tours.

To experience more of what San Francisco has to offer, check out the U.S. News Travel guide and our 19 Best San Francisco Tours.

Jenna Scatena, Contributor

Jenna Scatena writes about San Francisco for U.S. News & World Report. Her work has appeared ...  Read more

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