(Just a quick note: ThriftyTourist.ca may be compensated through the links in the post below, but the opinions are our own.)
As we’ve mentioned before one of the first things ThriftyTourist.ca recommends when visiting a city for the first time is to take a bus tour so you can get your bearings. Even better is to opt for a bus tour that allows you to hop-on and hop-off so you can get off the bus when there is a particular stop that interests you so you can spend some additional time exploring it.
Hotel Zephyr, TripAdvisor “Certificate of Excellence” winner.
Hotel Rex, TripAdvisor “Certificate of Excellence” winner.
Holiday Inn Golden Gateway, rated 4 out of 5 on TripAdvisor.
Best Western Plus Americania, rated 3.5 out of 5 on TripAdvisor.
Recently two of our intrepid reporters ventured to the city of San Francisco, California and did just that. The bus tour chosen was the Big Bus San Francisco Hop-On Hop-Off Tour.
The parent company, Big Bus tours, is the largest operator of open-top (i.e. double-decker) sightseeing tours in the world.
In particular, Big Bus San Francisco is rated 4 out of 5 on TripAdvisor and has earned a Certificate of Excellence too.
To get an overview of the Big Bus San Francisco Hop-on Hop-off Tour watch this short video:
Big Bus San Francisco offers four tour packages to choose from. Here’s how they breakdown:
Over 20 stopping points at key landmarks; pre-recorded commentaries available in 10 languages; English-speaking live guides on all buses; and four, free, 1-hour walking tours: Chinatown Walk, North Beach Walk, Barbary Coast Walk and the Fisherman’s Wharf Walk.
Includes everything that comes with the 1-Day Classic Ticket, plus a Night Tour and a free hour-long bike rental from Blazing Saddles.
Gives you two days to explore everything that comes with the 1-Day Premium Ticket, plus a Sausalito Tour.
Basically this package combines one of the above tickets with a ferry ride to and from Alcatraz, entry to Alacatrez and a 45-minute audio tour once you get there (it’s a very well done audio tour too, by the way).
MONEY-SAVING TIP: if you buy your Big Bus San Francisco tour ticket online, you’ll save 10% off the price. Plus, sometimes you can save even more by Googling for a Big Bus discount code.
Visiting Alcatraz is actually free (it’s operated by the U.S. National Parks Service), but since it’s located on an island just over a mile out in the San Francisco Bay, you need a ticket on the Alcatraz Cruises ferry to get there. These tickets sell out fast, sometimes up to three weeks in advance depending on the time of year.
Now, you’re probably wondering, why didn’t your ThriftyTourist.ca reporters book their Alcatraz tickets ahead of time? The simple answer is we debated whether we wanted to see Alcatraz at all because we had been on two other prison sightseeing tours already in the past six months.
The debate continued right up until our arrival in San Francisco. Once there, we decided we probably should see the infamous Alcatraz, a Federal prison from 1934-1963 which housed some of America’s most notorious criminals including Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Robert “The Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud.
Knowing we were planning to purchase a hop-on hop-off bus tour, your ThriftyTourist.ca reporters researched which San Francisco bus tour operators also had an option to have tickets to Alcatraz as part of the package. Big Bus San Francisco was one of them.
The short answer to this question is a resounding “yes”. Your ThriftyTourist.ca reporters really got our money’s worth from our 2-Day Deluxe Ticket Big Bus San Francisco Hop-on Hop-off Tour. Here’s what we did.
Takes you past the city’s major tourist highlights including Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39 (where the sea lions hang out), Haight Ashbury (the hippie zone where the Summer of Love took place and people like Jimi Hendrix lived), Golden Gate Park, over the Golden Gate Bridge and more.
This Big Bus San Francisco Hop-on Hop-off daytime tour gave us a great sense of where everything was in the city and we learned the stories and history behind each landmark and area. The tour guides were also very willing to answer any questions we had throughout the tour.
This tour is approximately two-and-a-half hours. The bus arrives at each stop every 10-20 minutes or so depending on traffic. The first tour bus leaves the San Francisco Visitors Centre at Fisherman’s Wharf at 9:00 AM.
TOUR TIP: Before you hop-on check the windshield of your Big Bus San Francisco Hop-on Hop-off tour bus for a sign that says “Live Guide”. A live guide will provide a more detailed, insightful tour than the pre-recorded commentary. It’s also a lot easier to ask a live guide questions!
San Francisco is a beautiful, magical looking city. It’s even more beautiful at night. Do yourself a favour and be sure to take the Big Bus San Francisco Night Tour.
Some of the sights are the same as on the Daytime Tour, but because you’ll have a different tour guide you’ll get some different tidbits.
One unique difference this Big Bus San Francisco tour has to offer is that it takes you through the Presidio, a former army post that was in use for 218 years. In 1994 it became a National Park. Almost six square kilometres, the Presidio is home to a 29-acre national cemetery, 24 miles of hiking trails, eight scenic lookouts, the Walt Disney Family Museum and more.
Another highlight of this tour was crossing the Bay Bridge to Treasure Island where you get a gorgeous view of the San Francisco skyline glittering at night.
When you return to the city, be sure to look back towards the Bay Bridge so you can take in a very unique light show—the entire side of the bridge is lit up with LED lights and includes one particular striking scene where it appears fish are swimming from pillar to pillar.
The Night Tour is approximately two hours. Bus leaves the San Francisco Visitors Centre at Fisherman’s Wharf at 6:30, 7:00 and 7:30 PM.
A COUPLE OF TOUR TIPS: San Francisco can get cool at night. Make sure you wear a couple of layers and pack a jacket. If you’re going to sit outside on the upper deck of the bus, snag a seat within the first three rows. Why? Because the windshield of the bus will shield you from the cold air as you drive around.
Sausalito is a picturesque, wealthy and artistic enclave located across the water from San Francisco.
There are only a few stops on the Big Bus San Francisco Hop-on Hop-off Sausalito tour. The first one is a waterfront photo op at Fort Baker, a former US army base. Here you can get a great pic of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The next stop is in the centre of Sausalito where there are a variety of shops, restaurants and waterfront views to check out. Everyone got off of the tour bus here to do some exploring.
While here we grabbed a drink and a couple of sandwiches from Venice Gourmet Delicatessen and had a picnic lunch by the water’s edge in Vina Del Mar Park. Afterwards we went for a walk through the Sausalito Yacht Harbor to see the expensive boats.
Another stop, that should be filed under ‘oddity’, is the Bay Model.
The US Army Corps of Engineers built the Bay Model in the 1950s. It’s a gigantic scale model, over two football fields in size, of the San Franciso Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta System.
The Bay Mondel was built so engineers could study what would happen if the South Bay was dammed and in-filled. This massive, working, hydraulic, scale model features regular tides that change every 14 minutes.
Comedian and Academy Award winning actor Robin Williams grew up in Marin and, as an adult, called the Sausalito area home. He lived in Tiburon which is just across the water from Sausalito. Just before your tour of Sausalito comes to an end, the tour bus passes through the Robin Williams Tunnel which was renamed in memory of Robin after his death in 2014.
The Green Tour – Sausalito Tour is approximately two hours. First bus leaves Visa Point North (i.e. the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge) at 10:15 AM.
Because of the touristy, carnival-like atmosphere of Fisherman’s Wharf it’s easy to forget that this area is actually a working fishing dock with a long history.
The Big Bus San Francisco’s free Walking Tour of Fisherman’s Wharf underscored this point introducing us to how San Francisco came about, sharing intriguing stories associated with various landmarks and taking us to the sites of historic happenings from the past.
It was quite interesting and our tour guide was very knowledgeable and happy to answer any questions we had. The free chocolate sample from the world-famous Ghirardelli chocolate store was a nice treat too.
This Big Bus San Francisco tour was approximately one hour, twice a day at 11:00 AM and 2:00 PM.
I’m not sure if it’s because of the folklore associated with it, the movies that have been made about it, or because every time we were anywhere close to the San Francisco waterfront you couldn’t help but stare at it, but I’ve got to say it was pretty cool to see Alcatraz up close.
We had been told to arrive at Pier 33 about a half an hour before our Alcatraz ferry departure time. We did as instructed. While we waited around we checked out a very large model of Alcatraz Island which gave you a bird’s eye view of where everything is located.
The lineup to get on the ferry moved quickly. Within 10 minutes of boarding we were on our way. Approximately 15 minutes later we were setting foot on Alcatraz Island.
TIP FOR THE FERRY RIDE: sit at the front of the boat so you can hear the commentary that plays as you head for Alcatraz. We sat at the back of the boat but the engines were so loud we couldn’t hear the commentary.
The Alcatraz tour includes the opportunity to explore the island on your own so you can discover things such as rare flowers and plants, marine wildlife, thousands of roosting and nesting sea birds, Civil War-era buildings and visible reminders of an American Indian Occupation that took place in 1969. But, like pretty much every other tourists, we made a bee-line straight for the cell block.
After entering the cell block you follow the same path a prisoner would have taken to get processed, showered and given their prison clothing.
What really made the cell block tour great was the 45-minute audio tour. It was excellent. It captured what life in Alcatraz was like by incorporating firsthand accounts from former prisoners and guards. As the audio tour lead you through the cell block it re-told key moments from the history of the prison. It was especially cool to see the cells of the prisoners who became the inspiration for the Clint Eastwood movie “Escape from Alcatraz”.
At the end of the day we were glad we had decided to add the Alcatraz tour to our Big Bus San Francisco Hop-on Hop-off 2-Day Deluxe Ticket.
Plan for 2 to 2.5 hours for your visit to Alcatraz. Ferry departs to and from the island every half an hour or so.
TIP FOR HOW TO DRESS: The weather on Alcatraz is unpredictable. It can change unexpectedly. Dress in layers and bring along a jacket or sweater just in case.
As we mentioned near the beginning of this article, the Big Bus San Francisco Hop-on Hop-off 2-Day Deluxe Ticket/Alcatraz Package also included three other one-hour walking tours (Chinatown Walk, North Beach Walk and the Barbary Coast Walk) as well as a free, hour-long bike rental from Blazing Saddles.
We didn’t take advantage of these other four things. How come?
We simply ran out of time.
That’s okay though as we more than got our money’s worth from our Big Bus San Francisco Hop-on Hop-off 2-day Deluxe Ticket/Alcatraz Package and got to do the things we wanted to do most without feeling rushed.
If you were do everything that’s included with a Big Bus San Francisco Hop-on Hop-off 2-Day Deluxe Ticket/Alcatraz Package it really is an outstanding value.
Be thrifty and practical! This information was accurate when published, but can change without notice. We recommend you confirm all details with the provider in question before planning your excursion.
One great way to save on local fun things to do in San Francisco is to peruse Groupon, the money-saving website that features local discounts in 150 cities. Visit the San Francisco “Things to Do” Groupon page or San Francisco “Food & Drink” Groupon page and you’ll find savings of anywhere from 40-90% on attractions, tours, boat cruises, theatre tickets, dinner spots and accommodations. The Groupon San Francisco pages are a smart place to start when you’re first planning your trip and even when you’re in the middle of your San Francisco visit because new deals get added weekly and even daily many times.