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.
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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.
Deciding which Big Bus San Francisco Tour to take
Big Bus San Francisco offers four tour packages to choose from. Here’s how they breakdown:
- 1-Day Classic Ticket
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.
- 1-Day Premium Ticket
Includes everything that comes with the 1-Day Classic Ticket, plus a Night Tour and a free hour-long bike rental from Blazing Saddles.
- 2-Day Deluxe Ticket
Gives you two days to explore everything that comes with the 1-Day Premium Ticket, plus a Sausalito Tour.
- Alcatraz Package
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).
$ 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.
So which Big Bus San Francisco Tour package did we pick?
We chose the 2-Day Deluxe Ticket/Alcatraz Package. There were a couple of key reasons why.
We were concerned that if we did do some hopping off and on the bus on day one, we might not have enough time to see everything we wanted to. Having a two-day ticket took the pressure off and allowed us to just relax and explore at our own pace. Getting the 2-day ticket was only a few bucks more.
The other big reason we chose the 2-Day Deluxe Ticket/Alcatraz Package was to ensure we would be able to get tickets to visit Alcatraz.
Why we added Alcatraz
In a 2015 TripAdvisor poll, Alcatraz was voted the most popular tourist attraction in the United States which explains why tickets can be hard to come by.
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.
Why we hadn’t pre-booked our Alcatraz tour
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. The Big Bus San Francisco Hop-On Hop-Off Tour was one of them.
Was the 2-Day Big Bus San Francisco Tour worth it?
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 Tour. Here’s what we did.
- Red Tour — Daytime Tour of San Francisco
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 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.
The 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 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 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!
- Blue Tour — Night Tour of San Francisco
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 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 tour has to offer is that it takes you through the Presidio, a former army post 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.
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 NIGHTIME 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.
- Green Tour — Sausalito Tour
Sausalito is a picturesque, wealthy and artistic enclave located across the water from San Francisco.
There are only a few stops on this tour. The first on 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 was 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 and Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta System. It was built so engineers could study what would happen if the South Bay was dammed and infilled. 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.
- Walking Tour of Fisherman’s Wharf
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’ 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.
Our tour guide was very knowledgeable and happy to answer questions we had. This tour was approximately one hour, twice a day at 11:00 AM and 2:00 PM.
- Alcatraz Tour
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: on the ferry ride over, 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 and re-told key moments from the history of the prison. It was especially cool to see the cells of the prisoners, made famous in the Clint Eastwood movie “Escape from Alcatraz”.
Plan for 2 to 2.5 hours for your visit. Ferry departs to and from the island every half an hour or so.
TIP: How to dress for Alcatraz: The weather on Alcatraz is unpredictable. It can change unexpectedly. Dress in layers and bring along a jacket or sweater just in case.
Why we didn’t do the other things that were included
As we mentioned near the beginning of this article, the 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 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 2-Day Deluxe Ticket/Alcatraz Package it really is an outstanding value.
What we really liked about Big Bus San Francisco
- We got to see a ton of the city and gained some great insights and information
- The guides were really knowledgeable and entertaining making each tour we went on very informative and fun. For example, on the Sausalito Tour our guide/driver even sang Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ On the Dock By The Bay” to us after explaining how the song was inspired after Otis Redding spent a few days resting and relaxing on a rented houseboat in Sausalito.
What we didn’t like about the Big Bus San Francisco
- On the older buses the seats on the upper deck are pretty tight together so there wasn’t enough leg room. At times it felt like I was riding in the back of a Honda Civic.
Answers to Some Questions You May Have About the Big Bus San Francisco Tour
- You can start your tour at any of the Big Bus San Francisco stops.
- The last Daytime Tour bus departs Stop#1—the San Francisco Visitor Centre on Jefferson Street at 5:00 PM.
- If you have a multi-day ticket, once you start using the Big Bus San Francisco, you must travel on consecutive days.
Don’t forget to Check Groupon for San Francisco Deals
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 pageand 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.
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.
Photo credit: Bartable,