How to Be the Savviest Tourist in San Francisco

A busy street scene in San Francisco's Chinatown with red lanterns strung between brick buildings and storefronts

Combine tourist-friendly deals to get the most out of your San Francisco sightseeing experience

By J.C. Thomas

When you’re visiting an extremely popular tourist destination like San Francisco, it’s common to want to reject the title of “tourist.” This is especially true for Californians heading to San Francisco for the umpteenth time. You prefer to distinguish yourself from those unknowing incomers from afar, those who are buying cheesy Alcatraz souvenirs and dining at overpriced theme restaurants. Maybe you know of some hip, off-the-tourist-path cafes and hidden hiking trails. You absolutely remembered to bring a warm jacket even though it’s technically summer. And you would never in a million years call it “Frisco.” 

OK, you’re not a tourist, congrats. But, how about you just pretend to be a tourist for a while? It could be fun. You know those clam chowder sourdough bread bowls down at Fisherman’s Wharf hit the spot. And why wouldn’t you go on a bay cruise? It’s an outstandingly beautiful bay! The city has incredible museums and monuments – don’t overlook them. San Francisco is a toybox of a city, meant to be played with, gawked at and thoroughly enjoyed. Embrace it! Go on… be a tourist. 

A large, open domed structure flanked by rows of columns at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, a stop on the Big Bus Tour
San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts, a stop on the Big Bus Tour

San Francisco Tourist 101: Plan Ahead

Perhaps your aversion to the word “tourist” comes with associations of overpaying for basic experiences. Savvy tourists never overpay, and they only bother with the best attractions. In fact, they save by seeking out great deals offered directly to the tourist market, which in San Francisco is very competitive. Two excellent examples are the San Francisco CityPASS, which saves you money on admission fees at top attractions, and the San Francisco Big Bus Tour, a comprehensive hop-on, hop-off tour on an open-top bus. Combine these two deals to cover all the logistics of your sightseeing experience like the shrewdest tourist in San Francisco.

You can purchase CityPASS and Big Bus Tour tickets instantly online or in person once you’re in San Francisco, but it’s smart to plan ahead. Take a look at the attractions included with the CityPASS and compare them to the list of attractions you most want to see during your time in the city. First-time visitors might want to just take their pick from the included attractions, as they’re certainly among the best things to do in San Francisco. Two different CityPASS options cover entrance to different lineups of attractions, so choose the one that suits your style. 

If you’re spending at least one full day in the city with a flexible itinerary, the Big Bus Tour is a no-brainer. It promises a fun ride through all of San Francisco’s neighborhoods, with stops near most major attractions and a jaunt across the Golden Gate Bridge, plus engaging commentary about history, culture and architecture. A major bonus with the Big Bus Tour is eliminating the need to drive, park or navigate unfamiliar public transport – just line up your sightseeing itinerary with the bus route. 

A closeup of  yellow and white jellyfish against a dark blue watery backdrop at Aquarium of the Bay, a featured attraction with the San Francisco CityPASS
Jellyfish on display at Aquarium of the Bay, one of the attractions included on the San Francisco CityPASS

Should You Buy the San Francisco CityPASS?

Yes! There’s a very high probability that the San Francisco CityPASS will save you a considerable amount of money. 

The standard CityPASS gives you admission to four attractions. Tickets are $76 for adults (12+) and $56 for children (4 to 11), which represents a savings of up to 45%. You get admission to:

  • The California Academy of Sciences
  • Blue & Gold Fleet San Francisco Bay Cruise

And a choice of two of:

  • Aquarium of the Bay
  • San Francisco Zoo and Gardens
  • Walt Disney Family Museum
  • Exploratorium

The San Francisco C3 CityPASS is ideal for shorter visits. At a cost of $67 for adults and $54 for children, it saves you up to 40% on admission at three attractions. Choose three from the standard CityPASS options above, plus:

  • San Francisco Museum of Modern Art-SFMOMA
  • Bay City Bike and Parkwide Bike Rentals
  • de Young Museum + Legion of Honor

Any CityPASS is valid for nine days, starting with your first visit to any one of the included attractions. Reservations are advised, when available, especially if you’re visiting on a weekend or holiday. You have a year from the date of purchase to use the pass, and you can decide which attractions to visit at any time. Should your plans change, you have a full year in which to return non-activated tickets for a full refund. 

The open top deck of a Big Bus Tour filled with tourists crosses the Golden Gate Bridge on a foggy San Francisco day
The Big Bus Tour crosses the Golden Gate Bridge on a foggy day in San Francisco

Should You Do the San Francisco Big Bus Tour?

Yes! In fact, you should combine the CityPASS and the Big Bus Tour, as each one offers a completely different, yet complementary, way to explore San Francisco. The Big Bus Tour stops outside almost all of the attractions included with CityPASS, so you can get a ride while seeing more of the city and hearing some interesting commentary along the way. The hop-on, hop-off bus tour is also a really fun activity in its own right, giving you a great overview of the neighborhoods, landscape and landmarks while you get to sit down and relax. It’s a great way to see San Francisco’s architectural icons like the Transamerica Pyramid, City Hall and Painted Ladies – tourist attractions that you want to admire and photograph, but not actually enter.  

The Big Bus Tour’s daytime red route includes 17 stops and departs every 15 minutes from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can join from any stop, and purchase tickets online, on the bus, or at the Big Bus Tours Visitor Center (Stop 1) at Fisherman’s Wharf. The ticket price includes a set of earphones for listening to the audio commentary about San Francisco’s history, culture and architecture, corresponding with the sights you see along the tour. It’s available in several languages. You can also download a free app with maps, the audio tour and additional information. 

If you don’t hop off, the full circuit takes approximately 2 hours and includes a trip over the Golden Gate Bridge and back. If you plan to ride on the open-air top deck of the bus (and why wouldn’t you?) then bring a jacket for this often-foggy and breezy segment of the tour. To get the most out of the tour, take a look at the red route timetable in advance and plan your activities around the hop-on, hop-off format. 

CityPASS holders can ride the bus to included attractions like the Exploratorium (Stop 3: Embarcadero Center), the Academy of Sciences, deYoung Museum and Legion of Honor (Stop 10: Golden Gate Park) and Aquarium of the Bay (Stop 16: Pier 39). Other notable stops along the circular route include the Ferry Building, Alamo Square, Haight Ashbury, the Palace of Fine Arts, Lombard Street, and North Beach/Chinatown.

The San Francisco Big Bus Tour classic ticket with a 10% discount for online purchase is $53.10 for adults and $44.10 for children (3 to 12). It includes a one-day tour with unlimited hop-on, hop-off stops, plus a rental offer for Blazing Saddles Bike Rental. Various upgrades are available, including a premium ticket that adds a night tour, a premium ticket plus Alcatraz, and a two-day deluxe ticket. 


Official San Francisco CityPASS

(888) 330-5008

CityPASS is available in 15 destinations across the U.S. and Canada.


Big Bus Tours

Big Bus Tours operates in more than 20 cities across four continents.

Disclaimer: California News Press received CityPASS and Big Bus Tour tickets to facilitate the writing of this article. All opinions are those of the author. 

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