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One of the best ways to orient yourself in San Francisco is a city tour via bus. San Francisco is a compact city, but one in which you may want to get an overview via a commercial tour.
The San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau is a great resource to use when selecting a San Francisco tour company. Consider the kind of tour you have in mind: City tour (2-5 hours), Nearby attractions outside of the city (day trips), and extended tours (overnight stays). Some tour companies will offer one-day tours outside San Francisco to Muir woods and Sausalito, Carmel, wine country and even Yosemite, to name a few of the most popular. For those who prefer not to rent a car to tour places farther from San Francisco, and do not want to rely on public transit, there are more extensive two-day trips and extended trips are available on a handful of companies, such as California Parlor Tours.
The most well-known of San Francisco tour companies is Grayline , which usually uses its distinctive closed top double-decker buses. But there are a lot of competitors who offer city tours, including two others who use open top double decker buses: CitySightseeing Tours and Super Sightseeing Tours. Regardless of which company you choose, your choice comes down to a pre-packaged 3 1/2 hour tour, which stops at major sites including Twin Peaks, Golden Gate Bridge and the Palace of Fine Arts, or a Hop On / Hop Off Tour, where you decide when and where to get off and explore the city. Be sure to compare the sites when choosing a tour. Tower Tours is a locally owned tour company with a long track record in SF, Extranomical Tours has gotten good marks over the past few years, as well.
The "trolley-hop" tours use a motorized cable car, which is why tourists often mistakenly call the real cable cars, "trolleys." Regardless of nomenclature, these tours 1 -or-2 hour tours use a vehicle that look just like real cable car, except they are equipped with wheels and drive like a bus. They have a tour guide-driver that announces the stops on a headset/speaker. These tours are affordable but may not be satisfying in the amount of information or insight provided. However, they're very popular and they seem busy all the time. Trolleys are operated by Gray Line and Classic Cable Car Tours. Classic Cable Car Tours no longer offers public tours per their website; however, large groups can rent a cable car for special events.
San Francisco Comprehensive Shuttle Tours, for example, visits most of San Francisco's highlights and landmarks, plus a ferry cruise to Sausalito. At five hours, it is more involved than the standard hop-on-hop-off tours, so know your tour-time preferences. It can be a good overview if you are planning to see Sausalito, anyway. But some people may want shorter tours. You can choose to do a separate Muir Woods-Sausalito tour package, offered by this and other companies.
A Taste of San Francisco & Beyond specializes in small group tours for a more personal experience. Knowledgeable and experienced guides lead tours of San Francisco, Muir Woods & Sausalito, and the Wine Country.
No matter which tour you go on, be sure to do all the research necessary to find the best tour for you. Some tour companies are large group, some are small group. You may want to book your San Francisco tour in advance and consider avoiding the hotel concierge or one of the Fisherman's Wharf ticket brokers. ...Here's why:
Exercise caution when buying a tour ticket at Pier 39 or at Fisherman's Wharf. Buy from a legitimate tour company and not a reseller. It will be easier should you have a complaint or issue that needs attention.
Or if you want a guidance, but not the usual commercial bus tour consider a vintage car or Fire Engine Tour of the city. If you are bringing kids along with you the San Francisco Fire Engine Tour is a fun way to see the city for the whole family. Ride The Ducks also provides the land and sea tours starting in the Wharf. San Francisco Segway Tours use the "personal transport" vehicles around the Fisherman's Wharf and waterfront area.
Here's an alternative approach--take your tour on public MUNI buses and historic streetcars, save big and see as much or more. If you buy a Muni one day Passport it will cost you $11, though you might be able to do it on 3 fares and transfers and only spend $4.50. Get on and off anytime you want with no annoying narration (get one of the many fine guidebooks to San Francisco instead). Having a Muni Map of San Francisco (widely available for purchase) will help you steer your course.
If you're staying near Union Square (or in the Financial District) walk down to Market Street and catch a Castro bound F streetcar (the streetcars themselves are historic). Ride the F to the end of the line at Castro & Market. Walk one block left through the famed Castro district--the capital of gay America-- to 18th & Castro.
Catch a 33 trolley bus going west, on the near side of 18th St. The 33 will take you on a beautiful ride over one side of Twin Peaks and down into the Haight-Ashbury district. Get off at the corner of Haight & Ashbury, once the epicenter of Hippieland.
You can stroll Haight St. or get right on the westbound 71 bus. Take the 71 outbound--soon it will run along the edge of Golden Gate Park--to 19th Ave. & Lincoln Way in the Sunset District.
On the near side of 19th Avenue, take a 28 or 29 bus, whichever comes first to the Golden Gate Bridge Toll Plaza. Get off and go enjoy the view.
After you're done, continue on a Fort Mason bound 28 and ask the driver for the nearest stop for the Palace of Fine Arts, which should be slightly beyond it. It's a short ride.
Walk out of the Palace of Fine Arts' park along North Point Street and two blocks over to Divisadero. Catch the 30 Stockton trolley bus back to Union Square. It's a long ride but you'll go through the Marina commercial district, near Fishermen's Wharf, through North Beach and Chinatown.