San Francisco – Bus Tour

Traveling for vacations used to be pretty straightforward. You save a bunch of money, look for a tour and pay up, and you’re off. Flights, accommodations and itinerary all taken care of. Basically all you need to worry about is to capture photos of the attractions, and stuffing your face silly with food.

And then as we get more sophisticated, we start to book our own flights and our own hotels. We start to book our own local guided tours or just walk around by ourselves when we arrive at our destination. I suppose this is how earlier forms of backpacking was like.

And then it gets better. As the traveling fraternity gets younger and younger, and the internet opening up more and more options, we now see many people plan and book everything D.I.Y style. And then instead of visiting tourist attractions, we start looking for unique things to do at our holiday destination, things that no one else in our home country has ever done and blogged about in social media. “I’m not interested with tourist attractions, I want to learn more about the locals, I want to do what the locals do” becomes the new cool phrase to utter.

I don’t know. For me, I want to be a tourist. At least, when I am a tourist, I do not want to pretend otherwise. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to see interesting landmarks of places that we visit? Nothing wrong with wanting to see the Golden Gate Bridge instead of going to see a dingy backalley full of character. If I can help it, I want to see both sides of the coin, but my priority will always be the Golden Gate Bridge. I don’t want to go home and when asked “What did you see in San Francisco? Did you see America’s oldest Chinatown? Did you see the Golden Gate Bridge?“, I answer “Nah, not interested with those, I just went to nameless tiny street and stood there, people watching.“. Of course, everyone is free to make their own choices when it comes to travel, as long as you are traveling and you are happy, it’s fine.


If you are a tourist at San Francisco, chances are you will be staying in a hotel either down by the Fisherman’s Wharf, or somewhere around Union Square. That’s where most of the hotels are concentrated at. The thing is, the famous tourist attractions are not exactly very close to each other. It would be fine if you are going to spend a week or two in the city and explore different sections of the city each day. But if you are only staying for a day or two, you will have to do what most budget backpackers hate to do: take a bus tour.

Now, there are two types of bus tours: a guided bus tour, or a hop-on hop-off bus tour. I’ve done both before, so I’m going to highlight what I think are the key points.

  • Guided bus tour: There are many operators and many types of such tours. You can take a city tour, or a neighboring city tour, or a Napa Valley wine tour, among a few other things. You should be able to make a booking at the hotel you are staying, most hotels here have partnership with at least one guided tour operator. It would cost in the region of US$ 45 for a 3 hours tour around the city. If you want to know more about each of the attractions that you visit, then this tour is for you. There would be a tour guide accompanying each bus explaining the history and significance and everything as you arrive at each destination. The downside though, is that you have to stick to the bus, so you can’t spend a lot of time at each place to hunt for that perfect angle for a camera shot.
  • Hop-on Hop-off tour: I’m sure you’ve seen these buses before, they are getting pretty popular all over the world, including KL and Penang. Like the guided bus tour, you should be able to get a ticket for such a bus at your hotel. The cost for this one would typically be $10 to $15 cheaper than a guided bus tour. You will still get a tour guide on the bus, but I’m guessing you would prefer to sit on the open roof so it would be too noisy to hear anything but the wind and you won’t get as much information of the places as you would with a guided bus tour. The plus side (a very major one) though is that, this kind of bus tour is pretty flexible. Your ticket is essentially a day pass to all the buses of the same operator. They operate from morning till evening, so if you arrive at some place that you want to stay longer, you are free to stay. Just catch the next bus coming. Do take note though that there are several Hop-on Hop-off operators in SF and the buses are color coded. If you came on a blue bus, then you get back on another blue bus. You will not be allowed to get on a red or yellow bus.

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Now, although the nature of these two types of tour buses are different, the places they go to are similar. Yeah, let’s get to the main point, shall we?

Most of the buses would have their start/end point at the Fisherman’s Wharf. Then they would either do a clockwise loop, or a counter-clockwise loop around the city.

Mine was on a counter-clockwise loop. The first stop of the day, is always this:

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Yeah, the world famous Golden Gate Bridge, covered in fog. I’ve been here three times (because I always come with first timers), not once have I ever seen it in its full majesty. My luck sucks when it comes to this bridge, I guess we are just mutually incompatible.

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This one looks somewhat clear, after heavy editing

Actually there was another place that the buses would typically stop en route to the bridge, it is called the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre. But the three times I went (over the course of two years), it was closed for renovation so we didn’t make the stop. Not sure if they are reopened now.

Anyway, moving on. The next stop that tour buses would most likely stop is the Sutro Baths. Or more accurately, the ruins of the Sutro Baths. This place was originally built as the world’s largest indoor private swimming pool in the 1890s by a very rich guy. But it was very expensive to maintain and it closed down after about 50 years or so. Shortly after closing down, a fire grazed everything to ground and this is what’s left of it now.

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Right next to the Sutro Baths is the Cliff House. It used to be a very atas (luxurious) restaurant that predates the Sutro Baths. Today it is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and serves as a bistro/buffet restaurant and vantage point for tourists to stare at the Sutro Baths and Pacific Ocean.

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I have to admit that before the tour, I have never ever heard of the Sutro Baths before. It is practically unknown outside the United States, I suppose. But the tour guide explained a great deal about this place, as if it is the most important tourist attraction or something. And judging by the number of cars and people congregating at the Cliff House, I think this place is really a big deal, at least to the American tourists.

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And you get the bonus of seeing the Ocean Beach from afar

According to the tour guide, the Ocean Beach is at least 4 miles (6.4 km) long and it is one of the favorite beaches for professional surfers.

Next up would be the Golden Gate Park. Now this is a very huge park. The problem was, I didn’t know this place too, and the tour guide was not very enthusiastic about this place either. He mentioned about some statues and a science center and nothing else. Naturally, I was not interested and did not get off here to explore more.


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It was much later that I discovered that in this very huge park, there’s an area with Dutch windmills. There’s also a Japanese Tea Garden. And there’s also a Conservatory of Flowers. Until today, even as I am writing this, I would always rue the fact that I did not explore this park more comprehensively. F-ck the tour guide. F-ck my life! F-ck the tour guide again! D-mn!

One should not dwell on missed opportunities too much, I’ll just have to find a way to come back again…

After all these, the buses would begin to make their way to downtown San Francisco. But there was time to make another quick stop. I don’t remember much about this area, it is called Buena Vista or something. But I do remember the tour guide paying special emphasis on this house.

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He said: “This, ladies and gentlemen, is the ugliest house in the whole of San Francisco!

Seriously, I have no idea why he said that. What’s wrong with this house? I really don’t see why this house can be considered ugly at all. Is it the mismatched windows? I do recall hearing something about the windows. Yeah, must be the windows..

And then we arrive at downtown San Francisco. Here the buses do not stop much, because, well, it is downtown and the roads are busy and it is illegal for buses to park. So you will have to take note of the places and come back by yourself if you want good pictures. If you are staying in the vicinity of Union Square, then this area is actually well accessible by foot.

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San Francisco City Hall/Civic Center

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Union Square

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Chinatown

And then the buses go back to the Fisherman’s Wharf and that is the end of a typical bus tour.

Coming up next would be places that you cannot see from a bus tour. In fact the rest of my posts will be about such places. Stay tuned… 😉

28 Comments

  1. Bus tours are great. You don’t have to drive, which often means getting lost, even if you have a GPS or map. The tours are guided so you learn more and don’t miss the best attractions. You meet people and yet have time to relax. An excellent way to travel and affordable, too.

    • I’m not so sure about your point on driving though. I think if you know where you are going, then driving is a wonderful option. I think GPS is pretty reliable in the States. What I do agree is that on a guided tour, you will be able to learn more on each attractions, and you will be able to see more attractions. When we drive, we tend to linger at one place for a very long time, so if we are no a tight schedule we will miss out on some.

  2. Maybe that house was his ex wife’s new boyfriend house 😉

    I have been in the sightseeing bus several times, haha. Right now I remember I rode it in Dublin. But it is usually very expensive, so I only agree to ride it when my mum is traveling with me and she is paying, haha!

    • Hahaha! You might be right! 😀

      I do agree that the buses are kind of expensive to ride on. But then, if you have already spent thousands of dollars to come here, then thirty dollars for a bus that will take you to all the tourist attractions doesn’t seem too expensive in context.

  3. This is a rather good run down of SF. Now I have some idea what I want to see. Definitely will not want to miss the Golden Gate Park. Yeah, that supposedly ugly house does not look ugly to me at all!

  4. Well, I took the easy way too…just book a tour! My recollection of San Francisco…probably Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown and the streets of San Francisco (up and down)…kekeke!! 😀 It was a long time ago and I have a shitty memory!

  5. I have only done one tour where everything was planned and that was to a group of islands off the coast of Taiwan [however, we knew everyone who went with us.]

    I think it is essential to see the major tourist attractions. It is those landmarks that have made the place famous in the first place.

    I am sad to say that I have never been to San Francisco. You did a good job taking the pics from the bus. But I don’t know why that house is considered ugly!

    • It was probably the windows, I think. There’s three if you don’t count the side “tower”, and all three are mismatched! I would say they are special, but some (like Mr Tour Guide) would probably say it is ugly. It is strange that I could not find this house through Google search. I would’ve thought it is a tourist attraction so there must be something out there.

  6. if that is the very first time I am visiting a place, I would prefer to go and see all the must-go touristy places.. of course experiencing the local cultures would be a nice bonus, but I guess that can be done later as its impossible to learn other cultures by just a few days in a trip.. 🙂

  7. Agree with you.. Years ago we booked everything with a tour agency, and just show up with passport and luggage on the real day.. Everything is taken care of already.. After that, we booked air tickets and hotel online, and look for local tours upon arrival.. That was what I did too.. I enjoy being a tourist and I definitely want to take pictures in front of all the famous landmarks of that place.. Wont diy my trips kua.. Wah you look like a big boss in the picture..

    • You are already DIY-ing your trips what, to a certain extent. It might not be cheaper than going on a tour, but definitely more relaxing. And it is not very difficult to make your own bookings nowadays, with the powerful internet. 🙂

  8. I felt like a tourist on a hop-on-hop-off bus reading your post. Thank you very much for showing me all the sights because I will never go to USA now that I have developed a phobia of flying.

    To me, San Francisco = Alcatraz but I will not visit Alcatraz even if I visit San Francisco because it is suey since it is a prison.

    I have read an article that says please be a responsible tourist. Go with tour buses and don’t use the local transport meant for locals to travel to work and etc.

    • Phobia of flying? Why? Did you have a bad experience?

      You can see Alcatraz from afar on Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge. I did not go on the prison tour too, because it would take one whole day.

      There is a certain degree of truth in that responsible tourist saying. I wouldn’t go as far as saying tourists must stick to tour buses, but at least on peak hours, it would be nice to leave the buses and trains for those leaving work I would say. But I think it is impossible to enforce, and really depends on the situation.

  9. I agree. What’s wrong with being and enjoying being a tourist?

    But that said, I want to be an independent tourist not follow a tour-group kinda tourist. 😉

    • That’s kind of what I would prefer too. It is easier to plan your own itinerary and relax rather than being rushed around like a herd of sheeps. 🙂

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