The Best Tours on San Francisco Bay

Best Tours on San Francisco Bay

San Francisco Bay is home to numerous amazing bay tours and cruises—so many that it can be tough to pick which one to choose. The great thing is that having a wide variety of choices means there is something for everybody. Whether you enjoy a pleasurable trip or an adrenaline-packed adventure, our recommendations on the best tours on San Francisco Bay by boat would likely be a big help while you’re planning your trip to the city. 

This article covers the best tours on San Francisco Bay. Tours. We discuss the best options for your needs. But first, boat tours come under different categories: 

With these suggestions, we hope you’d find the tours or cruises that match your dream trip to San Francisco Bay.

Table of Contents

Yachts on San Francisco harbor

Cruises on San Francisco Bay

There are so many ways to cruise on San Francisco Bay. Below are our top picks for anyone who wants to enjoy the sights, relax, and learn more about this historical and cultural city.

One-Hour Bay Cruise

The usual route of this cruise starts at the Fisherman’s Wharf, then to the Golden Gate Bridge. The boat will then go towards Sausalito, Angel Island, and Alcatraz Island before heading back to the dock. Because of this route, many also know it as the “Golden Gate Bay Cruise.” This cruise is perfect for those who have limited time for exploring San Francisco Bay.

The best one-house sailing tours on the Bay are provided by:

The Red and White Fleet

This family-run cruise is a large ferry that serves drinks and snacks to its passengers. Audio tours via headphones are also available in 16 languages. This cruise runs every day from Pier 43 ½. For tickets and more details, check out RedAndWhite.com.

Red and White Fleet Tour Boat
Photo: Red & White Fleet Tour Boat

The Blue and Gold Fleet

This ferry also has a large deck, a snack bar, and audio tours in 9 languages. It runs every day from Pier 39. To find out more information or purchase a ticket, visit BlueandGoldFleet.com.

Blue & Gold cruise ready to depart on a San Francisco Bay tour
Blue & Gold Fleet cruise ready to depart

Bridge to Bridge Cruise

The Red and White Fleet also operate this 90-minute cruise. The extra 30 minutes is worth spending your money on. Because the boat also sails under the Bay Bridge and near the Ferry Building and Treasure Island. In addition to the sights and landmarks, you can see while aboard the One-Hour Bay Cruise. 

You can capture images and videos of the skyline and scenery during the cruise. A recorded narration in 16 languages adds to the value of this tourist cruise. Check out the ticket prices and availability on their Bridge to Bridge cruise if you wish to add this to your San Francisco trip itinerary.  

Twilight/Sunset Cruise

Another great cruise from The Red and White Fleet is the Twilight or Sunset Cruise. Though both are essentially the same, the primary distinction between the two is the time of the year when you could book this cruise. 

During the winter months of early November to the middle of March, tourists can board the Twilight Cruise. It has been named this way because the sun has already set by when the cruise begins. You will not be completely enveloped in darkness, though. The city comes alive with beautiful lights on the Bay, especially those in the Bay Bridge and the San Francisco Bridge. 

On the other hand, the Sunset Cruise is from late March to October. The cruise starts before the sun has completely gone down during this period. As such, you’d get to admire the beautiful San Francisco sunset, provided that it isn’t too foggy that day. 

Both the Twilight Cruise and Sunset Cruise last for two hours. Appetizers and drinks are served on these cruises, and live music plays in the background.

Sunset Catamaran

Compared to the Sunset Cruise earlier, this one offers a more intimate experience of watching the sunset while sailing on San Francisco Bay. The small catamaran is best for quick, romantic getaways, where you can catch the Bay transitioning from its lively daytime cheer to a more relaxed vibe at night.

Sunset cruise on Adventure Cat, San Francisco Bay
image credit: Adventure Cat Sailing Charters

The cruise runs for 90 minutes. The path it takes includes trips under the Golden Gate Bridge and around Alcatraz Island. You can go for either indoor or outdoor seating according to your mood, but remember to bring a pair of soft-soled shoes so that you can explore the catamaran with relative ease.

The Sunset Catamaran can be booked only once per night from the middle of February until late November. The sun sets at different times depending on the time of the year. The departure time of the Sunset Catamaran also changes.

Find out more about Adventure Cat Cruises here.

Special Event Cruises

Three events are ideal for celebrating while on a tourist cruise on San Francisco Bay: 

  • New Year’s Eve, 
  • Fourth of July, and 
  • Fleet Week. 

As such, if you’re going to be in the area during these dates, be sure to check out if you can book a special event cruise as well. 

Expect an impressive fireworks show during New Year’s Eve and on the Fourth of July. While on the cruise, passengers can also have special dinners and go dancing afterward. 

For Fleet Week, tourists can enjoy the spectacular airshows featuring the Blue Angels, the US Navy jets. These cruises are available from Friday to Sunday of the Fleet Week, while others time it when the Blue Angels hold their practice runs as well.

Canadian Air Force Snowbirds at Fleet Week
Canadian Air Force Snowbirds at Fleet Week | Photographer: Michael Slater / BoatingSF

Alcatraz Cruises

Though the Alcatraz prison isn’t your typical tourist destination, many tourists still visit this dark, historic island every year. The remains of the prison that once housed some of the country’s most notorious criminals continue to fascinate and satisfy the morbid curiosity of locals and tourists alike. 

Aside from the Alcatraz prison, the island also features some buildings from the Civil War era and the Alcatraz gardens. It also offers a fantastic view of the Golden Gate Bridge. 

Alcatraz Island, San Francisco viewed from tour boat on San Francisco Bay

Guests can enjoy Alcatraz cruises in two ways. One involves a tour that centers around the island only, while the other option combines the Alcatraz cruise with other popular San Francisco tours. 

Interesting Fact:

The notorious mob boss Al Capone played banjo in the Alcatraz prison band, the “Rock Islanders.” They performed every Sunday for the prison guards and inmates of the federal prison.

The best way to go on an Alcatraz cruise is through the Alcatraz City Cruises, the authorized ferry concessionaire of the National Park Service. They sell tickets to different kinds of Alcatraz tours. These are: 

Day Tour

This tour runs every day, starting at around 9 AM to 10 AM, depending on the day and season. There is a 30-minute to 60-minute interval between each slot, and the return trip leaves the island every 60 minutes. 

The boat ride to Alcatraz takes only about 15 minutes. Though there are no activities or presentations on the ferry, you can still enjoy the views of the San Francisco Bay for its entire duration.  

If it’s your first time visiting Alcatraz, exploring the island can be done with the aid of the tour guides or through the audio tour guide that comes with the ticket.  

Night Tour

Night tours to Alcatraz run from Thursday to Monday. Unlike the Day Tour, the ferry goes around the island as a narration of the island’s history plays. Afterward, the ferry docks at the island, and tourists are allowed to explore the area in groups with the guidance of the Park Service staff. 

Some people prefer the Night Tour over the other options because fewer people book this trip. The lectures and stories given by the tour guides are also well-appreciated by the many visitors. Moreover, access to some restricted areas, such as the gun gallery, is given during the Night Tour as part of its special evening programs.

Behind the Scenes Tour

This limited tour involves the usual activities from the Night Tour, but with the added 2-hour guided tour of the Alcatraz prison and its surroundings. 

The actual route differs depending on the tour guide and the ongoing repairs, but in general, it may take you to the dungeon cells, underground tunnels, as well as the hospital and chapel of the prison. 

All Alcatraz tours are given for free by volunteers or the Park Rangers. What you pay for is the ferry ride to and from the island. Ticket price varies depending on the tour and the age group of the visitor.  

Many tourists opt for packages that combine an Alcatraz cruise with another San Francisco Tour for more value for money. Some of the most popular combo day tours include:

Alcatraz Cruise + San Francisco Bay Sailing Cruise

This cruise lasts for 3 to 5 hours. This package consists of a 90-minute sailing trip around San Francisco Bay and a tour of the Alcatraz prison. 

Alcatraz Island plus Sailing Cruise on San Francisco Bay
image credit: Adventure Cat

Alcatraz Cruise + Wine Country

This tour takes 2-days, so be ready to spend the first day on the Rock and the second day on the wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties. This package also includes full-day access to the Aquarium of the Bay. 

Alcatraz Cruise + Helicopter Tour

Get an aerial view of the city before boarding a cruise to Alcatraz Island. Each helicopter ride lasts for 20 minutes, but it’s more than enough to see the best views of the city and its iconic landmarks. The Alcatraz part of the trip comes with an audio tour that includes commentary from actual former inmates of the Rock. 

If you prefer to explore Alcatraz at night, the best combo tour packages are:

Alcatraz Cruise + Silicon Valley

While these two don’t seem to go hand in hand, many tourists find this package fun and educational. During the daytime, you would get to visit the headquarters of some of the biggest tech companies in the world, including Apple and Google. The trip would also give you access to the Computer History Museum. Afterward, head to Pier 39 for a cruise to Alcatraz Island. It’s fascinating to see the city’s progression over the years, and this combo tour offers a glimpse of that. 

Alcatraz Cruise + Yosemite

Be closer to nature at Yosemite park with this package that comes with an all-day bus tour. Then, you can drop by the Aquarium of the Bay before going on the Alcatraz cruise at night.  

Alcatraz Cruise + Cable Car City Tour

Your trip to San Francisco is not complete without riding its cable cars. During the day, you can explore the city while aboard an authentic cable car. The stops for this package include the best city tourist destinations, such as the Golden Gate Bridge and the Palace of Fine Arts. by evening, head to the docks for a cruise to Alcatraz Island.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay

Best Sailing Tours on San Francisco Bay

Explore the greatest attractions of San Francisco Bay by booking a sailing tour. Compared to the other cruises and tours in this article, the following suggestions tend to be on the pricier end of the spectrum. However, those extra bucks would be worth it because the best sailing trips are luxurious and comfortable, and customizable according to your liking.  

San Francisco Sailing Company

Sailing on one of their boats is a chill and luxurious way of admiring the city views with an experienced crew. You may choose from their three types of daily sails:

90-Minute Sail

Starting at Pier 39, the sailboat goes around Angel Island, Alcatraz Island, and Sausalito. You can also enjoy views of the city skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge. Tickets for their 90-minute sailing tours also come with free beer, wine, soda, or water for every guest.

Sunset Sail

Enjoy sunsets on San Francisco Bay while aboard this sailboat. Aside from the sights, you’d get to see while on the 90-Minute Sail, you can also admire panoramic views of the city and the Bay Bridge. A complimentary beverage is provided for each guest. 

Golden Gate Sail

This cruise is available every Saturday and Sunday during brunch time. You would get complimentary champagne and mimosas for this package that you can sip and enjoy while sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge. 

Tourists can also request a private charter from the San Francisco Sailing Company. Hold luxurious parties with your guests while sailing on the Bay. It’s perfect for weddings, birthdays, or team-building events with your colleagues. 

For private charters, the company limits the capacity of the sailboats to 24 people only—though the maximum used to be 36 before the global pandemic has struck the area. You can choose from four types of sailboats, namely:

  • Santa Maria 
  • Privateer 
  • Islander
  • Between the Sheets – Compared to the other three, this smaller vessel accommodates a maximum of 6 people only per booking. 

Sailing time lasts for up to 3 hours. Food and beverages are not going to be catered by the company due to safety reasons, but the hosts can bring their food and refreshments without paying for the corkage fee. Setting up and cleaning up after the event, plus some ice chests and cups, come with the package, though. Check out SailSF.com for more information about their prices and availability.

The Adventure Cat

Though this catamaran is relatively spacious, it only accommodates up to 12 guests at a time. Exploring San Francisco Bay on board the Adventure Cat is suitable for small groups or a romantic trip. It sails around the Bay, including near the Golden Gate Bridge, and goes around Alcatraz Island. While onboard, you can purchase snacks and drinks. An audio tour in 7 languages is also available. 

Adventure Cat sails every day for 1.5 hours each trip. Visitors can also book special tour packages. The most popular ones are their Sunset Sail and the Alcatraz Island Tour Package. 

For special events, this company also has a private charter package. With this, you can customize the trip, including its route, duration, schedule, and menu. The number of passengers can also be increased up to 90 people for the bigger catamaran. It is popular for celebrating birthdays, weddings, and family reunions. 

For more information about Adventure Cat cruises, visit their website, here.

Best Dinner Cruises in San Francisco

One of the best ways to enjoy San Francisco Bay at night is by going on a dinner cruise. Aside from the gourmet meals and champagne, you’d also get a chance to go dancing and watch the Bay Bridge Light Show during the trip. 

Cruising under the Oakland Bay Bridge at night on a dinner cruise
image credit: City Cruises

The best dinner cruises in San Francisco are operated by the Hornblower Yachts. The cruise runs every day for about 2 ½ hours—though cruises every Friday and Saturday last for an extra half hour.

To get to the boat for your dinner cruise, you’d have to go to Pier 3 before 7:30 PM. Once you have boarded, a server will greet you with complimentary flutes of champagne. The menu options consist of two soups, four entrées, and two desserts. The dinner itself starts with salads with some sourdough bread slices and butter. You can also have appetizers for an extra charge. 

Dinner cruise on San Francisco Bay
image credit: City Cruises

While having your dinner, a pianist plays soft jazz music. Dancing begins after dinner. Song selections of the DJ include music hits from different decades. A live band performs on Friday and Saturday nights instead of the usual DJ.

If you’re not keen to dance on the boat, you can head out to the deck instead and admire the views of the Bay after dark. On the way to the pier, you’d also get to watch the Bay Bridge Light Show, which features over 25,000 LED lights that generate beautiful patterns on the west side of the bridge. 

San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge light show at night

If you enjoy going out for brunch, consider the San Francisco Champagne Brunch Cruise. The Hornblower Yachts also offer this, albeit a more casual affair than what you can expect from the dinner cruise. 

San Frncisco Bay champagne brunch cruise
image credit: City Cruises

Some of the food and drinks served on this cruise vary depending on the season. The menu includes brunch favorites, such as bacon, ham, eggs, home fries, French toasts, and freshly baked bread and pastries. Other than the champagne, you can order coffee, tea, water, or soda as your beverage. 

The route taken by the Champagne Brunch Cruise goes through the best tourist spots in San Francisco, such as the Bay Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge, and around Alcatraz Island. If you’re interested in having brunch while out in the water, check out this website for further details.

Whale Watching Cruises on San Francisco Bay

Tourists can book whale-watching cruises on San Francisco Bay all year round. Go on a cruise from May to November if you want to see the humpback whales, or from December to May for the gray whales. Aside from these giants, you’d also get to spot dolphins, seals, and plenty of sea birds. 

To make the trip fun and comfortable, don’t forget to bring the following essentials with you:

  • Sunscreen or any other means of protection against UV
  • Warm clothes, preferably including a jacket and headcover
  • Water-proof gloves
  • Non-slip shoes
  • Blanket
  • Binoculars
  • Camera

All whale watching cruises depart from Pier 39 every Saturday and Sunday. The entire trip lasts for around 2 ½ hours.

For more information about the price and availability of whale watching cruises, check out our listings here.

Aside from the listed essentials, feel free to bring food and drinks for the trip. Though beer and wine are permitted, hard drinks are not permitted while onboard the whale watching cruise.

If you are prone to seasickness, remember to pack some medication for seasickness, too.

Best Speedboat Tours on San Francisco Bay

After a more exciting way to explore and learn more about the Bay? The “Adventure Boat Tour” may be the perfect choice for you. It lasts for 1 ½ hour per ride, and while it offers a wild experience, it’s still a family-friendly and intimate activity.   

The tour begins in Pier 39, where you’d also get some sailing gears that come with the ticket. The boat then speeds through the Bay, then under the Golden Bay Bridge. It also sails near AT&T Park before heading back to the docks. 

During the trip, the captain will give a narration of the history of the area. Be careful with your belongings, especially cameras and mobile devices, because of the sudden movements caused by the big waves. 

Passengers enjoying a speedboat tour on San Francisco Bay
image credit: Bay Voyager

You can pick whatever seat you want. However, if you prefer to have a “wetter” experience, go for the rear seats. For the best views of the bay and the city, claim a spot near the side of the boat.  

The speedboat can accommodate 12 guests only. Aside from seniors, adults, and teens, it also allows children aged five and up. To book a speedboat tour, check the availability and prices click here.

Though this one does not technically involve a speedboat, the RIB Boat Tour combines the fun of speeding through the waves while also learning about the various historic spots in San Francisco, such as Fort Point, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Alcatraz Island. 

The ride itself is an inflatable boat crewed and guided by the captain, who provides the narration and commentary during the trip. It lasts for 1.5 hours, and if you’re lucky, you may also spot some of the marine wildlife, including whales and seals. 

Don’t worry about getting too wet because passengers are given rain gears before boarding the boat. If you are interested in going sightseeing on an inflatable boat, check out their page here.

Choosing The Best Boat Tour On San Francisco Bay

So, what do you think of our recommendations for the best boat tours on San Francisco Bay? As you have seen, plenty of choices are available for those who want to know the city better and its waters. 

If you’re planning to go on a cruise or boat tour in San Francisco, make sure to check out the packages offered by these companies, and compare their prices and offers to find the best deal for you. Are you going out with a group? Share this article with your companions, and ask them to weigh in on which of the cruises and boat tours we have shared with you would be the best for your upcoming trip or event.

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