Things to do in San Francisco

13 of the Best Tours in San Francisco

Sourdough bread bowls meet gravity-defying acrobatics. We're visiting San Francisco with our very own Cirque artist Hector Hernández and it’s time to tour the city!

Did you know Golden Gate Park is bigger than Central Park? Or that the famous fog in San Francisco has a name? (It’s Karl, by the way.)

Or how about this nugget: The fortune cookie was invented right here in SF. There’s so much to see and learn about in the City by the Bay, which is why these San Francisco tours and attractions are well worth your time.

While you’re waiting to take your seats at our newest touring production, check out these recommendations courtesy of Cirque du Soleil performing artist (and Bay Area native) Hector Hernández. He’ll share his favourite tours he takes out-of-towners on so that they can discover all the things to do in San Francisco, too!

San Francisco’s Comedy Scene

Touring San Francisco just got a whole lot funnier. Get your first couple of giggles on at Punch Line San Francisco.

Cobb’s Comedy Club is a sister venue to the Punch Line. Not only is there an actual Cobb salad on the menu, but there's also a full dinner and drink service.

Past acts include SNL’s Dana Carvey, Dave Attell, Bill Burr, Anjelah Johnson, and Jo Koy, and there are both early and late shows so you can easily slot in other stops on your DIY comedy tour.

Next up is Cheaper Than Therapy comedy club, a Union Square joint dedicated to stand-up comedy. The stage is set up for laughs every Wednesday through Sunday, and the convenient location at the Shelton Theater in Union Square makes it easy to get to other venues if you want to see one of our shows before or after you laugh yourself silly.

Historical and Cultural Tours

It’s impossible to put together a list of private tours in San Francisco without shining the spotlight on excursions that honor the city’s rich history and culture. From former prisons to historical homes, the landmarks you’ll see on these outings help bring San Francisco’s past and present to life.

1. Alcatraz Island Tour

In its heyday, Alcatraz Island held 320 prisoners at one time … so what’s a couple more?

You’ve been convicted of curiosity, and your sentence is a tour of Alcatraz Island. Go during the day and explore this one-time Civil War fort in all its glory. It’s a two-hour round trip, which gives you plenty of time to take in the prison’s gardens and an exhibit on the fortress’ history.

After dark, the tour is a fascinating mix of scenic views and spooky encounters. Prison cells are just plain eerie after the sun sets, but it’s beautiful to see the Bay Area from the boat as you head to and from the island’s main dock. Your ticket includes a 45-minute jailhouse audio tour, and there’s a docent there to answer questions and spill insider info.

Just remember, the tour is BYOEP: Bring Your Own Escape Plan.

Photographer: Markus Lauff

2. Chinatown Walking Tour

If you want to fully understand the history and people of San Francisco, guided tours of authentic spots, such as Chinatown, are essential.

There’s a Chinatown walking tour that leaves every day from Old St. Mary’s Cathedral on the corner of California Street and Grant Avenue. From there, your guide will take you to a range of area attractions that showcase how ancient traditions fit seamlessly into modern life.

Portsmouth Square is a gathering place and the site of San Francisco’s first American flag, public school, and cable car line.

Admire the pagoda-style buildings that infuse the space with authenticity, then check out the wares at an herbal pharmacy and fortune cookie factory.

It’s a barrage of color, flavor, and storytelling. And, if you’re lucky enough to score a reservation, your journey can end with a dim sum luncheon your taste buds won’t soon forget.

3. The Painted Ladies and Victorian Homes of Alamo Square Tour

“Victorian painted ladies” sounds like some kind of vintage living art display. In reality, the phrase refers to the stunning pastel-colored homes that line so many of San Francisco’s streets.

The Painted Ladies San Francisco City Tour will take you by some of the most breathtaking examples of these abodes. This includes walking tours through iconic neighborhoods, such as the strip of facades used in the opening credits of the sitcom Full House. Haaave mercy!

The tour also encompasses a drive by City Hall, a peek into Chateau Tivoli, and the first African-American church in Alamo Square Park. It’s like stepping into a series of postcards, but this time you can experience every location firsthand.

Scenic and Nature Tours

If Mother Nature put together her own tour of San Francisco, it would probably look something like these gems.

4. Golden Gate Bridge Cycling Tour

Strap on your helmet, squeeze into those pro-level bike shorts, and get ready to ride. Golden Gate Bridge Cycling Tours empower pedal enthusiasts to ride from the mainland over to Sausalito.

You’ll hug the waterfront as you cycle across the bridge, then either cycle back or hop on the ferry — tickets are already included in your tour package.

The itinerary will take you past landmarks such as Fort Mason, Presidio National Park, the Palace of Fine Arts, Crissy Field, and the Marina. You get to keep your bike rentals for a full 24 hours, so you can double back the next day and enjoy the bridge or the park at your leisure.

Hector Hernández, Cirque du Soleil artist

5. San Francisco Bay Cruise

You can explore the Golden Gate Bridge by car, by bike, or by gazing at it from dry land. What’s next, scaling down the cabled sides like you’re an acrobat in one of our shows? Curb your imagination for just a minute and take the safer route — we’re talking about a boat tour, of course.

Blue and Gold Fleet’s Golden Gate Bay Cruise tour is a 60-minute jaunt under and around the Golden Gate Bridge. That’s 1 full hour to bark back at the Pier 39 sea lions, daydream about what really happened on Alcatraz Island, and look up at the bridge itself.

The audio narration is available in nine languages, improving accessibility and bringing the majesty of Fog City to the masses.

6. Muir Woods and Sausalito Half-Day Trip

When it’s time to press pause on city life, there are San Francisco day tours ready to whisk you away for some much-needed peace and quiet. Hop on the Gray Line for a half-day retreat, courtesy of a Muir Woods & Sausalito Tour.

You’ll feel like Alice among giants with Redwood Sequoia Trees casting a ginormous shadow. Some trees in Muir Woods’ spread are nearly 1,000 years old.

In Sausalito, coastal ambiance takes over. Browse through little boutiques and snap selfies by the houseboats before you continue on to other area landmarks.

Food and Wine Tours

These are arguably some of the best tours of San Francisco available, simply because you’ll be supplied with food and drink every step of the way.

7. Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square Walking Tour

Sign up for a Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square Walking Tour and you’re basically ticking off a huge San Francisco tourist to-do list in one go. Make eyes at some sea lions? Check. Eat fresh clam chowder in a sourdough bowl. Check. Buy trinkets that will remind you of the Bay Area even once you’re miles inland. Check.

But the tour is also an opportunity to learn more about the city and the history of this waterfront stretch. You’ll download Viator’s app and use your smartphone to explore and absorb stories at the same time.

From coffee and chocolate at The Buena Vista and Ghirardelli Square to ice cream and entertainment at Pier 39, it’s all here and ready to bring you joy.

Photographer: Michelle Oude Maatman

8. Platypus Wine Tours: Napa Valley Wine & Sonoma Tour

Given the city’s proximity to wine country, it’s almost sacrilege to come up with a bunch of recommendations for San Francisco excursions and skip over the vino. That’s just one reason we wanted to mention Platypus Wine Tours: Napa Valley Wine & Sonoma Tour.

The other reason is that this tour is a gateway to a plethora of wineries representing California terroir and award-winning winemaking. We’ll toast to that! Platypus specializes in small-group wine tours that limit the crew to about 12 guests.

That keeps things intimate and leaves room for contemplation and conversation as you visit three backroad wineries and enjoy a picnic lunch. There’s a lot to sip, swirl, and savor.

9. Mission District Food Tasting Tour

The Mission District dates back to an actual mission built in 1776. Today, the area is paradise for anyone interested in chef-driven eateries and cool bars with expertly mixed cocktails.

This Mission District Food Tasting Tour is 3 hours of gobbling down gastronomic delights from five carefully selected restaurants.

Although your exact itinerary may vary, options include spiced-up spots such as Taqueria Cancun and Venga Empanadas. Indian street food and California flavors fuse together into tikka masala burritos at Curry Up Now. Have a sweet tooth? Cross your fingers that Tartine Bakery is on the list when you’re in town.

10. North Beach and Little Italy Food Tour

Visit North Beach today and the name of the neighborhood might seem confusing. There’s no body of water in sight — unless you count the tap water you’re using to chase down the Chianti at your favorite little trattoria.

But there was a beach there until the 19th century when it was filled in. There are other big changes that have altered the face and vibe of Little Italy in the past century or so, and you can experience it all through a North Beach and Little Italy food tour.

Discover North Beach/Little Italy by food and digest your guide’s narration while you enjoy antipasti, pizza, Italian cookies, and coffee … need we say more? “Mangia Mangia” is the motto of the day.

You’ll work off every delectable bite as you tour the city, stopping by Jack Kerouac Alley, Columbus Tower, and City Lights Booksellers & Publishers between taste tests at top-rated spots, such as Mona Lisa Restaurant and Victoria Pastry Company.

Photographer: Jorge Zapata

Specialty Tours

Some of the best things to do in San Francisco with kids focus on quirky themes, such as ghosts, cable cars, and movies. It’s like seeing the city through a zoom lens versus a panorama, and the things you find might surprise you.

11. San Francisco Ghost Hunt Walking Tour

Was that a cold shiver that just ran up your spine? It’s okay — deep breaths. There’s nothing to see here. But that nothing could be looking straight at you.

The San Francisco Ghost Hunt Walking Tour is the brainchild of local performer Christian Cagigal. He and his lantern lead the way as you sashay around town exploring sites where spirits are most likely to linger.

The locations included on the tour aren’t picked for laughs. Abolitionist and civil rights hero Mary Ellen Pleasant’s trees are on the list, as is the home of feminist author Gertrude Atherton.

You have to hear the tale of the ghost bride of California Street and get acquainted with the poltergeists at Chambers Mansions.

12. Cable Car City Tour

You can tour San Francisco by car or on foot, but there’s something special about seeing the city while riding in a private cable car. Stop by Union Square and Chinatown, spend time at Nob Hill, and feast in the Italian Quarter.

The car itself is an attraction, too, but it’s hard to get the full effect when you’re still in motion. It’ll be easier to appreciate the history once you’re at the Cable Car Museum, and a final stop at Fisherman’s Wharf makes the whole experience a slam dunk.

Photographer: Patrick Robert Doyle

13. San Francisco Movie Sites Tour

Vertigo, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Princess Diaries, Ant-Man, and Dirty Harry — these are just a few of the films that have been shot in or around San Francisco. Now movie buffs can see some of the sets and scenery that have made it onto the silver screen with a San Francisco Movie Sets & Locations Tour.

You’ll see the city, as well as your guide’s choice of over 50 clips that honor San Fran in full living color. Just because you haven’t walked a red carpet or won an Oscar doesn’t mean you can’t follow in the footsteps of some of today’s ritziest thespians.

Set Your Sights on Excitement With San Francisco Tours

It’s taken more than 150 years for San Francisco to grow from its humble Spanish mission beginnings into the world-class city it is today.

Pepper your visit with some of the San Francisco tours on Hector’s list, and you’ll get to know the history, culture, and flavors of this incredible locale up close and personal.

In between paying homage to hippie charm at Haight-Ashbury and cheering on the Giants, extend the heart-pounding fun with one of our productions.

Our shows in San Francisco, like all our productions, are designed with dreamers in mind. Every moment the stage is lit up is an opportunity to defy conformity. Grab your tickets today, and prepare to join in the wonder.

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