We recommend you read this list in full and then make plans in conjunction with the Big Bus map.
Note that some of these tips (or variations on them) might come also in handy at other times, without being connected to the bus tour.
GET AN EARLY START!! The earlier you start the more you will be able to see and do. It’s that simple.
Similarly, we suggest that you go to Alcatraz on a separate day from the day you take the bus tour. Both will be more enjoyable if you are not rushed.
If you only have one day to do everything, and you don't get started until late, you'll have to determine which 3-4 stops will be most important to you.
Note that the northeast corner of the city is very walkable. Some or all of of these neighborhoods can be covered without the bus: Fisherman's Wharf to North Beach to Chinatown to Union Square to Downtown (or vice versa). It's only 1.5 miles from Union Square to Fisherman's Wharf. On many days you could walk the distance faster than the wait and slow travel of the cable car (1872 technology!).
These areas could be walked in the evening after the bus tour is done or on the day you go to Alcatraz, allowing more time for the stops you do take (in the center and western parts of the city) on the day you do the bus tour.
Assume it may get pretty darn cold in an open-air vehicle. SF is generally windy, the fog may come in, and the cross winds on the bridge can be brutal. A backpack with wind cutting layers including a skull cap is a smart way to go. Better to have extra gear you had to carry around a bit vs. being so cold that some of the fun is taken out. Of course, the lower deck of the bus is closed and therefore a lot warmer, but the better views are from the top!
Wear good walking shoes. You could easily put in 3-4 miles of leg-work as part of your stops. It’s up to you of course. Some stops require minimal walking. Others more. But following these tips will likely mean a good work out.
Stop 1: Fisherman’s Wharf. (99 Jefferson Street - Big Bus Visitor Center)
It is always worth a walk out on the west side of Pier 39 to see (and smell!) the California Sea Lions. Usually (but not always) they are there.
A walk along the water’s edge from Pier 39 to the west will take you past the Franciscan Restaurant (great views and good food) as well as the Pampanito submarine and Jeremiah O’Brien liberty ship (both oozing with WWII history). The original Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant row is great for cracked crab to go… but there aren’t too many spots to sit. Once past the restaurants and heading west again on Jefferson Street, take a detour down Al Scoma way to grab some views of the Wharf from the back side.
To get a full unobstructed view of the the northeast corner of the city, head back out to Jefferson Street and follow all the bicyclists into Aquatic Park. Detour to the right and for a reasonable admission you can check out the historic ships at the National Maritime Museum Hyde Street Pier. Once done with the historic ships, continue west through Aquatic Park. Stop at the art deco style Maritime Museum for more seafaring tidbits. And/or walk all the way through the park and out onto the long hook shaped pier - looking back at the SF skyline. The views there are fabulous. It can get cool out there as you are far enough out on the water to feel like you’re on a boat, but it is worth it.
Stop 2: Washington Square & North Beach.
If you skip this stop, consider planning on coming back to North Beach on your own during evening hours.
It’s a fun nightlife neighborhood, with live music spots, historic bars, and cafes open late.
Day or night, we say take a taxi, Uber, or Lyft up Telegraph Hill to get the views from Coit Tower -- and then walk back down. That’ll save your legs. The view from the parking lot is great, but if the tower is open, we recommend that you pay to go to the top. Either way, you can look across the way to Lombard Street – the Crooked Street – as well as SF Bay and city panoramas.
If you are feeling spunky, have your driver go down the Lombard Street crooked section before taking you to Coit Tower. First go west on Union Street, then North on Hyde Street so that you can enter on to the crooked section of Lombard without much wait. Cars often form a crazy backlog to get on Lombard Street, but generally coming from this direction will allow you to sneak in for a zig zag ride. Doing this in the morning (before about 11:00 am) can make a big difference too. By mid-afternoon the line of cars trying to go down the crooked section approaches absurdity.
Once back on foot and on Columbus Avenue, meander up the hill around North Beach. If you go all the way to the Transamerica Pyramid at the beginning of Columbus, walk just a few blocks down Clay Street to get to Stop 4 at Battery and Clay Streets.
If you stay up in North Beach, zig and zag over to Grant Street. Consider hunting down City Lights Books, the Beat Museum, the Adler Café, and Vesuvio… all tied to the Beat Generation heyday of the 1950’s.
Once past Broadway Street, if you keep on Grant Street you immediately enter Chinatown. You can walk 8 blocks straight toward Union Square and Stop 6. For more Chinatown info, see the notes below for Stop 18.
Stop 3: Embarcadero Center.
Walk right up to the Transamerica Pyramid building and look up. It’s dizzying! Walk Jackson Street between Montgomery and Sansome Streets to see Jackson Square – the only gold rush era commercial district that survived the great earthquake fire of 1906!
Stop 4. Ferry Building.
Consider a ½ mile walk along the water’s edge to the north to go out to the end of Pier 7 and grab some super cool views of the city. And/or go about the same distance to the south and check out Pier 14 and/or the Cupid’s Span sculpture in Rincon Park staring at the Bay Bridge.
The California Street Cable Car begins just a short walk up Market Street. This leg of the Cable Car goes against the heavy flow of tourists and usually has a much shorter waiting line and is less crowded. If you want to take a cable car just for the sake of the ride, this can make sense. It only goes out to Van Ness Avenue and there’s no real attraction at the end, so you’ll have to take another ride back or get a car share, but it is generally far less crowded.
Stop 5. Union Square.
The Chinatown Walking Tour starts from here:
If you can get an outside table at the Cheesecake Factory at Macy’s, the view overlooking Union Square is pretty cool.
Chinatown on your own:
Head over to Grant street and go through the Chinatown Gate at Bush and Grant Streets.
A trick here is meandering off of Grant Street. Waverly Place, Ross Alley (Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory), and Portsmouth Square will all give you the feel of the place. But the largest volume of locals will be up on Stockton Street (once you are north of Sacramento Street) in the produce and meat markets. Go inside a few of these places and feel the buzz for yourself.
Walking from Chinatown into North Beach and then on down the hill to Fisherman’s Wharf is very feasible.
Stop 6. Hilton Hotel.
The Cityscape Lounge at the top of the Hilton has nice views and cocktails. IPre-COVID it was open from 4:30 – Midnight (daily) without reservations. Now we advise that you call to make sure there’s no special event or COVID restrictions (415) 923-5002. If your timing with the bus isn’t right, but you are staying at Union Square or can get back at another time, there aren’t too many view bars in SF, so this might be a good spot to check out.
Stop 7. City Hall / Civic Center.
If it’s open on a weekday, seeing the dome rotunda and grand staircase inside is quite special. If time is short, maybe skip it.
Stop 8. Alamo Square.
Consider planning ahead and bring a mini-picnic or snacks to enjoy on the grass overlooking the postcard view. (You know, from "Full House", which of course was actually filmed in Los Angeles.)
This stop is a few blocks from the vista and you’ll be climbing up hill, so plan for it to take longer than you think.
Stop 9. Haight Street.
This may be a good stop for getting lunch… or a beer. But don’t just hang out on Haight Street, also meander on some side streets to see some fabulous Victorian architecture.
1+ hour detour: Fog permitting, take an Uber/Lyft/Taxi from Haight up to the top of Twin Peaks. You’ll need to pay your driver to hang out for the 10-15 minutes you’ll enjoy at the top of the hill, but it’s the highest point in SF and you may never be closer! Stellar views.
Stop 10. Golden Gate Park. (Monday – Saturday). Different Stop on Sunday.
Stop 10 = Monday - Saturday. In front of the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park
Stop 100 Sunday (also holidays). On the NW corner of Lincoln Way and 9th Ave.
On Sundays and holidays, you have to walk into the park, to get to the Academy of Sciences and the Tea Garden, as the area is closed to vehicles and open for pedestrians.
Both the Japanese Tea Garden (~$10 Adults - last time we checked) and the Botanical Gardens (~$10 Adults) are worth the effort. The Tea Garden may be more unique and is certainly smaller and faster to absorb, so if time is limited go here first.
Just to the North of the Tea Garden, consider a 20+ minute detour to the Hamon Observation Tower at the de Young Art Museum. It’s free admission and open Tuesdays – Sundays, 9:30 am–4:30 pm. This is a unique view spot that is worth the trouble if you have the time.
If you have all day, the California Academy of Sciences is a terrific museum, that's great for families… but given all the other stops on the bus tour, you may have to come back separately for this one.
If you get an early start and can make your Golden Gate Park stop 2 hours long (or more), then a fun option is renting a bicycle from behind the bandstand and heading west 3 miles (each way!) meandering through the park out to Ocean Beach. If this is your only chance to get to see the Pacific Ocean, it might be something to think about. If you have time, the Beach Chalet restaurant at the western edge of the park offers great ocean views, food, and craft beer.
Stop 11. Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point.
Year-round, you should be prepared for the bridge crossing to be cooler than the rest of the ride (potentially frigid). Pulling a skull cap and windbreaker from your backpack will make your fellow bus riders jealous!
Once across, you can just soak up the view from the Vista Point, walk onto the bridge, or just stick with the bus and cross back again right away. If you plan on walking out towards the middle of the bridge, figure that your stop will be an hour or more.
Stop 12. Palace of Fine Arts.
Plan to get off here. It’s a wonderful spot. Walk all the way around the small lake if possible. Bonus: From the far north side of the lake, it’s a ¼ mile out to the beach at Crissy Field to see a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the SF Bay.
Stop 13. Marina/Cow Hollow
Hike up to Union Street. There are lots of restaurants near this stop, so lunch is an option, but if you are going to do it, Union Street is more interesting than Lombard Street. But here’s a spontaneous move: get a cab or Uber to take you on a short loop up the hill and through the mansions of Pacific Heights, then have them leave you on Union Street. Lots of bars and restaurants here. Maybe have them drive you past Broadway and Steiner streets to see if you can spot the house from the film Mrs. Doubtfire.
Stop 14. Lombard Street.
This is not close to the "crooked section" of Lombard Street. Stop 2 is best for that. Not much here unless your hotel/motel is nearby…
Stops 15 & 16. Pier 35 & Pier 39.
Pier 39 is super touristy, but the views from the end are great and the sea lions (see Stop #1) are fun to watch. And the 7-D Experience is an oversized arcade game that will give your family a few thrills. There's a kiddie carousel, periodic shows with magic, juggling, puppetry and other kid favorites.