Major cities like San Francisco have loads of incredible attractions to choose from. The trick is knowing which ones are worth your time and money. One of the things that I’ve discovered through my travels is that some big attractions are location-specific, and others are not. This is especially true in big cities, that are packed with world class museums. When you’re deciding what to see and do, it’s best to focus on the things that you can only do in that one place. The top-rated attractions aren’t necessarily the ones that allow you to truly experience a place.
I went to San Francisco for a week a couple of years ago. It was one of the first cities that I visited just for fun, and not for a sporting event or business conference. I packed a lot in to 7 days, but I still missed all kinds of things. San Francisco is the kind of city that would take years to really experience, because it’s so packed full of history and interesting places. Even so, you can prioritize and get to know San Francisco really well on a short trip. There are a couple of attractions that I visited which, had I known, I might have substituted out. On the other hand, there were attractions that I couldn’t get enough of and am so happy I saw.
Here are the San Francisco Attractions worth doing with a City Pass!
Purchase a San Francisco C3 City Pass
When I visited San Francisco, I purchased the standard City Pass. If I were going again, I would do things a little bit differently. Most of what I did in San Francisco was completely free. I paid for a couple of active adventures, and a City Pass. There were a few attractions and activities on the city pass that I absolutely loved, and you can experience all of them with a different, non-standard (and therefore cheaper) version of the city pass than the one that I chose.
That cheaper pass is the San Francisco C3 Pass. I didn’t know about this pass at all when I visited, and I certainly didn’t know which attractions were going to turn out to be the best. The C3 pass lets you choose from a list of 8 attractions/ activities, and there are 3 on the list that are totally worth doing. I’ll give you a full run down of what’s on the list.
The thing about the standard City Pass is that it locks you in to which attractions you can go to. It’s a more expensive pass, with 5 attraction. 4 are pre-set, and the 5th is a choice between two museums. One of those pre-set attractions is a bus + cable car pass. This might be really valuable, but that depends on where you’re staying. San Fransisco is really small, so many things are walking distance and the bus is only $2.50 USD per single ride. It’s essentially 4 activities, and only 2 are ones I recommend.
What to See With Your City Pass
The San Francisco C3 Pass gives you a choice of 3 attractions, from a list of 8. It’s the perfect arrangement, because there are 3 attractions on the list that are fun ways to see San Fransisco. Here are my top 3 picks using the C3 Pass:
Aquarium of the Bay
The Aquarium of the Bay is a small and wonderful aquarium in the heart of the tourist area, at Pier 39. The species in the aquarium are found in the Bay Area, and many are rescues or part of tag and release research studies. Go right when it opens, and straight to the otters. They’re very playful first thing in the morning, so go there first and then explore the rest of the Aquarium. Circle through a few times! (Regular $26.95 USD)
Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise
The Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise gives a unique perspective of San Francisco, and brings you up close to Alcatraz. If you’re planning to visit Alcatraz, go buy your tickets now because they sell out months in advance. It’s a pretty dreary place, and even from the cruise you can feel the misery radiating off it. The cruise takes you across the bay and right under the Golden Gate Bridge. The Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise is narrated by the Captain, so you will learn lots about the landmarks that you can see from the water. (Regular $33 USD)
Bay City Bike Rentals
This activity right here is the best way to experience San Francisco. I did a self-guided, full day cycling excursion around San Francisco. My route included Crissy Fields, the Golden Gate Bridge, Land’s End, Golden Gate Park, and the Painted Ladies. Pack lots of water and snacks, and spend a full day exploring on the bike. It’s true that San Fransisco is quite hilly so some parts of the ride will be challenging, but that is mostly in the city centre and you can avoid the hills by riding by the water. (Regular $32 USD)
Also Available with the C3 Pass:
There are 5 other attractions that you can choose with the C3 Pass. The California Science Academy, Exploratorium, and Museum of Modern Art are all options, along with the Walt Disney Family Museum and the de Young Museum.
I went to the California Science Academy and the Exploratorium, because they were pre-set attractions on the standard pass. The California Science Academy is an incredible museum, with everything from a giant whale heart model to an indoor rainforest environment. It just doesn’t have anything to do with San Francisco. It’s more where local kids would go to learn about science and the world at large. The Exploratorium is similar, it’s a cool place but really, it is intended for children.
As for the art museums, the only one I went to was the de Young Museum and I didn’t actually go for the art. It turns out there is a lookout that you can access for free, with a panoramic view of San Fransisco.
The San Fransisco C3 Pass is $69 USD. Individually these activities add up to $92, so you’re saving just over $30 with a pass. If you’re really wanting the Muni Bus + Cable Car Pass for days, you may find it worthwhile to upgrade to the Standard City Pass, but the Bike Rental will not be an option then. Public transport in San Francisco is $2.50 for a single ride, and it’s easy to take the bus to Golden Gate Park which is worth exploring for a day (the DeYoung Museum lookout and Japanese Tea Garden are there). Other than that, if you’re staying in the downtown, you probably don’t need public transport. Just ride the cable car for $7, visit the free Cable Car Museum, and you’re all set!
What Else to See in San Francisco
The best things to do in San Francisco are explore, eat, and go on walking tours. While San Francisco is expensive to live and work in, experiencing the city is relatively cheap and often free. I have a list of free things to do in San Francisco, and I recommend going on as many of the SF Public Library Walking tours (by donation) as you can if you like history. These tours showed me some of the coolest places that I never would have found on my own.