The San Francisco Bay is a beautiful calm secluded bay that is just perfect for taking a cruise. It is one of San Francisco’s number 1 activities and with good reason. We like to get out on the water wherever we visit as seeing a place from the water shows it in a whole new light. With such a popular activity there are always going to be strong competition between companies vying for your money. Our San Francisco Bay Cruise Reviews post aims to cut through the marketing and find which operator provides the Best San Francisco Bay Cruise so you can make the most of your time on the bay. So let’s take a look at what we think is the best San Francisco Cruise?
Operators – Best San Francisco bay cruises
The red and white fleet is one of the two BIG operations providing tours around the bay. The other being the Blue and gold fleet. They both have a very similar offering and similar prices, to be honest, there is not a lot to separate them!
They offer a basic service using quite large boats with large outdoor decks with rows of seating. The high and open aspect of the decks gives fantastic views of the bay, City, Bridge and Alcatraz. There is also a recorded narration of the tour over the loudspeakers. This is definitely a no-frills operator, designed to get as many people as possible out onto the bay. You could almost call it a cattle boat…
While this may sound very disparaging the truth is this fits most peoples time and budget constraints. For a low fee, you get a concise cruise around the bay with all the sights you would expect. We thoroughly recommend these for most people just wanting to see the area from the bay it is perfectly adequate and very affordable.
Golden Gate Bay Cruise – $32 Adult – $22 Child(5-17) – Duration- 1 hour
Basic 1 hour trip out to the bridge and back via Alcatraz Island. This Golden Gate Bridge Cruise is the bread and butter of San Francisco Cruises. It’s not fancy and there are few frills, but the basic experience of being out on the bay seeing the iconic sights and landmarks of the Bay is more than enough to make up for the roughness. This is the most popular cruise available and it’s easy to see why.
Bridge to Bridge Cruise – $40 Adult – $28 Child(5-17) – Duration- 1.5 hours
A similar concept but heads to the Oakland bridge after completing the Golden Gate route.This gives great views of the East side of the City including the At&t Arena and the Embarcadero.
California Sunset Cruise – $68 Adult – $46 Child(5-7) – Duration- 2 hours
A scenic two-hour cruise at sunset with incredible views of the bay and City. The price includes light appetisers, which is a buffet of typical snack food and a drink is included as well. There is a full cash bar if you want any further drinks during your cruise. The route is impressive and takes you tight round Angel Island for a very comprehensive tour of the bay. There will be live music as well. Overall it’s a very relaxing and enjoyable evening.
California Twilight Cruise – $68 Adult – $46 Child(5-7) – Duration- 2 hours
Same as above but during the winter months as the sun sets earlier. Takes a different route very similar to the Bridge to Bridge Cruise to take in the City lights.
As we said the Red and White Fleets Biggest Rival is remarkable similar even down to the Dual coloured name. The main offering is pretty much identical as well. It’s hard to really separate the two and come to a recommendation.
San Francisco Bay Adventure – $33 Adult – $22 Child(5-17) – $26 Junior (12-18) – Duration- 1 hour
This tour is almost identical to the Red and White fleets Golden Gate Bay Cruise. A 1-hour trip to the bridge and back via Alcatraz island.
We explain the full experience below so you know what to expect on your chosen Cruise.
Escape the Rock Cruise – $39 Adult – $26 Child(5-11) – $31 Junior (12-18) – Duration- 90 hours
Similar to the Bay Adventure but take a more detailed look at Alcatraz. Sailing very close to the Island this tours commentary is based more around the history of the old federal Penitentiary. It doesn’t land on the Island though only the Alcatraz Cruises trip (see below) actually lands and lets you access the island.
Rocket Boat – $30 Adult – $25 Child(5-11) – $35 Junior (12-18) – Duration- 30 Mins
The Rocket boat is something a bit different. It’s basically a Super Sized Speedboat that heads out and performs tight turns and tricks out in the Bay. It’s quite intense so not for everyone but it’s a lot of fun. Not really very good for sightseeing but very few people return without a big smile on their face!
While the Rocket boat is in our opinion overpriced the option to combine it with a bay cruise for only $43 per adult, $33 essentially giving you the rocket boat for $10 is really good value! To get this offer Just book the San Francisco Bay Adventure and you will be offered the rocket boat combo.
Red and White Cruises are actually owned by Hornblower who operate cruises all over the country. In San Francisco, they leave the basic cruises to Red And White and they specialise in the higher end dinner cruises around the bay.
San Francisco Dinner Cruise – $108 – Duration- 2.5-3 hour
A high-end dinner cruise around the bay. Including a 4-course meal and entertainment. The cruise is a long slow sail around the bay taking in the sunset and then watching as the city begins to come alive and sparkle. The meal is a 4-course table served meal as you would expect in a top restaurant. Drinks are included but alcoholic drinks are extra, which is a little disappointing considering the price. There is a full bar and extensive wine list available though. This is definitely a special occasion or treat type of cruise very different to the quick sails offered by the main companies.
San Francisco Supper Club – $89.50 up – Duration- 3 hour
Very similar to the Dinner cruise but a more relaxed affair with a self-service buffet instead of a Table service meal. The music is more contemporary also and is more clubby. Aimed at younger audience wanting a less stuffy atmosphere.
San Francisco Champagne Brunch – $77 – 2 hour
We love a good brunch, we love a bottomless Bubbly brunch even more! With free-flowing sparkling wine or mimosas and a good Brunch buffet, this could be the perfect way to see the bay! If you plan on making good use of the Fizz then this is exceptional Value.
The Sole provider of cruises to Alcatraz Island that actually dock and allow you to explore the Island. While these are called Alcatraz Cruises, this activity is not really a cruise as such and more a trip to the island. That’s to knock it, they are a great company offering a great activity it just doesn’t really fit in the Cruise review post. It’s a boat ride to see visit the Island. The Boat part itself isn’t very special (even if you do get fantastic views of the island and the City) It’s brief and intended as transport.
If you are more interested in visiting Alcatraz than a cruise then this is the tour for you, if a relaxing cruise around the bay is what you are after avoid.
Alcatraz Tour – Adult: $37.25 – Junior (12-17): $37.25 -Child (5-11): $23.00 – Duration 2.5 Hrs
The Charters offered by Adventure Cat Sailing offer a very different experience to the other operators. The Cat has much less capacity and is far less of a cattle boat as a result. The more intimate Sailing charters while offering a much more exhilarating experience are also far less comfortable than the larger boats. More suited to slightly adventurous types. The slightly slower pace is perfect for relaxing out on the bay. The netting at the front is great fun for feeling close to the sea. Overall we really like the relaxed intermate feel you get from the Cat Charters as opposed to the larger busier boats.
It’s worth noting that while there is an indoor cabin in poor weather it’s little fun. Bad weather and the trip will probably be cancelled, thankfully!
Bay Sail – $45 Adult(13+) – $25 Child(6-12) – Duration- 90 Mins
This is really the same tour as the big boats but the slower pace takes a little longer to complete the distance. There is a cash bar for drink and snacks.
Sunset sail – $60 Adult(13+) – $60 Child(6-12) – Duration- 90 Mins
Same trip as the Bay sail only at sunset with two drinks thrown in for the price, along with light snacks to enjoy as you sail along. A perfect relaxing romantic evening.
Experience – Blue and Gold Fleet Golden Gate Bay Cruise
We recently travelled on the Blue and Gold fleet for their San Francisco Bay Adventure Cruise. You can expect pretty much the same experience on most cruises.
The Start point for all the Cruises is the historic Pier 39 in Fishermans Wharf. Here you will find kiosks for all the Cruise providers and you can simply pay on the day, Pick up your pre-ordered online tickets, exchange your CityPASS coupons, or use your Go Card(for Red and White Cruises). After getting your tickets head to the meeting point. This will be on your ticket but should you be unsure just pop to the kiosk to confirm. We advise getting there at least 30 mins * before your trip, even earlier if it’s busy as it can be quite a scrum getting on. It obviously helps to be at the front of the queue. It’s worth mentioning that if you Pre Book tickets and miss the slot they will be happy to provide tickets for a different time, which is handy and takes the risk out of pre-ordering.
*If you start to need the toilet while queueing be assured there are restrooms on board.
Once the loading begins You have a choice of 3 Decks for the trip. the indoor lower deck, indoor middle or outside upper deck. The Outdoor Upper area is better in every conceivable way but one. It can be very chilly out on the bay and there is very little protection when out on the deck. But the views are worth braving the elements for as long as you can manage. There are seats both upstairs and down. But we find most people are moving around taking in the views rather than staying seated.
As you pull out the harbour remember to wave at the crowds who are watching the sea lions on Pier 39. For some reason, they will make a big song and dance about the ferry leaving, the sea lions that is. As you head away from the pier the views of the City begin to come into view. The further you sail away from the pier the more fantastic the skyline becomes. The route takes you quite near to Alcatraz but you can ignore that for now. The Narration will be playing and explaining what you can sea and providing a lot of history of the area.
Once you are past Alcatraz and heading away from the City the trip is a little drab before you reach the bridge. However, the Bay can be incredibly rich with boat traffic and wildlife. There is always something to look at or photograph (see “What to look out for” below). After 20-25 minutes you will be approaching the feature presentation as the iconic red monster draws closer and closer. For almost the entire trip it’s been there in the distance but now the ferry draws near its colossal scale becomes apparent. The route of the boat allows for many angles to shoot that would be impossible without getting this close.
The ferry will sail right under the bridge and out the other side into the surprisingly choppy water of the Bays Mouth. Here it will make its turn before heading back. Your before passing under the bridge, either way, is the perfect time for a couple photo or Bridge selfie!
The boat now sails back in a similar route only this time it takes a close pass round the back of Alcatraz. If you were disappointed about how close you got on the way out, the return leg makes up for it as you get a close look at the Island. It’s an eerie place and not somewhere you would want to spend long…unlucky for some!
Finally, as the boat rounds the Island, you will be heading back in. The view of the City is slightly different than the way out, however at this point, we were cowering downstairs with a cup of hot chocolate (drinks are extra but reasonable) trying to get some feeling of warmth back in us, This was in June! As you head back into the port you will be greeted with the same rapturous welcome from the resident sea lions as when you left. Disembarking tends to be far more orderly than embarkment. An hour well spent in our opinion.
What to look out for?
The Bay is incredibly busy with boats and watercraft. The sheltered waters are perfect for recreation and the Golden gate is Still a HUGE shipping route. The Size of some of the vessels that come through, sometimes very close, is staggering.
Huge Ships, Kite Surfers, Wind Surfers, Speedboats, Fellow Bay Cruise guests, Historic Ship (Hyde Pier), Crab Boats.
The entire area is one living breathing landmark and everywhere you look is something iconic and famous. You never really lose sight of the bridge for the entire tour and Alcatraz is normally somewhere in your eye-line too.
Alcatraz, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Skyline, Ghirardelli factory, Marin Highlands, Angel Island, Fort Mason and Chrissy Fields.
The Bay is rich with wildlife but a lot of it is not that visible, Unlike a few miles down the coast in Big Sur. Most of the visible animals are the big predators of the vast fish and crustation populations supported by the bay.
Pelicans, Really Fat Seagulls, Sea lions, Dolphin, Great White Sharks…although you would be astoundingly lucky to see one!
Trust us even on Warm Days it can be FREEZING out there. Don’t think you will be OK in shorts and tee shirt just because you are fine at the dock. once the wind chill and exposure kick it’s not long until you are shivering!
Be aware that in bad weather the trips will be cancelled. There are not many cancellation days per year but you should remain flexible on your trip dates if a cruise is important to you as you don’t want to miss out due to cancellation. Also, a bad weather cruise isn’t a whole heap of fun.
Wait till just before going under the bridge to get a great selfie with the bridge behind. As always Remember to get a fantastic Couple shot just offer to take a photo for someone else. They will be bound to return the Favour.
When to go?
During the Summer months, the Bay Area can be badly affected by the Infamous San Francisco Fog. This mainly impacts the mornings so we don’t advise a morning cruise as there will be little to see if the fog has rolled in.
There are a number of different CityPASS’s available for San Francisco and they all include a cruise of some sort. Check out comparison review of the different passes available for San Francisco here. We find these a great option for seeing San Francisco, as not only do they save you money but help provide structure and planning for a trip. They also allow for a lot of flexibility so you can easily alter your plans depending on the weather or other unforeseen factors.
Have you been on a San Francisco Bay Cruise? how was it for you? Which company did you go with? Let us know in the comments below! Or leave a comment if you have any questions or if you just want to have your say?