San Francisco is a vibrant city that’s full of charm, Victorian architecture, excellent food, and a rich history spanning from the Gold Rush to the Silicon Valley boom and beyond. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit San Francisco with City Experiences, a travel company that specializes in unique city tours — the type of tours that let you physically unlock the doors to the Sistine Chapel before the day’s visitors arrive, help you crush the Louvre in a single visit by giving you special access, and enlist local guides to take you to all the best in-the-know food spots in major culinary destinations ranging from Bologna to San Sebastian to New York City.
On my recent visit to San Francisco, I participated in four City Experiences excursions: a walking tour, a food tour, a premier dinner cruise, and the Alcatraz Behind the Scenes tour, which takes you to places on the onetime island prison that aren’t open to the public. It was the perfect way to get to know the dynamic city in a short amount of time. Here are five of the highlights from City Experience’s San Francisco tours that you won’t want to miss.
1. Ride the iconic cable car
When it comes to San Francisco icons, the historic cable cars that traverse some of the city’s most influential neighborhoods rank high on the list. It’s incredible to see how the cable cars manage to climb the city’s steep hills — in fact, they first ran in the late 1800s as an alternative to horse-drawn streetcars that struggled with the city’s legendary inclines.
When riding San Francisco’s cable cars, you have the option to sit down and relax or stand up and hold on the bars for a more thrilling experience. After your ride, you can learn more about how the cable cars, now a National Historic Landmark, function by taking advantage of the free visits to the Cable Car Museum in the Nob Hill neighborhood.
2. Eat your way through Chinatown
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. The neighborhood is a network of traditional Chinese restaurants, shops, and attractions, including the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, which gives you a glimpse into how fortune cookies are made. (Best of all, they give out free samples for visitors to taste.)
During my City Experiences food tour, we also stopped by an unassuming local eatery called Delicious Dim Sum that lived up to its name. The restaurant serves a variety of dumplings, shumai, and other dim sum treats. The portions are huge, but there’s only one table inside — we got our snacks to-go, as intended, and enjoyed them outside in true local fashion.
3. Visit the infamous Alcatraz
No San Francisco trip would be complete without a visit to Alcatraz Island. Alcatraz used to be a federal prison for the most notorious criminals, including Al Capone. Our group took a quick ferry boat from the city to get to the island. We were accompanied by Jolene Babyak who lived on Alcatraz for a couple of years in the 1950s when she was child and her father worked there. (US Penitentiary Alcatraz was closed in 1963.)
Inside the prison, tourees are given headsets for a self-guided audio tour that walks you through the penitentiary’s 29-year history as you walk past its cells. By the time you leave, you’re guaranteed to have a better understanding (and more of an open mind) about what the conditions were like when the prison was operational.
4. Play antique games at Musée Mécanique
Located right by Fisherman’s Wharf, one of San Francisco’s main attractions, Musée Mécanique is an antique arcade-museum that’s been operating since 1933. Admiring the collection is a nostalgic experience, but visitors also get to try their hand at the museum’s games. The games are coin-operated — most cost 25 or 50 cents to play, so be sure to bring some quarters.
Kids and adults alike will enjoy the quirky collection found at Musée Mécanique, such as Laughing Sal, which is a huge (and creepy-looking) puppet that laughs when you feed 50 cents into the machine. The museum also has dancing puppets, a variety of vintage arcade games, a fortune teller, a photo booth, and much more. If you happen to be a fan of The Princess Diaries, be sure to check out the arm-wrestling game that was featured in the film.
5. Take a dinner cruise by the Golden Gate Bridge
The dinner cruise that I took with City Experiences was a perfect way to end my trip to San Francisco. You’ll get to see breathtaking views of the city, including a close-up shot of the Golden Gate Bridge as you glide through the San Francisco Bay, plus a three-course meal that kicked off with sparkling welcome wine. But the ambiance also extends beyond the views — on my cruise, there was lively music that beckoned many people to the dance floor, which created a fun environment and a truly unforgettable experience.