In this San Francisco CityPASS review, we’ll explore how it works, what’s included, and whether it’s a good fit for you. Enjoy!
Heading to San Francisco? From the Golden Gate Bridge to the historic cable cars, San Fran always provides a charming visit.
Whether you’re going for three days or two weeks, you won’t run out of things to do. If you’re not careful though, you could run out of money!
True, there are plenty of awesome things to do for free in San Francisco. Walking the bridge, exploring Chinatown, visiting the park, and strolling along Pier 39 are all great examples.
But if you want to ride the cable cars, cruise the bay, or visit the iconic museums, you’ll have to spend some coin. And as any traveler knows, those costs can add up.
Luckily, the San Francisco CityPASS can slash your sightseeing costs by up to 42%. Interested in learning how?
In this San Francisco CityPASS review, I’ll explain how the pass works, what’s included, how much it costs, and who should give it serious consideration. Stick with me, and I’ll help you decide if it’s worth it for you.
San Francisco CityPASS: How it Works
The San Francisco CityPASS provides free entry to five of the city’s top attractions for one low price. Each pass includes four standard attractions, and you get to choose the fifth from a choice of two.
The pass comes in the form of a physical ticket booklet. On the back of each attraction ticket is key information about each spot – like the address, hours of operation, the best time to visit, and how to get there via the Muni bus system (for which you get a 3-day pass). The San Francisco CityPASS booklet also includes additional coupons that can help you maximize your trip to San Fran.
And how do you get it? Like the Chicago CityPASS or the Seattle CityPASS, the best way to get it is to buy it online. Then, you can have the booklet shipped to you or print a voucher that you exchange for a booklet in San Francisco. (I prefer to have the booklet shipped so I don’t have to wait in line to exchange the voucher.) Vouchers must be exchanged within six months, and current booklets expire after February 28, 2021.
Using the pass is simple. You just present your ticket booklet at the ticket window or entrance (see the back of your ticket for instructions) and head on in. You can visit the sites in any order, and you activate your pass when you use it for the first time. After activation, the pass is valid for nine consecutive days, including the first day. That gives you plenty of time to hit all five attractions.
Top attractions Included on the San Francisco CityPASS
The San Francisco CityPASS includes cash-free access to five of SF’s major attractions. Four are included by default, and you can choose between two options for the fifth slot. Here’s the lineup with their regular adult admission prices:
- 3-Day Cable Car and Muni Bus Passport – $34
- California Academy of Sciences – $35.95
- Blue and Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure – $33
- Aquarium of the Bay – $27.95
- Exploratorium – $29.95 Or San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) – $25
How Much Does the San Francisco CityPASS Cost?
Ok, now you know what’s on the menu…but how much will the San Francisco CityPASS set you back? Considering the fact that San Fran isn’t exactly a cheap vacation spot, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the low cost:
|Adult (ages 12+)||Child (ages 5-11)|
|*Prices current as of March 2019|
If you look at the regular admission prices for the included attractions, you’ll quickly see that the San Francisco CityPASS can save you major loot.
Adults over age 18 who visit all five attractions (choosing the Exploratorium over the SFMOMA) save $66.85 – which is a whopping 42%! That’s excellent value.
Kids aged 5-11 can save up to $45.85, which is 38%. Teenagers don’t fare quite as well – they have to use the adult pass – but many of the attractions don’t charge full adult admission. Still, the savings is pretty good. The most someone 13-17 can save with the pass is $49.85. That breaks down to a 34% savings -which is nothing to shake a stick at!
San Francisco CityPASS Attractions Guide
Before you decide if the San Francisco CityPASS is a good deal for you, you’ll want to know more about the attractions.
3-Day Cable Car and Muni Bus Passport
San Francisco is known for its historic cable cars and streetcars. They’re not just a charming tourist attraction, though; they’re also efficient. Along with the Muni buses, they’re part of San Francisco’s convenient public transit system.
I absolutely love that the San Francisco CityPASS includes three days of unlimited use of the Muni cable cars, street cars, and buses. You’ll enjoy the novelty of the cable cars while getting where you need to go. You’ll be pleased to know that all the included attractions are on the Muni route.
Savings tip: If you prefer riding the cable cars to get around (‘cause they’re awesome), do so during your three free days. A one-way cable car ride is normally $7, whereas a bus ride is only $2.25. You can save some money by taking the bus for the rest of the trip.
California Academy of Sciences
How does an interactive aquarium, a living rain forest, a stunning planetarium, and a natural history museum sound? To me, they sound like four very cool, separate things. But at the California Academy of Sciences, you can experience them all in one place.
The San Francisco CityPASS gets you general admission to all exhibits. You’ll also find a 15% coupon you can use at the Academy Store, if you’re so inclined.
Blue and Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure
The one-hour narrated Bay Cruise Adventure is the only tour included on the San Francisco CityPASS, but it manages to hit a lot of the major landmarks. You’ll sail under the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, along San Fran’s waterfront, and circle historic Alcatraz Island. The audio tour is available in nine languages, and you have your pick of indoor or outdoor seating.
Tip: It’s first come, first served, so try to arrive at the Pier 39 box office window at least 30 minutes in advance to exchange your ticket for a boarding pass. Morning and late afternoon tend to be the least crowded.
Aquarium of the Bay
OK, yes, the California Academy of Sciences has an aquarium, but this is next level! I’m talking 300 feet of tunnels and more than 20,000 marine animals of the San Francisco Bay in a massive and immersive exhibit. You’ll see sharks, moon jellies, colorful rockfish, river otters, a giant Pacific octopus, and more.
The Touch the Bay exhibit will be a favorite among kids. They can get hands-on with bat rays, leopard sharks, and sea stars, to name a few. Naturalists are always on deck to answer questions and do demonstrations (like shark feedings!).
The Exploratorium is an interactive museum featuring experiences in science, art, and human perception. Adults and kids will love building their own creations in the Tinkering Studio. Visualists will be mesmerized by the Colored Shadows and Soap Film Painting Exhibits. Science buffs will get lost exploring the Living Systems gallery. There’s truly something for everyone. If all that wonky fun stuff doesn’t appeal to you, at least there’s a stunning view of the city from the Bay Observatory. (But seriously, check out the exhibits.)
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
If you’re an art lover, you can’t visit San Francisco without making a stop at the SFMOMA. In truth, you could easily spend a full day there – it’s seven floors. Those seven floors feature work from some of the best in modern and contemporary art. You’ll find a 15,000 square foot photography center, and a huge wall housing 19,000 plants. In fact, this “living wall” is the largest in the country.
Although I recommend choosing the Exploratorium over the SFMOMA to maximize the value of the San Francisco CityPASS, art lovers should disregard that advice and head straight to SFMOMA.
Other Benefits of the San Francisco CityPASS
- Save 42% – The San Francisco CityPASS can save you up to 42% on admission fees to five of the city’s main attractions. While it’s not the absolute best value I’ve ever seen in a sightseeing pass (New York Pass, I’m looking at you), it’s nothing to sneeze at.
- Streamlined Entry – The San Francisco CityPASS is a physical ticket booklet, and in some cases, those are your actual admission tickets. This means you won’t have to line up to buy tickets at every attraction – you already have them. This applies to the California Academy of Science and the Aquarium. Just present your booklet at the entrance and the staff will tear out your ticket. For the other attractions, you will have to present your booklet at the ticketing window and make an exchange.
- Valid for Nine Days – Unlike some sightseeing passes, the San Francisco CityPASS is valid for nine days once you use it for the first time. Having nine days to visit five attractions means you have plenty of time to relax and do other things. There’s no need to worry about fitting everything in – breathe, you have time.
- Additional discounts – The San Francisco CityPASS booklet comes with a few little extras. My favorite is a coupon for $4 off admission to the Exploratorium or SFMOMA. If you want to visit both, the best course of action is to use the pass for the Exploratorium, since it’s more expensive, and then use the $4 off coupon at the museum.
The booklet also contains coupons for gift shops at the attractions, discounted bike rentals, and savings at local retailers.
Where the San Francisco CityPASS Falls Short
The San Francisco CityPASS can save you some serious cash, but it isn’t perfect. There are a couple of shortcomings worth mentioning.
The biggest drawback is that it’s a physical pass – well, more accurately, a physical ticket booklet. You can have the booklet shipped to you, or you can print a voucher and exchange it for a ticket booklet when you get to San Francisco. Either way, there’s no electronic option.
A lot of travelers who are used to keeping everything on their smartphones will find this annoying. It’s an extra thing to carry around and an extra thing to worry about losing.
Clunkiness aside, the worst feature of the ticket booklet is that you can’t rip out your own tickets. Seriously, doing so can void them. This doesn’t sound like a big deal…just don’t rip out the tickets, right?
The problem is that it’s so counterintuitive – your instinct is to take the tickets you need for the day and leave the rest at the hotel to avoid losing your booklet. But that would be a huge mistake. Another reason an electronic pass would be superior. Consider yourself warned!
One final point: I mentioned it before and will delve into it more in the tips section, but the advertised savings for the pass isn’t accurate for teenage children. Instead of 42%, the most they can save is 34%
Who Should Consider the San Francisco CityPASS?
First Timers – If it’s your first time in San Fran, the included attractions will likely be on your to-do list. Why not do them for less with the San Francisco CityPASS?
Travelers Who Like a Relaxed Pace – If you prefer to spread out your sightseeing and enjoy a flexible schedule, you’ll appreciate that the San Francisco CityPASS is good for nine days. That’s plenty of time to explore each attraction at your leisure and take a day off in between, if that’s your thing.
Families with Kids Under 12 – Admission costs can add up quickly when you’re traveling with a group. The San Francisco CityPASS can slash those costs by up to 42% for adults and 38% for kids under 12 (see tips section for advice for using the pass for teenage children). Plus, the pass is pretty family-friendly. The only attraction that might not appeal to kids is the SFMOMA, and that’s one of the optional attractions – the Exploratorium would be a better pick for families.
Who Should Skip the San Francisco CityPASS?
- Power Sightseers – If you love a jam-packed itinerary and you buzz with excitement thinking about getting to see as much of San Fran as humanly possible, you’re a power sightseer. You’d do best with an unlimited pass like the Go San Francisco Card instead.
- Anyone not Interested in the Included Attractions – The San Francisco CityPASS only includes six attractions, and they may not be for everybody. If most of them don’t appeal to you, you’re better off skipping the pass altogether.
- Extreme Budget Travelers – Everyone loves saving money, and the San Francisco CityPASS can definitely help you do that. But if your sightseeing budget is pretty much nil, you’re gonna want to stick to the free sights.
Tips for Using the San Francisco CityPASS
Visit All the Attractions – This is obvious, but the San Francisco CityPASS is only a good deal if you use it enough to save money. Visiting all five attractions gives you maximum savings, but you’ll still enjoy a nice discount if you visit four. Visiting three attractions really reduces the value of the pass, but depending on which three you visit, you can still save.
Choose the Exploratorium over the SFMOMA – If you want to get the maximum possible value from your San Francisco CityPASS, visit the Exploratorium instead of the SFMOMA. If you’re traveling solo or with other adults, you’ll save an extra $5 each. Kids always get free admission at the SFMOMA, but they pay a hefty $19.95 at the Exploratorium. So, if you want to visit SFMOMA with your family, it makes much more sense to pay the adult fare at the gate. (And don’t forget about the $4 coupon included in your booklet).
Check Regular Admission Prices Based on Age – The San Francisco CityPASS defines adults as everyone 12 and up, but that’s not necessarily how the attractions do their pricing. Four of them offer discounted admission to teenagers.
The California Academy of Sciences charges $30.95 (instead of $35.95) for ages 12-17. The cruise charges $26 (instead of $33) for ages 12-18. Regular admission to the Exploratorium is $24.95 (instead of $29.95) for ages 13-17. The SFMOMA is free for anyone aged 18 and under and $19 (instead of $25) for adults aged 19-24.
It’s important to consider these discounts when deciding if the pass is a good deal for you. If you’re traveling with a teen, they’ll have to use the adult pass. The most someone aged 12-17 can save with the San Francisco CityPASS is $49.85 – that’s 34% instead of 42%. Cutting costs by one third is still a great idea, but you have to visit all five attractions to get there. If you have a teen and don’t plan to visit all five, crunch the numbers to see if the pass is a good buy.
How to Buy the San Francisco CityPASS
The easiest way to get one is to buy the San Francisco CityPASS online.
If you go the online route, you have the option of downloading and printing a voucher that you’ll bring to San Fran and exchange for a booklet at your first attraction. You can also elect to have the booklet mailed to you so that you have it on-hand and don’t need to bother lining up to make the exchange.
Is the San Francisco CityPASS Worth it?
So, after all that, the moment of truth…is the San Francisco CityPASS worth it?
If you’re going to visit all five attractions, the answer is a clear yes.
Adult pass holders who choose the Exploratorium over the SFMOMA will save 42% compared to regular admission costs, and that’s pretty fantastic. Kids save a bit less, and teenagers less again.
If you’re not committed to visiting at least four attractions, the San Francisco CityPASS may not be worth it for you. And if there’s a ton more you want to see and are happy to do it in a short time, then an all-inclusive pass might be a better fit.
Whatever you choose, I hope this review was helpful. Thanks for reading and have a great trip to San Francisco!