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. As any traveler knows, those costs can add up.
Luckily, you can slash your sightseeing costs by up to 45% with the San Francisco CityPASS. Interested in learning how?
In this San Francisco CityPASS review, I’ll explain how the pass works, what’s included, and who should consider it. 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 four of the city’s top attractions for one low price. Each pass includes two standard attractions and a choice for the third and fourth.
The pass is actually individual tickets to all the attractions. Like the Chicago CityPASS and the Seattle CityPASS, you can buy it online or in person at any of the sites in San Francisco. If you purchase it online, you can have your tickets emailed or shipped to you. If you go the email route, you can choose to either print your tickets or keep a digital copy on your smartphone.
If you buy the pass on site in San Francisco, you get a ticket booklet. On the back of each ticket, you’ll find key info about the attractions such as their address, hours of operation, and the best time to visit.
Once you have your pass in hand, using it is simple. Just present your digital or paper ticket or booklet at any of the attractions 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 four attractions.
Top attractions Included on the San Francisco CityPASS
The San Francisco CityPASS includes cash-free access to four of San Francisco’s major attractions. Two are included by default, and you get a choice between two options for each of the third and fourth slots. Here’s the lineup along with the regular adult admission prices:
- California Academy of Sciences (up to $45)
- Blue and Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure ($34)
- Aquarium of the Bay ($29.25) OR The Walt Disney Family Museum ($25)
- Exploratorium ($29.95) OR San Francisco Zoo & Gardens ($22)
Here’s something interesting: There’s an option to swap out the Blue and Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure for a tour of Alcatraz Island (regular price: $39.90).
How does it work? Buy a day tour of Alcatraz Online on the Alcatraz Cruises website. Then when you arrive in San Francisco, head to the Alcatraz cruises ticket booth at Pier 33 and pay the difference to upgrade your day tour ticket for the San Francisco CityPASS. If you prefer to have the pass shipped to you, you can call Alcatraz Cruises and upgrade over the phone in advance.
It’s a bit of a hassle, but if a visit to Alcatraz Island is on your San Francisco to-do list, it’s worth it. To minimize the inconvenience, plan to make the Alcatraz Day Tour the first stop on your sightseeing mission. That way, you can grab the pass while you’re there, eliminating the need for an extra visit or a phone call.
How Much Does the San Francisco CityPASS Cost?
Ok, now that you know what’s on the menu, how much will the San Francisco CityPASS set you back? Considering that San Fran isn’t exactly a cheap vacation spot, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the cost:
|Adult (ages 12+)||Child (ages 5-11)|
|*Prices current as of April 16, 2020|
For just $76, teens and adults get entry to four top San Francisco attractions. That works out to be $19 a pop. If you look at the regular admission prices, it’s immediately clear that adults are getting a great deal, since each attraction costs between $22 and $45 on its own.
The San Francisco CityPASS advertises savings to the tune of 45% compared to paying regular prices at the gate. I always verify such claims, and in this case, it’s easy.
If you add the regular adult admission price of the four attractions (assuming you choose the Aquarium and Exploratorium, since they are the more expensive options) you get a total of $138.20. The adult pass costs just $76, so the total cost of attractions ($138.20) minus the cost of pass ($76) is $62.20 in savings, which works out to 45% off.
Note that these calculations are based on paying $45 for admission to the California Academy of Sciences. Pricing fluctuates based on anticipated volume. However, you can avoid surge pricing by purchasing tickets online up to six months in advance.
Assuming the same attraction lineup, kids save slightly less at 42% off the attractions.
For teenagers, the value isn’t as good. That’s because they have to pay the adult price for the pass, but many of the attractions offer reduced admission for teens.
For example, a 16-year-old who visits the same four attractions would pay $76 for the pass, but her admission would only cost $115.90, giving her 34% in savings. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but adults and children under 12 definitely get better value from the pass.
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.
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 separate, very cool 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 cruises tend to be the least crowded.
Aquarium of the Bay
Okay, 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 such as shark feedings.
Walt Disney Family Museum
Major Disney fans will not want to skip the Walt Disney Family Museum. It’s less of a Disney Bonanza for kids and more of an in-depth look at how it all began. Interactive exhibits narrated in Walt’s voice feature early drawings, movies, and yes, screens — more than 200 of them. Check out the multiplane camera responsible for creating 3D effects and get nostalgic with daily screenings of classic Disney films.
The Exploratorium is an interactive museum featuring experiences in science, art, and human perception. Adults and kids alike 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 Zoo and Gardens
Animal lovers big and small will flock to the diverse exhibits of the San Francisco Zoo and Gardens. The sprawling 100-acre area is home to more than 2,000 animals. Spy giraffes, zebras, and kudus in the African Savanna exhibit. Meet the resident grizzly bears, Kachina and Kiona. Marvel at playful Magellanic penguins in action. The kiddos can even get hands-on with farm animals at the Children’s Zoo.
Alcatraz Day Tour
This one isn’t part of the pass’ core lineup, but as I mentioned before, you have the option of subbing it in to replace the Blue and Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure. The Day Tour ticket includes a ferry ride to Alcatraz Island and a self-guided tour of the Alcatraz Cellhouse, complete with an award-winning audio presentation available in nine languages. You can stay on Alcatraz Island as long as you like, exploring the historic site at your own pace.
Other Benefits of the San Francisco CityPASS
- Save 45% — The San Francisco CityPASS can save you up to 45% on admission fees to four 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 still impressive.
- Streamlined Entry — The San Francisco CityPASS includes tickets to each attraction, and in some cases, those are your actual admission tickets. At the California Academy of Science, the Aquarium, and the Zoo, you can skip the ticket line and head directly to the entrance with your ticket or ticket booklet in hand. For the other attractions, you will have to present your ticket or 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 four 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.
- Mobile Pass — The San Francisco CityPASS is available as a convenient mobile pass you can download to your smartphone. No need for paper, unless you want it.
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 the physical ticket booklet. To be fair, there is a new and very welcome electronic option available. You can buy the pass online and have the tickets emailed to you, eliminating the need for paper. I think most travelers will choose this option, since the majority of people use a smartphone.
But if you do opt to have the ticket booklet shipped to you or elect to pick it up in San Francisco, you’ll not only have to deal with paper, but also this weird restriction: You can’t rip out your own tickets. Seriously, doing so can void them.
This doesn’t sound like a big deal at first — 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 mistake. 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 teenagers. Instead of being able to save 42% the way you can for younger children, the most you can save is 34% when you purchase a pass for a teen.
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 as a group. The San Francisco CityPASS can slash those costs by up to 45% for adults and 42% for kids under 12 (see tips section for advice for using the pass for teens). Plus, the pass is pretty family-friendly.
Who Should Skip the San Francisco CityPASS?
- Power Sightseers — If you love a jam-packed itinerary and you buzz with excitement at the idea of 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 Pass.
- Anyone Not Interested in the Included Attractions — The San Francisco CityPASS only includes six attractions (you get to choose two out of the last four), 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 four attractions gives you maximum savings, but you’ll still enjoy a discount if you visit three. Skipping two attractions really reduces the value of the pass. If you visit the two most expensive options, you’ll save $4. Any other combination will result in losing money.
Choose the Aquarium and Exploratorium — If you want to maximize your savings, it’s best to choose the Aquarium over the Walt Disney Family Museum and the Exploratorium over the Zoo. That’s because those two attractions have higher regular admission costs, so you save more by using your pass to cover them. This is especially important if you might pay out of pocket to see one of the attractions you didn’t pick.
Disclaimer: This tip assumes you’re equally interested in the attractions. Value is about more than money, so if you’re a die-hard Disney fan and not all that interested in sea life, don’t pick the Aquarium just to save $4.
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. Five of them offer discounted admission to teenagers.
- The California Academy of Sciences charges $35 (instead of $45) for ages 12–17
- The Cruise charges $26 (instead of $34) for ages 12–18
- The Exploratorium charges $24.95 (instead of $29.95) for ages 13–17
- The Disney Museum charges $15 (instead of $25) for ages 12-17
- The Zoo charges $17 (instead of $23) for ages 6–17
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, she’ll have to use the adult pass. So if you don’t plan to visit all four attractions, crunch the numbers to see if the pass is a good buy or if it’s better to buy tickets at the gate.
How to Buy the San Francisco CityPASS
The easiest way to get one is to buy the San Francisco CityPASS online. If you go that route, you can download your tickets to your smartphone or print hard copies. You can also have a ticket booklet shipped to you if you prefer paper and don’t have a printer. If neither of those options works for you, you can buy the pass in person at any of the attractions in San Francisco.
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 four attractions, the answer is a clear yes. Adult pass holders who choose the Aquarium and Exploratorium will save 45% on 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 three 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!
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San Francisco CityPASS Review
If you’re going to visit all five attractions, the San Francisco CityPASS is definitely worth it. 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. But the savings are still substantial. Beware that you cannot rip out your tickets! The fact that you still have to have paper tickets is annoying, even more so if you void your ticket just by taking it out of the booklet. I wish they would change this policy. That said, this Pass is definitely worth purchasing.