Scenic San Francisco Bay Boat Tour With Red & White Cruises

seagull in front of golden gate bridge
by Anisa // 32 Comments

People say one of the best views of San Francisco is from the water, but I have always wanted to see it myself. I had taken a boat to Alcatraz before, but I needed to get the full San Francisco Bay experience. Many of my favorite attractions are visible from a boat – the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, the Palace of Fine Arts, and more.

During a recent trip, I took the opportunity to go on a San Francisco Bay Boat Tour that included going under the Golden Gate Bridge with Red and White Cruises. I was glad I did.

Let me tell you more about my experience so you can decide if you want to do one of the San Francisco boat tours when you visit.

Note: We went on our cruise on November 11, 2018.  Our pictures look hazy, but that is actually the smoke from some of the California wildfires.  Our thoughts are with all those affected.

The view as we left Pier 43 1/2. - San Francisco Cruise
The view as we left Pier 43 1/2.

San Francisco from the Water

San Francisco Bay is the heart of the city, so a boat tour is a convenient and fun way to get an overview and a glimpse of some of the most popular attractions.  Try to choose a day where the weather is clear.  Sometimes, it can be foggy in the morning but will clear up as the day goes on.  Be sure to bring your camera as the views will be spectacular.

Here’s a one-week San Francisco itinerary to help you see more of this amazing city.

Note: This post contains affiliate links please see disclosure for more information.

One of the windsurfers we saw during our San Francisco boat ride.
One of the windsurfers we saw during our San Francisco boat ride.

Leaving the Pier

Boarding the boat is first-come-first-served, so we got to the Pier about 20 minutes before our scheduled cruise.  They started boarding just before it was time to leave. As you board, there is a photographer that will take your picture with the boat. If you like it, the photo is available for purchase for $15 after completing the tour.

Once onboard, you get your audio tour equipment – headphones and a small radio.  The narration is available in 16 different languages. I thought the audio tour was very informative.  Even though I have been to San Francisco many times, I still learned a few things.

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Inside the Red and White Fleet Boat. - San Francisco Boat Tour
Inside the Red and White Fleet Boat.

Once you have the audio tour, you choose your deck and seat.  The boat has three levels with both indoor and outdoor space on each level.  We decided to go for the top deck which is all outdoors. I think the best views are from the left side of the boat.  Don’t stress too much about where you sit, though, as everyone moves around during the tour.

The boat left the dock and we headed north towards the Golden Gate Bridge.  We learned about some of the famous ships that are permanently docked in the San Francisco Bay, such as The Balclutha – a three-mast ship built in Scotland in the 1880s.

If you are lucky, you may be able to spot some of the bright orange swim caps of the Dolphin Swim Club.  They go for swims in the bay daily! We didn’t see any swimmers but we did see a few windsurfers.

The top deck of our boat.
The top deck of our boat.

Highlights of Our San Francisco Bay Boat Tour

While it’s always fun being on the water, the main reason you go on a boat cruise in the San Francisco Bay are for the views! Let’s talk about the places we saw during our tour.

Golden Gate Bridge

My favorite part of a San Francisco Bay boat trip is going under the Golden Gate Bridge.  It’s a beautiful bridge and an iconic feature of San Francisco. It is nice to see it from all angles!  (You may remember I biked over the Golden Gate Bridge on a previous trip.)  

The view as we headed towards the Golden Gate Bridge. - SF Bay Boat Tour
The view as we headed towards the Golden Gate Bridge.

The audio guide was full of interesting facts about the bridge.  The fact that stood out for me is that they are constantly painting it.  Once the crew gets to the other end of the bridge, it is time for them to start over.  We saw the scaffolding they use. I would not want that job!

Alcatraz Island

Next, the boat cruise passed by Alcatraz Island.  I have visited Alcatraz Island several times before because I think it is such a fascinating place.  (If you can, I highly recommend the Alcatraz night tour.) Still, I learned a few things from the tour narration.  For example, I didn’t realize that the lighthouse on Alcatraz Island was the first in California.

Alcatraz Island as seen on our San Francisco Bay tour
Alcatraz Island is such a fascinating place!

Angel Island

We could also see Angel Island from the boat.  It’s a place that has always intrigued me and I have been wanting to visit it.  I knew it was a great place for hiking and biking, but I didn’t know much about the history.

Angel Island is a beautiful area with lots to do!
Angel Island is a beautiful area with lots to do!

The stories I heard about Angel Island on the audio guide were very moving.  Originally, Native Americans lived on the island. It was known as the Ellis Island of the West.  Many immigrants (especially Chinese) were detained here. I strongly believe immigrants are an important part of the fabric and history of the United States and the way these immigrants were treated was disgraceful.  I don’t want to see history repeating itself.

Note: We were finally able to spend a day exploring Angel Island.  Read more about the things to do and see on Angel Island.

Bay Bridge

We didn’t go under the Bay Bridge, but we still got a good view of it.  It’s now actually two bridges and a tunnel. Hearing the story of the 1989 earthquake gave me chills.  I can’t imagine how it would have felt to be on the bridge or have loved ones on that bridge when it collapsed.

One of the large ships we passed on our boat tour. - San Francisco Bay Tour
One of the large ships we passed on our boat tour. Look closely and you can see the Bay Bridge in the distance.

Back at the Pier

Right on schedule, we arrived back at Pier 43 ½.  They run a tight ship and ask that you leave the boat right away so that they can reload for the next trip.  We thought we would try to take a few pictures as we were waiting for the line to go downstairs to move. 

Well, lesson learned.  One of the crew members waved his hand in front of the camera to prevent us from taking a photo and told us we needed to leave. So be sure to take all the pictures you want to before the boat gets back to the dock.  Also, note that they close the restrooms ten minutes before the end of the cruise.

Anisa and her friend Diane. Look closely and you can see Alcatraz in the background.
Anisa and her friend Diane. Look closely and you can see Alcatraz in the background.

Getting to Pier 43 ½

It’s best to take public transportation to get to your Red and White Fleet Cruise.  The Bay & Taylor Street Cable Car will take you within four blocks of Pier 43½ or the MUNI F-Line streetcar stops one block away.

I do not recommend driving as traffic and parking can be difficult, but if you do, park across the street from Pier 43 ½.  Then you can ask the Red and White Fleet to validate parking for one hour.

About Red and White Fleet

The Red and White fleet was founded back in 1892!  It’s a family-owned company. The boats depart from Pier 43 ½.  Their boats are also available for private charters for up to 600 guests.  The boats have both indoor and outdoor space.

You can find out more about the Red and White Fleet and book a tour here.

Our San Francisco Bay Tour Boat
Our San Francisco Bay Tour Boat

San Francisco Cruise Tour Options

We took the Golden Gate Bay Cruise which is a one-hour tour where you can see the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and the San Francisco waterfront.  Depending on the day, there are 8-18 departures.  You can check the schedule here.

The Red & White Fleet does have other San Francisco bay tours.  If you have more time, you can do the 90-minute long Bridge 2 Bridge Cruise which goes under both the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridges.  It also goes around Alcatraz.

In the evenings, they offer a Sunset Cruise which goes by Alcatraz, Angel Island, Tiburon, Sausalito, and under the Golden Gate Bridge.  On that two-hour tour, they also have appetizers, drinks, and live entertainment.


Are Boat Tours in San Francisco Worth it?

Yes, you definitely need to do one of the San Francisco Bay boat cruises during your visit.  

We had great views of the sights and learned so much about the history.  Plus, I got a few ideas for things to do on future trips to San Francisco.  The boat is big enough to make it a smooth ride.  It’s nice that there is an inside area in case it gets chilly.

I recommend choosing the Red and White Fleet. The Golden Gate Cruise is reasonably priced at $34 for adults and $25 for kids (5-17 years old).  Additionally, several of the Red & White cruises are part of the San Francisco Go Card which helps you save on 25% of the top attractions in the city.  Click here for more information.

Alternatively, if you plan on going to the Aquarium of the Bay too, you can save money on both with this combination ticket.

Have you ever done any San Francisco boat trips?


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red and white fleet boat with text overlay "san francisco bay boat tour"

Expert Tips for Your San Francisco Bay Boat Tour

  • Take public transportation to get to Pier 43 ½.
  • Don’t worry too much about getting a specific seat on the boat.  Everyone moves around during the cruise.
  • During your visit to San Francisco, you should also try to visit Golden Gate Park, the Walt Disney Family Museum, and SFMOMA.

Disclosure: We would like to thank the Red and White Fleet for inviting us to take their San Francisco Bay Cruise so that we could share the experience with our readers.  All opinions are our own.

This post also contains affiliate links. This means we will receive a small commission for some purchases made using links in our blog with no additional cost to you. Please be assured we would not promote any product unless we believe that our readers will also benefit. The commission does not influence the editorial content of this site.

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Last Updated on March 6, 2023

About the Author

Anisa is an experienced international traveler with extra pages in her passport and stamps from 41 different countries across 5 continents (and counting). She was born and raised in Texas. After a 13 year stint in NYC, she moved to England to live with her husband.