The massive San Francisco Bay isolates the city of San Francisco out on the tip of a tiny peninsula. For a century before the Golden Gate and Bay bridges were built, the only way to traverse these mighty waters was by San Francisco ferries. Although they fell into disuse for a while, San Francisco ferries are making a comeback because they are popular with both tourists and commuters alike
It's an iconic and fun activity to take a ferry out into the Bay. Not only will you discover unrivaled vistas, you can step foot on islands such as Alcatraz or Angel Island that are only accessible by ferry. Discover how San Francisco ferries work as well as a bit of the history in our handy guide.
Back in their heyday, San Francisco ferries constituted the greatest water transit system in the world. From the time of the Gold Rush until the great bridges were built that span the water to the north and to the east, ferries were the only means of transportation across the bay.
According to historical records, the first ferry system on the bay began in 1850, which coincidentally was the same year California officially became n state. The first route was on a ferry known as the Kangaroo that serviced a route between San Francisco and the Oakland Estuary.
By the end of the 19th century, there were 22 ferry companies that transported passengers and another five companies that carried cars. Reaching a peak in the 1920s and 1930s, around 50 million passengers were being hauled across the bay yearly. There were massive amounts of traffic, but ferry travel was relatively slow.
Then in the 1930s came the building of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, which dampened the ferry circuit into disservice. Due to several natural disasters such as a fire on the BART and an earthquake that damaged the Bay Bridge in the 1980s, there was a renewed interest in the ferries as an alternative means of getting across the bay in the event of a catastrophe. At the same time, new technologies were introduced to make the ferries faster. Now, ferry boats go to a number of destinations across the Bay and are also great for sightseeing. Let's take a look at a few of our favorite San Francisco ferry routes.
Starting and finishing at Pier 41, the boat trip to Alcatraz Island is the quintessential San Francisco ferry ride experience. You'll have the privilege of witnessing stunning views of the city skyline with rolling hills in the backdrop. Operated by the Blue and Gold Fleet, the route is so popular that you should not expect to be able to buy tickets on the same day as your departure. This cruise is only offered to passengers who've purchased a ticket to visit Alcatraz, and both admission and the ferry ride are included in one price.
The picturesque ride takes about fifteen minutes to reach the island that was a prison for some of the century's most dangerous criminal. Boats leave every half-hour starting at 9:30 AM and ending at 4:15 PM. All tickets are under $10 for both adults and children. For a little extra, we'd highly recommend adding in an audio tour.
The best way to ride the ferry and visit Alcatraz is by booking a San Francisco activity that also includes a ticket to Alcatraz. This way you get to experience a lot of the city in one combination tour. Activities that get you access to Alcatraz include city tours, hop-on bus passes, Segway tours, helicopter rides, even day trips to Wine Country. We review about a dozen of them in our 5-part guide to the best ways to visit Alcatraz
If you'd like to simply look at the island and not get off the boat, there are alternative bay cruises that will take you around the island for a view and even stop under the Golden Gate Bridge for a photo-op. If you don't have time for a full visit to Alcatraz but still want to see it, this option might be a good bet for you. We've created a guide to San Francisco Bay cruises to get you started.
Running on a more limited schedule than the Alcatraz ferry, the Angel Island ferry, as the name implies, takes you to Angel Island State Park. Once there you can enjoy hiking around the largest island in the bay, or cruise around on a Segway tour, or visit the US Immigration Museum, which is like the Ellis Island of California. In the winter and spring, there is usually only one ferry that operates from Pier 41. During the warmer months of summer and fall, you'll be able to find two or three San Francisco ferries that leave from both Pier 41 and the Ferry Building.
According to experts (and us!), the ferry to Sausalito is one of the 10 best ferry rides in the world. Perhaps even lovelier than the more famous Alcatraz ferry, this option is popular with tourists and locals. Running five or six times a day, this ride will take you past the quaint waterfront town of Sausalito. Two companies run services from San Francisco to Sausalito — the Blue and Gold Fleet and the Golden Gate Ferry Company. They pick up passengers at Pier 41.
For more info on what to do and see in Sausalito, take a look at our 3-part guide to visiting Sausalito.
When you take the ferry to Tiburon, you pass by Alcatraz and Angel Island. In Tiburon, you'll have ample opportunity to enjoy a beautiful Bay Area day where you can do a little shopping and grab lunch along the towns lovely waterfront. Each day, there are several San Francisco ferries that are managed by the Blue and Gold Fleet. All the Tiburon ferries operate from Pier 41 and take about 45 minutes one way.
For a fun alternative route to a San Francisco Giants game, catch the Vallejo ferry directly to AT&T Park. This ferry heads north to Vallejo and runs to and from of the Ferry Building. This route is not as scenic as others and is primarily used for public transportation between San Francisco and Vallejo. The Blue and Gold Fleet also offers this service. There are ferries to Oakland and Alameda that are similar to the cruise to Vallejo, but head east instead of north.
If you're pressed for time but still want an unforgettable experience, then a bay cruise is the way to go. Usually a one-hour tour starts at Fisherman's Wharf and charts a course under the Golden Gate Bridge and around Alcatraz. The up-close-and-personal ride provides for spectacular views of the city and the bay. There are different ranges of trips from the basic go-around to a luxurious and romantic sunset cruise topped off with bottles of champagne. These ferries start at Pier 43. To learn more be sue to read our bay cruises planning guide.
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