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My fellow passengers enjoy the sights on a cruise around San Francisco Bay (Photograph by Jill Schneider)

How to Be a Pro Tourist in San Francisco

I’m lucky to wear a lot of different hats in my professional life. In fact, some days I feel like I’m having an identity crisis.

As a photojournalist, my goal is to be a fly on the wall, observing and waiting for moments to happen. When I’m working as a travel photographer, I’m striving to capture iconic places in a fresh way that encourages people to visit. And when I’m in teacher mode, leading students on photography expeditions around the world, I’m helping young travelers snap out of tourist mode and immerse themselves in the local culture.

As someone who was born, raised, and currently resides in San Francisco, I often take the city’s unique assets for granted. But when I was hired to take photographs for a guidebook about my hometown, I learned to see San Francisco through new eyes: those of a tourist. After going on more than 20 tours while carrying out my assignment, I realized how much I didn’t know about the City by the Bay.

Here’s a local’s perspective on five tours worth trying in San Francisco: 

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GoCars: A great alternative to conventional car rentals if you’ll be sticking to the city. (Photograph by Jill Schneider)

1. Rent a GoCar: If you see yellow automobiles the size of go-carts zipping around the city with a GPS system that is way too loud, those are GoCars. Once I got over my fear of getting hit by a bus, it was kind of like being on an urban ATV adventure. And though I found the GPS “announcer” annoying at first, she served up interesting facts and amusing anecdotes about San Francisco that I had never heard before. Additional pros: It’s an efficient way to get around the city, parking is a snap, and you get to learn about San Francisco without getting (too) lost.

Tip: I’d stick to the recommended course; these little guys are no match for some of the city’s legendary hills.

2. Experience NightLife at the Academy: People of all ages will enjoy this tour, but if you are young, single, and looking for an alternative to the club scene, come to the California Academy of Sciences on a Thursday evening for NightLife at the Academy. Eat dinner, enjoy a few cocktails, explore the aquarium, wander through the four-story living rainforest dome, and learn about our universe in the planetarium. Trust me, this experience will feel more like flying than watching a movie.

Tip: Pick up a VIP ticket — it lets you skip the line and grants you access to parts of the museum most people never get to see.

3. Take a Sunset Cruise: This tour would make for a great date or family outing. What’s better than climbing aboard a catamaran and sailing around the bay while relaxing with a glass of wine? Get a unique view of the city’s iconic bridges and let the ocean spray your face as the sun sinks behind Alcatraz. Needless to say, sunsets are way more dramatic when they come at the end of a clear day, so it’s best to keep an eye on the weather forecast.

Tip: There are many operators that offer these kinds of tours, but I went with Adventure Cat Sailing Charters.

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Get an inside look at the Academy of Sciences at NightLife (Photograph by Jill Schneider)

4. Go Day Tripping: San Francisco has so much to offer, but getting out of the city, even for the day, offers peaceful relaxation and respite from the fog. Just over the Golden Gate Bridge awaits the perfect excursion: A hike through the majestic Muir Woods followed by a scenic drive through wine country. In spring and summer, everything is in bloom and the weather is nice, but there are also more tourists to contend with. Regardless of when you visit, you’ll be greeted with awe-inspiring nature, hospitality, wine, and a full bounty of California-grown cuisine.

Tip: Stop for a bite in Sonoma at the Sunflower Caffé or The Girl and the Fig.

5. Hail a Helicopter: This might be the best thing I’ve ever done in my hometown. Though this tour is on the pricier side, a bird’s eye view of San Francisco in all its glory makes it all worthwhile. The helicopter flew under the Golden Gate Bridge, then looped around and flew right over it! The 30-minute flight went by quickly, but the aerial photographs I managed to snap were amazing.

Tip: Since you’ll be dropping some cash on this one, try to pick a clear day (which can be difficult to predict in this city) so you can see as much and as far as possible.

Experiencing San Francisco as a professional tourist gave me a new appreciation for the place I call home. Everyone’s always talking about “traveling like a local,” but I challenge locals everywhere to “travel like a tourist” wherever you live. You won’t believe how much you’ll learn.

Jill Schneider teaches travel photography to high schoolers as a National Geographic Student Expeditions trip leader. See more of Jill’s work on her personal website.

Have you played tourist in your hometown? Share your experience with the Intelligent Travel community by leaving a comment.