Book in Advance in San Francisco: Tips on What Activities Need Advance Reservations

Jill on a windy day at the Golden Gate Bridge

by Jill Loeffler  •

Published: March 17, 2023

Are you looking for ideas on what you need to book in advance in San Francisco?

My guide offers tips on what you will want to book ahead of your visit, how far out, and what you can wait to book once you arrive.

This is especially important if you are visiting on a busy weekend or on any holidays or holiday weekends.

Disclaimer: I receive a small commission from some of the links on this page.

Why You Should Book Ahead in San Francisco...and a Few Tips if Tickets are Sold Out!

Pictures of Attractions to Book in Advance

Just in case you were wondering, you can easily visit San Francisco with little preparation. There are plenty of fun things to see and do, and even if you are here for a week or longer, you won't be able to see it all.

However, you will find that tickets to certain activities and attractions will sell out in advance. And some of the very desirable of them might even sell out months in advance!

Some others don't sell out, but you will find a better selection of tickets if you book early.

I've broken this up by timing, so you can get an idea of what you need to book in advance, what you should already have tickets for when you arrive, and some tips if you missed out on the standard tickets for some of the top tours and attractions.

Are you trying to book too early?

In some cases, you will be trying to book too early. Most tickets go on sale less than 6 months in advance.

If you try to book tickets for something that is six or more months out and it says "Sold Out" or "Tickets Not Available," this just means that they haven't started selling them yet.

My advice on booking in advance is mostly for those visiting during the busiest months (May to October, and Thanksgiving through New Year's).

For those visiting during the week at less busy times of the year, you will find that you can book most things when you arrive.

However, if you are a planner like me, I recommend booking anything in advance that you would be disappointed to miss out on.

Taking a chance and waiting to book when you arrive means you may not get the chance to see or visit something special while you are here.

What to Book at Least Three Months in Advance

Alcatraz and Muir Woods

Below you will find some of the most popular attractions and things I recommend you consider booking at least three months before you arrive.

Alcatraz Prison Tours (Especially the Night Tour!)

Alcatraz offers several tours a day. You can go on their day tour, night tour, or behind-the-scenes tour.

I recommend that you book these tickets about three months in advance. This will allow you to book at a time that works best for you and not be stuck with the less desirable times (usually in the middle of the day).

Their night and behind-the-scenes tours offer limited tickets. Both only run on certain days of the week, so these tickets go fast. I recommend buying these as soon as you finalize your plans, even if that is months in advance.

Also, if you buy individual Alcatraz Prison Tour tickets (not combo tickets), you only want to buy from the City Experiences website. This is the official site and the only place that I recommend you purchase individual tour tickets.

>> Find out more about the different tour options

What to Do if Alcatraz Tickets are Sold Out

If you happen to arrive at the City Experiences site and see that tickets are sold out for your days, you do have a few options.

  • Buy Combo Tickets: Local tour companies are allowed to package Alcatraz Prison Tour Tickets with other tours they offer. This means you might still be able to get tickets, but you will need to buy the tickets in combination with another tour or attraction, such as Muir Woods or the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus. You can see some combo ticket options below.
  • Try the Ticket Booth that Morning: First thing in the morning, the Alcatraz ticket booth will open and resell any tickets that were canceled or returned the previous day. This is risky during the busy months, but you might get lucky. I recommend arriving before they open as sometimes there is a line to buy tickets. You might  be able to do this during the slower months, but it's unlikely that you will get tickets this way during the busy summer months or holidays.
  • Take the Escape from the Rock Tour: While this tour does not stop at Alcatraz, it does offer a great tour around San Francisco Bay with an extra loop around the island. It's a great way to learn more about the island if you can't get your hands on tickets to visit the island itself. Find tickets for this cruise here.

California Academy of Sciences

This is our most popular museum, as it's a natural history museum, aquarium, rainforest, and planetarium all rolled up in one! They offer tickets for sale several months in advance, and during their busy season, certain days will almost always sell out.

The ticket prices also increase as they start to reach capacity. Booking in advance allows you to ensure you get the best price possible for the day you are visiting.

>> Book your tickets in advance

>> More about visiting

What to Do When Cal Academy Tickets are Sold Out

  • Buy a Discount Pass: You can purchase one of the discount passes that include entry tickets to this museum. The CityPass and Go Card are two of the top options. They also include access to other museums and attractions. I highly recommend doing this if you really want to see the California Academy of Sciences on your visit here.
  • Just Show Up: You can also head over to the ticket office when they open and see if they have tickets available. At times, people will return their tickets the day before, and you might get lucky and be able to pick up a ticket for your visit.
  • Visit A Different Museum or Attraction: If you aren't able to get your hands on tickets, you will find that San Francisco has a number of other wonderful museums to visit. The Exploratorium is another great option for kids and those with an interest in science. The Japanese Tea Garden and the de Young Fine Arts Museum are  very close to the California Academy of Sciences, so can easily walk to one of these if you can't get tickets.

Muir Woods Shuttle & Parking Reservations

Muir Woods Flat Walking Trail

Due to the number of visitors to Muir Woods, they have implemented a reservation system for their shuttles and parking.

Since both are limited, you will find they often book up early. They are on a timed system, so even if you can get a seat or a spot, you may find that the timing of what is available does not work with your schedule.

What to Do If These Are Sold Out

  • Take a Guided Tour: The guided tours from San Francisco are one of the easiest ways to get here. You can take a tour that offers time only in the redwoods, one that includes Sausalito, or one that includes both Muir Woods and wine country. These are the easiest options because all you have to do is book them and show up. They take care of everything else.
  • Visit Another Coastal Redwoods Park: You can also visit one of the other great redwoods parks near San Francisco. You'll find several that are within a couple of hours of SF, including Armstrong, Big Basin, and Henry Cowell. Find my recommendations here.
  • Park Along the Panoramic Highway and Hike In: This is an option for those that plan to spend plenty of time in the park. Panoramic Highway sits to the east of the park and several trailheads offer entry into the park. You will need to hike about 3 miles one way to reach the forest floor, so it can make for a long day.

Golden State Warriors Games

Want to see some of the best professional basketball during your visit? The Golden State Warriors are hot these days, so tickets to the games are expensive.

If you want to see them in action, you must plan ahead for your tickets at the Chase Center

Ticketmaster is the official retailer for Warriors tickets. You can find tickets for their upcoming games on the website.

However, they often sell out at the beginning of the season and only have a handful of tickets left over. If this is the case, head over to StubHub for third-party tickets.

What to Do if Warriors Tickets are Sold Out

  • Use a Third-Party Retailer: As I mentioned above, if you can't find tickets on Ticketmaster or you don't like the ticket selection, head to StubHub. They are a third-party retailer, and you can usually find several tickets to the games. Keep in mind they usually cost quite a bit more going this route. If you haven't heard of StubHub before, it is legitimate and trustworthy. Find tickets on StubHub.
  • Just Show Up: You can also try to head to the ticket booth at the Chase Center on the day of the game. Most likely, they won't have any tickets, but you can try. The ticket booth is open a couple of hours prior to all home games.
  • Watch the Game at a Local Sports Bar: You can also head to one of our local sports bars to watch the game. You will find them all over San Francisco with plenty of locals to cheer on the home team with. Find my favorites here.

San Francisco Broadway Theater Performances

San Francisco offers eight to ten traveling Broadway shows each year. Tickets to these shows will sometimes sell out early.

Some shows that will almost always sell out early include Wicked, Hamilton, and The Lion King.

You can purchase them directly on the theater's website or through Ticketmaster.

Find tickets to Broadway shows at the Orpheum. Find tickets to Broadway shows at the Golden Gate Theatre.

>> Here is a calendar of upcoming performances

What to Do When San Francisco Broadway Tickets are Sold Out

  • Buy Tickets Through a Third-Party Retailer: If you are unable to find tickets through Ticketmaster, then you can also find them through a third-party retailer. One of the best is StubHub. It's great for sold-out performances or better tickets than what is offered through their site or Ticketmaster. Find tickets for upcoming performances on StubHub for the Orpheum Theatre and the Golden Gate Theatre.
  • Try the Ticket Office on the Day of the Performance: You can also just show up at the Ticket Office and see if they had any cancelations. It isn't common to be able to get tickets this way for sold-out performances, but you might just get lucky.
  • See a Show at Another San Francisco Theater: You can also head to a different theater performance in San Francisco. We have dozens of fantastic shows on stage on any given day. The Theater District is where you will find a large concentration of shows.

Hotels and Accommodations

Places to Stay in San Francisco

San Francisco has hundreds of hotels, so you can always find somewhere to stay. However, I recommend booking early for a couple of reasons.

First, you will be able to choose from a variety of options. Second, you will be able to ensure you are in the district you want to stay in.

Also, even though San Francisco has a lot of hotels, you don't want to be caught having to be stuck in a hotel you don't want because everything else is booked. You may end up far from all the events and activities, or you could end up in a less desirable location.

I recommend starting to look for your hotel the minute you book your flights. This might be up to six months in advance. I know this sounds very early, but it makes sense for a number of reasons.

Although hotels don't often book up this early, they do when certain large conventions come to town, whose attendees book early. This means prices become really expensive as the event nears.

Booking early allows you to get the best price possible in this situation.

Here are some top picks. 

Other Accommodation Options

While you can almost always find a room, it might not be one that works for you based on location or, more likely, price. Here are a few additional ideas for you.

  • Stay in a VRBO or AirBnB: If you can't find a hotel you want at a price that suits your budget, then you can look at a service such as VRBO or AirBnB. Both allow locals to rent out their places. You'll find both full apartments and houses available, as well as rooms for rent. Find some great options all around San Francisco on VRBO.
  • Stay Near the Airport: You can also look at options near the airport. This is only good if you are on a strict budget or just can't find anything else you want. Keep in mind you will need to pay to get to and from San Francisco, so you'll want to add this expense in when figuring out your budget. Find my recommendations near SFO here.

Private Tours for Large Groups

Another thing you will want to book at least three months in advance is large, private tours. I recommend booking as early as possible as most tour companies need to book a large van or bus to accommodate larger groups.

Three months is a minimum, and for this one, I'd recommend up to six months in advance if possible.

Fine Dining

If you are visiting San Francisco for a special occasion, then I highly recommend booking a table at a fancy or fine dining spot in advance.

Places like Gary Danko and the House of Prime Rib will often fill up months in advance.

Here are my recommendations for the best fine dining options. While you might get lucky if you walk up and ask for a table, I wouldn't rely on this if you really want to eat at one of these places.

What to Book at Least A Month in Advance

Tips to Book One Month in Advance

There are a few other things I'd recommend you book in advance. These are some items I suggest you start looking at about a month before you arrive.

In the busier months, it's best to get these booked early so you can get them without a problem. Meanwhile, in the slower months, some of these are fine to hold off on for another week or two.

Tickets to San Francisco Giants Games

The San Francisco Giants play in Oracle Park, one of the best and most beautiful ballparks in the US. It sits along the waterfront and has a huge selection of tasty treats to enjoy during each game.

Even in years when the SF Giants are not doing too well, both locals and visitors flock here to see a game.

You can purchase tickets on Ticketmaster or at the box office.

Ticketmaster is the official online ticket office for the San Francisco Giants. You can find tickets here.

What to Do if Tickets for the San Francisco Giants Are Sold Out

  • Buy Tickets through a Third-Party Retailer: If you don't find the tickets you want or a game is sold out, head over to StubHub. They are a third-party retailer and allow you to buy tickets from others. It usually costs a bit more, but you will find a large selection of tickets here. They are legitimate, and your purchase is safe. Find Giants tickets on StubHub.
  • Head to the Free Area to Watch Three Innings: Outside the ballpark, near the outfield, you will find an area where you can watch up to three innings of San Francisco Giants baseball for free. You will typically find a line of people here waiting to do the same, and it is officially managed by the stadium. They allow a group of people in to watch for three innings, then they clear it out and let in the next group from the line. It's a great way to watch a little baseball if you can't get a ticket.
  • Check for Tickets at the Ticket Booth: You can also head to the ticket booth on the day of the game. At times, they will have cancelations, and you can pick some up right at there.
  • Head to a Local Sports Bar: If you can't get tickets or you don't want to pay the high ticket prices, you can also head to a local sports bar to watch the game. You will find several great spots all around San Francisco. You can check out my top picks here.

Tours to Muir Woods from San Francisco

Fallen Tree Muir Woods

Muir Woods National Monument is one of the most popular attractions near San Francisco. This coastal redwood forest is just 30 minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge and is a must-see for all visitors.

The easiest way to get here is to book a guided tour. This includes a ride to and from the redwoods with a photo stop at the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge as you head north.

While you can often find a tour when you arrive, I recommend picking up tickets early so you can get the date and time that works best with your schedule.

The morning tours are often the most popular, so these tickets can sell out during our busier months.

You have three types of tours to choose from:

The first two offer about 90 minutes to explore the park on your own. The last one offers about 60 minutes. All three are a great way to see these fantastic trees up close and in person.

I personally love the tours and try to use them when I want to visit Muir Woods. That way, I don't have to deal with parking and other hassles since I let the agencies do the work for me.

I can just enjoy the ride out and take in the beauty of these amazing 300-foot-tall trees all around me.

What to Do if Muir Woods Tour Tickets are Sold Out

  • Take the Shuttle: You can also try to find a seat on one of the Muir Woods shuttles. This is the official public transportation to the redwood forest, and they offer shuttles from either Sausalito or Larkspur. Both offer service on a limited schedule.
  • Rent a Car and Drive: You can reserve a parking spot and drive to Muir Woods. It's a great way to get here, but parking reservations go early, too, so make sure to book your spot as early as possible.
  • Check Out Another Redwood Park Nearby: Muir Woods is one of the most popular redwood parks near San Francisco, but it's not the only one. You could rent a car and head to a different redwood forest that might not be as crowded. Henry Cowell is one of my favorites, about an hour and a half south of San Francisco. Armstrong Redwoods is another great option about two hours north of San Francisco in Sonoma County. Find some other great ideas here.

Tours to Wine Country

You will find a variety of tours to wine country, so this is another activity you could wait to book when you arrive. However, I recommend looking at these a few weeks before your visit, so you can read through what each one offers and select the day that works best with your schedule.

You will find small group tours, some that stop in both Napa and Sonoma, and some that include tasting fees. You'll also find some that include a tour of the winery in addition to tasting.

Make sure to read each tour carefully, so you know exactly what to expect.

What to Do if the Wine Tours Are Sold Out

  • Try a Local Tour Company When You Arrive: You can also walk around to the different tour companies in Fisherman's Wharf when you arrive to find a tour that interests you. It will eat into the time you have to explore San Francisco, but it's a good option if the tour you want is sold out. This will take anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours, so make sure to set aside some time to find the right tour.
  • Drive & Tour on Your Own: If you can't find a wine tour you want, then you can head up on your own. Some wineries allow walk-ins, while others require appointments. Walk-ins are easier during the weekdays, and I highly recommend reservations on the weekends.
  • Sample Local Wines Around San Francisco: You can also sample local wines right in San Francisco. This list highlights some wine tasting rooms around San Francisco. This other list includes some great wine bars to sample wines produced in Northern California and beyond.

Tours to Yosemite National Park

Rock Formation in Yosemite

Yosemite National Park is a must-see for those who love the outdoors. It's one of the best national parks in the US and is a popular option for locals and visitors.

During the busiest months from late May through late September, I highly recommend you book your Yosemite Park Tour early.

The one-day tours offer a quick overview of this national park and are perfect for those only staying in SF for a few days. The tour lasts about 14 to 15 hours, with about five hours in the park.

Here are some of the best Yosemite National Park Tours.

What to Do if Yosemite Tours are Sold Out

  • Try a Local Tour Company When You Arrive: If you can't find a tour that you like before you arrive, you can also head to a local tour company when you arrive. They might have tickets from those who have canceled. You will find most of them around Fisherman's Wharf.
  • Rent a Car and Drive: You can also rent a car for the day (or longer) and drive up on your own. It's about a 3.5- to 4-hour drive from downtown San Francisco to the closest entrance. It usually takes about another hour to reach Yosemite Valley. You can then spend the day or several days exploring this great national monument.
  • Visit a Different National Park Nearby: You can also head off and visit another great National Park nearby. You will find several great options. Just keep in mind that some will take more than a day to get to. Here is a full list of Northern California National Parks and Monuments.

Tables at Restaurants for Groups of Six to Eight (or More!)

Visiting with a large group is great, but you will want to plan ahead for your evening meals. For groups of six to eight, I recommend calling ahead to make reservations.

Most places can accommodate groups this large without reservations. However, you will most likely end up being seated at different tables.

Therefore, if you want to sit together, I recommend calling ahead so they can prepare a table for your group.

Wine Tasting at Certain Napa Valley Wineries

Visiting Napa Valley is such a fun experience. If you plan to visit on your own, you'll want to start planning your trip at least a month in advance.

While you can walk into some wineries for tastings, not all of them accept walk-ins or are guaranteed to have space. Especially if you are set on visiting a certain one on the weekend, then I highly recommend reservations.

Private Tours

You will also want to start looking at private tours at least a month in advance. Since the tour companies usually create their schedules far in advance, they will need to reach out to find tour guides for private tours.

This will allow them time to find the best tour guide for your private tour.

What to Book at Least a Week in Advance

Tips to Book a Week in Advance

The tours and attractions on this part of my list don't often sell out. However, it's a good idea to pick them up a bit early, so you don't have to worry about waiting in line or wasting time while you are here.

Tickets to the SF Museum of Modern Art

I would pick up tickets to the SF Museum of Modern Art at least a week in advance. While they don't often sell out, it's a good way to make sure you can get tickets for the day you want to visit.

>> Find advanced tickets for the SF Museum of Modern Art

Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tickets

Even though you can buy these tickets off the street during your visit, I recommend booking in advance for a discount. When you book online before you arrive, the tickets are usually $5 to $10 cheaper per person.

>> Find tickets for the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour online

Tickets for SFCityGuides Walks

SFCityGuides is a San Francisco Library program with free walks around SF. With their knowledgeable volunteers, you can explore specific districts and attractions. It's also a great way to learn more about our local history.

Most of them allow you just to walk up and join the tour, but some of the more popular ones require that you sign up beforehand.

>> Find out more about these great free tours

San Francisco Zoo

Flamingos SF Zoo

This is another San Francisco attraction that doesn't sell out very often, but I still recommend booking ahead of your stay.

The San Francisco Zoo is quite a distance from our other attractions, so I think it is a good idea to plan out your visit here before you arrive. This will allow you to see if it's worth your time before heading all the way out here when you are in the city.

The good thing is that if you are unable to attend on the date you booked, you can still use your pre-paid ticket for up to 30 days. 

This is a great activity for kids and families, but keep in mind it will take up most of your day to visit.

San Francisco Muni Passport

One of the best ways to explore San Francisco is via public transportation.

Instead of paying for each ride, make sure to look into the San Francisco Muni Passport. It's a one-, three-, or seven-day passport that offers unlimited rides around SF.

It includes all buses, cable cars, street cars, and light rail trains in the Muni system.

It's good to book in advance so you can get used to the app before you arrive.

>> Find out more about the passports and getting around SF

What You Do Not Need to Book in Advance

Attractions you do not need to book in advance in San Francisco

Everything else on this list includes popular free sites or places you can easily walk up to when you visit to get your tickets.

Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge is free to visit and is one of the top San Francisco attractions. You can visit all year round without tickets.

You can either walk or bike across. Several guided tours also include a drive across it to reach places to the north of the city.

Here are a few pages to help you plan your visit to the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge:

Lombard Street

This is another free attraction, so it does not require tickets.

It's open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. You can walk or drive down it. You can also take a guided tour to learn more.

I recommend heading over first thing in the morning. This is when the crowds are the lightest, and you can explore with fewer people around for the best photos.

>> More tips to visit Lombard Street

Ferries to Sausalito, Tiburon, and Angel Island

You also don't need to book ferry tickets in advance. All tickets are for any departure time to your destination, so you just need to make sure you arrive in time to get a seat on that specific boat.

The busiest is the Sausalito Ferry, which is often full of bikes of those returning from riding over the Golden Gate Bridge. I recommend arriving at least 30 minutes early so you can get in line before it gets too full.

>> Find out more about our local ferries

Coit Tower

Coit Tower from the Steps

You also don't need to book Coit Tower tickets before you arrive.

You can visit the first floor for free, but the elevator ride to the top floor requires a ticket. You can simply pick one up at the ticket booth on the first floor and hop in line for your turn.

>> More about visiting Coit Tower

de Young, Legion of Honor, and Other Museums

You can also walk up to most of our other museums and buy tickets when you arrive. Most don't sell out, but the ticket line might be busier on certain holidays and weekends.

>> Find out more about all of our top museums

SF Bay Cruises

Tickets for the SF Bay Cruises can be purchased in advance or once you arrive. The tickets you buy are for a specific day but not any specific cruise that day.

You will need to review the schedule and then head over to the terminal about 30 minutes before they leave. They offer seats based on a first-come, first-served basis, even if you have a ticket for that day.

If you are a planner like me, you can also reserve them in advance in order to save a little time during your stay.

Eating at Standard Restaurants

Unless you plan to head to a fine dining restaurant, you will not need to worry about booking restaurant reservations before you arrive.

San Francisco is home to almost 3,500 restaurants, so if there is a line at one, you will most likely find a second or third spot nearby with seats for dinner.

>> Find some of my recommendations by cuisine and location

Pinterest Pin for Tips to Book in Advance in San Francisco

Comments? Questions? Suggestions?

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It's a great place to interact with me and others who know the area well.

You can ask questions, get advice for your upcoming stay, and then share your photos and advice with others when you return home. It's a great community and the fastest way to get answers to those nagging questions about your visit!

Come join the fun here!

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