Layover Tours and Airport Transit Tours

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A Tale of Two Cities (San Francisco), Part 1

Did you know that many airports around the world offer free layover tours for travelers in transit? And even in cities that do not, you can easily design your own layover tour. We recently had the opportunity to maximize our travels (and layovers) through a self-guided visit to San Francisco and a free transit tour from Incheon Airport (ICN) in Seoul, South Korea. Here’s how it went:

The Trip Takes Us crew among the hustle and bustle of Fisherman's Wharf on our self-guided layover tour in San Francisco
Enjoying our do-it-yourself layover tour in San Francisco.

Long layovers

I recently finished a fabulous three-week family trip to Australia and Singapore with my teenage sons. When choosing the flight segments on our outbound trip, I opted for a long layover (14 hours) in San Francisco, allowing us to explore that city for the day. I have discussed the advantages of long layovers here and am a big fan of this approach. Have you tried this yet? It’s a great way to break up a trip and see another city during your travels at no additional cost.  

San Francisco International Airport (SFO) does not offer layover tours, so we created our own.

View of San Francisco taken from a bay cruise, showing the city's skyline under blue skies.
Cloudy skies one minute, blue skies the next. The views of San Francisco from the water are ever changing.

Do-it-yourself layover tours

My initial intention for our do-it-yourself layover tour was to take public transit (BART) into the city, but the fare from SFO (times three people) meant that it would be the about same price (and much faster, despite Bay area traffic) to simply take a Lyft (hey, don’t forget to make sure your Lyft account is earning you miles or points!) In just 30 minutes we were a world away from the airport bustle enjoying lunch at extensive food hall in the Ferry Building along the Embarcadero. 

Duly sated, we strolled along the famed Fisherman’s Wharf, taking in the city views and particularly enjoying the vocal sea lions camped out at Pier 39. 

One sea lion stands at attention among dozens of his sleeping counterparts at Pier 39 in San Francisco.
The local Pier 39 sea-lebrities are loud and proud and not to be missed!

At Pier 43½ we hopped on a Red and White Fleet Golden Gate Bay Cruise for a one-hour sightseeing boat tour around the bay. Since our time was limited, this was an optimal way to see some of the city’s most iconic sites. We cruised along the Presidio (a 1,500-acre park on a former military outpost) and passed under the vermillion Golden Gate Bridge (brightly colored to enhance visibility in the seemingly ever-present fog). We then circled back past Alcatraz Island (“the Rock”). Alcatraz served as a federal prison from 1934-1963 for some of the country’s most notorious criminals, including Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly, and has captivated my boys’ imagination ever since they read these books). 

View of the orange vermillion Golden Gate Bridge from the bay, with the American flag blowing in the foreground.
The views of the Golden Gate Bridge are spectacular from the water.

Catering to my teenagers’ interests, we then spent the rest of the afternoon at the outstanding Exploratorium—a very hands-on museum of science, art, and human perception (despite their fascination with Alcatraz, the boys rated this the top attraction of the day, and I would have to agree). [Ha! Just now as I was inserting these photos, my oldest son walked by, saw the pictures, and starting talking again about how great the museum was and bemoaning the fact that we had only been able to spend a few hours there. That’s a solid endorsement!]

After the Exploratorium’s doors were locked for the night, we grabbed a quick dinner of burgers, fries and shakes (or vino for mom) at nearby Gott’s and headed back to the airport. All in all, this self-directed layover tour was a great way to give my boys a taste of San Francisco, all the while breaking up the veeeeeery long trip from Washington, D.C. to Australia.

Other recommendations for layover tours

Walking tours

If you have more time (and perhaps more drive than we did on this particular day), I would highly recommend checking out these great walking tour itineraries from my friends Jen and Ed at Coleman Concierge: San Francisco Walking Tours – Self Guided Routes You’re Going to Love. They have four primary walking tours in the city, allowing you to hit all the highlights in just a few hours.

Screen shot of the map feature on Coleman Concierge's walking tour itineraries
I think you’ll find the handy map feature on the Coleman Concierge itineraries super helpful.
Credit: screenshot from

Bicycle and Segway tours

If two wheels are more your style, another great option available in many cities, including San Franciso, is to try a Fat Tires tour. You can cover a lot of ground in a short time on one of their bicycle or Segway tours, making them perfect for a layover outing. 

Layover Tours, Part 2 up next…

In Part 2, we will cover our formal transit tour into Seoul, Korea, offered by Incheon Airport (ICN) and the City of Seoul.

For more photos, please follow us on Instagram: @thetriptakesus_blog. We’d love to see you there!

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