Here are some local tips on visiting the Golden Gate Bridge: how to get there, where to park, driving, walking or biking across it, and the best tours of the bridge.
The Golden Gate Bridge is the icon for San Francisco, and was just voted the #1 best thing to see in San Francisco (U.S. News and World Report, 2017) ... it would be pretty hard not to see it if you're in the City!
The Golden Gate Bridge is gorgeous and the setting is breathtaking. But seeing it in person is even more beautiful than the photos.
The construction of the Golden Gate Bridge was so difficult, it has been officially named one of the seven engineering marvels of the modern world.
Wind, currents, fog, sheer cliffs, and politics fought to prevent this bridge from taking shape, but when it was done in 1937, it was not only the most beautiful bridge, it was also the longest and tallest suspension bridge in the world.
It held that title until 1964, and was the second longest suspension bridge in the world until 1981.
Read more on the history of the Golden Gate Bridge, and why it almost went the way of its sister bridge, Galloping Gertie, up north (into the water!)
The 1989 earthquake on the northern San Andreas fault (7.1 Richter scale) was just a tiny taste of what's coming with the Big One, as local's call it: the rerun of the 1906 San Francisco quake, an 8.0 level shaking.
Earthquakes of this magnitude have hit this section of the San Andreas fault on average every 100 years (and it's been 111 since the last one, but who's counting). Retrofitting began after the 1989 quake, and is still ongoing.
Sections have been reinforced with steel plates, and pylons have been anchored to the bedrock. Also, joints have been installed at certain points to release energy and allow for expansion.
A new plan for a another major retrofit was approved in December, 2017, which they say will make the bridge able to withstand an 8.0 level quake. But it won't be finished until 2024.
The good news is that engineers don't believe the bridge in its present state would fall down in the Big One, just that it could be sufficiently damaged to make it unusable for quite awhile.
The new plan is designed to make it sail through the Big One with only minor damage.
In part due to its fame and striking beauty, the Golden Gate Bridge has sadly been one of the most popular suicide spots in the world. On average, someone jumps about every two weeks.
In all, over 2500 people have jumped from the bridge; 98% have died.
The bridge is patrolled by volunteers who are trained to talk to would-be jumpers; they've saved hundreds of lives. You'll also see telephones on the bridge where people can talk to someone if they're feeling suicidal.
After years of talk and debate, the city has decided to build a metal net under the entire bridge.
It won't stop someone who's really determined, but it will give them time to rethink. A number of the survivors have said they regretted their decision the moment they were in the air.
The net will be installed 20 feet below the roadway and will stick out about 20 feet on each side. It was scheduled to be completed in 2021, but some problems were discovered in recent testing (November, 2017) that indicated the new net could make the entire bridge unstable in high winds, so more study is required before the barrier can be installed.
The color was chosen sort of by accident. When the bridge was being built, the metal structure was coated with a reddish primer.
One of the architects noticed that the color went beautifully with the blue water and golden-brown hills, and came up with the current color. Plus, it stands out in the fog. Thank you, Irving F. Morrow!
Tip: if you want to paint something the same color as the Golden Gate Bridge, it must be the right shade of International Orange; there are several versions, used for different purposes.
The official formula for the Golden Gate Bridge color is Cyan 0%, Magenta 69%, Yellow 100%, Black 6%. The correct hex triplet is F04A00.
Painting the bridge: there is an urban myth that the bridge is continuously painted from one end to the other, then over again. Not so. There is a staff of 34 full-time painters that work just on the spots that need touching up. And they are currently using Sherwin Williams paint.
Over 10 million people visit the Golden Gate Bridge every year. It has to be one of the world's most beautiful sights; even for locals, the sight of it never gets old.
The complementary colors of the red-orange bridge and the brown, rocky hills, the blue water and sky, and the graceful sweep across the straight is spectacular.
What's on the San Francisco side of the bridge?
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The Welcome Center
The current Welcome Center is relatively new and combines a gift shop with some educational displays about the bridge. Good place to pick up maps. Worth a brief visit. Open daily, 9 to 6.
If you're in the mood for souvenirs, like Golden Gate Bridge rivets, books, t-shirts or fog globes, this is the spot.
It's located just off the parking lot where the tour buses and the #28 city bus stop.
At the Welcome Center Plaza, they have some interesting displays about the history and construction of the bridge, with more exhibits just on the other side of the bridge (via the underpass).
The Roundhouse Cafe
This round building above the Welcome Center was built at the same time as the bridge, and in the same Art Deco, 1930's style.
The Roundhouse Cafe is a good place to stop for lunch or a snack while visiting the bridge. They serve hot dogs, soup, salads and sandwiches, and the views are amazing.
I had the crab bisque in a sourdough bread bowl when I was there: very tasty, and a bit spicy.
There's also a snack bar, the Bridge Cafe, just below it, that looks like it was built at the same time, in the same style, but it was actually built in 2012 to match the other buildings. They sell mainly packaged snacks and drinks.
The Golden Gate Bridge is very easy to get to. Driving is easy because there are number of parking lots close by, and city buses make frequent stops at the Welcome Center, near the southern end of the bridge.
Unlike driving and trying to park at many of San Francisco's favorite attractions, driving to the Golden Gate Bridge is no reason for a nervous breakdown! The surprise is that it's also easy and cheap to park there.
If you are heading for the bridge on the Presidio Parkway (also Highway 101), take the last SF exit before the bridge. You'll need to be in the far right lane, and a sign warns you it is the last SF exit. From there, you can access the parking areas on either side of the bridge.
You can also approach the bridge from either the east or west sides on Lincoln Boulevard. You can drive under the bridge near the Welcome Center parking lot, and Lincoln Blvd. also goes under the Presidio Parkway.
I've scouted all the lots on both sides of the bridge, and marked them on the maps.
For a complete rundown on all the lots on the map above, and advice on the best places to park, see my page on Golden Gate Bridge parking.
I've also included details about parking on the Marin side of the Golden Gate, plus a map on how to find those as well.
There are a number of excellent bike paths in the area near the bridge on the SF side; this is a popular biking spot for both locals and visitors.
Bike rentals: There are no bike rental offices near the bridge, but you can rent bikes at several places near Fisherman's Wharf and on Lombard Street en route to the bridge. From there, it's a relatively easy, and very scenic, ride to the bridge. Fun for kids, too, and mostly flat.
See my tips on where to rent the bikes, plus information on biking across the bridge and taking the ferry back. There are some good deals available for both renting bikes and taking bike tours over the bridge.
It's easy to get to the Golden Gate Bridge by bus from many points in San Francisco; here are some options:
From Fishermans's Wharf. The #28 - 19th Avenue - Muni Bus stops right next to the Welcome Center, at the SF end of the bridge. You can catch it on Van Ness Avenue, between North Point and Bay, at the western end of the Fisherman's Wharf area, a couple of blocks west of Aquatic Park. You can also catch it in Golden Gate Park. See #28 route.
From Downtown SF. The #30 Golden Gate Transit bus run daily, about every hour, from many downtown stops, including stops all along Mission Street. It also runs through the city with numerous other stops on its way to the bridge. Get off at the Toll Plaza just before the bridge (it also crosses the bridge and goes into Sausalito). See the #30 route.
From Union Square. The #76X Marin Headlands Express bus also stops at the Toll Plaza. Catch it at Post and Powell streets, at Union Square Note: weekends only. See #76X route. You can also walk down Powell Street, past Market, to Mission Street and catch the #30 there.
All the double-decker, Hop On Hop Off buses stop at the Welcome Center parking lot right next to the bridge.
The Hop On Hop Off buses also have a loop that takes you across the bridge, and down into the town of Sausalito. The Sausalito loop is now included in all the City Sightseeing 1, 2 and 3-day bus passes.
You can get off the main city loop and pick up the Sausalito loop at the same bus stop, in the parking lot of the Welcome Center for the bridge. See map above.
The Sausalito loop buses also stop at Vista Point, one the best places to view the bridge at the northern end.
See Hop On Hop Off bus tours for more info and booking.
Tip: if you do the Sausalito loop of the Hop On Hop Off bus tour, you can get off at the Vista Point at the north end of the bridge, cross under the bridge and walk up to a spectacular view spot in the Marin Headlands (see map of pathway below). Highly recommended! See more on views from the Marin Headlands.
Buses #30 and #76X stop at the Toll Plaza.
It's free to walk or bike across the Golden Gate Bridge. The pedestrian walkway is the east sidewalk that runs along the east (bay) side of the bridge. Bikes ride on either side, according to the daily schedule.
Drivers pay a toll ($7.25) but only coming into San Francisco. More on how to pay the toll below.
This is a great way to experience the bridge. Not only can you see the towers up close, there are super views of the city, Alcatraz and the bay. And it's free!
Pedestrians are only allowed on the east sidewalk (bay side) of the bridge, but it has the best bay and city views.
Walkers share the east sidewalk with bicycles on weekdays until 3:30 pm. Weekends and holidays, it's pedestrian only.
Open to pedestrians:
Pacific Standard Time (winter): 5 am - 6:30 pm
Daylight Savings time (summer): 5 am - 9 pm
How long does it take to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge? The bridge is 1.7 miles across, so it's about a 35 minute walk each way.
If you do the Hop On Hop Off bus tour, you can walk one way and catch the bus at the other end (Vista Point) to avoid the return walk.
The other side at Vista Point has bathrooms, but not much else (other than another great view).
When is the best time to walk across? Pros and cons...
Mornings: less crowded, but you are looking east, into the sun (not the best from a photographer's viewpoint). And on weekdays, you'll be sharing the sidewalk with bicycles until 3:30 pm.
Late afternoon: more people are out there, but light is gorgeous (when it's not foggy) and the colors are glowing. Plus, no bicycles are allowed on the east sidewalk after 3:30 pm.
Best time (in my opinion): weekdays after 3:30 pm. Beautiful light and all the bicycles are on the west side of the bridge. Second best time? Weekends in the afternoon; the cyclists are on the west side all day, but there are more walkers on the bridge, too.
Tip for walking the bridge: dress warmly, in layers! San Francisco is not a very warm place, especially in summer. Even when the sun is shining, it can be rather cool. And it's colder on the bridge because cool winds are usually blowing in through the gap from the chilly ocean. The bridge is very windy.
Also, the fog comes and goes suddenly and unpredictably; the fog will drop the temperature abruptly. More on San Francisco weather.
This is one of the most popular ways of experiencing the Golden Gate Bridge. You can ride a bike over and back, or take the popular bike ride over the bridge and down into the seaside town of Sausalito, returning to the city by ferry.
Almost everyone going on to Sausalito (far below) opts to ride the ferry back to San Francisco; that avoids the tough ride back uphill and puts you on a ferry ride with great views of the city and Alcatraz (rated #2 best ferry trip in the world by the Society of American Travel Writers).
There are two ways to do it:
I've put together some helpful information on both renting bikes and taking bike tours over the bridge. See what the trip is like, what to do in Sausalito, tips on taking the ferry, and how to get some good deals on both bike rentals and tours, at biking the Golden Gate Bridge.
You can ride your own bike over, or rent a bike and follow the map provided. It's a pretty easy route to follow, though there are some hills to climb (see my photos, maps and description of the bike route).
If you don't want to do the ride down to Sausalito, you can just turn around and ride back across the bridge.
There are a number of bike tours available where a guide takes you on a ride to the bridge, usually from Fisherman's Wharf, across it, and then down into the town of Sausalito, where you have time to explore before you take the ferry back to the city. See my suggestions for taking the tours.
In addition to the above-mentioned bike tours, there are some good walking tours of the bridge, and bus tours that cross the bridge.
San Francisco City Guides: this is a free tour given twice a week, year round, by a non-profit organization that does lots of SF tours. Their guides are all volunteers, but very professional and knowledgable. I've been on several of their tours and really enjoyed them. No reservations, just show up at the appointed time and place. See Golden Gate Bridge tour.
Walk across the bridge and up into the Marin Headlands: this is guided, walking tour that takes you across the bridge, then high up a hill to see what may be one of the best views of the bridge. Then head down to explore Sausalito, and take the ferry back to the city. 6 hours, $85. Hotel pickup. See Bridge and Headlands tour for more info and booking.
Hop On Hop Off Bus Tour
The Hop On Hop Off buses cross the bridge on their Sausalito loop. They stop at both ends of the bridge: the Welcome Center parking lot and the Vista Point parking lot.
You can admire some of the best bridge views at both ends of the bridge, plus you can walk across the bridge from one end and pick up the bus at the other end if you want.
City Sightseeing includes the Sausalito loop in all their 1, 2 and 3-day bus passes, so you have the option of crossing the bridge and exploring the town of Sausalito, along with using the routes around San Francisco. See Hop On Hop Off tours for more info and booking.
Fire Engine Tour
This is a different, but very popular tour. Ride a real fire engine over the bridge and down into Fort Baker and Sausalito, then back to the city. 75 minutes, $59. Leaves from Fisherman's Wharf, stops at Fort Point. See fire engine tour for more info and booking.
What's on the Marin County side of the Golden Gate?
The bridge is open for cars 24 hours a day. After you cross the bridge, there are a number of parking options. But first, what about the toll?
Only drivers coming into San Francisco pay the toll; it's free heading out of the city.
The toll for the Golden Gate Bridge is currently $7.75 for two-axle vehicles. If you've set up a FasTrack account, it's $6.75.
It used to be free for motorcycles and carpools of 3 or more in a car during rush hour, but that ended in 2010. Carpools and motorcycles get a discount if they use FasTrack.
Unlike the Bay Bridge, there are no humans in the toll booths, and you don't need to have cash to get through the toll plaza anymore.
It's all electronic now. The sensor reads your FasTrack tag or photographs your license plate when you drive through the toll booth; you slow down but don't stop. There are various options for paying:
To set up an account, or make payments, see bridge tolls.
What about rental cars? Best plan is to discuss the rental company's policy when you rent the car. If you opt to having them pay it, you're covered. If you opt out, it's up to you to pay the toll within 48 hours of crossing the bridge. See more info on this.
Parking lots: there are two parking areas at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge.
#1: the Vista Point parking area (free, but 4 hour limit), on the right just as you leave the bridge going north. This can get crowded on sunny days, so fortunately there is another...
#2: the North Tower lot (also free, no time limit), less-used, just on the other side of the highway.
To get to the Vista Point parking area, take the first exit off the bridge, the Vista Point Exit. That takes you right into the parking lot.
To get to the North Tower lot on the other (western) side of Highway 101, take the Alexander Avenue exit (the second exit after the bridge). Coming from SF, take the first left after getting off the freeway, go under the freeway, and follow Alexander Avenue to the parking lot next to the bridge. See map above.
There's a pedestrian walkway under the bridge that connects the two parking lots.
Two public bus lines leave from SF, cross the bridge, and stop near the Vista Point at the northern end of the bridge (7-12 minute walk from the stops), and the Hop On Hop Off buses take you directly from SF to the Vista Point parking lot.
See above for information on biking across the bridge.
The imposing hills that line the approach to San Francisco Bay on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge are the location of some of the absolute best views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
A narrow road winds along the bluffs, with periodic areas to pull off and park: perfect opportunities to admire the incredible scenery.
If you're lucky, you may see some wildlife on the way: coyotes, hawks and more.
Getting up to the Headlands. You can actually make it up to the headlands on foot from the two parking lots on the Marin side of the bridge. If you are able to walk up, it's so worth the effort! The view from Battery Spencer is one of the postcard views of the bridge.
The path up to the Headlands: it's surprisingly easy to walk up there.
Don't feel daunted by the steep bluffs near the bridge; it's a moderately easy climb up a dirt and gravel path to Conzelman Road, then a brief walk up to the first view spot of the Headlands.
The path to the top leaves from the North Tower parking lot on the west side of the bridge, across from Vista Point. It takes about 10 minutes at a leisurely pace to get to the top. The small parking lot at the Battery Spencer view point on top is usually full, so even if you're driving, the lower lot is a good back up choice.
Arriving by city bus or Hop On Hop Off bus? From the Vista Point stop, walk under the bridge to the North Tower parking lot and from there to the viewpoint above.
Biking across the bridge? You can park your bike in the bike racks (somewhat limited) at the Vista Point parking lot and walk up to the Battery Spencer viewpoint.
I went out and tracked down the best view points for the bridge and put together information on where they are and how to get there.
To find all of those places, with info on where they are, where to park, and how to get there by bus, plus photos of the views, see my page on the best Golden Gate Bridge views.
Fort Point sits right under the Golden Gate Bridge, built in 1861 to guard the approach to the bay. This Civil War era fort is now a free museum, and an interesting one to visit. Guided tours available, but you can also explore it on your own (when it's open).
This structure was considered historically important when the bridge was being designed so the engineers had to build the bridge around it.
Wander through the rooms and climb the winding stairways to the top. Check out the amazing view from the roof, right under the bridge.
Summer hours: open daily, 10 - 5.
Winter hours: open Fri, Sat, & Sun, 10 - 5.
For more info, see Fort Point.
There are some great surfing waves that come rolling in right under the bridge near Fort Point. You'll often see surfers out there; pretty daring with the rocks and currents!