The San Francisco Dinner Cruise

Tips for a magical evening on the Bay

A San Francisco dinner cruise is a super way to enjoy the beautiful sights of San Francisco Bay at night. As the sun sets, the City glows, and the lights begin to sparkle on the bridges.

What could be better than enjoying a gourmet meal, sipping your drinks, and being treated to San Francisco's best light show? 

San Francisco Bay dinner cruise, going under Bay BridgeLights on the Bridge & City Skyline

The Hornblower Yachts

All the San Francisco dinner cruises are provided by the Hornblower Yacht company. 

Hornblower Yachts is a respected company that has been doing bay cruises for decades, in San Francisco and other cities.  They are a first-class operation, and most people really enjoy their Hornblower dinner cruise.

Hornblower is also the company that runs the ferries out to Alcatraz. The dinner cruises, and their other bay excursions, depart from Pier 3, and their Alcatraz boats leave from Pier 33. 

California Hornblower yacht, at Pier 3 in San FranciscoThe California Hornblower, our dinner cruise ship, at Pier 3.

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The SF Dinner Cruise

The dinner cruise, actually a dinner/dance cruise, leaves from San Francisco every night.

Guests are served a multi-course dinner while the large yacht sails around San Francisco Bay, past Alcatraz and Sausalito, out under the Golden Gate Bridge (usually), and then under the Bay Bridge as well.

They recommend business attire or above (no jeans) for the cruise; the guests were generally nicely-dressed on our trip.

Getting on the boat...

All the San Francisco Hornblower cruises leave from Pier 3 on the Embarcadero. Pier 3 , also known as Hornblower Landing, is right near the Ferry Building and has its own parking lot ($10 parking fee for Hornblower cruise passengers). 

Hornblower Landing, Pier 3 San Francisco, San Francisco Belle at dock.Hornblower Landing, Pier 3

The dinner cruise leaves at 7:30 pm, but you can start boarding at 7:00. (Winter-time cruises board at 6:30 and sail at 7:00 pm.) Tables are assigned by Hornblower, so there's no advantage in getting on early. 

Before you embark, there's the photo op outside (an optional $20, which you can purchase on board later, two prints, plus digital versions).

When you enter the boat, the staff checks your tickets and tells you your assigned table number.

Yes, we had to get the photo.

For summer cruises, it's still daylight when you board, so the first hour or so you have a clear view of the sights you're sailing past: Alcatraz, Sausalito, and the Golden Gate Bridge. You'll get to admire both the daylight SF skyline and the twinkling night version during the cruise...nice!

City view in daylight, San Francisco dinner cruiseCity view at beginning of cruise.

The Dinner

First off, we were greeted by our server and given flutes of champagne (unexpected). Our salads were already on our table and we settled in with the sourdough bread and butter to study the menu choices.

The menu changes frequently, but there are four choices of entrees, plus two soup and two dessert choices. You can also add on a couple of appetizers (for an extra fee). The food was delicious and the atmosphere was elegant.

The waves were kind of rough the night we went, and the boat was rocking a bit in port, to the extent we started to worry about seasickness! Fortunately, once we were underway, the rocking died down and we could enjoy eating;-)

The Dancing

During dinner, a pianist was playing soft jazz, but after dinner a DJ set up on the dance floor and was playing a collection of good dance music, with selections from the 60's, 70's, and 80's music, and later.

But we were a quiet bunch that night and he couldn't get anyone out on the dance floor! From what I've read on Yelp and other reviews, it's usually a livelier crowd. I think the DJ was a little frustrated with us.

Friday and Saturday nights there's a live band (and probably livelier dance action!).

The Cruise

The views are the best part, in my opinion. San Francisco Bay is so beautiful, it never disappoints. Seeing the sun setting beyond the Golden Gate, getting a look at Alcatraz, and sailing under the bridges is amazing.

View of Alcatraz on San Francisco dinner cruiseAlcatraz View, with the fog rolling in.

We sailed under the eastern span of the Bay Bridge as the sun was going down, which gave the bridge a gorgeous golden glow.

Sun setting while sailing under eastern span of SF Bay Bridge, on Hornblower dinner cruise.Eastern Span, Bay Bridge

It was still light enough to get a good look at Yerba Buena Island as we went by. The Coast Guard maintains a post there with housing for it's members;  there are red-roofed buildings scattered here and there on the steep hillsides:  a cool place to live!

The small number of private citizens living on the island were evicted in 2015 to make way for hotel and condo developments, but nothing appears to be happening in that department. This was a joint development plan with nearby Treasure Island; the flat island next door has had serious problems cleaning up the radioactive waste left by the Navy base that used to be there.

Sailing by Yerba Buena Island on SF dinner cruise.Sailing by Yerba Buena Island

Tip: after dinner is a good time to get out on deck and admire some of the best city and bridge views after dark. You can walk along the sides of the yacht and to the front where the views are super.

It is usually pretty chilly and windy after dark, even in summer, so wrap up!

Night view of city skyline and Bay Bridge on San Francisco dinner cruise

The Route

The cruise route varies somewhat based on the weather and water conditions.

The typical route: about 75% of the time (they told me), the ship sails around the bay, passing Alcatraz and Angel Island, then goes out under the Golden Gate Bridge.  Next, it sails past the city skyline, and goes under the western span of the Bay Bridge, past Yerba Buena Island, down to AT&T park, then circles back and returns to Pier 3.

Something cool: if there's a baseball game at AT&T Park, the boat will stop in McCovey Cove near the stadium for a bit, so you can watch them play. McCovey Cove is the turn-around point for the cruise.

Map of cruise route around bay on San Francisco dinner cruiseThe Usual Route for the Dinner Cruise

Each night, the captain checks with the harbor master before the cruise about the currents and wave conditions. If the sea is too rough, they follow Plan B.

The night we went, they did Plan B: no trip out under the Golden Gate.

But we got a different treat: we sailed under the eastern span of the Bay Bridge. 

On our trip, we sailed around the bay, past Alcatraz and Angel Island, then went under the eastern span of the Bay Bridge (beautiful), past Yerba Buena Island, then down the bay to the turn-around point near AT&T Park. We returned sailing past the city all lit up and under the western span of the Bay Bridge.

Bay Bridge Light Show

The Bay Bridge has its own light show, created in 2013 by artist Leo Vilareal to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Bay Bridge. You get a good look at it during the dinner cruise, especially when you go underneath it on the way back to the pier.

The work is called the Bay Lights;  over 25,000 LED lights were attached to the western span of the bridge, and they blink in random patterns generated by a computer (they say the pattern never repeats). It's a beautiful, and permanent, addition to an already beautiful bridge.

Booking a Dinner Cruise

The dinner cruise in San Francisco sails every day; the main difference is the Friday and Saturday night cruises are 3 hours, and the other days are 2.5 hours.

It's easy to book the cruises online. But here's the question: should you pay a little extra (about $20) to ensure a window seat and get a bottle of champagne?

The window tables are better, no question, although the large windows in the dining area give you good visibility from all the tables.

We went on a Thursday night in summer and were assigned a window table because there weren't that many people on the boat that night. Now that I've been on the cruise, I would reserve a window table just in case; cozier, more romantic and the view is better.

You can reserve a window table when you book the cruise. The window table "package"  also comes with a bottle of champagne.

Dining room on San Francisco dinner cruiseTables in the stern (back) of the boat.

Tip: often has these dinner cruises available for a good discount. It's free to sign up with them, then you can check to see if the cruise you want is available. See Goldstar.

We got our tickets from Goldstar for $96.52 each, about 30% off.

Prices: Tickets are $141.36 per adult (13+), $84.81 per child (4-12), free under 4. It's $161.35 per adult to have a bottle of champagne and guaranteed window seating (more on Sat nights).

To check availability and book the cruise, click here

Getting to Pier 3

Public Transportation

BART: Pier 3 is only a short walk from the Ferry Building, so coming in on BART (get off at Embarcadero Station) puts you very close to Hornblower Landing. Head towards the Ferry Building, then turn left.

From Fisherman's Wharf: the F-Line street car that runs through Fisherman's Wharf stops near Pier 3 at Washington Street. See map of F-Line.

From Union Square: walk down Powell Street to Market Street. You can catch the F-line trolley on Market Street. Get off at Washington Street and walk back a little to Pier 3.

Map of Hornblower Landing, Pier 3, and Embarcadero BART
Map data (c) OpenStreetMap contributors, CC-BY-SA


Hornblower has a convenient parking lot on Pier 3. For guests on the Hornblower dinner cruises, there is a flat fee of $10. It's a safe place to park, since the lot has attendants present during the cruises. They don't do reservations, though.

It's unlikely to be full in the evening, but if that occurs, there are many other garages and lots in the area. See my page on Embarcadero parking for a list, and descriptions of the best choices.

The Champagne Brunch Cruise

Hornblower also does a popular, weekend brunch cruise, with a lavish buffet and unlimited champagne and mimosas ;-)

They sail around the bay for two hours, past Alcatraz, Angel Island and Sausalito, and out under the Golden Gate Bridge. This is a highly-rated cruise; looks like fun.

For more information, and booking, see Hornblower Brunch Cruise.

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