Road trips in California are trending. Unplanned detours to retro country stores, coastal panoramas, fresh fruit stands, and parlor-style sundaes are a welcome escape from the everyday. Just in time, self-guided audio tours have arrived to turn your phone into a tour guide leading you to places and stories you might never have found on your own. 

We asked our staff, with over 75 years of combined tour guiding experience, to go out and try dozens of audio tours near to San Francisco. Overall, we were super impressed with the self-guided experiences, especially those offering local expert interviews, historical context, hidden gems, even food and nightlife recommendations. 

With any of the self-guided audio tours, you are not locked into a schedule. You set the pace. Skip ahead when you feel like it or linger to your heart’s content at any place along the route. Think of these experiences as a podcast that senses the location of your phone and delivers content at just the right time. So, what are the 7 best walking or driving San Francisco tours? Which ones offer great content, easy navigation with the fewest technical glitches? There are new options all the time, so our list of “best picks” has been recently updated. 

Best Audio Driving Tours Near San Francisco

Best Audio Walking Tours Near San Francisco

If you live in Northern California or if you are visiting the San Francisco Bay Area soon, we hope you will have a chance to try one or more of these audio tours. To help you choose the best ones for you and your fellow travelers, here are profiles of our favorite self-guided audio tours.

Best Driving Audio Tours

Voicemap: Carmel by the Sea

Carmel by the sea main street 

Duration: Approx. 1 hour

Brief description: Delivers an insider’s tour to the village of Carmel by the Sea known far and wide for its charming homes, art galleries, shops and restaurants. Host and lifelong resident, Bob Hamilton, takes you behind the scenes as you drive hands-free, hearing the stories of the outdoor Forest theater, the La Playa hotel, the famous Comstock Houses, Robinson Jeffers Tor House, Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Cabin on the Rocks” and many more hidden treasures.

Crowd pleasers: Host Bob Hamilton is delightful as he shares hometown insights that you would probably not have discovered on your own.

Find it: Purchase the tour here.

Price: $5.99

Voicemap: Gold Rush to Golden Gate: Driving Tour of San Francisco

Driver over the golden gate bridge 

Duration: 2-3 hours depending on length of stops

Brief description: Travel along San Francisco’s waterfront to must-see attractions and hidden gems, then across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. You will be entertained by professional tour guide and city Insider, Brad Prickett, whose narration and interviews with historic figures, create a experience with far more depth and variety than you could get from a stack of travel guides.

Crowd pleasers: Fun dramatizations of San Francisco’s gold rush founders, scandalous Samuel Brannan, innovator Levi Strauss, Alcatraz escape attempts, Fort Point soldiers, and Al Zampa of the Half-way to Hell club. 

Find it: Purchase the tour here.

Price: $5.99

Action Tour Guide: Silicon Valley

Girl on the bike in front of Google sign 

Duration: Approx. 3-4 hours

Brief description: While you drive through Silicon Valley, the cradle of the tech revolution, you will hear fascinating stories of visionaries who’ve shaped the world around us. Learn about the feud between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and the controversies surrounding Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos. The tour directs you to the visitors’ centers of tech giants like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Tesla (Note: tours of the tech campuses are not generally permitted).

Crowd pleasers: Very comprehensive tour with navigation to dozens of historic and current tech headquarters and landmarks.

Find it: Download Action Tour Guide app at your favorite app store.

Price: $15.00

GyPSy Guide: Big Sur PCH Highway

Big Sur 

Duration: Approx. 3-4 hours without stops or overnighting.

Brief Description: This 130-mile stretch of coastal highway has been designated as America’s National Scenic Byway and is well worth the drive from San Francisco. Relax and enjoy stunning coastal scenery, charming off-the-beaten-path towns and opportunities to spot marine animals. Over one hundred audio pins lead you to explore the Bixby Bridge, Giant Redwoods at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, McWay Falls, Elephant Seal Vista Point and Hearst Castle.

Crowd pleasers: The host is entertaining and creates a journey, not a checklist. Offers a heads up to everything around you and seven “must-see” spots along the way.

Find it: Download GyPSy Guide Big Sur app or purchase here.

Price: $9.99

Best Audio Walking Tours

Alcatraz Island: Cell House Tour

Cells inside the alcatraz

Duration: About 1 hour depending upon your pace

Brief description: This audio tour features narration by guards and former prisoners along with sound effects that transform the empty buildings into a living and breathing high-security federal prison. During the tour, you’ll get to visit the solitary confinement cells, where unruly prisoners were forced to stay in pitch black rooms for weeks at a time. It pays to linger and get a feel for what it must have been like to experience the isolation. The tour is available in 8 different languages. 

Crowd pleasers: The production uses entertaining sound underneath the voices of the prisoners to create a riveting experience. 

Find it: Once you reach Alcatraz island, a park ranger will hand you a headset and controller. 

Price: Audio tour is included with the purchase of a $41 ferry ticket from Alcatraz Cruises.

Voicemap: Haight-Ashbury, Painted Ladies, Hippie Movement and the Summer of Love

haight ashbury san francisco 

Duration: 1 hour (longer if you make stops to explore)

Brief Description: Experience the hippest neighborhood in San Francisco—Haight-Ashbury. On this tour California History Tour, you will visit Golden Gate Park and learn about the contributions of gardener and landscaper architect, John McLaren. You will also see the stomping grounds of rock legends Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane along with some of some of the finest Victorian houses in San Francisco.

Crowd pleasers: Ex-hippie and host Barry Hirsh delivers entertaining insights and historical facts about his favorite neighborhood.

Find it: Purchase the tour here.

Price: $3.99

The Hidden and Not-So-Hidden Treasures of Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park entrance with the mill 

Duration: 1 hour and 30 minutes (longer if you make stops to explore)

Brief Description: The story leads you on a fascinating guided walking tour that plays out as you follow the clues and unravel the mystery taking place in Golden Gate Park. On the roughly one-mile walking tour, you’ll visit the Cervantes, Juniper Serra and Verdi memorial statues, WW1 Gold Star Mothers Stone, Shakespeare and Rose gardens, National AIDS Memorial Grove, de Young Museum, Japanese Tea Garden and Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden. 

Crowd pleasers: The game-like mystery story unfolds in an entertaining way as you explore nooks and crannies in Golden Gate Park.

Find it: Purchase the tour here.

Price: $9.99

Pocket Guide: South of Market San Francisco

Cupid’s Span 

Duration: 2-3 hours (longer if you make stops to explore)

Brief Description: SoMa, the nick name for the South of Market Street Area of San Francisco, is an eclectic mix of museums, public gardens, restaurants, and waterfront. It is also a prized urban residential neighborhood for young tech entrepreneurs whose upscale condominiums line the busy streets. The tour explores SoMa’s history, the impact of two earthquakes, and its urban gardens and parks.

Crowd pleasers: SoMa is a wonderful neighborhood for exploring on foot and the audio tour does a terrific job of leading you to all the best spots.

Find it: Download PocketGuide app at your favorite app store.

Price: $9.99

Still have questions about self-guided tours?  Check out these Q&As. 

What is an audio tour?

An audio tour is a collection of historical facts, stories and navigation tips woven into a tour by its producer. After downloading the player app and the desired tour, audio and visual content plays automatically based on your phone’s GPS location.

Can you pause an audio tour? 

The Alcatraz Cell House audio tour does snot play on your phone but on a separate player that comes with a controller. Its very simple to hit pause when you want a break.

Does everyone in the group need to purchase an audio tour? 

Apps differ on their policies but most self-guided audio tours permit a single purchase, permitting others to listen in and follow along with the tour. 

Do you need a cell signal to play an audio tour? 

Nearly all audio tours avoid the need for a cell signal by having the user download the app and tour in advance. The tour starts automatically when the user reaches the starting point. 

Can you go to Alcatraz and not use the audio tour? 

The self-guided Alcatraz prison audio tours is included in the price of the ferry ticket. You are also free to explore the island and the buildings on your own without the aid of the audio tour. 

How long does the Alcatraz audio tour take?

You should plan on 3-4 hours for the whole Alcatraz Island experience. The audio tour you take on the island last about an hour, depending on your pace.