Like its many microclimates, San Francisco is constantly changing. The city boasts panoramic vistas, distinct neighborhoods, outdoor activities to delight the most adventurous, and museums to engage the most curious. It’s European charm meets cutting-edge technology meets laid-back California living. Although it's fairly small (just over 47 sq. miles), it’s packed with well-defined, diverse neighborhoods, each with a completely different personality and a wide variety of indoor and outdoor activities and attractions, sprinkled all across the city map. There’s literally something for everyone, whether you’re a history buff, a foodie, a culture maven, an artist, a thrill-seeker or a laid-back wanderer. Spend time in world-famous tourist destinations or discover the city’s lesser-known gems—either way you’re bound to discover why millions of visitors leave their hearts in San Francisco.
Which Discount Card Should You Buy?
Several outfits in town will try to sell you a card that grants you discounts at a variety of attractions and restaurants; some throw in transportation, too. They really do give what they promise, but there’s a problem with most of these cards: They usually include deals on stuff you’d never normally want to see or have time to cram in. Visiting extra attractions in an effort to make a “discount card” purchase pay off is a classic way to derail your vacation out of a sense of obligation.
Our advice? Don’t buy a discount card without first mapping out the plans you have for your visit’s days, because you will likely discover you’d spend more money obtaining the card than you’ll make back in touring. Never buy a discount card, here or in any other city, on the spur of the moment.
That being said, some may pay off, especially those that allow you to skip the lines—they offer real value in terms of time saved. Here are the two we recommend:
CityPass (https://www.citypass.com/san-francisco) is a Muni and cable car pass with unlimited rides for 3 consecutive days. It also allots users 9 consecutive days to visit four top sights (five if you opt for the de Young Museum and Legion of Honor choice): California Academy of Sciences, Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure, Aquarium of the Bay, and the Exploratorium or the de Young Museum. The attractions alone have a retail value of more than $150 for an adult—compare that to the CityPass price of $89 ages 12 and up, and $66 for ages 5 to 11. We think this is likely the better of the two options, as it only includes the sights most visitors would already want to see.
The Go San Francisco Card (https://www.smartdestinations.com/) can be purchased for 1 to 5 days. The price varies accordingly and does not include Muni transportation. However, Alcatraz is an option if you buy a “Build-Your-Own” pass. For those interested in tours or traveling with children (it includes many sights that will interest them) it might be a worthwhile buy.
A (Nearly) Citywide Attraction
With long lines to board, few seats, and a slow pace, San Francisco’s cable cars are not the most practical means of transportation. But they’re certainly the most beloved (even for locals), and a visit to San Francisco just wouldn’t be complete without hopping a ride on one.
Designated official “moving” historic landmarks by the National Park Service in 1964, the cable cars clank up and down the city’s steep hills like mobile museum pieces, tirelessly hauling thousands of tourists each day to Chinatown, Ghirardelli Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, and parts in between. The best view is from a perch on the outer running boards—but be sure to hold on, especially around corners.
As the story goes, London-born engineer Andrew Hallidie was inspired to invent the cable cars after witnessing a heavily laden carriage, pulled by a team of overworked horses, slip and roll backward down a steep San Francisco slope, dragging the horses behind it. Hallidie resolved to build a mechanical contraption to replace horse-drawn carts and carriages, and in 1873, the first cable car line was up and running.
Promptly ridiculed as “Hallidie’s Folly,” the cars were slow to gain acceptance. One early onlooker voiced the general opinion by exclaiming, “I don’t believe it—the damned thing works!” Indeed they do—and have for nearly 150 years.
The cars, each weighing about six tons, run along a steel cable enclosed under the street on a center rail. You can’t see the cable unless you peer straight down into the crack, but you’ll hear its characteristic hum and click-clacking sound whenever you’re nearby. The cars move when the gripman (they don’t call themselves drivers) pulls back a lever that closes a pincerlike “grip” on the cable. The speed of the car, therefore, is determined by the speed of the cable, which is a constant 9 1/2 mph—never more, never less. The two types of cable cars in use hold a maximum of 90 and 100 passengers.
Hallidie’s cable cars were imitated and used throughout the world, but all others have been replaced by more efficient means of transportation. San Francisco planned to do so, too, but met with so much opposition that the cable cars’ perpetuation was actually written into the city charter in 1955. The mandate cannot be revoked without the approval of a majority of the city’s voters—an unlikely prospect, given the love locals tend to feel for these cars.
San Francisco’s three existing cable car lines form the world’s only surviving system. The Powell–Hyde and Powell–Mason lines begin at the base of Powell and Market streets; the California Street line begins at the foot of Market Street at the Embarcadero. The fare is $7 per ride.
The secret to catching cable cars: Don’t wait in line with all the tourists at the turnaround stops at the beginning and end of the lines; waits can be as long as 2 hours in the summer. Instead, walk a few blocks up the line (follow the tracks) and do as the locals do: Hop on, when space permits, at any of the stops indicated by a brown and white “Cable Car Stop” sign. Hang on to a pole and have your $7 ready to hand to the brakeman.
On really busy weekends, however, if your heart is set on a cable car ride, you might just want to brave the crowds at the turnarounds: The cable cars can fill up and often don’t stop to pick up passengers en route.
Finding Your Way
When asking for directions in San Francisco, be careful not to confuse numerical avenues with numerical streets. Numerical avenues (Third Avenue and so on) are in the Richmond and Sunset districts in the western part of the city. Numerical streets (Third Street and so on) are south of Market Street in the eastern and southern parts of the city. Get this wrong and you’ll be an hour late for dinner.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.