Here are a few strategies for making your way around the city:
1. San Francisco is really a small city. If you’re in reasonably good shape, and you leave your stilettos at home, you can hoof it quite easily between many of the sights we recommend, without stressing about taxis, buses, cable cars, and such.
2. If you only remember the “F-Line” historic streetcar, you will be able to get almost anywhere you want to go in the Eastern half of the city. The F-Line starts at the Castro, close to Mission Dolores in the Mission District, and runs northwest “up” Market Street to within a couple of blocks of City Hall, the Asian Arts Museum, and many of the performing arts venues in the Civic Center area. The route continues along Market Street to the Union Square area and the Yerba Buena District, through the Financial District, and on to the historic Ferry Building. Then the F-Line turns left, running along the Embarcadero past the Exploratorium, past streets leading to Coit Tower in North Beach, and on to Pier 39 and the rest of Fisherman’s Wharf, where the route ends. Add in the no. 5 Fulton bus, which runs east-west from downtown to the ocean, and you have most of the city covered with only two routes to remember.
3. If all else fails, use your smart phone to search 511.org. You can input your current and desired addresses and this foolproof site will give you all your public transportation options—and tell you when the next vehicle will be along to save you.
By Public TransportationThe San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, 1 S. Van Ness Ave., better known as “Muni” (tel. 415/673-6864; www.sfmta.com), operates the city’s cable cars, buses, and streetcars. Together, these three services crisscross the entire city. Fares for buses and streetcars are $2 for adults, 75[ce] for seniors 65 and over, children 5 to 17, and riders with disabilities. Cable cars, which run from 6:30am to 12:50am, cost a whopping $6 for all people 6 and over ($3 for seniors and riders with disabilities before 7am or after 9pm). Needless to say, they’re packed primarily with tourists. Exact change is required on all vehicles except cable cars. Fares are subject to change. If you’re standing waiting for Muni and have wireless Web access (or from any computer), check www.nextmuni.com to get up-to-the-minute information about when the next bus or streetcar is coming. Muni’s NextBus uses satellite technology and advanced computer modeling to track vehicles on their routes. Each vehicle is fitted with a satellite tracking system, so the information is constantly updated.
For detailed route information, click “Muni Route Maps” on the website at www.sfmta.com/maps. Each route has its own map, and when you click on the map, you will see live-time details of where the buses are at that moment¾you can even watch them slowly crawl across your computer screen as the move. For a big picture look at all Muni routes, click on “Muni System Maps.”
Muni Discounts -- Muni discount passes, called Passports (www.sfmta.com), entitle holders to unlimited rides on buses, streetcars, and cable cars. A Passport costs $15 for 1 day, $23 for 3 days, and $29 for 7 consecutive days. There is no discount for children or seniors. Passports are sold at a number of locations throughout the city listed on the website. Anoter options is buying a CityPASS (www.citypass.com; $86 adults; $64 kids 5-11), which entitles you to unlimited Muni rides for 7 days, and includes admission to four (or five, depending on which you choose) attractions for 9 days. These passes are sold online, or at any of the CityPASS attractions.
Cable Car -- San Francisco’s cable cars might not be the most practical means of transport, but the rolling historic landmarks are a fun ride. The three lines are concentrated in the downtown area. The most scenic, and exciting, is the Powell–Hyde line, which follows a zigzag route from the corner of Powell and Market streets, over both Nob Hill and Russian Hill, to a turntable at gas-lit Victorian Square in front of Aquatic Park. The Powell–Mason line starts at the same intersection and climbs Nob Hill before descending to Bay Street, just 3 blocks from Fisherman’s Wharf. The least scenic is the California Street line, which begins at the foot of Market Street and runs a straight course through Chinatown and over Nob Hill to Van Ness Avenue. All riders must exit at the last stop and wait in line for the return trip. The cable car system operates from approximately 6:30am to midnight, and each ride costs $6.
Bus -- Buses reach almost every corner of San Francisco and beyond—they even travel over the bridges to Marin County and Oakland. Overhead electric cables power some buses; others use conventional gas engines. All are numbered and display their destinations on the front. Signs, curb markings, and yellow bands on adjacent utility poles designate stops, and most bus shelters exhibit Muni’s transportation map and schedule. Many buses travel along Market Street or pass near Union Square and run from about 6am to midnight. After midnight, there is infrequent all-night “Owl” service. For safety, avoid taking buses late at night.
Popular tourist routes include bus number 71, which run to Golden Gate Park; 41 and 45, which travel along Union Street; and 30, which runs between Union Square, Chinatown, Ghirardelli Square, and the Marina District. A bus ride costs $2 for adults and 75[ce] for seniors 66 and over, children 5 to 17, and riders with disabilities.
Streetcar -- Six of Muni’s seven streetcar lines, designated J, K, L, M, N, and T, run underground downtown and on the streets in the outer neighborhoods. The sleek rail cars make the same stops as BART along Market Street, including Embarcadero Station (in the Financial District), Montgomery and Powell streets (both near Union Square), and the Civic Center (near City Hall). Past the Civic Center, the routes branch off: The J line takes you to Mission Dolores; the K, L, and M lines run to Castro Street; and the N line parallels Golden Gate Park and extends all the way to the Embarcadero and AT&T Park. The T-Third Street car runs to AT&T Park and the San Francisco Caltrain station and then continues south along Third Street.
Streetcars run about every 15 minutes, more frequently during rush hours. They operate Monday through Friday from 5am to 12:15am, Saturday from 6am to approximately 12:15am, and Sunday from approximately 8am to 12:20am. The L and N lines operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but late at night, regular buses trace the L and N routes, which are normally underground, from atop the city streets. Because the operation is part of Muni, the fares are the same as for buses, and passes are accepted.
The most recent line to this system is not a newcomer at all, but is, in fact, an encore performance of rejuvenated 1930s streetcars from all over the world. The beautiful, retro multicolored F-Market and Wharves streetcar runs from 17th and Castro streets to the Embarcadero; every other streetcar continues to Jones and Beach streets in Fisherman’s Wharf. This is a quick, charming, and tourist-friendly way to get up- and downtown without any hassle.
BART -- BART, an acronym for Bay Area Rapid Transit (tel. 415/989-2278; www.bart.gov), is a futuristic-looking, high-speed rail network that connects San Francisco (starting just south of the airport) with the East Bay—Oakland, Richmond, Concord, Pittsburg, and Fremont. Four stations are on Market Street. One-way fares range from $1.85 to $11, depending on how far you go. Machines in the stations dispense tickets that are magnetically encoded with a dollar amount. Computerized exits automatically deduct the correct fare. Children 4 and under ride free. Trains run every 15 to 20 minutes, Monday through Friday from 4am to midnight, Saturday from 6am to midnight, and Sunday from 8am to midnight. In keeping with its futuristic look, BART now offers online trip planners that you can download to your smartphone or tablet. The 33-mile BART extension extends all the way to San Francisco International Airport.
This isn’t New York, so don’t expect a taxi to appear whenever you need one—if at all. If you’re downtown during rush hour or leaving a major hotel, it won’t be hard to hail a cab; just look for the lighted sign on the roof that indicates the vehicle is free. Otherwise, it’s a good idea to call one of the following companies to arrange a ride; even then, there’s been more than one time when the cab never came for us. What to do? Call back if your cab is late and insist on attention, but don’t expect prompt results on weekends, no matter how nicely you ask. The companies are Nation and Veteran’s Cab (tel. 415/552-1300), Luxor Cabs (tel. 415/282-4141), De Soto Cab (tel. 415/970-1300), Green Cab (tel. 415/626-4733), Metro Cab (tel. 415/920-0700, and Yellow Cab (tel. 415/626-2345). For an estimate of fares, including an allowance for traffic, visit www.taxifarefinder.com.
To combat the woeful lack of taxis, San Francisco has been an early adopter of ride-sharing technologies, such as Lyft and Uber. Even the taxis have gotten on board, drastically reducing the hassle of scoring a ride. Download a number of apps (the most popular at press time were Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar) onto your smartphone. From the app you can request a taxi, town car, or someone’s personal ride from wherever you are and a car will come pick you up, usually within minutes. If you go with personal car, a friendly, registered driver will pick you up in his or her own car. Often, these drivers are young locals trying to make a little extra money by driving people around in their free time and are eager to make conversation. You enter your credit card information into the secure app and tip is included, so you don’t need to carry cash. While ordering a black town car will cost more, the price of ordering a taxi or riding in someone’s personal car is about the same price as hailing a cab.
You don’t need a car to explore downtown San Francisco. In fact, with the city becoming more crowded by the minute, a car can be your worst nightmare—you’re likely to end up stuck in traffic with lots of aggressive and frustrated drivers, pay upwards of $50 a day to park (plus a whopping new 14% parking lot tax), and spend a good portion of your vacation looking for a parking space. Don’t bother. However, if you want to venture outside the city, driving is the best way to go. If you want to take a daytrip to Napa or Muir Woods, picking up a car in the city early in the morning, and returning it that evening, will save a fortune for a family of four.
Before heading outside the city, especially in winter, call tel. 800/427-ROAD (7623) for California road conditions. You can also call tel. 511 for current traffic information.
Car Rentals -- All the major rental companies operate in the city and have desks at the airports. You could usually get a compact car at the airport for a week starting at $215, including all taxes and other charges, but prices change dramatically when you rent on a daily basis and depending on the agency you use.
Some of the national car-rental companies operating in San Francisco include Alamo (tel. 800/327-9633; www.alamo.com), Avis (tel. 800/331-1212; www.avis.com), Budget (tel. 800/527-0700; www.budget.com), Dollar (tel. 800/800-4000; www.dollar.com), Enterprise (tel. 800/325-8007; www.enterprise.com), Hertz (tel. 800/654-3131; www.hertz.com), National (tel. 800/227-7368; www.nationalcar.com), and Thrifty (tel. 800/367-2277; www.thrifty.com).
Car-rental rates vary even more than airline fares. Prices depend on the size of the car, where and when you pick it up and drop it off, the length of the rental period, where and how far you drive it, whether you buy insurance, and a host of other factors. A few key questions can save you hundreds of dollars, but you have to ask—reservations agents don’t often volunteer money-saving information:
- Are weekend rates lower than weekday rates? Ask if the rate is the same for pickup Friday morning, for instance, as it is for Thursday night. Reservations agents won’t volunteer this information, so don’t be shy about asking.
- Does the agency assess a drop-off charge if you don’t return the car to the same location where you picked it up?
- Are special promotional rates available? If you see an advertised price in your local newspaper, be sure to ask for that specific rate; otherwise, you could be charged the standard rate. Terms change constantly.
- Are discounts available for members of AARP, AAA, frequent-flier programs, or trade unions? If you belong to any of these organizations, you may be entitled to discounts of up to 30%.
- How much tax will be added to the rental bill? Will there be local tax and state tax?
- How much does the rental company charge to refill your gas tank if you return with the tank less than full? Most rental companies claim their prices are “competitive,” but fuel is almost always cheaper in town, so you should try to allow enough time to refuel the car before returning it.
Some companies offer “refueling packages,” in which you pay for an entire tank of gas upfront. The cost is usually fairly competitive with local prices, but you don’t get credit for any gas remaining in the tank. If a stop at a gas station on the way to the airport will make you miss your plane, then by all means take advantage of the fuel purchase option. Otherwise, skip it.
Safe Driving -- Keep in mind the following handy driving tips:
- California law requires that drivers and passengers all wear seat belts.
- You can turn right at a red light (unless otherwise indicated), after yielding to traffic and pedestrians, and after coming to a complete stop.
- Cable cars always have the right of way, as do pedestrians at intersections and crosswalks.
- Pay attention to signs and arrows on the streets and roadways, or you might suddenly find yourself in a lane that requires exiting or turning when you want to go straight. What's more, San Francisco's many one-way streets can drive you in circles, but most road maps of the city indicate which way traffic flows.
Most agencies enforce a minimum-age requirement—usually 25. Some also have a maximum-age limit. If you’re concerned that these limits might affect you, ask about rental requirements at the time of booking to avoid problems later.
Make sure you’re insured. Hasty assumptions about your personal auto insurance or a rental agency’s additional coverage could end up costing you tens of thousands of dollars, even if you are involved in an accident that is clearly the fault of another driver.
If you already have your own car insurance, you are most likely covered in the United States for loss of or damage to a rental car and liability in case of injury to any other party involved in an accident. Be sure to check your policy before you spend extra money (around $10 or more per day) on the collision damage waiver (CDW) offered by all agencies.
Most major credit cards (especially gold and platinum cards) provide some degree of coverage as well—if they were used to pay for the rental. Terms vary widely, however, so be sure to call your credit card company directly before you rent and rely on the card for coverage. If you are uninsured, your credit card may provide primary coverage as long as you decline the rental agency’s insurance. If you already have insurance, your credit card may provide secondary coverage, which basically covers your deductible. However, note that credit cards will not cover liability, which is the cost of injury to an outside party and/or damage to an outside party’s vehicle. If you do not hold an insurance policy, you should seriously consider buying additional liability insurance from your rental company, even if you decline the CDW.
International visitors should note that insurance and taxes are almost never included in quoted rental car rates in the U.S. Be sure to ask your rental agency about additional fees for these. They can add a significant cost to your rental car.
If you’re visiting from abroad and plan to rent a car in the United States, keep in mind that foreign driver’s licenses are usually recognized in the U.S., but you may want to consider obtaining an international driver’s license.
Parking -- If you want to have a relaxing vacation, don’t even attempt to find street parking on Nob Hill, in North Beach, in Chinatown, by Fisherman’s Wharf, or on Telegraph Hill. Park in a garage or take a cab or a bus. If you do find street parking, pay attention to street signs that explain when you can park and for how long. Be especially careful not to park in zones that are tow areas during rush hours. And be forewarned, San Francisco has a 14% parking tax.
Curb colors also indicate parking regulations. Red means no stopping or parking, blue is reserved for drivers with disabilities who have a disabled plate or placard, white means there’s a 5-minute limit and the driver must stay in the vehicle, green indicates a 10-minute limit, and yellow and yellow-and-black curbs are for stopping to load or unload passengers or luggage only. Also, don’t park at a bus stop or in front of a fire hydrant, and watch out for street-cleaning signs. If you violate the law, you might get a hefty ticket or your car might be towed; to get your car back, you’ll have to get a release from the nearest district police department and then go to the towing company to pick up the vehicle.
When parking on a hill, apply the hand brake, put the car in gear, and curb your wheels—toward the curb when facing downhill, away from the curb when facing uphill. Curbing your wheels not only prevents a possible “runaway” but also keeps you from getting a ticket—an expensive fine that is aggressively enforced.
In a high-tech city like San Francisco, it only follows there would be a way to use your computer or smartphone when parking a car. Sfpark.org is an award-winning website (a phone app is available too) that collects and displays real-time information about available parking in the city, in an effort to stop people from driving in circles and polluting our city while hunting for a spot. You can look at a map of the city parking garages, get addresses, directions, hourly prices, and even see how many spots are available inside each garage. If you hit the green “pricing” key, it will show dark green for more expensive garages and light green for the less expensive places. For metered street parking, the map will show red in areas of limited street parking, navy for some availability, and light turquoise for good availability. For both garage and metered parking, prices are regularly adjusted up or down monthly, depending on demand.
To/From Sausalito or Larkspur -- The Golden Gate Ferry Service fleet (tel. 415/455-2000; www.goldengateferry.org) shuttles passengers daily between the San Francisco Ferry Building, at the foot of Market Street, and downtown Sausalito and Larkspur. Service is frequent, departing at reasonable intervals every day of the year except January 1, Thanksgiving Day, and December 25. Phone or check the website for an exact schedule. The ride to Sausalito or Larkspur takes about half an hour. One-way fares to Sausalito are $10.25 for adults, $5 for seniors (65+), passengers with disabilities, and youth (6–18). One-way fares to Larkspur are $9.50 for adults, $4.75 for seniors (65+), passengers with disabilities, and youth (6-18). Children 5 and under travel free when accompanied by a full-fare paying adult (limit 2 kids per adult).
Ferries of the Blue & Gold Fleet (tel. 415/773-1188 for recorded info; for tickets and schedules, visit www.blueandgoldfleet.com) provide round-trip service to downtown Sausalito, Tiburon, and Angel Island. For Sausalito and Tiburon, the one-way fare is $11 for adults, $6.75 for kids (5–11) and seniors (65+). The Angel Island one-way fare is $8.50 for adults, $4.75 for children (6–12) and seniors (65+). Boats run on a seasonal schedule, so check the website for details. Boats leave from Pier 41, and tickets can be purchased at the pier.