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 Transportation
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, better known as “Muni” (sfmta.com; tel. 311, or 415/701-2311 outside San Francisco), operates the city’s cable cars, buses, and streetcars. Together, these three services crisscross the entire city. Fares for buses and streetcars are $2.75 for adults, or $1.35 for seniors 65+, children 5 to 18, and riders with disabilities. Exact change is required on all vehicles except cable cars, which currently make change (there is talk of eliminating cash payment for cable car fares, so be sure to ask before you ride); you can buy tickets in advance on your smartphone using the MuniMobile app (available at sfmta.transitsherpa.com) If you’re standing waiting for Muni and have a smartphone, check 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, with information constantly updated.
For detailed route information, visit sfmta.com, go to the “Getting Around” drop-down menu, and click “Routes and Stops.” Each route has its own map, and when you click on the map, you will see real-time details of bus locations—you can even watch them slowly crawl across your computer screen as they move. For a big-picture look at all Muni routes, click on “Muni System Maps.”
Muni discount passes, called Passports, entitle holders to unlimited rides on buses, streetcars, and cable cars. A Passport costs $21 for 1 day, $32 for 3 days, and $42 for 7 consecutive days. There is no discount for children or seniors. Passports are sold at many locations throughout the city (for a list, visit sfmta.com/getting-around/transit). Another option is buying a CityPASS (citypass.com; $89 adults, $66 kids 5–11), which entitles you to unlimited Muni rides for 9 days, and includes admission to four (or five, depending on which you choose) local attractions. These passes are sold online or at any of the CityPASS attractions.
Cable Car These mobile national treasures are truly fun to ride. While they may not be fast (speeds top out at 9 miles per hour), they’ll get you to your destination in style, provided your destination is on their three limited routes, which 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 and Russian hills, to a turntable at 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 third, still scenic but slightly less dramatic, 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 6am to 1am, and each ride costs $7; passes and MuniMobile tickets are accepted.
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 display 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. Unless you’re traveling with a large group, it’s a good idea to avoid taking buses late at night.
Popular tourist routes include bus number 5, which runs 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 $2.75 for adults, or $1.35 for seniors 65+, children 5 to 18, and riders with disabilities; exact change is required.
Streetcar Six of Muni’s seven streetcar lines, designated J, KT, L, M, and N, 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 L and M lines run to Castro Street and beyond; and the N line parallels Golden Gate Park and runs all the way to the Embarcadero and AT&T Park. The K-Ingleside/T-Third Street car runs from Balboa Park through downtown to AT&T Park and the San Francisco Caltrain station and then continues south along Third Street.
The seventh, and most recently added, line isn’t a newcomer at all; it’s 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; some cars stop there, but every alternate F-line car continues to Jones and Beach streets in Fisherman’s Wharf. This is a quick, charming, and tourist-friendly way to get up and down town without any hassle.
Streetcars run about every 15 minutes, and more frequently during rush hours. They operate daily from about 4am to 2am, with a few exceptions. Because the operation is part of Muni, the fares are the same as for buses, and passes are accepted.
BART The high-speed rail network Bay Area Rapid Transit (bart.gov; tel. 415/989-2278)—usually just called BART—connects the San Francisco peninsula (starting just south of the airport) with the East Bay—Oakland, Richmond, Concord, Pittsburg, and Fremont. Four stations are in downtown San Francisco along Market Street. One-way fares range from $1.95 to $12.05, depending on distance. (Children 4 and under ride free.) Machines in the stations dispense tickets that are magnetically encoded with a dollar amount, and computerized exits automatically deduct the correct fare. 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. On the BART website, you can download a trip planner for smartphone or tablet.
This isn’t New York, so don’t expect a taxi to appear whenever you need one. 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: National Veteran’s Cab (tel. 415/321-TAXI), Luxor Cabs (tel. 415/282-4141), De Soto Cab (tel. 415/970-1300), Green Cab (tel. 415/626-4733), or Yellow Cab (tel. 415/333-3333). Unfortunately, despite the call, you still might be left high and dry. 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. For an estimate of fares, including an allowance for traffic, visit taxifarefinder.com.
Due, I suspect, to the historically woeful lack of taxis, San Francisco was an early adopter of ride-sharing technologies, such as Lyft and Uber, and today, you’ll see hundreds of vehicles sporting Lyft and Uber stickers on their windshields—especially since even locals have given up driving (and steep parking prices) in exchange for the ease of hopping a shared or private ride. You don’t hail them like you would a cab: You must first download the Uber or Lyft app onto your smartphone, enter your credit card information, and then, via the app, request a ride from wherever you are. A car will pick you up, usually within minutes. You’ll have the option of choosing a shared ride at a lower price or an “express” ride for a bit more; if you’ve got a group of up to six people, you can also request a larger vehicle, at a larger (but still usually reasonable) fee. And the entire transaction is carried out through your smartphone—no need to carry cash!
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 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.
If you want to venture outside the city, however—perhaps taking a day trip to Napa Valley or Muir Woods—driving is the best way to go. 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 national car-rental companies operate in the city and have desks at the airports. Companies include Alamo (alamo.com; tel. 800/651-1223), Avis (avis.com; tel. 800/352-7900), Budget (budget.com; tel. 800/218-7992), Dollar (dollar.com; tel. 800/800-5252), Enterprise (enterprise.com; tel. 855/266-9289), Hertz (hertz.com; tel. 800/654-4173), National (nationalcar.com; tel. 800/227-7368), and Thrifty (thrifty.com; tel. 800/367-2277). Most car rental agencies have a minimum-age requirement—usually age 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.
Car-rental rates vary even more than airline fares. Prices depend on the size of the car, where and when you pick up and drop 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.
- 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 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.
Here are a few quick tips for safe California driving:
- California law requires that drivers and passengers all wear seat belts.
- California law also requires that any cellphone use while driving, including GPS for navigation, must be completely hands-free.
- 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. San Francisco’s many one-way streets can drive you in circles, but most road maps of the city indicate which way traffic flows.
Insurance 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.
If you use a major credit card (especially gold and platinum cards) to pay for the rental, it may provide some coverage as well. Terms vary widely, so call your credit card company directly, before you rent, to learn if you can 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 don’t hold an insurance policy, seriously consider buying the rental company’s additional liability insurance, even if you decline the CDW.
International visitors 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. Also note that insurance and taxes are almost never included in quoted rental car rates in the U.S. Ask your rental agency about these additional fees—they can add a significant cost to your rental car.
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 (ideally using one of the many parking-garage-finding apps, which often offer discounts if you buy before you arrive) and use cabs or buses to get around.
If you do find street parking, pay attention to street signs that explain when you can park and for how long, and don’t forget to put money in your parking meter, if there is one. If you don’t have cash, you can use a credit card. Be especially careful not to park in tow zones during rush hours.
Curb colors indicate parking regulations. Red means no stopping or parking, blue is reserved for drivers with disabilities who have a disabled plate or placard, white is reserved for non-commercial loading zones (there’s a 5-min. limit and the driver must stay in the vehicle), green indicates a 10-minute limit, and yellow and yellow-and-black curbs are commercial loading zones reserved for vehicles with commercial plates (yellow zones are often enforced only during business hours, so check for signs or curb stencils that list hours of enforcement). Also, don’t park at a bus stop or in front of a fire hydrant, and watch out for street-cleaning signs. Note: No parking in red zones means that your car should be completely outside of the red; even a few centimeters can result in a ticket or a tow. Residents, already annoyed because their driveways are often partially blocked, can be quick to call a tow truck.
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, curb your wheels—turn them 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 to help find parking. Sfpark.org is an award-winning website (a mobile 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, and 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 (goldengateferry.org; tel. 415/455-2000) shuttles passengers daily between the San Francisco Ferry Building, at the foot of Market Street, and downtown Sausalito, Tiburon, or Larkspur. Service is frequent, departing at reasonable intervals every day of the year (Tiburon service is weekdays only) except January 1, Thanksgiving Day, and December 25. Phone or check the website for an exact schedule. The ride takes about half an hour. One-way fares to Sausalito or Tiburon are $12 for adults, $6 for seniors 65+, youth ages 5 to 18, and passengers with disabilities. One-way fares to Larkspur are $11.50 adults, $5.75 seniors, youth, and passengers with disabilities. Children 4 and under travel free when accompanied by a full-fare paying adult (limit two kids per adult).
Ferries of the Blue & Gold Fleet (blueandgoldfleet.com; tel. 415/773-1188 for recorded info) provide round-trip service to downtown Sausalito, Tiburon, and Angel Island. For Sausalito or Tiburon, the one-way fare is $12.50 for adults, $7.50 for seniors 65+ and youth 5–11. The Angel Island ferry costs $9.75 adults one-way, $5.50 seniors and youth. 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.
To/From Oakland or Alameda The San Francisco Bay Ferry fleet (sanfranciscobayferry.com; tel. 415/705-8291) runs a daily route that connects Pier 41, the San Francisco Ferry Building, Alameda, and Oakland’s Jack London Square; some routes also include AT&T Park. Phone or check the website for an exact schedule, as it changes with the seasons. The rides to Oakland and Alameda take just over half an hour. One-way fares to Oakland and Alameda are $6.80 for adults, $63.40 for seniors 65+, youth ages 5 to 18, and passengers with disabilities.
Although San Francisco does lie in an earthquake zone, these are rare events. If an earthquake does happen while you are in the Bay Area, however, don’t panic. If you’re in a tall building, don’t run outside; instead, move away from windows and toward the building’s center. Crouch under a desk or table, or stand against a wall or under a doorway. If you’re in bed, get under the bed, stand in a doorway, or crouch under a sturdy piece of furniture. When exiting the building, use stairwells, not elevators. If you’re in your car, pull over to the side of the road and stop, but wait until you’re away from bridges or overpasses, as well as telephone or power poles and lines. Stay in your car. If you’re outside, stay away from trees, power lines, and the sides of buildings.