The city of San Francisco is one of the most transit-friendly in the United States, if you know how to use the variety of services available to navigate the infamous hills. Get a local’s perspective on the best transportation choices in the City by the Bay, covering everything from cable cars to ferries to ride-sharing services.
Planes, trains, and automobiles? That’s only a start in San Francisco, where transportation and transit choices for visitors to the city include cable cars, ferries, classic street cars, buses, bike sharing, and even the occasional Segway. These ways to get around San Francisco are as unique as the city itself, embodying all of the City by the Bay’s history and eccentricities.
If you are planning a visit to San Francisco, it is important to study up a bit on your transit options to make the most of your time. The combination of multiple systems can take a little time to learn, but transit that serves the bulk of the places tourists want to go is quite good (speaking from experience, it is a little more frustrating for locals, I’m afraid!).
Here are the essentials for getting acquainted with transit in San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area.
Bay Area Rapid Transit, known as BART, is the major commuter rail line in the greater Bay Area. It serves both San Francisco Airport directly and Oakland Airport via a recent AirBART extension. It passes through Union Square and the Financial District in San Francisco, as well as a number of stops in the East Bay in Oakland, Berkeley, and surrounding cities. BART is fast and efficient most of the time, but its geographical reach is limited. Use it for longer distance travel and consider other methods of transport while within the neighborhoods of San Francisco.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency controls transit options within the city of San Francisco. The SFMTA has its own light rail lines (usually referred to simply as “Muni”), an extensive network of buses (“Muni buses”), cable cars, and street cars (the F-Market line). For visitors who might use a variety of these methods daily, consider purchasing a 1, 3, or 7 day Visitor’s Passport that includes unlimited rides on any Muni vehicle. These passports can be purchased at most Walgreens locations in the city or at kiosks along the BART/Muni lines at Powell or Embarcadero stations.
If you are planning to use cable cars as regular transportation, let me offer one word of warning. You should not rely on cable cars for timely transit, particularly during the summer when many tourists are in town. Cable cars fill up quickly and you may have to wait for multiple ones to pass until there is room for you to climb aboard. Visitors to San Francisco should absolutely make time for a cable car ride, but consider it an attraction rather than a real transit choice.
CalTrain, another commuter rail service, is an excellent way to access destinations in the Peninsula and South Bay (Silicon Valley, San Jose, etc.), where BART service ends. The main CalTrain station in San Francisco is near the Giants ballpark, so it isn’t particularly convenient for tourists or business travelers who might be centered around the Financial District or Union Square.
The Bay Area has quite a few destinations that are served by regular ferry service. As someone who commutes by ferry daily, I can highly recommend ferries as a more dignified way to travel. The most commonly used ferry for tourists is the Sausalito Ferry operated by Golden Gate Transit. If you rent a bike to take a trip over the Golden Gate Bridge, the Sausalito Ferry is perfect for the return trip to the San Francisco Ferry Building.
Ferries are also available to Oakland’s Jack London Square, Alameda Main Street, Alameda Harbor Bay, Vallejo, and Larkspur.
Visitors to San Francisco should seriously consider forgoing a car. Driving within the city on the big hills can be a bit scary for the uninitiated and parking is quite hard to come by. In addition, most hotels charge $30-40 a night just for parking.
If you are planning a day trip out of the city that would require a car, your best bet is to rent a car for the day near your hotel. There are numerous car rental locations near the major tourist centers in Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf.
Taxis & Ride-Sharing Services
San Francisco taxis are plentiful in tourist areas but hard to find in the outer reaches of the city. Ride-sharing services like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar are now providing serious competition to cabs and may be cheaper and quicker (although perhaps somewhat controversial). Hailing a cab or taking a ride-sharing service is often the best way to cover short distances when transit options aren’t particularly convenient. For larger groups, a short cab ride may actually be cheaper than paying public transit fares for everyone in the family.
San Francisco is a small city and you may be tempted to walk after a quick glance at a map. What the maps don’t show, however, is the huge hills that may stand in your way. Walking is a great way to see the city and I highly recommend it, but plan your routes carefully, particularly in the Nob Hill, Russian Hill, and Telegraph Hill areas which are favorites for visitors.
As a city focused on environmental protection, San Francisco is becoming more of a bike-friendly city. Clearly marked bike lanes have popped up in more locations in recent years. The city now has a bike sharing service, Bay Area Bike Share, with locations in and around the Financial District and Union Square. Visitors to the city can purchase a 24 hour or 3 day membership. There are also numerous bike rental companies in Fishermans Wharf and near the Ferry Building where tourists often rent bikes to ride across the Golden Gate Bridge for an afternoon (well worth it!)
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