If you’re staying in an urban area (SF, Berkeley, Oakland) don’t rent a car while you’re here. If you’re staying in outlying areas, you might use a car to get to and park at a BART station, but parking and traffic in SF is a headache you don’t need.
1. Get a Clipper card, a debit farecard that works on almost all transit systems in the Bay Area. Ideally, order one onlineto be mailed to you (takes 5-7 business days), and you can immediately set up Autoload, which reloads your card from a credit card or bank account so you can “set and forget”. Unused value never expires (though you cannot get it back as cash). If you don’t have 5-7 days of lead time, you can buy this card at Walgreens drugstores anywhere in the Bay Area, or at the Muni vending machines in the underground stations at Embarcadero, Montgomery, Powell or Civic Center. Unfortunately you can’t yet buy them at the airports. Once you have the card, put some money on it at any Add Value machine in the underground stations or at any Walgreens. Both methods let you use credit cards or cash. When your trip is over, keep the card for your next visit. (You’ll surely want to come back.)
Various separate agencies run Bay Area transit, but the Clipper card works on all of them. BART runs fast trains that connect San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and the outlying suburbs. Muni runs the buses, trolleys, and “Metro” streetcar/subways in SF. Other agencies run buses in other counties. Caltrain runs a commuter rail system from downtown SF (station is adjacent to AT&T Park, the baseball stadium) to San Jose which stops all along the Peninsula.
2. If you have a smart phone (iPhone, Android, …) bookmark NextBus.com, which provides real-time bus arrivals for most Bay Area agencies based on transceivers mounted in the buses. It uses GPS to detect where you are and give you departures of nearby buses, or you can select a specific route, stop and direction. You also may want the Embark iBART app, which has both schedule info and real-time arrivals for BART trains.
3. Use Google Maps (or the built-in Maps app on the iPhone) to get public transit directions between any two points. The route and connection info is accurate, but the specific connection times often aren’t because buses may be delayed during peak hours, etc. The ideal app would combine the directions from Google Maps with bus departure times from NextBus, but as far as I know that app doesn’t exist yet.
4. Become a member of Zipcar or CityCarShare, both of which have rent-by-the-hour stations all over the Bay Area. If you’re already a member, everything should just work. Zipcar has way more vehicles and pickup spots.
Tips on seeing specific things:
San Francisco City Guides runs dozens of free walking tours, organized both by neighborhood (Chinatown, the Castro, etc.) and by theme (early SF gold rush/maritime history, Chinese history, gay history, etc.) Nearly all tours are easily accessible by public transit. Tip your guide if you enjoyed the tour.
If you decide to strike out on your own, here’s a few suggestions…
The best way to see the Golden Gate Bridge is to bike across, and take the ferry back from Sausalito or Tiburon. Bike rentals are available next to the Hyatt Embarcadero Center hotel at the Embarcadero BART station and various locations along the Embarcadero between the Ferry Building and Fishermans Wharf. The rentals include helmets, locks, and excellent maps. If you don’t want to bike the bridge, the next best way to see it is to get to the bridge plaza on Golden Gate Transit bus10 or 70, which is a lot faster than getting there on Muni since the GG Transit buses make very few stops in SF.
The Ferry Building (just outside Embaracadero BART station) was beautifully restored in the early 2000s and now hosts an urban-agriculture farmers market several days/evenings a week, at which all products must originate within 150 miles of the building. It is well worth a visit. Ferries do still sail from here; if the weather is nice, you can joyride the Alameda-Oakland Ferry, which makes a stop at Oakland Jack London Square and another in Alameda before returning to the Ferry Building (whole trip takes about an hour and you get great views of the Bay Bridge and the lay of the land). A nice “triangle schlep route” is to take the ferry from the Ferry Building to Alameda/Oakland, end up at Pier 39, walk over to Ghirardelli Square and cable-car back downtown from there.
The Castro is famous for being the gay epicenter of SF, but it’s also just a terrifically vibrant neighborhood with some of the best-preserved examples of Victorian architecture, with many houses dating to before the turn of the 20th century. Get there by taking Muni Metro lines J, K, L, M.
SF has the US’s largest Chinatown, highlights of which include Waverly Place (Tin How temple dates back to Gold Rush days), Ross Alley (home of the tiny Golden Gate Fortune Cookie factory, where you can see them being handmade and eat them right off the production line), and the Vital Tea tasting room (sample a huge variety of traditional teas that will change your idea of what tea is). Here’s Armando’s self-guided walking tour of Chinatown.
Haight/Ashbury was the epicenter of the 1969 “Summer of Love” and still a neighborhood whose beatnik/hippie roots are very prominent. Get there by taking Muni bus #6 from downtown/Market Street.
Some of the best views of the city (in the late morning/early afternoon, before the fog rolls in) can be had from Diamond Heights/Twin Peaks and Lands End/the Cliff House out on the beach.
Have an outdoor lunch on nice day at The Ramp (about a mile south of AT&T Park) or Gordon Biersch (on the Embarcadero, under the Bay Bridge).
Locals tend to steer clear of Fishermans’ Wharf, but it does have those fascinating sea lions, and other things in its general vicinity are worth visiting, like the Musée Mécanique containing hundreds of really old (some from early 1900s) mechanical amusement devices, the USS Pampanito submarine, Fort Mason Park, the Maritime Museum, the recently-restored Crissy Field, and the Municipal Pier. Traffic is awful around there, so either bike there from the bike rental at Embarcadero, walk there from the Embarcadero BART (~20 minutes), or take the F-Market aboveground streetcar from in front of the Ferry Building.
There’s a fascinating collection of restored old ships and interpretive outdoor exhibits of SF’s maritime history at the Hyde Street Pier (just beyond Fishermans Wharf along the Embarcadero). You can also get there on Muni bus 19-Polk or 45-Stockton. Nearby is the lovely curving Municipal Pier (at the foot of Fort Mason Park, which has excellent views of the Golden Gate and Alcatraz). A further hike along the length of Crissy Field will take you right to the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge south anchorage and historic Fort Point, now open to the public, a fort/lookout that guarded the Golden Gate before invaders were able to drive into San Francisco over the bridge.
The cable car museum is the fully-operational facility that powers SF’s famous cable cars, and has fascinating explanations on how they work. Allow an hour. Free. You can board the actual cable cars at Powell St. and Market St. (just outside the BART station) or at the other end at Ghirardelli Square or near Columbus Ave in North Beach. The California St. cable car (board at California & Market) is less crowded, but doesn’t go anywhere as interesting.
Outside of SF, Berkeley is well worth a visit, for both the campus and the vaguely funky Telegraph Avenue area just south of the campus’s Sather Gate. The best way to get there is to take BART to Downtown Berkeley station. Just a block from the station, at 2030 Addison Street, is the Visit Berkeley tourist information center, where you can learn about Berkeley’s unique role in popular culture, the Free Speech Movement and the 60s counterculture, and more. You can also get free tours of the lovely UC Berkeley campus (disclosure: that’s where I work).
The best way to visit Golden Gate Park is Muni Metro N-Judah from downtown (runs along southern edge of park) or 44-O’Shaughnessy bus from our neighborhood (stops next to the Citibank right across from BART).
Dolores Park/Mission Dolores is the oldest original construction still standing in SF. You can reach it via Muni Metro J-Church or walking a few blocks from the 16th St./Mission BART station.
Day trips/2-day trips
Some of these require a car.
Santa Cruz Mountain wineries: The Santa Cruz/Monterey growing region produces lovely chardonnays and pinots (vs. the zins, merlots and cabs for which Napa/Sonoma/Mendocino are more known). And there are many more mom-and-pop operations that are more intimate and casual. From SF, allow about 1.5 hours drive along the fast route (I-280 to CA-17 or CA-84) or 2 hours along the scenic route (CA-1 or CA-35 along the ridge). We have maps of the region showing various wineries.
Santa Cruz: Hippie/surfer town, amusement pier, and great fish restaurants. Can be a lunch stop on the way to Monterey if you drive that route. Right next door to achingly cute Capitola.
Monterey/Carmel: Its Cannery Row/Fishermans Wharf are no doubt touristy, but still lovely for oceanside dining when weather permits. The Aquarium is world class and includes indoor and outdoor exhibits emphasizing local fauna but with a good selection of exotics too. Expensive to stay here. 2 hour drive by the fast route, 2.5 to 3 by the scenic (coastal) route. Carmel is another ~30 minutes beyond that, and equally cute, though there is less to do; but plenty of good dinner options.
Big Sur: Car needed; extremely remote by any standard. San Simeon/Hearst Castle is nearby but I personally find it less compelling than the amazing coastal scenery. Allow at least 2.5 hours driving each way, plus sightseeing time.
Sausalito/Tiburon: No car required! Take the ferry there from the Ferry Building or Pier 39 (ask at the Ferry Building for maps/timetables), or if adventurous, rent bicycles next to the Ferry Building, bike across the Golden Gate Bridge, and take the ferry back with your bike. A nice lunch/brunch stop, and if you have time, visit the fascinating SF Bay Model, constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate whether landfilling the entire Bay would be a good idea (no). ~20 minute ferry ride from downtown SF.
Golden Gate Bridge: The car parking plazas can be a pain, but the true experience of the bridge is obtained by walking or biking across it, which means you either park at one end or bike there (or you can Uber, or take the Golden Gate Transit bus, which is a lot faster than Muni’s local buses).
Yosemite: A bit ambitious for a day trip; 4.5 hours each way to the valley. Ask us for recommendations of where to stay outside the park (it can be tricky to get campground space inside the park in high season; there’s a couple of lodges including the beautiful and expensive California-Arts-and-Crafts Ahwahnee, on which Disney’s Grand Californian hotel is based, but they also fill up fast.)