Any first visit to a major metropolitan area can be fun and stressful at the same time. Visiting San Francisco, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, can be difficult for new visitors but I think it’s still a lot easier than other big cities because it’s relatively small.
I’ve lived in the Bay Area almost all of my life. I live in a suburb that’s about 30 miles east of San Francisco, and we can get to the City, as it’s sometimes called, in about 45 minutes or less by car or subway.
I’m not an expert on all that is happening in San Francisco, but there are some areas I like to regularly visit and events I like to go to every once in awhile. What follows isn’t a comprehensive guide to visiting San Francisco, but are some insider tips on getting around, what to do and what to avoid.
It doesn’t include every tourist attraction in San Francisco. Not that those aren’t worth a visit. I’ve just found the ones listed here are more interesting than driving down a crooked street.
How to get around
To get to San Francisco, and many places in the Bay Area, the easiest method is riding BART. The Bay Area Rapid Transit District is more costly to use than other mass transit systems, and the trains don’t run as often as they do in other cities (Europe), but the seats are comfortable and it’s a lot easier than driving.
The map at left shows how far BART goes. Taking it from San Francisco International Airport to Concord takes 1 hour and 13 minutes. That trip costs $11.30 one way for an adult and $4.20 for a youth or senior.
A roundtrip ticket from the Concord station, near where I live, to the Powell Street station in San Francisco is $11.60 roundtrip for an adult and $4.30 for a youth or senior.
Each rider must have their own ticket. If you’re going to ride BART more than once during your trip, I’d recommend putting as much money as you think you’ll need for your trips on one ticket. The fare will be deducted each time you exit a station. Otherwise, add only enough money to cover a round-trip ticket.
The car hailing service Lyft is also another great way to get around San Francisco if you have a smartphone. There are plenty of Lyft drivers in San Francisco. We’ve run into some who drive there from Sacramento and other far-off cities to work.
San Francisco also has street trolleys and buses, and of course, taxis. It’s a very walkable city, though it’s hilly and some hills can be far too steep to walk up for long.
Ride a cable car
For a fun ride and a way to get around part of San Francisco, take a cable car. There are three cable car lines. The most popular is the Powell-Hyde line that starts at Market and Powell streets next to the Powell Street BART exit. It ends near Ghiradelli Square, a popular spot on the bay with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The transportation agency that runs the cable cars has an excellent tip list on how to ride cable cars — if you’re standing on an outside rail, be sure to watch for passing or approaching traffic.
The Powell-Hyde cable car is great because it gets you between two popular spots. But if you mainly just want to ride a cable car and don’t want to deal with the long lines at the end of the line at Powell and Market streets, then take the cable car on the California Street line.
Get on it at the end of the line on California Street near Market Street. If riding BART, get off at the Embarcadero exit and go upstairs to Market Street. California Street ends less than a block away.
There is rarely a line for the California Street cable car, which runs east-west to Van Ness Avenue. There’s not much on Van Ness Avenue to see, so you may want to turn around and head back on the same cable car.
The California Street cable car crosses both Powell cable car lines at Powell Street on the top of Nob Hill. That’s a good spot to get off the California cable car and transfer to the Powell line, or to get off and visit the nearby hotels to go up to the top for a drink at their bars.
The Fairmont and the Interncontinental Mark Hopkins hotels are across from each other on California Street. Go into the Fairmont’s Tonga Room for happy hour, or to the top of the Mark Hopkins for a great view of the city.
More cable car tips
If you’ve taken the Powell-Hyde cable car to the end of the line at Ghiradelli Square (where you should stop at the chocolate shop and at least get a free sample), you may see a very long line for the return cable car trip on Powell back to Union Square or Market Street and the Powell Street BART station.
Don’t wait in that line. Instead, walk to the Powell-Mason cable car line’s last stop on Taylor Street at Bay Street in Fisherman’s Wharf. The crowds aren’t as light as they are at California Street near the Embarcadero BART station, but they should be quicker than the Ghirdadelli turnaround.
Where is it? See the orange #3 in this online pdf map. The cable car turnaround is three blocks back from Pier 45 on Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s on Taylor Street, just off Bay Street. There are many seafood stands in front of Pier 45, so stop there for a cheap and excellent seafood snack before getting on a cable car.
And if you’re going to ride a cable car more than twice in a day, buy a $17 day pass from a conductor. Otherwise, a single ride on a single cable car is $7. That’s an expensive ride, and worth taking a few times, so you might as well enjoy it as much as you can in a day and buy a pass.
Even transferring to another cable car, such as riding up California Street and changing to the Powell line, requires its own fare of $7. Transfers used to be free.
Walk along the waterfront
From the Ferry Building near the Embarcadero BART station, you can walk or take a trolly along the waterfront to Pier 39 and see the sea lions. Check the live webcam to see how many sea lions and tourists are there. It’s one of my favorite spots to visit, though the crowds can be overwhelming after awhile.
Need a cheap sweatshirt to keep you warm. There are many stores around Pier 39 to buy one.
Pier 39 is a total tourist spot, full of expensive things to do and pricey restaurants. Tour boats of the bay area available, as is a tour of Alcatraz Island. If you want to visit the former prison, buy tickets online a few months in advance. Buying them on the day you want to go can be difficult in person.
Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most beautiful bridges in the world and is worth a visit at least once. I’m in awe of it every time I see it.
I’ve usually driven to the bridge, so I’m not too familiar with how to get there on public transit. Parking is difficult.
Buses go to the bridge from almost anywhere in San Francisco, so check out which buses go there from your location in S.F. Or rent a bike and ride to the bridge.
The south end of the bridge is on the San Francisco side and has some great areas to take photos from. If you’re going to walk across the bridge, be sure to bring a sweatshirt or something warm with you. Even on a sunny and warm day in San Francisco, the bay can be cold and windy. Walking across a bridge over the bay can be a lot colder than even standing to the side of the bridge.
If you’re going to walk across the entire bridge to the north side, be aware that it can be a long and cold walk. Also called Vista Point, the north side offers excellent views but not much else, other than restrooms. The south side has a cafe, restrooms, souvenir shop and interactive things for visitors.
Those are some of the main sights worth seeing in San Francisco. There are many interesting neighborhoods, some of which I admittedly don’t know much about and won’t attempt to detail how to explore them.
I think North Beach and the many great Italian restaurants there are always fun to visit, though some areas can be a little seedy at night. Golden Gate Park is also fun, and Ocean Beach has one of the best sunset views I’ve ever seen.
Those are some of my best tips for getting around San Francisco. I’ll add more gems as I think of them or after more visits there.