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Getting Around San Francisco: Complete Transit & Transportation Guide

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The city of San Francisco, California is one of the most transit-friendly in the United States, if you know how to use the variety of transportation options available to navigate the famous hills. I’ve lived in the Bay Area for nearly two decades, so it’s fair to say I’ve taken pretty much every option, from cable cars to Muni buses to BART to ferries to ridesharing services. 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.

San Francisco Cable Car Climbing Nob Hill - Chinatown Backdrop

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 the transportation options serve the bulk of the places tourists want to travel quite well. 

Here are the essentials to get acquainted with all the transportation and transit choices in San Francisco and the surrounding greater Bay Area.

San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge

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San Francisco - BART at SFO Airport
BART at the SFO Airport Station.

Bay Area Rapid Transit, known as BART, is the major commuter rail line in the greater Bay Area. It serves both San Francisco Airport (SFO) directly as well as Oakland Airport (OAK) via a recent AirBART extension.

Related: Flying to San Francisco: Complete Guide to Bay Area Airports

BART passes through Union Square and the Financial District in downtown San Francisco where the lines are entirely underground. It also makes a number of stops in the East Bay in Oakland, Berkeley, and surrounding suburbs, where the lines are usually above ground.

In the South Bay, BART goes as far south as North San Jose (via the East Bay route). Additional expansions are planned to serve more of Silicon Valley in San Jose and Santa Clara in the next few years. It’s important to note BART does not serve Marin County at all.

BART is fast and efficient most of the time, but its geographical reach, especially within San Francisco proper, is limited. Use it for longer distances, airport travel, or travel to the East Bay while avoiding bridge traffic. But visitors usually should consider other methods of transport in most neighborhoods within San Francisco proper.

Trips With Tykes Tip: Download the BART app where you can get station information, view timetables, and calculate fares.

How to Purchase BART Tickets

For many years, visitors could purchase individual paper ride tickets at self-serve kiosks within each BART station. As of November 2023, however, paper tickets have been entirely discontinued.

BART has now moved entirely to payment via the Clipper Card, which is a card that holds value that can be used for a wide variety of Bay Area transit services. You can purchase a physical Clipper Card for $3 at most Walgreens in the city, some ticket machines, and also at ticket offices like Bay Crossings in the San Francisco Ferry Building or within the Embarcadero BART station. You can even request one by mail for free if you are planning in advance of a visit to the city. Each person in your traveling party needs his or her own card.

Alternatively, you can set up a digital clipper card in your phone’s wallet using Apple Pay or Google Pay. It takes a matter of a minute or two and you can manage multiple cards on one phone as long as you turn off Express Transit mode (just toggle between each individual card when tapping in at fare gates).

Children ages 5-18 and seniors 65+ are entitled to 50% off discounts on BART. If these discounts apply to you and you plan to use BART enough such that the savings would add up, I recommend applying by mail or bringing proof of age to an in-person location to get a physical Clipper Card. If you just plan to take a couple of BART rides, this is probably not worth the effort though – just use a phone!


San Francisco Transit - N Judah Muni Metro Line
The N Judah Muni Metro Line traveling above ground in San Francisco.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency controls public transit options within the city of San Francisco. The SFMTA runs multiple different transit types, including:

  • Light rail lines (usually referred to simply as “Muni” or the “Muni Metro”) – these run as a subway parallel to BART in downtown San Francisco and then are on the street level in outer neighborhoods.
  • Muni Buses – the most common, covering all neighborhoods of the city. Both regular size buses and double size articulated buses are in use.
  • Cable cars (more on those separately below)
  • Street cars (the F-Market & Wharves line) – historic streetcars that run from the Castro along Market Street to the Ferry building, continuing along the waterfront to Fisherman’s Wharf. Not to be confused with cable cars!
Yellow F Market Streetcar in San Francisco
One of many historic F Market streetcars.

How to Purchase SFMTA/Muni Tickets (& Get Discounts!)

San Francisco Transit - Muni Bus
The most ubiquitous form of transit in San Francisco – a Muni bus.

While you can pay cash with correct $3 change for single rides on any Muni vehicle, there are easier and cheaper ways to ride. The Clipper Card is accepted on all SFMTA transit at a discounted $2.50 fare. If you are planning to ride both Muni and BART during a visit to San Francisco, Clipper is the easiest option.

Another way to pay for single rides on SFMTA (and get the same discount) is with the MuniMobile App. Simply download the MuniMobile app for free and start using it with a credit card or Apple/Google Pay. You can use a single MuniMobile app to manage tickets for everyone in your traveling party as well. Find out more about and download MuniMobile here.

Another money-saving option to consider purchasing is a 1, 3, or 7 day Visitor’s Passport. These passports include unlimited rides on any Muni vehicle, including cable cars. You can purchase them in the MuniMobile app at discounted prices (or load them to your Clipper Card). Monthly passes are also available for longer visits to the city or for residents.

If you don’t plan to use cable cars, a $5 Day Pass might be the best value for a lot of visitors, good on all other SFTMA vehicles. This option is only available in the MuniMobile app or by paying cash at a farebox.

Trips With Tykes Tip: while Muni usually charges fares for children beginning at age 5, a current program called Free Muni for All Youth has made Muni free until June 30, 2024 for all kids ages 18 and under, regardless of residency.

Cable Cars

San Francisco Transit - Cable Cars

A ride on an iconic San Francisco cable car is a must-do for any traveler to San Francisco. There are three lines in the city – the Powell/Mason, the Powell/Hyde, and the California line. The former two lines are the ones that tourists use most, as they connect Union Square to either end of Fisherman’s Wharf. I was lucky enough to live a half block from the Powell/Hyde line for many years (not far from Ghirardelli Square) and it never got old to hear the bell and ride hanging off the side.

If you are planning to use cable cars as regular transportation, let me offer one local’s word of warning. You should not rely on cable cars for timely transit, particularly during the summer, peak Christmas holidays, or weekends when many tourists are in town. Cable cars fill up quickly. 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.

How to Purchase Cable Car Tickets

Cable car rides are pricey as a standalone purchase – $8 per passenger in 2024. Yes, it’s a tourist tax. Cash is accepted on board if you prefer. If you plan to take a roundtrip cable car ride in a single day or ride the cable car on multiple days, it’s definitely cheaper to purchase one of the Muni Visitor Passports on the MuniMobile app instead.


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, Union Square, or Fisherman’s Wharf.

How to Purchase CalTrain Tickets

Like so many other transit systems in the Bay Area, CalTrain accepts the Clipper Card for single rides. Each CalTrain station is also equipped with ticket machines that accept cash and credit cards to purchase single ride tickets. CalTrain also has its own mobile fare app – CalTrain Mobile – where travelers can purchase tickets for immediate activation as well.


San Francisco Bay Ferry

The Bay Area has quite a few destinations that are served by regular ferry service from a couple of different operators. As someone who commuted for years 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. The Sausalito Ferry is also the one to take to make the most direct connection to the official shuttle to visit Muir Woods National Monument.

Ferries are also available to Oakland’s Jack London Square, Alameda Seaplane Lagoon, Alameda Main Street, Alameda Harbor Bay, Vallejo, South San Francisco, Richmond, Larkspur, and several other destinations. On game days, there can also be ferries that serve piers near Oracle Park or the Chase Center.

How to Purchase Ferry Tickets

All ferries allow you to buy single ride tickets on board with cash or credit card, but most riders pay with Clipper cards. Several of the ferry operators also have their own mobile apps as well.


One of the most common questions I get from travelers coming to my hometown (especially families!) is whether to rent a car. My personal take is that 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. Traffic in the greater Bay Area can be a beast at certain times of day too. In addition, most hotels in the city now charge $50 or more 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.

Related: Best Family-Friendly Day Trips Near San Francisco

If you are driving to attractions in the city that don’t have an associated parking deck (or even if they do), I highly recommend using SpotHero to pre-book parking near where you need to be. This can save you a lot of time circling in city traffic for a space, and the app helps you find lots that are less expensive, especially if you are willing to walk an extra block or two. 

Trips with Tykes Tip: If you are driving longer distances in the San Francisco Bay Area, is a very helpful site that covers all things traffic in the greater Bay Area, with real time accident data and information on transit disruptions.

How to Pay for Tolls in Rental Cars

One other thing to think about when it comes to renting a car is tolls. All the bridges in the Bay Area – the Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, the San Mateo Bridge, and the Dumbarton Bridge – charge one. These are one way tolls, usually collected in the direction heading towards San Francisco.

Cash payments are no longer accepted at any of these bridges, so being prepared for electronic toll collection is essential. Most rental car companies will provide you with a FasTrack cashless toll device, usually charging a small daily use surcharge that I think is often worth it. But it is essential to ask about the device and the charges for using it in advance when you rent a car to avoid surprises.

The other option is to pay a one time toll online with your rental car’s license plate number. You can make a payment up to 48 hours after crossing or up to 30 days in advance (more details here). 

Taxis & Ridesharing Services

Cars at Oakland Airport with Ridesharing Pickup sign

Hailing a cab or taking a ridesharing service is often the best way to cover short distances in San Francisco when transit options aren’t particularly convenient. For larger groups, a short cab or Uber or Lyft ride may actually be cheaper than paying public transit fares for everyone in the family. And it often is a whole lot quicker when you are in a rush.

San Francisco taxis are less visible than they used to be but they are still alive and well if you prefer cabs to ridesharing. You can now hail a taxi in San Francisco with several apps, including FlyWheel, YoTaxi SF, and ARRO. You can pay via the app or directly to the driver.

Ridesharing services like Uber, Lyft, and Wingz have provided serious competition to cabs for many years in the city. San Francisco is where these services originated, and they were for a long time much cheaper. The prices have inched up a bit so they may not always be a substantial savings over cab fares.

For a unique San Francisco experience, you can even hail driverless cars on the Waymo app. To be sure, this option is highly controversial but some bolder travelers may want to give the experience a try. (Note: competitor Cruise has been taken off the streets as of late 2023 after a fatal incident.)

Waymo One Autonomous Ride-Hailing Vehicle in San Francisco
Waymo One Autonomous Ride-Hailing Vehicle in San Francisco

For families, however, just beware the car seat problem when it comes to rideshares. California requires children under the age 8 to be in a car seat or booster seat, and drivers can and will refuse rides to families with younger kids who do not provide their own safe child restraints. There is no Uber Car Seat/Uber Family service available anywhere in San Francisco like a few other major cities offer. See my complete guide to taking Lyft and Uber with kids for tons of tips for how my family has navigated the car seat issue in ridesharing vehicles over the years.

Trips with Tykes Tip: Only planning to use rideshare for transportation to and from SFO airport? If you have kids of car seat age, book a ride with Kidmoto! Kidmoto is an airport-only car service with trained drivers that can provide multiple car seats of all types already pre-installed.


Walking San Francisco Hills
Walking down one of San Francisco’s famous hills years ago when we used to live on the top of one!

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. This advice is particularly relevant in the Nob Hill, Russian Hill, and Telegraph Hill areas which are favorites for visitors.

Walking routes that are generally flat include all along the waterfront (from the Ferry Building to Fisherman’s Wharf), within the Financial District, and straight down Market Street from the water to Union Square.


San Francisco BayWheels Lyft Bike Rentals

As a city focused on environmental protection, San Francisco has become more of a bike-friendly city in the last couple of years. Clearly marked bike lanes have popped up in many more locations recently.

A number of companies joined this space and quickly fizzled out, so beware of outdated information elsewhere on the web. In 2024, the predominant bikesharing service is now BayWheels. BayWheels is operated by and runs on the Lyft app. Just look for the little bike icon at the bottom of the app in the center. Most of the bikes offered are e-bikes (which really help on the hills!) but some classic bicycles are available as well.

Rides start at $3.49 to unlock a bike, plus $0.30 per minute of use. Day passes are available as well. Helmets are not available, so bring or purchase your own because cycling in San Francisco can be a contact sport. Bikes are full-size so this isn’t really an option for families until your kids are teenagers and big enough for an adult size bike.

San Francisco Transit Apps - EBike Rental On Lyft
Locating BayWheels bike rentals in the Lyft app in San Francisco

There are also numerous bike rental locations in Fisherman’s Wharf and near the Ferry Building where tourists often rent bikes to ride across the Golden Gate Bridge for an afternoon (well worth it!). These standalone stores will rent helmets for a safe ride. Plus, smaller bike sizes are available. Two of my favorites stores include Blazing Saddles and San Francisco Bicycle Rentals.


San Francisco Transit Apps - Lime and Spin Scooter Rentals
Lime’s interface on the left, and Spin on the right – lots of scooters in central San Francisco!

Another increasingly popular method of transportation around San Francisco is electric scooters. Two companies currently offer powered scooters for instant rental: Lime and Spin. Both operate quite similarly to the BayWheels bike rental option on Lyft but have their own standalone apps.

As with bike rentals, no helmet is available so you have to be quite careful using this option. And individual scooters aren’t really economical for groups. That said, they are an affordable and fun way to cover short distances for solo or couples travelers. My husband recently took one from the Financial District to a Warriors game at Chase Center and raved about how he was able to beat gridlocked traffic.

Trips With Tykes Tip: If you want to give Spin a try, use my code AK9OSFCUITARY6N to get a free ride!

Final Thoughts & Additional San Francisco Resources

Although the alphabet soup of transit and transportation choices in San Francisco can seem a bit overwhelming to the uninitiated, there are a lot of options for rapidly crossing the city and the greater Bay Area. With the city’s tech focus, you can count on transit and transportation apps working quite well to help you navigate efficiently. Download a few before your trip and link them to a payment method and you’ll be able to hit the ground running on your San Francisco vacation.

Need more information to plan your San Francisco travels? Check out these articles for more:

A local's best tips for all things transit and transportation in San Francisco, California. Tips for riding and saving money on BART, Muni, cable cars, rideshares, and more.

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