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 15 years, 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.
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.
Here are the essentials to get acquainted with transit in San Francisco and the surrounding greater Bay Area.
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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.
BART passes through Union Square and the Financial District in San Francisco. It also makes a number of stops in the East Bay in Oakland, Berkeley, and surrounding cities. An extension to San Jose and other stops in the South Bay is being built, set to open some time in 2020. 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 distance or airport travel and consider other methods of transport while within the neighborhoods of San Francisco.
How to Purchase BART Tickets
Visitors can purchase individual ride tickets at self-serve kiosks within each BART station. The kiosks conveniently display the fares between station pairs so you can purchase a ticket of the exact value you need with either cash or a credit card.
BART also accepts 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 Clipper Card for $3 at most Walgreens in the city, some ticket machines, and also at ticket offices in the San Francisco Ferry Building or Embarcadero BART station. Each person in your traveling party needs his or her own card. (For a complete list of locations where you can purchase a card, click here.)
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency controls 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
- Street cars (the F-Market line)
- Cable cars (more on those separately below)
How to Purchase SFMTA/Muni Tickets (& Get Discounts!)
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.
But I actually find that the best way to pay for single rides on SFMTA is with the MuniMobile App. Unlike Clipper where you have to acquire a physical card for $3 (per person!), travelers can simply download the MuniMobile app for free and start using it as soon as a credit card is linked. You can use a single MuniMobile app to manage tickets for everyone in your traveling party, making it a much easier and cheaper option for families. 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 that includes unlimited rides on any Muni vehicle, including cable cars. These passports are much more expensive if you purchase them in paper form, but you can purchase them in the MuniMobile app at discounted prices (or load them to your Clipper Card).
Until February 29, 2020, a 3 day Muni Passport is included in the San Francisco CityPASS which bundles together discounted admission to a number of the area’s top tourist attractions. Definitely give that a look because it can save you a lot of money on your trip overall, both on transport as well as on other admissions.
If you don’t plan to use cable cars, a $5 Day Pass might be the best value, good on all other SFTMA vehicles. This option is only available in the MuniMobile app.
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 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 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 2020. 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 tickets can be purchased as well.
The Bay Area has quite a few destinations that are served by regular ferry service. 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 Main Street, Alameda Harbor Bay, Vallejo, and Larkspur.
How to Purchase Ferry Tickets
All ferries allow you to buy single ride tickets on board with cash or credit card, but you’ll pay a hefty premium this way, at least for adult fares. Ferry rides are substantially discounted with Clipper cards.
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. In addition, most hotels in the city now charge $40-50 and 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 (I can recommend either the Union Square Hertz located in the Westin St. Francis or the Hertz Fisherman’s Wharf, although many other brands are present in these areas too!).
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 of heading towards San Francisco.
While you can wait in longer lines to pay cash to a toll taker at some of these bridges, a lot of tourists take cars over the Golden Gate Bridge, which only uses electronic toll collection. There are no human beings accepting cash or cards at this crossing! 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 in advance (more details here).
Taxis & Ridesharing Services
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.
San Francisco taxis are plentiful in tourist areas but hard to find in the outer reaches of the city. You can now hail a taxi in San Francisco with the FlyWheel app, which can also be used to pay for rides too.
Ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft are now providing serious competition to cabs though. San Francisco is where these services originated, and they are usually cheaper and quicker (although controversy about them still abounds).
For families, however, just beware the car seat problem. 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.
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. 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.
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 have joined this space and quickly died, so beware of outdated information elsewhere on the web. In 2020, 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. Rides start at $2 depending on distance. Helmets are not available, so bring your own because cycling in San Francisco can be a contact sport.
There are also numerous bike rental companies 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. Two of my favorites include Blazing Saddles and San Francisco Bicycle Rentals.
Additional San Francisco Transit Resources
If this alphabet soup of transit choices seems a bit overwhelming, there are a few other resources to help you in real time.
- 511.org: This site covers all things traffic and transit in the greater Bay Area, with real time accident data or transit disruptions. The site recently retired its transit planner tool, so use the transit option in Google Maps now instead to help you find the best route and service to use to get from A to B.
- NextBus: Get real time updates when the next bus is coming to your stop.
Need more information to plan your San Francisco travels? Check out these articles for more:
- 24 Hours in San Francisco: The Perfect 1 Day Itinerary
- 25 Free Things to Do in San Francisco with Kids
- Christmas in San Francisco
- National Parks in the San Francisco Bay Area
- Tips for Navigating SFO Airport