Planning a trip to San Francisco? The City by the Bay is one of the most transportation-friendly destinations in the country! From cable cars to street cars to electric trains, here’s a guide to public transportation in San Francisco.
While most major cities in the United States offer some kind of public transit system, San Francisco has hands down one of the best! An intricate network of trains, buses, street cars, bikes and those world-famous cable cars will get you almost anywhere you want to go in the Bay Area. And that’s not even mentioning taxis, ride share services, and your own two feet!
My son and I recently spent a week in San Francisco, and even though we had a car (we drove up from Southern California), getting around the city was much more convenient leaving it parked in the hotel’s garage. We walked or took public transportation everywhere. Besides, parking is expensive! While it cost upwards of $60 a night to valet park at the hotel, there would have been additional parking fees to drive it across town and have park it another lot. Much easier and cheaper just to take the bus (or trolley or train or Uber).
If you can get away without having a car at all, that is your best bet! If you must drive a car into the city, park it and get familiar with San Francisco’s transportation options. Here’s a guide to help you figure it all out.
San Francisco is a relatively small city and walking is a wonderful way to get around, but keep in mind the streets are hilly and maps can be deceiving. If you use an app to get directions, it may look like a short distance from one place to another, but your phone won’t tell you if it’s straight up a hill. And if you are pushing a stroller or traveling with little kids, that’s going to suck!
Walking is easy and pleasant if you are staying along the waterfront areas, but once you move inland there can be some very steep inclines. When combined with cable car rides, however, walking is the best way to get around the city, and the most economical too! Just know your routes before you hit the pavement to avoid any surprises.
Bay Area Rapid Transit – or BART – is the major train line in the San Francisco Bay Area, most commonly used by commuters traveling into the city for work. If you are flying in, BART serves both the San Francisco International Airport directly and Oakland Airport via an easy AirBART extension. It is fast, efficient and cheap; definitely the most cost-effective way to get from either airport into the city (unless you are traveling with three or more people; then it may pay to grab a cab).
However, BART only has a handful of stops in San Francisco itself, so once you are in the city, other methods will get you around much more effectively. The main stop in downtown San Francisco is right in Union Square. From there, the Muni system is the way to go!
Taking the bus across town? Hopping on a cable car? Riding a historic streetcar down the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf? You’re using the Muni.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), or Muni, is San Francisco’s main public transit system. It includes buses, light rail trains, and the city’s famous cable cars and F-line streetcars. On our recent trip to San Francisco, we stayed at the Hyatt Regency in the Financial District, so it was super convenient to take the F-line from our hotel to Pier 39 and the other touristy areas.
To find all Muni routes, maps and time tables, there are a number of smartphone apps.
If you’re planning to be in San Francisco for a few days, consider purchasing a Muni Passport. It is good on all the muni buses, trains, street cars, and cable cars. They’re available as 1, 3, or 7 day passes. These passes really helpful and convenient, especially as most buses and streetcars require exact change when you board.
Think of cable cars as more of an attraction than a mode of transportation. They are obviously a must-do when visiting San Francisco, and they’ll definitely get you from Point A to Point B. But they fill up fast and waits can be long – not to mention they are expensive! (Currently $7 per ride if you don’t have a pass.)
Cable cars run on three lines in San Francisco: Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason, and California Street. Two cable car lines can be boarded at the intersection of Powell Street and Market Street near Union Square. Kids will also enjoy watching the cars be turned around here!
The California Street line goes from the Embarcadero near the Ferry Building, past Chinatown, and downtown to Van Ness Avenue past Nob Hill. It crosses paths with the other cable car lines, so you can hop off and change cars if necessary to get to your destination.
The most scenic ride is on the Powell-Hyde line, as you get the classic San Francisco Bay views at the top of the hills.
My son loved riding the cable cars and I really wish we’d had time to do it more. There are not many places where they’ll let you still stand on the running boards, hang on to the pole and lean out over the street while the car is moving.
Taking the ferry is not only a very convenient way to travel between San Francisco, Oakland and Sausalito, it is a very scenic one too. And it costs way less that going on a boat tour!
The San Francisco Bay Area has a number of destinations served by regular ferry service. Most ferries leave from the Ferry Building Terminal on the Embarcadero or Fisherman’s Wharf, both of which are near where you’ll likely be spending time as a visitor.
The Blue & Gold Fleet departs from Fisherman’s Wharf and travels across SF Bay. The Golden Gate Ferry operates several routes; the ferries travel between San Francisco and Larkspur, Tiburon and Sausalito.
One of the most commonly used transbay ferry routes is the Sausalito Ferry. If you rent a bike or take a bike tour through Golden Gate Park and over the Golden Gate Bridge – which is what my son and I did – the Sausalito Ferry is perfect for the return trip to San Francisco.
If you’re planning a trip to Angel Island or Alcatraz, those ferries depart from Pier 41, which is also near Fisherman’s Wharf.
Like BART, Caltrain is a commuter train service that provides transportation to cities on the peninsula south of San Francisco. Cities served by Caltrain include San Jose, Palo Alto, Redwood City and Millbrae, among many others. The trains are double deckers, which kids will love! We took CalTrain from Menlo Park to the city and it was a very comfortable ride.
The end of the line is right across from Oracle Park, making it very convenient if you are traveling into San Francisco for a ball game.
Taxis & Ride-Sharing Services
Like most big cities nowadays, Uber and Lyft rides are readily available, and often cost less than taking a cab. If you’re traveling with your family, it’s probably even less expensive than taking public transportation, as you won’t have to buy individual tickets for each person. The ride costs the same whether you are one person or a group of four.
While taxis might be abundant and readily available (no wait!), when you step outside your hotel or the airport, you won’t have much luck just hailing one in less populous areas. So that is when being able to order up a ride on your app makes the most sense. It also makes it easy to get from one attraction to another in San Francisco without having to navigate public transportation or look for a parking garage if you drive your own car.
Don’t the hills freak you out. San Francisco is a very bikeable city!
In fact, over the last several years, biking has become more and more popular. There is a mostly flat bike lane that hugs the shore from the Embarcadero to the Golden Gate Bridge, and many streets now have bike lanes. Bike share services have also sprung up around the Bay Area, making biking even more accessible and popular. You’ll find stations all over the city.
Bay Wheels offers affordable, accessible, and fun transportation option for everyone. It is powered by Lyft and even uses the app to help you locate bikes. Best of all, you can link your Clipper card to unlock and pay for the bike, 24 hours a day!
There are also numerous bike rental shops around Ghirardelli Square, Fisherman’s Wharf and the Ferry Building, where you can rent bikes by the hour or by the day, or sign up to take a tour. We took a tour with Unlimited Biking, which is located at Ghirardelli Square. The tour includes lots of stops and photo ops, and it made such a difference to have a knowledgeable guide along for the ride to point out landmarks and share some interesting facts.
If you are not sure you can handle the bike ride, have no fear! Bikes with an electric assist for going uphill are available for just a small extra surcharge.
Get a Clipper Card
The very best part about almost all these transportation options in San Francisco is that they can be paid for the same way.
Clipper is the all-in-one transit card for the Bay Area. It can be used on all major Bay Area transit systems, including BART, Muni, Caltrain, the San Francisco Bay Ferry and many others in Northern California. Clipper offers discount cards for youth, seniors and people with disabilities.
To use a Clipper Card on board, simply hold it up to the scanner that’s typically to the right of both the train’s or bus’s front and back doors, and it will automatically deduct your fare. All BART stations have Clipper vending machines and ticket vending machines.
How to Save Money in San Francisco
Save money on a visit to San Francisco by buying a San Francisco CityPASS. The CityPASS includes a Muni Passport to help you get around the city.
Gwen Kleist is an award-winning writer based in Southern California. She is the mother of one very active son who shares her love of travel and adventure. She writes about their adventures and more on her family travel website, CaliforniaFamilyTravel.com. Her articles have appeared in San Diego Family Magazine, Sunset Magazine, Cat Fancy, Huntington Beach Magazine, and she was a contributing author to Explorer Publishing’s guidebook, Los Angeles: The Complete Resident’s Guide.