November 16, 2015
Who doesn’t love San Francisco? This sun and fog-blessed city on the tip of a peninsula looks amazing from a distance and even better up close. But its 43 hills and patchwork of overlapping neighbourhoods can feel overwhelming for the first time visitor, who just wants to pack as much as possible into their vacation time. We break down the basics so you can hit the ground running…
At first glance San Francisco’s public transport system might seem a bit complicated, so it pays to look at a map and do a bit of reading before you leave, especially if you’re only in town for a few days. On the other hand, remember the City by the Bay is surrounded by water on three sides and not remotely sprawling, so it’s eminently walkable if you don’t mind the hills. If you’ve got the luxury of time, we recommend going by foot wherever you can. You’ll get an inside feel for the city that you’d otherwise miss. That said, it pays to know what’s what, and two four-letter acronyms are all you need to know: MUNI and BART.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (better known as MUNI) operates the city’s buses, historic streetcars and cable cars, and light rail. Standard adult fare is $2.25, you’ll need exact change and the ticket is good for 90 minutes. The network will get you almost anywhere in the city you could possibly need to go, but there are a few routes worth mentioning which cover some of the major tourist hotspots:
The F-Line streetcar: Running the length of Market and Embarcadero between the Castro district and Fisherman’s Wharf, this historic streetcar passes through downtown San Francisco and the Financial District before reaching the Ferry Building and heading northwest to the wharves.
Powell/Hyde Street and Powell/Mason Street cable cars: From the turnaround spot at Powell and Market streets in downtown San Francisco, both cable cars follow slightly different routes to get you over the lofty heights of Nob Hill and down to the waterfront. The Powell/Hyde line is the least direct (and most enjoyable); the Powell/Mason is quicker, but not quite as scenic. However, they’re both noisy, crowded and exceptionally good fun, whether you’re tucked away inside, lucky enough to get an open-air seat, or standing up and clinging on for dear life.
California Street cable car: This less-touristy route travels from the end of Market Street to Van Ness Avenue, passing though Chinatown and Nob Hill.
Cable cars are priced differently to other MUNI services. A single ride costs $7 per person and you don’t need exact change, but many visitors pay for them (and other MUNI journeys) with a MUNI Passport, which are valid for a given number of days and allow unlimited rides on all MUNI transport.
Bay Area Rapid Transit, otherwise known as BART, is a fast rail network connecting San Francisco (from its starting point south of the airport) to points in Downtown, and across to the cities of the East Bay, including Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond and Fremont. Visitors are most likely to use BART to get to and from the airport: the journey takes around 30 minutes one-way, and trains run every 15 minutes. A single ride costs $8.65 and trains arrive and depart from the BART station inside SFO’s International Terminal.
San Francisco’s ferries travel between the city and points in Marin County or islands in the bay. From the Ferry Building, Golden Gate Ferry Service operates a route to downtown Sausalito and another (mainly commuter) route to Larkspur, plus a special service for Giants games. Blue and Gold Fleet run services from Pier 41 to Sausalito, Angel Island, Tiburon, Harbor Bay and other popular destinations, as well as cruise adventures and excursions to Alcatraz.
San Francisco is a pretty easy city to get to grips with – think of it as a thumb surrounded by water and you’re halfway there. But even within that tiny ‘thumbnail’ are multiple diverse neighbourhoods too rich and numerous to be understood – or even visited – in just a few short days. And how do you know which ones will capture your imagination the most?
It’s touristy, yes, but we recommend hopping on an open-top bus tour if you want to get a quick perspective on the city before making deeper explorations into the parts that catch your eye. Departing mostly from Union Square or Fisherman’s Wharf, these excursions follow a number of different routes (which can be purchased separately or on combined tickets) and offer a top-line sketch of the city for first timers.
Downtown routes tend to cover Union Square, Chinatown, Telegraph Hill, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, the Financial District and Fisherman’s Wharf. Some companies have separate loops that peel off to Golden Gate Park and the beachside neighbourhoods, travelling back downtown via Haight-Ashbury, Alamo Square and Hayes Valley. Other companies have night tours that travel over the Bay Bridge to Treasure Island, for exceptional skyline views of the city.
A fourth option is an extended loop that travels over Golden Gate Bridge, stopping for photographs at the viewpoint at the northern end before swinging down into Sausalito; the popular Marin County waterfront town with million dollar views and real estate to match. Before committing to this extension, it’s worth considering your other arrangements. If you’ve already made plans to see the bridge by other means – by walking or biking over it, or even by cruising underneath it – then you could easily skip this section if you’re short on time. Many people opt to cycle over the bridge and down into Sausalito, then get the ferry back with their bikes, or you could simply take the ferry both ways, which would also give you views of the bridge, though from much further away.
Some of the best San Francisco experiences are already listed above – simply riding a cable car or seeing the Golden Gate Bridge via foot, bike, bus or boat are unforgettable in their own right. But this city is home to umpteen equally compelling attractions, so here’s five favourites we reckon no first-timer should miss, with some tips for making the best of them.
Visit the San Francisco Travel Association for more information, maps and tours.
Virgin Atlantic operates daily flights to San Francisco from London Heathrow.