San Francisco Transportation
San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is the 10th busiest airport in America. If you have an hour or longer layover, art galleries between each terminal are worth visiting, along with the architecturally bold International Terminal. Like every top airport, SFO features a robust arsenal of restaurants, cafes, lounges, coffeehouses, gift shops, wifi, business service amenities and nearby hotels. Navigating the circular 4-terminal airport is easy using this SFO TERMINAL MAP.
AirTrain is a free automated people mover that circulates just outside all terminals and stops at BART SFO Transit Station and SFO Car Rental Center. Travelers commuting to San Francisco or Oakland should exit AirTrain at BART SFO Station, then walk down one level to catch the BART Dublin-Pleasanton Train. Travelers commuting southbound should pay $4 to ride a different BART SFO Station train to BART-Caltrain Millbrae Station. Upon arrival at Millbrae Station, locate the vending machine and purchase a Caltrain ticket headed to a southbound destination on San Francisco Peninsula.
At SFO Airport, hail a taxi at the lower level of terminals in the middle island. Super Shuttle (415-558-8500) travels all over the San Francisco Bay Area. For Car Rentals, follow signage from your arrival terminal to AirTrain Station. When AirTrain arrives at SFO Car Rental Center, you will notice Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz, National and Thrifty brands.
Located 1 block from BART and Muni Metro transit systems and 3 blocks from the Ferry Building, Amtrak shuttle bus runs from San Francisco’s temporary South of Market Transbay Terminal across the bay to Oakland Amtrak Station at 245 2nd Street in Jack London Square. From there you can board these Amtrak routes:
Capitol Corridor: Auburn-Sacramento-Emeryville-Oakland-San Jose
San Joaquin: Oakland-Emeryville-Stockton-Merced-Fresno-Bakersfield
Coast Starlight: Los Angeles-Oakland-Sacramento-Portland-Seattle
California Zephyr: Chicago-Omaha-Denver-Sacramento-Emeryville
Capitol Corridor runs 15 times each way, daily. San Joaquin runs 5 times each way, daily. Coast Starlight and California Zephyr are long distance trains that run once each way, daily. With advance reservation, Amtrak provides wheelchair lift assist for all trains. All trains feature a cafe car, quiet car, bike space and wifi. Long distance trains include a reservations-only dining car with wait-staff.
In late 2017, the magnificent Transbay Transit Center opens in downtown San Francisco that will interconnect rapid buses, regional buses, tour buses, Greyhound, Megabus, Amtrak shuttles and taxis. By 2029, California High Speed Rail will interconnect San Francisco, San Jose, Fresno, Bakersfield, Palmdale, Los Angeles and Anaheim.
Opened in 1972, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) has expanded to a 109-mile, 46-station heavy rail Metro system. Since it only runs underground, under San Francisco Bay, and on aerial track, BART trains are never disrupted by auto traffic. Its electrified 3rd rail provides enough juice for trains to reach 80 mph during the 7 mile dash under San Francisco Bay. BART transports 435,000 weekday commuters in 4 to 10-cabin trains over 5 to 15-minute intervals, depending on commute hour. Its four downtown San Francisco stations get crowded during commute hours.
Bicycles are permitted on BART during the mid-day, night hours and weekends. Since station floors are even with train floors and each station has elevators, BART is wheelchair accessible. BART LED displays and audible messaging tell you when the next train arrives. BART SYSTEM MAP uses endpoint line names and illustrates that four of five BART lines pass through San Francisco:
Warm Springs-Daly City
Warm Springs-Richmond (does not go to San Francisco)
If you are familiar with Metro system ticket dispensers in NYC, LA, Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Atlanta or Miami, you’ll easily grasp the same approach for BART ticket dispensers. Otherwise, you’ll spend a couple minutes figuring it out with cash, debit card or credit card. Fares are distance-based. Since BART commuters may travel up to 40 miles in one direction, the highest one-way fares reach $8. Better yet, purchase a discounted Clipper Card to interchangeably travel on all transit modes in the San Francisco Bay Area. BART hours of operation are:
Transfer underground from BART to Muni Metro at any of four (Embarcadero, Montgomery, Powell, Civic Center) downtown BART-Muni Metro stations. Transfer from BART to ferries by deboarding at Embarcadero Station, then walk 2 blocks east to the Ferry Building.
Think you’ll feel queasy riding BART 7 miles under the San Francisco Bay? History suggests there is little reason to worry. When the 1989 Earthquake disabled San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, the well-engineered BART system continued running. Like other aging Metro systems however, it can be delayed by occasional mechanical/electrical failures. To the relief of commuters, BART is currently upgrading electrical systems, replacing worn track and replacing old trains in the 2017-18 timeframe.
Caltrain commuter rail has a spartan 4th & King Station near AT&T Baseball Park, but 1.3 miles south of downtown. Service runs every 20 minutes during commute hours in its 47-mile journey down the San Francisco Peninsula. Caltrain has overhead passenger luggage racks and runs up to 79 mph between San Francisco and San Jose. It also has a few limited-stop express trains during commute hours. When you look at this CALTRAIN SYSTEM MAP, consider that Millbrae, Burlingame, San Mateo, Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara and San Jose Diridon are popular stations with nearby amenities and/or major transit connections.
Millbrae Station allows Caltrain commuters to transfer to a BART train that goes to SFO Airport for $4. You can also transfer (with a different pre-paid ticket) to Amtrak trains at Santa Clara and San Jose Diridon Stations.
By 2020, Caltrain will transition from diesel-power to electric-power and safer road crossings for faster acceleration & braking, fewer auto-on-track delays and more frequent trains. Sometime between 2023-26, a 1.3-mile tunnel from 4th & King Station to Transbay Transit Center is expected to open. The new tunnel will save Caltrain commuters a half hour each way reaching and leaving downtown San Francisco.
San Francisco Municipal Railway, locally called Muni Metro, is America’s 3rd busiest light rail Metro system. It started as a streetcar system in the 1890s with most surface track shared with automobiles. In 1980, larger capacity light rail trains replaced streetcars and a new tunnel under Market Street connected with two old streetcar tunnels. In 2007, a light rail line in dedicated lanes was added. When riding Muni Metro, you see and experience its evolution to a 52-mile streetcar-light rail system. MUNI METRO SYSTEM MAP indicates six Muni Metro lines that run from 5a-12p Sunday-Thursday and until 1a on Friday-Saturday:
J Church: Balboa Park-City College-Castro District-Market-Embarcadero
K Ingleside: Balboa Park-Church Street-Castro District-Market-Embarcadero
L Taraval: SF Zoo-West Portal-Van Ness-Market-Embarcadero
M Ocean View: San Jose-Geneva-Stonestown-Market-Embarcadero
N Judah: Ocean Beach-Judah-UCSF-Market-Embarcadero-4th & King
T Third Street: Castro-Market-Embarcadero-4th & King-Mission Bay-3rd St-Sunnydale
Automatic ticket dispensers are on each underground station and surface station platform. If you board from a surface station, remember that you must be prepared to present a ticket when asked by Muni attendants who check trains.
All Muni Metro lines run underground through Market Street Tunnel and share four modern stations (Embarcadero, Montgomery, Powell, Civic Center) with BART, though Muni Metro tracks are one level above BART. Depending on their route, Muni Metro lines use 2 to 5 additional underground stations (Van Ness, Church, Castro, Forest Hill, West Portal). Only N and T lines surface on The Embarcadero southbound to AT&T Baseball Park and Caltrain 4th & King Station. From 4th & King Station, T line continues southbound in Third Street corridor.
When Muni Metro trains run through tunnels, top speed can reach 50 mph. When it runs on the T Line, via transit-only surface lanes and stops every 4-5 blocks, speed averages a respectable 18-20 mph. When N, M, L, K, J lines emerge on the surface, they often share streetcar lanes with autos and stop every 1-2 blocks for an agonizingly slow 10 mph average speed. Due to so much shortly spaced stops on surface streets, their lines have been limited to 1- or 2-cabin trains that overcrowd during commute hours and suffer frequent delays. Muni Metro is also derided for too many equipment failures and lack of rapid transit to enough corridors.
In Muni Metro’s evolution more light rail over 2017-20, several shortcomings are being addressed. Transit-only lanes increase, old trains are replaced to reduce breakdowns, distances between stops increase to 2-4 blocks, and the busy M and L lines receive longer 3-cabin trains. As the newest Muni Metro route, T line is already capable of 5-minute train frequency and 3-cabin trains, but is currently constrained to lower frequency and shorter trains. In 2019, Central Subway will enable T line to re-route from Caltrain 4th & King Station to underground stations at Moscone Convention Center, Market Street/Union Square and Chinatown, while supporting 3-cabin trains and 5-minute train frequency. Passengers from other Muni Metro lines and BART will conveniently transfer to the T line at Market Street/Union Square Station for shorter travels to Chase Center basketball arena and Bayview District. Muni opens a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line in the Van Ness commuter corridor as well.
Muni Vintage Streetcars are fully restored moving cabins from Italy, England, Russia, Australia, Japan, Germany, Portugal and nearly a dozen domestic cities. These hand-crafted conveyances travel at 9-10 mph, which is perfect to casually observe attractions along the way. Price is $2.50 per ride with free transfers that last 90 minutes from purchase.
F Line: AT&T Baseball Park-South Beach-Ferry Building-Exploratorium-Cruise Terminal-Pier 39-Fisherman’s Wharf
E Line: Castro District-Market Street-Ferry Building-Exploratorium-Cruise Terminal-Pier 39-Fisherman’s Wharf
E Line is a reborn Muni streetcar route that ran from 1915-47. Since Vintage Streetcar patronage has become as popular as Cable Cars, Muni officials plan to extend E Line westward from Fishermans Wharf to Fort Mason and Marina District.
Opened in 1873, Muni Cable Cars are one of the few moving National Historic Landmarks. Even at $5 per ride, these relics from another era are worth it for exhilarating views up and down the steep San Francisco hills. When you board, watch drivers get a workout applying the heavy grip on underground cable that moves at 9 mph. Before you exit, wait until the driver un-grips the cable, sets the brake to securely stop and rings the bell. Watch for autos and only use the designated crosswalk at street intersections. Green X is the “go ahead” signal for cable cars — not pedestrians.
The Cable Car Museum at 1201 Mason Street, shows the powerful cable gears at work. Though not indicated on the CABLE CAR MAP, all three routes provide awesome vistas, entertaining bell-ringers and come within 1-3 blocks of the Cable Car Museum:
Powell–Hyde: Powell & Market, Union Square, Nob Hill, Fishermans Wharf
Powell–Mason: Powell & Market, Union Square, North Beach, Fishermans Wharf
California Street: Market & Embarcadero Center, Financial District, Chinatown, Nob Hill, Van Ness
Great news for tourists is that the combination of Muni Metro, Vintage Streetcars, Cable Cars and BART travel within 3 blocks of most city attractions. Also, Clipper Card is a reloadable smart card for electronic transit fare payment on all San Francisco Bay Area modes of transit, including ferries.
San Francisco Ferry Building is located on the Embarcadero facing Market Street. Ferries here are the most scenic way to travel between San Francisco to Oakland, Alameda, Larkspur, Vallejo, Richmond, AT&T Baseball Park, and South San Francisco. Their daily routes are frequent during commute hours and provide break-taking views of the San Francisco Bay.
Check website for fare prices. Children under 5 enter Free. Frequent ferry riders purchase a discounted Clipper Card.
Red & White Fleet Ferries
DESCRIPTION: In business since 1892, San Francisco’s oldest ferry line features audio tour headsets and three unforgettable bay cruise routes:
• Golden Gate Bay Cruise, 1-hour under the Golden Gate Bridge and around Alcatraz, it is San Francisco’s only bay cruise in 12 languages, departs 8–14 times daily; we recommend this cruise for views that you’ll remember a lifetime.
• SF Explorer Cruise, 90-minute cruise offers spectacular views and narratives on Natural History, Architecture, and Native American Culture; departs May-Sept
• California Sunset Cruise, a 2-hour twilight sail with hearty appetizers and guitar music, April-October
San Francisco Cruise Port at Pier 27 and 35
DESCRIPTION: Prior to 1991, major cruise lines rarely docked at San Francisco’s port that was blighted by a doubled-deck freeway. Then demolition of Embarcadero Freeway followed by The Embarcadero Roadway and Pier Facade beautification projects led to a modest clean-up of Pier 35. Today it hosts ~80 cruise ship calls annually by Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, Celebrity, NCL, Holland America, Cunard and Silversea. They utilize San Francisco as a Port of Call for routes to Alaska, Vancouver, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Diego, Mexico Riviera and Hawaii. Since the cruise industry is upgrading to larger (3000-4000) passenger ships on the Pacific Coast, San Francisco upgraded Pier 27 to host with an attractive terminal with public plaza passenger amenities that open to The Embarcadero for ground-to-ship vistas. Pier 35 is now a supplemental port to dock large cruise ships simultaneously with large cruise ships docked at Pier 27.
ADDRESS: Pier 35 and Pier 27 on The Embarcadero.
TRANSIT: Muni Metro F-Line stop at The Embarcadero & Greenwich Street
PARKING: City Park garage at 80 Francisco Street and Ace Parking at 55 Francisco Street & The Anchorage Center
PHONE: contact the cruises lines for their respective ship info
Black San Francisco Tours
DESCRIPTION: Take a guided tour through 220 years of the Black Experience in San Francisco with John William Templeton, author of Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California; Templeton offers a Downtown guided tour, all-city excursions and Original Jazz Clubs of the Barbary Coast in San Francisco Tour. Templeton will give you the real deal on San Francisco’s history with surprising backstory.
PRICING: walking tours $15, motor tours $35
ADDRESS: contact Templeton for meeting place and details in San Francisco
Victorian Home Walk Tour
DESCRIPTION: Experienced tour guides have shown visitors SF’s world famous architecture for over 14 years. For 2.5 hours, they go where tour buses are not allowed, without hills. They hold a yellow sign that says “Victorian Home Walk”; arrange a private tour for 10 or more. They include transportation to Pacific Heights, a stroll through the best Victorian neighborhoods, and a visit inside a Queen Anne Victorian house.
PRICING: $25 per person, no credit cards; fee collected at end of tour
ADDRESS: San Francisco; departs 11a daily from Union Square; no reservations required
Urban Trek USA
DESCRIPTION: Features four different walking tours that are environmentally-friendly and enable guests to understand why San Franciscans love their city so much. Points of interest include: Union Square, Chinatown, Jackson Square, North Beach, Telegraph Hill, Levis Plaza and the Ferry Building.
PRICING: $30 per person
ADDRESS: San Francisco; 900 Market Street in the lower level of Hallidie Plaza
PHONE: reservations required 415-265-8229
CitySightseeing San Francisco
DESCRIPTION: The original open-top, English double-decker tour bus company in the San Francisco offering hop-on/hop-off tours. Experienced tour guides in the upper deck provide insights about each attraction coupled with a driver down below. Start with the 1.5 hour San Francisco Downtown Loop. If so inclined, add the Golden Gate Bridge + Sausalito Loop or Golden Gate Park Loop or Night Tour in the same day. If you really hate driving on steep hills and the hassles of parking, sample area attractions with the 4-in-1 All Loops Tour for best value over 48 hours. You can also bundle trips to Alcatraz, Wine Country, Muir Woods, Yosemite, San Francisco Segway Tours and GPS Guided GO Cars.
PRICING: buy online for discounts – San Francisco Downtown Loop $25 Adults, $16 Child; 4-in1 All Loops Tour $50 Adult, $28 Child
DEPARTS: daily 9a-5p, every 10-20 minutes at 18 locations
ADDRESS: begin at 2800 Leavenworth Street MAP
TRANSIT: only one block from Muni Vintage Streetcar to Fisherman’s Wharf station or the Fisherman’s Wharf turnaround for Powell & Hyde Cable Car
DESCRIPTION: A clever storytelling GPS-guided mini-car that gives you an open-air touring experience unlike any other. Select from 5 languages that guide you to the major attractions of San Francisco. The two-seated, three-wheel vehicles fit in the tightest places that a bus tour can not touch. Its eco-friendly too.
PRICING: 1st hour $49, 2nd hour $39, each additional hour $29, No further charge after 5 hours
ADDRESS: San Francisco; pick-up/drop-off 2715 Hyde Street or 321 Mason Street
Bike and Roll San Francisco
DESCRIPTION: Take a beautiful bicycle ride on the Bay Trail over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito with a return trip to San Francisco by ferryboat! The tour is an easy 9-mile adventure as most of the ride is flat and the last 3 miles are downhill. Sights of interest include Fisherman’s Wharf, Aquatic Park, Ghirardelli Square, Fort Mason, Palace of Fine Arts, the Presidio, Fort Point, the Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito shops, Alcatraz and Angel Island.
PRICING: Begins at $10 per day
ADDRESS: 899 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco
San Francisco Freeway Network is well developed in terms of traffic status signs, car pool lanes and metered entrance ramps. Nevertheless, traveling westbound on San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (locally called “Bay Bridge”) remains crowded during commuter hours. When traveling westbound on the Bay Bridge, you pay a toll. Traveling eastbound is FREE. Avoid traffic tickets, DO NOT USE Bay Bridge Fastrak lanes without a pre-paid toll transponder on your vehicle. Some car rental agencies include them for a fee.