Statistically speaking, there’s a good chance you or someone you know has been to San Francisco – the City By the Bay is among the most visited cities in the United States. For international tourists, whose entry and travel patterns are easier to track, it’s the country’s fifth-most popular urban destination, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office‘s 2013 report – behind only New York City, Miami, Los Angeles-Long Beach, and Orlando.
On account of its vibrant economy and pleasant climate, San Francisco is also a popular destination for millennial transplants from other parts of the U.S. and abroad. Some longtime residents would say it’s too popular, in fact. The city is in the throes of a seemingly permanent housing crisis caused by high demand, low supply, and restrictive development practices, and exacerbated by a frothy tech sector whose well-compensated contributors endanger San Francisco’s already tenuous middle class.
It’s common knowledge that renting a one-bedroom apartment in New York City is an expensive proposition. What is less well known is that it’s much, much more expensive to do the same in San Francisco. According to RentJungle, as of August 2016, the average San Francisco one-bedroom costs nearly $3,500 per month. While prices are similar or higher in many Manhattan neighborhoods, they’re far lower in upper Manhattan and New York’s outer boroughs, where one-bedrooms under $2,500 are the norm.
Housing is merely the most egregious example of San Francisco lifestyle’s dear cost. Just about everything is more expensive in Frisco – gas (though that’s mostly due to high California taxes), car insurance, restaurant meals, groceries, household goods, entertainment, you name it.
So why would any frugal traveler possibly want to visit San Francisco? Well, for starters, its inimitable character, photogenic setting, rich history, and innumerable tourist attractions for every imaginable taste. San Francisco is worth at least one visit in a lifetime.
And the City By the Bay actually isn’t all that hard to do on the cheap, relatively speaking. San Francisco’s well-developed tourism industry is highly competitive – a real luxury for savvy travelers willing to dig for hard-to-find deals and trade convenience or optimal scheduling for better pricing on tours, transportation, lodging, and food. Downtown San Francisco has a slew of basic, budget-friendly hotels that charge less than $150 per night, and plentiful hostels where clean, shared accommodations cost less than $50 per night.
Here’s what you need to know to plan a frugal trip to California’s second-most popular tourist city, which sights to see while you’re there, and how to make sure the experience doesn’t break your budget.
Resources, Packages, and Discount Bundles
San Francisco Travel
Not sure where to begin your San Francisco adventure? Start at San Francisco Travel‘s excellent website. Use the interactive Utrip-powered feature to build your own trip replete with as many San Francisco deals as you could possibly want for entertainment, hotels, touristy activities, and shopping.
Though it’s an awesome, comprehensive resource for novice and frequent visitors alike, San Francisco Travel has relationships with businesses across the city and beyond, so don’t expect it to be completely impartial. Before jumping on any hotel deals you find here, cross-reference rates with major online booking sites such as Expedia and the hotels’ own websites.
San Francisco CityPASS
If you’re staying in San Francisco for more than a night or two, buy a San Francisco CityPASS booklet. Booklets cost $94 per adult and $69 per child. Not exactly cheap, but a bargain given what they cover – all together, approximately $185 in adult admission and transportation, a 49% savings when compared to face value.
San Francisco CityPASS includes:
- A seven-day cable car and Muni passport (good for reaching most attractions within San Fran’s city limits)
- Admission to the California Academy of Sciences
- A Blue & Gold Fleet San Francisco Bay Adventure, which showcases the city’s skyline, history, and the natural environment of the bay (including, potentially, sea lions and whales)
- Admission to the Aquarium of the Bay (at Pier 39) or the Monterey Bay Aquarium, about two hours south of San Francisco
- Admission to the de Young Museum and Legion of Honor Museum (two art museums) or the Exploratorium (a science museum)
CityPASS really came on in handy on my trip to San Francisco – especially the transit component, as I used public transit heavily in town and would have shelled out $40 for a seven-day pass at full price. I didn’t have time to take advantage of the Blue & Gold Fleet Adventure opportunity, and it’s a shame that the Monterey Bay Aquarium (regarded as one of the world’s best) was so far away, but I otherwise found San Francisco CityPASS to be a great value.
Don’t forget about CityPASS when you leave the Bay Area either. San Francisco is one of about a dozen North American cities and regions with CityPASS service, along with Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, New York City, Philadelphia, Seattle, Southern California (Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego), Tampa Bay, and Toronto.
Go San Francisco Card
Trying to pack as many San Francisco attractions as possible into the few days you have in town? Pick up a GO San Francisco Card from Smart Destinations. Unlike CityPASS, which gives you as much time as you need to hit a handful of included attractions, the GO San Francisco Card challenges you to reach as many destinations as possible within a strict time-frame.
GO San Francisco Cards come in several flavors. Your choice will depend on how long you spend in the city:
- One Day: $65 per adult, $49 per child
- Two Days: $90 per adult, $62 per child
- Three Days: $115 per adult, $85 per child
- Five Days: $150 per adult, $110 per child
Each GO Card includes general admission to approximately 25 Bay Area attractions, including many featured in this guide: California Historical Society, California Academy of Sciences, Asian Art Museum, and Contemporary Jewish Museum, to name a few. GO Cards also come with exclusive deals and discounts (often 10% to 20% off admission or purchases) at more than a dozen additional attractions and businesses.
If you’re up to the challenge of planning your sightseeing efficiently – namely by setting strict time limits at each place and hitting proximate attractions on the same day – GO Cards can save you and your family a boatload. Exactly how much is up to you, but longer passes theoretically offer greater potential savings.
Like CityPASS, Smart Destinations offers GO City Cards in about a dozen cities in North America and beyond: Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, London, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Oahu (Honolulu), Orlando, San Antonio, San Diego, and Washington, D.C., plus customizable passes for California and Florida.
Big Bus Tour
Not a fan of public transit or driving on congested city streets, and don’t mind fully immersing yourself in the role of gawking, camera-toting tourists? Big Bus Tour might be for you. It’s one of several hop-on, hop-off double-decker bus tours that ply the streets of San Francisco, hitting virtually all the city’s major attractions, monuments, museums, and other points of interest, all while providing an up-close and personal view of the intervening streets and neighborhoods.
Big Bus Tour is not cheap, and it doesn’t come with admission discounts or comps at most attractions. A one-day (24 hour) ticket costs $50 when purchased in person (or $45 online) and includes three guided neighborhood walking tours. If you’re in town longer, the three-day tour costs $70 in person and $63 online, and includes three guided walking tours, a tour of Sausalito, a two-hour night bus tour of San Francisco, and complimentary admission to the Aquarium of the Bay.
Social Coupons: Groupon and Living Social
Before you arrive in San Francisco, check with the United States’ two largest daily deal and social coupon providers: Groupon and Living Social. Both have free apps available for download, plus desktop-friendly websites listing time-sensitive discounts and package deals. (See Groupon’s San Francisco page for reference.) I personally prefer Groupon, because it’s bigger, more prolific, and more relevant in my experience, but there’s little downside to checking both.
Countless small, independently owned businesses use social coupons to market themselves. In pricey San Francisco, where mom-and-pop shops fight desperately to remain competitive with encroaching national chains, tourists who use social coupons to support local businesses do a vital service for the city’s vanishing middle class.
In a walkable, transit-rich city like San Francisco, where no two points of interest are very far apart, I’d add another bit of advice to my social coupons spiel: Turn on push notifications, even if you normally shy away from that sort of thing.
In my travels, I’ve taken advantage of several last-minute push deals on account of their proximity and relevance. Push notifications are especially useful (in my experience) for travelers looking to save money at restaurants without settling for meals they could just as easily get in their hometowns. Look at it this way: if you’re already planning to eat out tonight, why not patronize the restaurant with the best available social coupon deal?
Historical Sights and Tourist Attractions
More than any other West Coast city, San Francisco wears its history on its sleeve. These are among the top sights for visitors looking to learn more about the city’s past – and how it grew into such an amazing place.
1. Golden Gate Bridge
- Adult admission: Free to walk or bike across, $4.50 and up to drive
- Hours: 24/7
The Golden Gate Bridge needs no introduction. Gracing countless postcards and providing a backdrop for dozens of film scenes, this Depression-era engineering marvel is one of the country’s most recognizable landmarks.
Many first-time San Francisco visitors are surprised to find that the Golden Gate Bridge doesn’t exactly dominate the city’s skyline. It spans the Golden Gate, a mile-wide strait connecting San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, from far northwestern San Francisco to suburban Marin County, and is hidden by high hills on both sides. It’s also frequently shrouded in fog, a function of the constant clash between warm inland air and the ever-chilly Pacific.
Still, the Golden Gate Bridge is definitely worth a close look, and it takes nothing to snap photos or walk across (though it’s a long walk). The best views can be found in Lincoln Park, which is free to enter. If you want to cross by car, it’ll cost at least $4.50 to get back to San Francisco, per the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District.
- Adult admission: $35.50 for day tours; $42.50 for night (sunset) tours
- Hours: Ferries leave Fisherman’s Wharf every 20 to 30 minutes between 8:45am and 3:50pm, then less frequently until 6:30pm; Tours, including the ferry to and from the island, take approximately two-and-a-half hours
Visible from much of northern San Francisco’s waterfront, including the Fisherman’s Wharf area and the Presidio of San Francisco, Alcatraz Island is a picturesque slab with a fascinating past. Once an important military installation, the island’s buildings were modernized in the 1930s and famously used as a maximum-security federal prison until the early 1960s. Dozens of notorious criminals, including Al Capone, involuntarily lived at Alcatraz over the years.
Today, Alcatraz is a wildly popular tourist attraction operated by the National Park Service. Unlike most national parks, advance reservations are strongly encouraged for day visitors. Otherwise, you have to wait in line at the ferry terminal at Fisherman’s Wharf, and you’re not guaranteed to get a spot on an outgoing boat.
Alcatraz Cruises is the official ticket vendor and ferry operator. Inquire with it about package deals and trip planning information.
3. Coit Tower
- Adult admission: Free to enter; $9 for for the observation deck
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 6pm, May through October; Daily, 10am to 5pm, November through April
Bequeathed to the city by a wealthy, offbeat heiress, and designed by the architect responsible for San Francisco’s beautiful city hall, Coit Tower is concrete column rising 210 feet above Pioneer Park, at the apex of San Francisco’s steep Telegraph Hill neighborhood.
The park surrounding Coit Tower is small, but pretty, and provides great views of downtown San Francisco. The structure’s observation deck is even better, with panoramic views of the city, bay, hills, and immediately recognizable landmarks such as Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. On the lower floors, an impressive collection of Art Deco murals celebrates the populist ethos of the 1930s, the tower’s inaugural decade.
Be warned that Coit Tower can get extremely busy, so arrive early to take photos without bumping elbows or cluttering your shot.
4. California Historical Society
- Adult admission: $5
- Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 11am to 5pm (closed Monday)
Located smack in the middle of downtown San Francisco, the California Historical Society is a small but extremely well-kept museum dedicated to the Golden State’s fascinating history and culture. Its extensive collection includes more than 50,000 books and 500,000 photographs, not all of which are on display in the gallery, and serves as a crucial resource for historical research. Areas of focus include native cultures, Spanish colonization, the Gold Rush era, landscape art, and 19th and 20th century migration, among others.
5. Lombard Street
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: 24/7
For most of its length, Lombard Street is a major east-west thoroughfare in San Francisco’s northern neighborhoods. But for one block between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets, it’s a mess of hairpin turns, stop-and-go traffic, and gawking tourists. This stretch is described as the “crookedest street in San Francisco,” and that’s probably an understatement. If you’re in the area, Lombard Street is definitely worth a photo.
6. Pier 39 Festival Marketplace
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Variable, but most restaurants and retailers open around 10am and close by 11pm; Use caution after hours
Located near Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39 is one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist attractions – and in a city filled with them, that’s saying something.
Basically, Pier 39 is a big outdoor mall jutting into San Francisco Bay, replete with overpriced souvenir shops and themed restaurants. If you’re protective of your budget, avoid spending money here, but don’t be shy about hopping up to the second-level balconies and people-watching for a few minutes. An adjacent, undeveloped pier provides excellent views of the city and bay as well. If you’re lucky, you’ll see members of a sea lion colony frolicking (or, more likely, lounging) along the pilings here.
7. The San Francisco Dungeon
- Adult admission: $19 when booked online, or $28 with combo admission to Madame Tussaud’s
- Hours: Summer hours are Sunday through Thursday, 10am to 9pm, and Friday and Saturday, 10am to 10pm; Fall, winter, and spring hours are Monday through Thursday, 12 noon to 7pm, and Friday through Sunday, 10am to 8pm
It’s easy to pass the San Francisco Dungeon, a nondescript (at least by local standards) storefront in the Fisherman’s Wharf district. Walk inside and you’ll find “an amazing cast of theatrical actors, special effects, stages and scenes in a truly unique and exciting walk-through experience” celebrating San Francisco’s “hysterically horrible past,” all the way back to the Gold Rush days. Save a few bucks on admission when you book a combo ticket to the Dungeon and Madame Tussauds wax museum, which is just next door.
8. San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park
- Adult admission: $10, but free on select holidays (such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day)
- Hours: Visitor center and Hyde Street Pier open daily, 9:30am to 5pm; Municipal pier open daily, dawn until dusk
West of Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf, centered on Hyde Street Pier, is San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. The main attraction here is a collection of old, refurbished ships from throughout maritime history – vessels that all, at once point or another, plied the waters of San Francisco Bay.
If you see just one ship while you’re here, check out Balclutha, a 301-foot, 19th-century tall ship with 25 sails. For another slice of history, venture a few blocks south to Ghirardelli Square, a shopping complex and venue hewed from an old chocolate factory – but watch out for Pier 39-like prices.
9. San Francisco Zoo
- Adult admission: $20 ($17 for San Francisco residents); $5 for Little Puffer
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 5pm
Located in the city’s southwestern corner, within sight of the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco Zoo is a first-rate zoo with more than 1,000 animals on its surprisingly expansive, park-like grounds. Highlights include more than a dozen bird of prey species, exotic fowl (such as ostriches), big cats, bears, primates, and terrifying Komodo dragons. Families with young children can’t miss Little Puffer, an adorable steam train on the zoo grounds.
10. San Francisco Botanical Garden
- Adult admission: $8; $17 for families, defined as two adults and all minor children residing in the same household
- Hours: Daily, 7:30am to 5pm, 6pm, or 7pm, depending on season (winter hours are shorter; last entry is one hour prior to closing time)
Tucked inside Golden Gate Park, near a clutch of other prominent San Francisco landmarks, lies the 55-acre San Francisco Botanical Garden. The property contains more than 8,000 plants, shrubs, and trees. Some are native to the Bay Area and coastal California, while others hail from Europe, Asia, Africa, and beyond.
For help making sense of the overwhelming variety on display, come for one of the docent-led tours at 1:30pm every day. San Francisco Botanical Garden is a popular gathering place for native birds as well. Birdwatchers can get a curated look at 8am on the first Sunday of every month.
San Francisco has some of the United States’ finest museums. These are some of the most popular art, science, and cultural institutions in and around the city.
11. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
- Adult admission: $25
- Hours: Friday through Tuesday, 10am to 5pm; Thursday, 10am to 9pm
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is located in the heart of downtown San Francisco, near the Union Square district. It’s a first-class modern art museum on par with New York City’s trend-setting Museum of Modern Art.
In addition to a burgeoning permanent collection, SFMOMA regularly hosts traveling and temporary exhibitions featuring cutting-edge artists and cohesive themes, such as “German Art After 1960” and “Approaching American Abstraction.” The $25 admission fee feels steep, but the experience is well worth the price.
12. de Young Museum
- Adult admission: $15
- Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 9:30am to 5:15pm; Open until 8:45pm on summer Fridays and regular hours on select Mondays
Located in sprawling Golden Gate Park, the de Young Museum is SFMOMA’s grown-up cousin – a world-class fine art museum whose collection spans the ages. High points include extensive collections of American, African, and Oceanic art, as well as a stunning textile repository. Look for temporary special exhibitions focusing on specific artists, periods, or schools, such as the late 2016 feature “Ed Ruscha and the Great American West.” The building’s distinctive facade, which resembles a torquing X (or perhaps a tightly wound chromosome), is worth a few photos too.
13. Legion of Honor Museum
- Adult admission: $15
- Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 9:30am to 5:15pm; Open regular hours on select Mondays
Housed in a three-quarter-scale adaptation of the imposing Palais de la Legion de Honneur in Paris, the Legion of Honor Museum occupies a dignified perch on the bluffs of Lincoln Park, within sighting distance of the Golden Gate Bridge. Like the de Young, with which it’s affiliated under the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco umbrella, it has a vast collection that spans European masterworks, early to modern photography, and classical sculpture. Another perk of the affiliation is that both de Young and Legion of Honor are optional CityPASS inclusions opposite the Exploratorium, so you can hit both for half the price if your artsy side wins out over your inner science buff.
14. Conservatory of Flowers
- Adult admission: $8
- Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 6pm
Tucked into a pretty corner of Golden Gate Park is the Conservatory of Flowers, a horticultural wonderland with more than 2,000 species of flowering plants. The Conservatory manages to make botany exciting and kid-friendly, with special exhibitions such as “The Wild Bunch: Succulents, Cacti and Fat Plants,” set amid a replica Old West town.
Plan your visit by checking the In Bloom section of the Conservatory’s website. Unsurprisingly, this is a popular wedding venue, so check ahead (especially on weekends) to ensure that it’s open when you want to visit.
15. California Academy of Sciences
- Adult admission: $34.95
- Hours: Monday through Saturday, 9:30am to 5pm; Sunday, 11am to 5pm
Not far from the Conservatory of Flowers, the California Academy of Sciences is a world-class science museum for all ages, interests, and levels of expertise. The price of admission is steep, but it’s definitely worthwhile if you have several uninterrupted hours to devote to the experience. Plus, the Academy is a CityPASS inclusion, which effectively reduces its cost by about 50%.
Must-see exhibits abound here, from the Kimball Natural History Museum (a museum within a museum that tracks billions of years of Earth history), to the immersive Steinhart Aquarium (with more than 40,000 sea animals), to the amazing Morrison Planetarium and its 75-foot dome.
16. Aquarium of the Bay
- Adult admission: $24.95
- Hours: Variable by season, but generally open daily by 9am or 10am and closed by 5pm to 8pm
If the Steinhart Aquarium isn’t enough for you, head down to Pier 39 and hit Aquarium of the Bay, a small but well-maintained (and very popular) aquarium focusing on life in and around San Francisco Bay. For small kids, the touch tank is definitely the highlight. For adults, the 300-foot Under the Bay tunnel is breathtaking.
If you plan to spend a full day in the Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf areas, look into the Alcatraz Attractions Pass. It includes admission to six popular local attractions – including Alcatraz Island and Aquarium of the Bay – for approximately $100, though the exact price varies by day and time of year. Aquarium of the Bay is also an optional CityPASS inclusion, opposite the larger but far more distant Monterey Bay Aquarium. And some local restaurants, including Fog Harbor Fish House, offer 15% discounts with paid aquarium admission.
17. Asian Art Museum
- Adult admission: $15
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 5pm, except Monday (closed) and Thursday (10am to 9pm)
Located just steps from San Francisco’s City Hall, the Asian Art Museum is a vibrant homage to Eastern Hemisphere art in all its forms and ages. The museum is known for its brilliant temporary exhibitions, such as a comprehensive East Asian lacquerware and a deep dive into Buddhist art, as well as a permanent collection that features pottery, sculpture, tapestries, photographs, and other forms of art from ancient times to the present.
18. The Beat Museum
- Adult admission: $8
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 7pm
Conveniently located in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, The Beat Museum celebrates the heritage of the mid-20th century Beat Generation. Popularized by Jack Kerouac and a gaggle of other novelists, poets, and artists, Beat culture emanated outward from San Francisco in the 1940s and 50s, and inspired the utopian social movements that would shortly gain traction in the City By the Bay. Today, the Beat Museum is a vital repository of photographs, letters, manuscripts, and other primary sources for scholarship on the period.
19. Contemporary Jewish Museum
- Adult admission: $15
- Hours: Daily, 11am to 5pm, except Wednesday (closed) and Thursday (11am to 8pm)
The Contemporary Jewish Museum showcases current and recent-historical art and media from across the Jewish diaspora – everything from Stanley Kubrick’s lesser-known film and photography work, to massive, avant garde sculptures filled with sand from an Israeli wasteland.
If you arrive around lunchtime, come hungry – Wise Sons Jewish Deli, tucked inside the museum, serves up sustainable, locally sourced, uber-traditional favorites at surprisingly affordable prices (by San Fran standards, at least).
20. GLBT History Museum
- Adult admission: $5
- Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11am to 6pm; Sunday, 12 noon to 5pm
The GLBT History Museum is located in the heart of the Castro district, a bastion of queer expression whose complex and often painful history played on the main stage of the mid- to late 20th century LGBTQ rights movement. Operated by the GLBT Historical Society, the museum takes an expansive view of queer history, with accessible exhibits highlighting well- and not-so-well-known events, people, trends, and art that shaped it, with an emphasis on San Francisco’s contributions to the national and international context.
- Adult admission: $29.95
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 5pm, except Monday (closed) and Thursday, 10am to 10pm
Not to be outdone by the California Academy of Sciences, the Exploratorium is San Francisco’s other world-class science institution. Its 600-plus exhibits tend toward the interactive, immersive, and offbeat, from a lifelike tornado simulator, to funhouse-style mirrors that reveal strange quirks of the human brain.
The place is divided into six main galleries, organized by theme: Tinkering, Living Systems, Human Phenomena, Seeing and Listening, Outdoor Exhibits, and Observing Landscapes. For adults-only fun, visit on Thursday nights, when the museum is shut to minors and reasonably priced beer and wine (again, by San Fran standards) flows freely.
Also, the Exploratorium is an optional CityPASS inclusion opposite de Young and Legion of Honor. If you prefer hard science to fine art, you know which to choose.
Free Parks and Natural Areas
San Francisco’s densely built cityscape somehow finds room for beautiful parks and natural spaces. Many hilltop parks boast stunning city and water views, while San Francisco’s gracious waterfront dazzles and surprises. All of these outdoor areas are free to enter or explore, though some have restricted areas of features that require paid admission.
22. Golden Gate Park
- Hours: 24/7; use caution at night
Sprawling, magnificently rectangular Golden Gate Park is San Francisco’s answer to New York City’s Central Park. It’s arguably even more jam-packed with points of interest (though, unlike Central Park, you have to pay to get into the best spots). Somewhat confusingly, Golden Gate Park is more than a mile from the Golden Gate Bridge, separated by the quiet Richmond District.
The third-most visited park in the United States is big enough that it never feels crowded, with the possible exception of gated attractions such as the California Academy of Sciences. Begin your afternoon stroll or picnic at the centrally located western gate, near the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. If you have more time or money, consider visiting the San Francisco Botanical Garden, the California Academy of Sciences, the de Young Museum, the Conservatory of Flowers, and the Japanese Tea Garden ($8 for nonresidents, but free if entered before 10am). And, if your schedule aligns, try to catch the periodic free concerts and music festivals here, especially Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in early October.
23. Buena Vista Park
- Hours: 5am to 12am
Perched on high ground southwest of Golden Gate Park, quiet Buena Vista Park overlooks the Castro, Haight-Ashbury, and Mission districts, among others. Though mostly forested, its summit offers glimpses of downtown San Francisco and the bay. The surrounding, steeply sloping residential streets are beautiful and engaging to walk through – just be respectful of residents’ privacy if you linger or take photos.
24. Presidio of San Francisco
- Hours: Visitor Center open Thursday through Sunday, 10am to 4pm; Officers’ Club open Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 4pm; Fort Point National Historic Site open Friday through Sunday, 10am to 5pm
The Presidio of San Francisco is a large park housing a centuries-old military installation along the Golden Gate strait, under and just west of the Golden Gate Bridge. The shoreline here is one of the best places in San Francisco to view the Golden Gate Bridge from an angle, and Fort Point National Historic Site (which has a theater and some great exhibits about the fort’s history) is actually located under the bridge’s moorings. Before you go, check out the visitor center’s exhibit on segregation in the early U.S. Army.
25. Lincoln Park
- Hours: 5am to 12am
Not to be confused with the lakefront Chicago park of the same name, Lincoln Park protects a picturesque stretch of coastline in extreme northwestern San Francisco. It contains acres of sloping lawns and woodlands, dramatic sea cliffs, an 18-hole golf course, the Legion of Honor Museum, and the San Francisco VA Hospital. On clear days, it also offers breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Check out Land’s End, a dramatic seaside area with incredible views of the open Pacific, the coastal headlands stretching away to the north, and an offshore shoal called Lobos Rock. The nearby Land’s End Labyrinth is an elaborate piece of rock art on the windswept beach.
26. Dolores Park
- Hours: Daily, 6am to 10pm
Mission Dolores Park, or simply, Dolores Park, is a small but lively park in San Francisco’s bustling, eclectic, rapidly gentrifying Mission District. It’s a grassy, sloping gathering space with a central pedestrian corridor and great views of the Mission’s churches, downtown San Francisco, and much of the city’s western half.
Fair warning that park-goers can get rowdy here, even early in the day. Alcohol is technically banned in the park, as in most public areas of San Francisco, but enforcement is nonexistent, and partial nudity is not uncommon.
27. Bernal Heights Park (Bernal Hill)
- Hours: 5am to 12am
Located in San Francisco’s southeastern quadrant, at the apex of the steep Bernal Heights neighborhood, lies Bernal Heights Park, or Bernal Hill. It’s a spacious hilltop park with panoramic views of downtown San Francisco, the bay, San Bruno Mountain, and even higher hills like Twin Peaks and Mount Sutro. This is one of the best photography spots in the city, and it’s far enough from the city center that it’s usually not overrun with tourists.
28. Mount Davidson Park
- Hours: Not listed
Just under two miles west of Bernal Heights Park is Mount Davidson Park, a 40-acre reserve protecting the highest peak in San Francisco. At 938 feet above sea level, Mount Davidson offers stunning aerial views of lower-lying San Francisco neighborhoods, not to mention unobstructed sightlines to the bay, ocean, and downtown San Francisco.
Views are best in the park’s eastern half, which is mainly grass and scrub. On the west side, an ecologically critical (and delicious-smelling) eucalyptus forest serves as a nesting ground and stopover point for a variety of migratory and native birds. Don’t miss the massive cross, erected as part of a Depression-era make-work initiative, on the western summit.
29. Glen Canyon Park
- Hours: 5am to 12am
Not far from Mount Davidson is Glen Canyon Park, a steep, lush, and surprisingly wild-seeming reserve with an engaging mix of eucalyptus woodlands, scrubby hillsides, and exotic rock formations. It also has one of the only real creeks within San Francisco’s city limits, though the watercourse is dry much of the year. This is a great place for a quick urban hike, and a nice excuse to explore San Francisco’s southern neighborhoods.
30. Lake Merced Park
- Hours: Not listed
Huge by San Francisco standards, Lake Merced Park is a 614-acre expanse that features three golf courses and a namesake freshwater lake that’s open to boaters. The four-and-a-half-mile trail ringing the lake is great for a quick bike ride or long jog, and there’s an abundance of picnic areas and quiet spots for contemplation within the park grounds. Swimming is not permitted, as Lake Merced contributes to San Francisco’s drinking water supply. Don’t miss the plaque marking the spot of a 19th-century duel between a sitting U.S. senator and a former California Supreme Court judge.
31. Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve
- Hours: Not listed
Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve, operated by the University of California, San Francisco, is a rare find in the heart of densely populated San Francisco: a thick forest, part of what was once a much larger expanse of fragrant, Australia-native eucalyptus planted in the 19th century. But it is beautiful, impressive, and moody, thanks to the frequent mists that form around its summit. If you don’t mind a strenuous hike, Mount Sutro is worth an hour or two of your time.
32. San Bruno Mountain State Park
- Hours: 8am to before sunset
Located just south of San Francisco’s southern border, in San Mateo County, 2,416-acre San Bruno Mountain State Park is a welcome refuge from the densely built San Francisco Peninsula. At 1,314 feet, its highest summit is considerably loftier than any in San Francisco proper. Despite its distance from central San Francisco, that makes it arguably the best place in the area to take pictures of San Francisco and the surrounding communities. And with 12 miles of well-maintained hiking trails, San Bruno Mountain is sure to satisfy even the most avid hikers.
33. Pine Lake Park and Stern Grove
- Hours: 6am to 10pm
Less than a mile north of Lake Merced Park lies Pine Lake Park, whose small namesake lake is replenished by the same underground water system that feeds its larger southern neighbor. Pine Lake Park is steep, narrow, and meandering, making it a perfect refuge from the surrounding neighborhoods. Sigmund Stern Recreation Grove, a majestic redwood and eucalyptus forest, dominates the eastern third of the park.
34. Ocean Beach
- Hours: Not listed; Use caution at night
San Francisco isn’t known as a beach town, but maybe that needs to change. About half the city’s western edge, where the City by the Bay meets the Pacific Ocean, is a wide strip of sand known appropriately enough as Ocean Beach.
After spending a day or more in San Francisco’s sometimes claustrophobic neighborhoods, Ocean Beach is a literal and metaphorical breath of fresh air: a majestic, windswept stretch where you can see for miles up and down the coast. The sand dune complex in the beach’s central region (near the end of the N Judah streetcar line) are especially picturesque.
Just don’t come here expecting to swim – even if the weather is clear, this is one of the chilliest areas of the city, and the water is reliably frigid year-round.
35. China Beach
- Hours: Not listed; Use caution at night
Just west of Land’s End, at the foot of the tucked-away Sea Cliff neighborhood, lies tucked-away China Beach. Though it’s a little hard to reach unless you’re already at Lincoln Park or the Presidio, its ocean, strait, and Marin County views definitely make it worth a stop. Due to dangerous riptides, swimming is not recommended here.
36. Fort Funston
- Hours: Not listed
Fort Funston is yet another disused military installation in an area full of them. Part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, it’s now a popular if out-of-the-way park featuring open, grassy expanses and dramatic bluffs looming over a narrow Pacific Ocean beach.
According to the National Park Service, Fort Funston is one of the United States’ top hang-gliding spots, but you don’t have to be a daredevil to enjoy yourself here. Hike down the steep path to the beach, or simply take in the breathtaking ocean and coastline views, which stretch for miles on clear days. In spring and summer, look for threatened bank swallows nesting in the cliffs – Fort Funston is one of just two permanent nesting sites in coastal California.
Neighborhoods and Local Attractions
San Francisco’s most famous attractions cluster in and around its waterfront, financial district, and major parks. If you never stray afield, you’ll still have a great time here. But, if you have the time and adventurous spirit, San Francisco’s many neighborhoods are filled with hidden gems worth uncovering. Your trip’s best memories might be made in places where relatively few tourists venture – and where prices are a bit more reasonable, at least by San Francisco standards.
37. Fisherman’s Wharf
Tourists definitely venture to Fisherman’s Wharf…in droves. That’s to be expected, as it’s fairly close to the downtown hotel district and home to a dense cluster of popular, family-friendly attractions (including ferries to Alcatraz and Marin County).
If your budget allows, by all means spend an afternoon at Madame Tussaud’s, the San Francisco Dungeon, and Pier 39. For a more frugal approach, people-watch on the waterfront and adjacent side streets, then duck into one of the surprisingly affordable chowder houses (thank fierce competition for those decidedly un-San Francisco prices) for a bite.
38. Treasure Island
Treasure Island is an oddball neighborhood on an artificial island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The island has been around since the mid-1930s, when it hosted the Golden Gate International Exposition, serving as a military base, radar station, and popular filming location through most of the 20th century. San Francisco’s city government is in the midst of a multi-year cleanup and remediation process set to ready the island for up to 19,000 new inhabitants by 2040.
Today, Treasure Island remains a semi-abandoned wasteland of old warehouse-like structures, and is perfect for (legal) urban exploring. The adjacent Yerba Buena Island, which is not man-made, has about 2,500 inhabitants. You can access both via the Bay Bridge and the Transbay Terminal.
39. Chinatown and Nob Hill
San Francisco’s vast Chinatown is the largest such district outside Asia, according to Chinatown San Francisco, and the United States’ oldest historic Chinese neighborhood. Highlights include Dragon’s Gate (Grant and Bush), Old St. Mary’s Cathedral (Grant and California), Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (Jackson between Grant and Stockton), and Portsmouth Square Plaza (bounded by Kearny, Clay, and Washington).
It goes without saying that authentic Cantonese food, including delectable dim sum, is easy to find here. Take your pick of the unpretentious establishments on Grant and Stockton Streets, or venture onto side streets for potentially less crowded holes in the wall.
Nearby Nob Hill is a charming, well-established neighborhood that perfectly conforms to the San Francisco stereotype – steep streets, historic houses with bay windows, cable cars, and views galore. Just watch out for cars (of every kind) and fellow pedestrians as you snap pictures.
One of just a handful of historic Japanese neighborhoods in the United States, San Francisco’s Japantown occupies a few blocks in the newer Western Addition neighborhood, west of San Francisco’s core. For hard-to-find (in the U.S.) products at bargain prices, check out the Japan Center retail hub. For lunch or dinner, skip Benihana (though there is one here) and check out one of the many cheap ramen joints nearby.
41. The Mission
The Mission is a large district south of downtown San Francisco and west of the bayfront. Its roots are evident in the abundance of Spanish colonial architecture, notably the 18th century mission complex (Mision San Francisco de Asis, at Dolores and 16th) that gives the neighborhood its name.
Long the epicenter of San Francisco’s Latino community, the Mission is fast becoming a moneyed bedroom community for Silicon Valley and a high-tech hub in its own right. Still, affordable taquerias are plentiful here – walk along Mission Street between 16th and 24th and take your pick, then check out the vibrant murals along Balmy Alley.
42. The Castro
The Castro is a vibrant and, in places, quite upscale neighborhood that played a crucial role in the local and national struggle for LGBTQ rights. It’s part of a larger district represented in the late 1970s by Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official, who was murdered (along with San Francisco’s sitting mayor) in office by a disgruntled ex-colleague. Castro and Market Streets are the two main commercial arteries here, but you can see more of the neighborhood with a quick, free, DIY walking tour, courtesy of My Castro.
If you’re hungry and action-deprived, visit Hi Tops, a gay-friendly sports bar known for its $5 Monday wing baskets. On sunny weekend afternoons, The Lookout’s second-story balcony hosts raucous, R-rated dance parties audible from blocks away.
43. Bernal Heights
This hillside neighborhood spreads north and south of Bernal Heights Park. Still a hub of LGBT life, Bernal is changing rapidly as tech money oozes south from the Mission District. Independently owned eateries and bars abound here – check out Holy Water‘s extensive craft beer and cocktail selection and the inimitable vibe at Wild Side West, which predates the hippie movement. On Saturdays, Alemany Flea Market is a great place to find relatively affordable food truck bites, fresh produce for budget-friendly home-cooked meals (kitchen not included), and somewhat pricier artisanal goods.
Directly east of Golden Gate Park is Haight-Ashbury, the epicenter of 1968’s Summer of Love. The drug-fueled euphoria has long since faded, but utopian ideals, or at least a basic belief in good karma, remain on display here – offers of free hugs and friendly, unleashed dogs abound.
Unfortunately, so do tourist traps, so it’s best to walk straight through on Haight, the main drag, or take a free walking tour from San Francisco City Guides. At minimum, Haight-Ashbury is worth a look on your way to or from Golden Gate Park.
45. Sunset District
The Sunset District is a vast square bounded by the Pacific Ocean, Golden Gate Park, the San Francisco Zoo and adjacent green space, and the summits of Twin Peaks, Mount Davidson, and Mount Sutro. It’s quieter and more residential than the older neighborhoods farther north and east, but still has a vibrant street life and a thriving independent business scene. Come here for affordable bites and drinks (Tiki Haven has cheap, potent tropical cocktails – check Yelp for more ideas) and for a mini-vacation from tourist throngs.
46. North Beach
North Beach is San Francisco’s historic Italian heartland, and was the capital of the Beat movement. Great Italian food remains plentiful, if pricey, but you don’t have to be hungry for cacciatore to enjoy a leisurely stroll here.
Many of the neighborhood’s sights are on or within a block of Columbus Avenue, which cuts diagonally through. Walk northwest from Montgomery Street to Greenwich Street, hitting La Porziuncola Nuova (a small Catholic church with an exact replica of the shrine of St. Francis of Assisi) and ever-authentic Molinari Delicatessen, a neighborhood institution since the 1890s.
47. Tenderloin and Union Square
Once reviled as San Francisco’s Skid Row, the Tenderloin today is hard to distinguish from Union Square, an adjacent retail and hotel mecca. Still, some racy shops and low-rent hotels remain from the Tenderloin’s seedy past.
For a historical view of the district, spring for a one-hour Tenderloin Museum walking tour ($10, 11am and 2pm most days; $15 for the adults-only Wednesday night tour), or wander the side streets for up-close views of more than 400 structures listed on the National Historic Register. Union Square’s eponymous park, surrounded by historic skyscrapers, is worth a look too. Anecdotally, this area has the greatest concentration of Walgreens stores I’ve ever seen in my life – if you forget a toothbrush or need a prepackaged sandwich to keep you going, you’ll have no trouble.
48. Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks isn’t technically the highest point in San Francisco, but it’s only a few feet off. It’s also pretty close to Mount Davidson, so the views are about the same. The difference is that Twin Peaks is technically a neighborhood, albeit very quiet and not as densely populated as most lower-lying San Francisco precincts.
If your lungs can take it, hike up the twisting residential streets until you reach the bare summits, or drive up Twin Peaks Boulevard’s switchbacks for an easier view. Christmas Tree Point is an optimal viewing area for time-pressed visitors, but try to budget 30 minutes to explore the “backcountry” if you can. On your descent, hit tucked-away Seward Mini Park. There you’ll find the Seward Street Slides, two breathtakingly steep, curving concrete slides that whisk you down the steep hillside. Wear long pants and bring something to slide on – the city recommends cardboard.
Regional Day Trips and Excursions
San Francisco is 49 square miles in size, give or take. That’s not much. For comparison, New York City’s land area (not including its many rivers, inlets, and marshes) is more than 300 square miles. The City By the Bay packs a lot into its modest frame, but visitors with time to spare can be forgiven for wondering what lies beyond its borders. If you have the time and energy to explore, start with these ideas.
On a good day, North America’s answer to Tuscany is barely an hour north of San Francisco. Stretching roughly from the town of Napa to Calistoga, Napa Valley’s more than 400 wineries coax world-class flavors out of rich, volcanic soil.
Check the winery list at NapaValley.com to plan your route, and keep in mind that while wineries closer to San Francisco tend to be more crowded by default, Napa Valley is not exactly known as a quiet place. Nor is it known as a budget-friendly day destination, lest the $310 dinner tasting menu at world-famous French Laundry fool you. At any winery you visit, expect to pay at least $20 per tasting flight – the equivalent of a glass or two of wine, depending on the generosity of the pours.
For a more affordable experience, skip the tasting lines and spend the afternoon driving along the winding, scenic side roads between Napa and St. Helena, stopping to stroll the main streets of each little town in between.
Napa’s slightly lower-key cousin is just a short, meandering – and very often traffic-choked – drive away. As in Napa, plan your route between the area’s more than 250 wineries – Sonoma.com’s winery list is a good place to start. Tasting prices are similar to Napa, though it may be easier to find discounts. Again, a leisurely drive is not a bad alternative.
If you’ve had your fill of tasting rooms for the day (or week), take a break at Fort Ross State Historic Park, a former Russian fur trading post on the Sonoma coast. Here, you can see hundreds of years of human history at a glance, from prehistoric native peoples, to Russian colonists, to Anglo ranchers, to American military. Entry is $8 per vehicle.
51. Point Reyes National Seashore
About 60 miles up the coast from San Francisco lies Point Reyes National Seashore, a wild and remote-feeling stretch of coastal grassland, windswept beach, and stunted pine groves. Once a vital beacon for ships navigating the treacherous waters just offshore, Point Reyes Lighthouse is now an ideal spot for watching migrating whales. In fall, the park’s growing elk herd gets frisky, as bulls fight one another for favor with fertile cows.
The park is free to enter and explore, and camping starts at $20 per night – a bargain given the park’s otherworldly beauty and proximity to San Francisco.
This charming Marin County community is the first town you’ll hit after crossing the the Golden Gate Bridge from the Presidio. The city’s short, curious history is a microcosm of the wider Bay Area – first a Prohibition-era bootlegging port, and later a World War II shipbuilding center, Sausalito de-industrialized through the mid-20th century and morphed into a quiet, picturesque, affluent bedroom community for San Francisco and points south.
53. Tiburon and Angel Island
Northeast of Sausalito, just across Richardson Bay, the bayside community of Tiburon packs dozens of independently owned boutiques and restaurants into its quaint little downtown. Most are quite spendy, but the relatively quiet streets and calming water views are welcome after a day or two in bustling San Francisco.
There’s a regular ferry directly from Fisherman’s Wharf, so you don’t need to worry about driving or parking here. The ferry also hits Angel Island State Park, just offshore. Dubbed “the Ellis Island of the West,” Angel Island processed thousands of immigrants, mostly from Asia, in the first decades of the 20th century.
54. Muir Woods National Monument
Located west of Sausalito, Muir Woods National Monument ($10 entry fee per adult) is a magical place where towering redwoods blanket steep hillsides and cool creeks rush through dense undergrowth. This is a great place for a leisurely stroll with your camera and sense of wonder, but keep in mind that it’s extremely busy and parking is at a premium – the National Park Service advises arriving as early as possible to get a spot and avoid the rush.
If you have some extra time after your stroll, check out the affluent community of Muir Beach, whose namesake stretch of sand is a little-known treasure when the weather cooperates.
55. Mount Tamalpais State Park
For a more strenuous (but no less memorable) experience, visit Mount Tamalpais State Park, which is basically adjacent to Muir Woods. Mount Tam, as it’s known in the area, is a 2,571-foot peak that towers over the northern California coast. With more than 50 miles of hiking trails, there’s a hike for everyone here, even those not up for a tough ascent.
Those who do make it to the top are rewarded with stunning, panoramic views: the northern half of the bay, the city of San Francisco, the rolling hills farther inland, and the Farallon Islands 25 miles offshore. Under ideal air quality and cloud conditions, you can even glimpse the high Sierra crest some 150 miles off to the east.
When to Visit and What to Bring
A coastal setting, rugged topography, and unusual geography conspire to make San Francisco’s weather interesting, to say the least. The city technically has a Mediterranean climate marked by cool, wet winters and mild, dry summers. Drought years notwithstanding, precipitation is plentiful during the wet season, which runs from November to April. Rainfall is scarce in late spring and fall, and virtually unheard of in summer – the average July rainfall in San Francisco is 0.00 inches, in fact.
However, lack of rain doesn’t mean lack of moisture or wind. Famously foggy San Francisco, especially oceanside and bayside districts such as the Sunset and the Richmond, is often shrouded in mist during the morning and evening hours. Close to the ocean and at higher elevations, the mist can linger all day. Onshore winds can be stiff at any time near the ocean and on hilltops and upper slopes.
These conditions are especially common in the summer, due to the heightened temperature clash between the always-cold Pacific Ocean and the oven-like Central Valley, where highs routinely crest above 100 degrees. When I visited San Francisco in late August, it was reliably 10 degrees colder near the ocean and bay, and the mist was oppressive (notably in the Sunset, where I spent a lot of time) before noon each day. However, the skies cleared like clockwork in early afternoon, and the temperature never crept above 75 degrees.
If summers get hot where you live and you’re looking for a little natural air conditioning, head to San Francisco between May and September. If you don’t mind getting wet, consider a winter or early spring visit. Tourist crowds are heavy the entire year, but tend to peak in summer, around the winter holidays, and in late winter (due to the Chinese lunar new year and American spring break). Hotel prices can be slightly lower during the fall, but deals are prevalent throughout the year.
Your San Francisco packing list will vary depending on when you visit. Here is what you may need to bring:
- Layers: As any longtime San Franciscan will tell you, layering is crucial to any successful San Francisco trip. Mornings here are predictably chilly and often foggy, especially near the water. Afternoons are usually pleasant and mild, especially in the dry season. However, if you’re traveling from neighborhood to neighborhood, it’s wise to plan for sudden weather changes, including stiff onshore winds that make it feel much colder than it actually is. Keep a fleece, windbreaker, or light jacket on hand at all times.
- Rain Gear: You can get away with leaving rain gear at home in the dry season, but umbrellas, boots, and waterproof jackets are crucial in the winter. If possible, choose boots with good traction, as steep, rain-slicked sidewalks can be treacherous after long dry spells.
- Sturdy Footwear: If you plan to see the sights while on foot, bring sturdy footwear – running shoes with good traction, hiking sandals, or even hiking boots. Hiking boots are strongly recommended for travelers planning to spend time in hilly parks.
- Backpack or Satchel: Don’t forget something to carry your layers, maps, water, and other tourist gear. Heavy as it might be, it’s a welcome alternative to running back to your home base when you forget something. A sturdy backpack or shoulder satchel should work fine.
- Hydration Gear: A refillable water bottle or Camelbak is essential for visitors who plan to travel on foot for long periods. Many San Francisco parks have public drinking fountains, so it’s relatively easy to refill for free if your travels take you near open spaces.
Though they’re notoriously difficult to predict and warn about, earthquakes can and do happen in San Francisco. The last major quake happened in 1989, and the only truly devastating event took place in 1906, when much of the city burned to the ground. Forget the dire predictions you’ve heard about the next “big one” happening any day now – the threat of an earthquake affecting your trip is minimal. But do take a few minutes before your trip to familiarize yourself with earthquake safety, and pay attention to any posted warnings you see in your hotel or other public buildings.
How to Get Around San Francisco
Most San Francisco visitors arrive at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), a 30- to 40-minute train ride from the city center. Significant minorities come through Oakland International Airport (OAK), whose ground transportation connections to San Francisco have improved in recent years. Some come through Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC), the Bay Area’s third major air hub, though it takes a lot longer and costs more to get to San Francisco from there.
Once you’re on the ground, you’ve got plenty of transportation options to choose from – though some are easier and more cost-effective than others.
Personal Vehicles and Rental Cars
San Francisco is the second-most densely populated major city in the United States, after New York and ahead of congested Boston. It’s definitely expensive, stressful, and all-around inconvenient to use a car as your primary means of transportation here. If you’re staying downtown, it’s very expensive to garage park overnight – on the order of $30 per night, if not more. Finding street parking in most central neighborhoods is a nightmare, as traffic is heavy, spaces are scarce, and many areas are totally off-limits to nonresidents.
Determining Whether You Need a Car
Unless you’re planning multiple trips outside the city limits, keeping a personal vehicle on hand for your San Francisco trip is likely to hamper your experience, and probably increase its cost to boot. In a few transit-poor outlying neighborhoods, such as the Richmond, the calculus may be different. However, hotels tend to be scarce in these areas, and private car ownership is more common, so it’s likely to be just as difficult to find street parking.
How to Temporarily Ditch Your Car in San Francisco
If you’re following the popular road trip route up the central California coast in a private vehicle or heading west from Yosemite, look into long-term parking options at or near San Francisco International Airport. The going long-term parking rate at airport lots is $25 per day, but private lots may be cheaper. Just research them ahead of time to make sure they’re legit and secure. Once your car is safe, walk, shuttle, or rideshare to the SFO BART station and take the train into town (approximately $6 to $10 one way).
Alternatively, end the driving portion of your trip across the bay, at Oakland International Airport. Onsite long-term parking at OAK costs $24 per day, but the off-site economy lot is a relative steal at $16 per day, or just $12 per day if you sign up for OAK’s coupons and deals mailing list. It’s a bit more expensive (approximately $10 to $14) and time-consuming to BART to San Francisco from OAK, but certainly worth the daily parking savings.
If you need a car for a single day or even a few hours, perhaps for a quick trip outside the city limits, consider Getaround, a growing P2P rental car service that lets you rent cars (including luxury vehicles) from $5 per hour. To avoid delays, you’ll want to sign up for the service before arriving in the Bay Area.
Otherwise, most rental car companies have offices at the three major Bay Area airports (SFO, OAK, and SJC), as well as smaller outposts in downtown San Francisco. Rental rates vary widely by car type, but typically start in the $30 to $40 per day range for compact models. Online aggregators such as Kayak sometimes carry temporary deals that seem too good to be true – less than $15 per day, in some cases.
Street Parking Fees and Fines
Surprisingly, street parking is free in much of San Francisco – if you can find it, and if it’s not restricted to residents only. In the downtown core, close-in neighborhoods, and commercial areas of outlying neighborhoods, parking is metered. Per SFMTA, rates range from $0.25 or $0.50 per hour at off-peak times in low-demand areas, to $6.50 per hour at peak times in high-demand areas.
Most metered spaces limit parking to four hours at a time. In non-metered spaces, you can’t park for more than three consecutive days. You can pay with coins, credit cards, or the PayByPhone app (one-time registration required).
San Francisco parking fines can be steep. Per SFMTA, meter violations range from $66 to $76 per incident, and three-day parking violations exceed $100 per incident.
Public Transportation and Walking
San Francisco has a comprehensive and complicated public transportation system. If you’re not used to navigating public transit, you’re going to face a steep learning curve here. However, given that most of the city and its environs are accessible by bus and rail, and that public transit is by far the cheapest transportation option in town, it’s worth doing your homework.
Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART)
Bay Area Rapid Transit is a regional rail system serving the upper San Francisco Peninsula and much of the East Bay region. Though four lines serve San Francisco, they share the same route through the entire city, splitting only after crossing the bay and emerging in Oakland. BART is thus really only useful for traveling to and from San Francisco, or within it if your destination lies within reach of a station. At $6 to $10, depending on your destination station, it’s definitely the cheapest way to get from SFO to downtown San Francisco though. It’s also the fastest way to get from downtown to the Mission (16th and 24th Street Stations).
San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA/Muni)
Muni, as it’s (mostly) lovingly known, provides bus, streetcar, light rail, and cable car service within San Francisco’s city limits. Generally speaking, letter-designated light rail lines and rapid buses are faster than regular buses, as they have designated traffic lanes or separate trackways altogether. Regular buses are slower, especially during rush hours and on long routes, but cover virtually every major commercial street and tourist destination of note. Check Muni’s route list for coverage information and schedules.
Single-use Muni tickets cost $2.25. They’re good for 90 minutes, with unlimited transfers, on buses, streetcars, and light rail. Day passes cost $20 (one-day), $31 (three-day), or $40 (seven-day). Seven-day passes are complimentary with San Francisco CityPASS, accounting for nearly half the package’s value.
Cable car tickets cost $7. Muni’s three cable car lines serve a relatively small swathe of the city – basically, the historic neighborhoods between downtown’s Financial District and Fisherman’s Wharf. Lines to board cable cars are often shockingly long, and the rides themselves are ploddingly slow. Long story short, they’re really only appropriate if you (or your kids) are set on an authentic San Francisco cable car experience.
If you plan to ride Muni extensively and don’t want to deal with a ticket machine or carry a paper ticket around in your pocket all the time, try the MuniMobile app, a surprisingly convenient tool to buy and store single-use, day, and multi-day passes on your phone.
CalTrain is a commuter train line that provides limited service along eastern San Francisco’s bayshore and terminates southeast of downtown. It’s worth mentioning here because it directly serves San Francisco, but you’re only likely to use it if your travels take you to suburban peninsula cities such as Burlingame, San Mateo, or Palo Alto.
The line runs through San Jose to Gilroy, an inland city at the far southern end of what’s typically thought of as the Bay Area. Fares are assigned by zone, ranging from $3.75 one-way within a single zone, to $13.75 for trips covering all six zones.
Other Agencies and the Clipper Card
The Bay Area has a number of other transit agencies and partnerships that don’t directly serve San Francisco. If you’re traveling outside the San Francisco Peninsula, you may encounter Altamont Corridor Express, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, Capitol Corridor (supported by Amtrak), and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, all of which have their own schedules and fare schemes.
The Clipper Card, an “all-in-one transit card for the Bay Area,” ties these and other agencies together, and sometimes provides small but meaningful fare discounts. You can buy one for $3, plus whatever amount you choose to load it with, at Walgreens, Whole Foods, and certain other retailers, as well as Muni ticket machines and attendants at most staffed transit stations around San Francisco. If I hadn’t had complimentary Muni access through CityPASS, I definitely would have picked up a Clipper Card at the start of my San Francisco trip, as it was pretty annoying to toggle between my preloaded BART ticket and my CityPASS booklet.
Ridesharing and Carsharing
It’s no surprise that techy San Francisco is frightfully well-covered by the two major ridesharing services, Uber and Lyft – both companies started in the area, after all. Zipcar, a popular carsharing service that’s useful for point-to-point trips and very short-term rentals, is ever-present here as well.
Uber and Lyft
Uber and Lyft are ubiquitous in San Francisco. In some areas, especially downtown San Francisco and places along the waterfront, it seems like most private cars are on the app, and wait times (assuming drivers can safely pull over) are rarely more than a minute or two.
San Francisco ridesharing costs vary by distance, timed length, and level of local demand. If no demand surcharge is in effect, regular Lyft rides carry a $2 base fare, $1.75 trust and service fee, $1.16 per mile fee, and $0.23 per mile fee, or a $5 minimum ride fee. Budget-friendly UberX rates are comparable. If you don’t mind riding with others and possibly going a bit out of your way, try Lyft Line or UberPOOL, both of which function as fixed-rate carpooling services and typically cost about half as much as a comparable Lyft or UberX ride.
San Francisco is littered with Zipcar hubs, most in public parking lots near major attractions or institutions – which, in San Francisco, are rarely far. Depending on your chosen plan, Zipcar costs $6 to $7 per hour or $71 to $79 per day. You do need to pay an annual or monthly membership fee ranging from $70 per year for occasional drivers, who pay more by the hour and day, to $50 per month for heavy drivers, who get hourly and daily discounts.
If you’re already a Zipcar member, using the service on an as-needed basis in San Francisco is probably cheaper than renting a car. However, it’s likely not worth the investment if you don’t use it or plan to begin using it in your hometown.
I was shocked by San Francisco’s thriving cycling and bike commuting culture, having always assumed the city was too steep and congested for all but diehard cyclists to navigate. That’s absolutely not the case. On the weekday portion of my visit, the ever-present trickle of cyclists on city streets became a stream during the morning and evening rushes. On weekends, the stream never let up.
If you’re adventurous and healthy enough to bike your way around San Francisco, download SFMTA’s bike network map (free), buy San Francisco Bicycling Coalition’s amazingly comprehensive SF Bike Map and Walking Guide ($4), or set your Google Maps app to the bike setting (free, but not always 100% reliable).
San Francisco has a busy bikesharing program, Bay Area Bike Share. The growing network mostly serves downtown San Francisco and some core neighborhoods, but continues to expand into the Mission and points south. If you head out of town, it also has decent coverage in Silicon Valley communities such as Mountain View, Palo Alto, and Menlo Park, and pretty good coverage in central San Jose. In 2016, Bay Area Bike Share announced a major expansion into the East Bay, along with a name change – starting in 2017, it’ll be known as Ford GoBike.
Like much else in San Francisco, Bay Area Bikeshare is a bit pricier than its counterparts elsewhere. You need to buy a 24-hour ($9) or 3-day ($22) membership before your first ride. You can avoid further charges by swapping your bike out for a new one every 30 minutes – just plan your route ahead of time so that you’ll always be close to a station. You’ll pay an extra $4 for rides lasting 30 to 60 minutes, and an additional $7 for every 30 minutes after that.
Being a major tourist town, San Francisco has a competitive bike rental industry. Blazing Saddles Bike Rentals and Tours has several locations in the Fisherman’s Wharf area and offers several suggested self-guided tours of varying lengths and levels of difficulty, including some across the Golden Gate in Marin County. Rates start at $8 per hour or $32 per day, including helmet, lock, and customized maps.
San Francisco Bicycle Rentals has locations in Fisherman’s Wharf and Golden Gate Park (on the Haight-Ashbury side). Rates start at $7 per hour or $32 per day, including accessories, but you get a 20% discount on the day rate when you book ahead online.
Or you can try your luck in the sharing economy. Spinlister‘s San Francisco app has a slew of high-quality bikes that may suit your taste better than well-worn rentals. Prices can vary, but are typically competitive with local rental companies’ day rates.
The Bay Area is a big place. San Francisco might be the most famous and tourist-friendly of its major cities, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on museums, historical attractions, and beautiful natural areas. If you’re in San Francisco for a quick business trip or reunion, you probably won’t have time to wander too far afield – or even get to see most of the attractions in this post. But if you have a few days to spare, stretch your legs a little. Get started by checking out our post on fun, affordable activities in Oakland and the East Bay.
What’s your favorite thing to do in San Francisco?