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San Francisco: a first timer’s inside guide

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 wants to pack as much as possible into their trip. We break down the basics so you can hit the ground running…


Getting around

At first glance San Francisco’s public transport system can seem a bit complicated, so it pays to study a transit map before you leave, especially if you’re only in town for a few days. On the other hand, the City by the Bay is eminently walkable if you don’t mind the (very) steep hills. If you have the luxury of time, we recommend going by foot where 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 $2.50, 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 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 $8.95 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 to 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.  


Getting your bearings

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 neighbourhoods too diverse 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 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.

Numerous companies run tours of the above mentioned routes: try Big Bus Company, Gray Line, City Sightseeing or Red and White Fleet for starters.


Don’t miss

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 the 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.

  • Alcatraz Island. The no.1 rule is to book in advance. While you will sometimes be able to get tickets to tour this eerie former prison on the day, if it’s something you really want to see – and you should – don’t risk it. This is one of the most popular attractions in the city and tours regularly sell out days, or even weeks, in advance
  • Ferry Building Farmers Market. Foodies rejoice: this is possibly the best farmer’s market in the country, and it’s certainly housed in some grand surroundings. But you’ll need to plan carefully if you want to sample all the glorious NorCal foodstuffs on offer: the market is only held three times per week – Tuesdays 10am-2pm, Thursdays 10am-2pm, and Saturdays 8am-2pm. 
  • Lombard Street. Though its residents probably wish it wasn’t, Lombard Street is simply an icon of San Francisco. The so-called crookedest street in the world (it isn’t) features eight hairpin turns and a pedestrian staircase either side, for those not travelling down it by car. The views from the top out towards Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower are some of the finest in the city, but photographs of the street itself are best taken from the bottom looking up.
  • Muir Woods. It’s 12 miles out of the city, but it’s still one of the most popular attractions in the wider San Francisco area. A protected patch of soaring coastal redwoods that have to be seen to be believed (and the only ones you’ll find without having to travel five hours north to Redwood National Park), this enchanted forest mixes monster trees, swirling fog and golden shafts of sunlight to dazzling effect. Extranomical Tours have one of the earliest start times, getting you to the woods before the crowds arrive.

Image credits:

Muni F-Line Historic Streetcar © 2010 Scott Chernis Photography - San Francisco Travel Association