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San Francisco, California - Transportation

San Francisco, California has one of the most extensive transportation systems in the United States. Streetcars, cable cars, rail, buses, bike paths, highways, and ferries make it is easy to get around in San Francisco.

Cable car heading towards Fisherman's Wharf© SFCVB
The Cable Cars are the most famous landmark of San Francisco and the last of their kind in the world.

San Francisco Area Airports

San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is one of the USA's major international gateways. It is about a 15-20 minute ride south from downtown. Its International Terminal, called Marin Hall, has two concourses (A and G). Its two domestic terminals are 1 and 3. (Terminal 2 is currently under renovation).

Passengers may move between terminals by walking or via the AirTrain. The Red Line connects all terminals, terminal parking garages and the Bay Area Rapid Transit station (BART). The Blue Line connects all terminals, terminal garages, the BART Station and the Rental Car Center.

Oakland International Airport, and Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport are nearby and offer many US discount airline flights making them ideal for domestic connections.

Airport Transportation: BART and Car Rental

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) provides service to the San Francisco International Airport via the Blue Line. The fare to downtown cost $5.15. A taxi ride downtown costs between $35-45. Shared ride van service costs $15-20 per person. The SamTrans public bus service costs only $1.50, but is difficult to negotiate with luggage.

The SFO Airport's Rental Car Center can be reached via the 24-hour AirTrain Blue Line. Several off-site rental car companies provide free shuttle service from the Rental Car Center to their offices. Some airlines allow check in at the Rental Car Center. Passengers must arrive 75 minutes prior to their flight's arrival. There is a fee per boarding pass and luggage.

San Francisco Train and Rail Services

Amtrak trains have several routes through San Francisco. The California Zephyr and Coast Starlight serve San Francisco directly with connections to other train routes across the USA. The Amtrak California provides intercity rail and bus service within California.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is an extremely reliable rail system that connects the San Francisco Peninsula with cities in the East Bay. Fares are relatively inexpensive. For more information, visit their website: www.bart.gov

The Caltrain runs between San Francisco and San Jose. Fare ranges from $2.25 to $4.

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Interstate and Regional Buses in San Francisco

Greyhound bus lines serve San Francisco and the Bay Area with routes throughout California and other major U.S. cities. The Golden Gate Transit bus service provides rides between the San Francisco Financial District, Marin and Sonoma counties via the Golden Gate Bridge.

Driving San Francisco and California Highways

There are many highways leading to San Francisco. U.S. Route 101, arrives from southern California through the Silicon Valley and continues northward to Washington and Oregon. It is one of the most scenic highways in the United States. Interstate 580 arrives from the southeast cities of Dublin and Livermore and connects with Interstate 5, the quickest route to Los Angeles. I-580 also connects with routes to Yosemite National Park.

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Interstate 80 crosses the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and heads to Sacramento, Lake Tahoe and Reno Nevada. I-80 ultimately crosses the entire USA until it reaches New Jersey.

San Francisco Water Transportation

The Golden Gate Ferry Service transports passengers between the San Francisco Ferry Building, Sausalito and Larkspur. ($7.10) The Blue & Gold Fleet provides service between Fisherman's Wharf at Pier 41, Sausalito and Larkspur ($9.00); Vallejo ($12.50); Tiburon ($9.00); Angel Island ($7.25); Oakland and Alameda ($5.50).

Getting Around Town

San Francisco's public transportation is by far the best way to get around the city. If you plan on relying on the bus, streetcar and cable car, the Passport Pass is available for multi-day unlimited use.

Tip: The San Francisco City Guides offer free year-round walking tours.

Ferry to Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay © SF Conventions and Visitors Bureau
Ferry to Alcatraz

Rail, Trolleys & Cable Cars in San Francisco

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) rail system runs from Millbrae, just south of the SFO airport, through the San Francisco peninsula to Oakland, Berkeley, and other East Bay cities. Rides downtown are $1.40/one-way.

The San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni), which operates light rail vehicles, busses, trolleys and the famous cable cars, provides 80 routes throughout the city. The basic fare is $1.50 except for the cable cars that cost $5.00. The Cable Cars are the most famous landmark of San Francisco and the last of their kind in the world. Three cable car routes connect downtown with Fisherman's Wharf.

Tip: If you wish to ride the historic cable cars, avoid the long lines waiting at the terminal near Fisherman's Wharf, instead catch the cars at their downtown stops.

Bus Transportation

The SamTrans public buses are a bargain in San Francisco at only $1.50 a ride. The buses run between the airport and locations through out San Francisco and San Mateo County. Muni runs an additional 55 bus lines through out San Francisco and is another great transportation bargain at $1.50/ride.

The Golden Gate Transit bus service provides service throughout San Francisco and over the Golden Gate Bridge as far north as Santa Rosa. Rides throughout San Francisco are $3.15.

Driving in San Francisco is Difficult

Driving is difficult in downtown San Francisco. The streets tend to become congested. There are many one-way streets and steep hills. Parking is scarce and expensive.

Waterfront Trail along San Francisco Bay © SF Conventions and Visitors Bureau
Waterfront Trail

Scenic Drive

The 49-Mile Scenic Drive is the most famous tourist route in San Francisco. Drivers can follow a trail marked by blue and white seagull signs while viewing dozens for San Francisco highlights. It is best to avoid the morning and afternoon rush hours when attempting this drive.

Rent a Bike

Bicycling is very popular in San Francisco, and there are many bicycle rental shops. The city provides trails, bike routes, and places to park and lock your bicycle.

Handicapped Access

All of the San Francisco public transportation is wheelchair accessible except for the trolleys and two Muni bus lines. You may request a copy of the Muni Access Guide from Muni Accessible Services Programs (Tel: 415-923-6142).

The free 48 page Access San Francisco kit is extremely helpful in pointing out local restaurants, hotels, attractions, and accessible transportation. It is available online at the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau's (SFCVB) website.

Written by: Elizabeth Blair
Top Photo Credit: © San Francisco Conventions & Visitors Bureau
Photo Description: Fisherman's Wharf