San Francisco Geography
If you know how San Francisco is laid out, it will help you find all the attractions easily and make your San Francisco visit more pleasant. It might even spare you from the embarrassment I suffered long ago, when I didn't know San Francisco as well as I do now. I once asked a cab driver to take me from Union Square to the Chinatown Gate, which he did - a ride of about 3 blocks!
Use our map to learn where the major sights and areas are.
San Francisco seems big to many people because they've heard about so many things here, but it's really a small city (49 square miles), and most of the tourist attractions are in a much smaller area than that. You can go from Union Square through Chinatown and North Beach to Fisherman's Wharf, all in about a mile and a half.
Getting Around San Francisco on Land
Drive Yourself: The most laid-back people I know can get positively, red-faced, screaming angry while driving in San Francisco, especially when trying to find a parking spot. Avoid it unless you really need to, and think twice before renting a car. Parking is expensive, adding $40 or more to your hotel bill per night. I'm sure you'd rather spend your money some more pleasant way.
The best way to get around is a combination of options. If you plan to use public transportation often (buses, cable cars, trolley), save money and buy a Muni Passport. They're available for 1, 3 and 7 days. If you're paying by the ride, the Muni transfer (which you get when you pay) is both a receipt and a re-ride ticket. Check its expiration time (where it's torn at the bottom) before paying again unnecessarily.
Bus Tours: City Sightseeing double-decker buses stop at many of the most popular sights, and Cable Car Charters' Motorized Cable Car Tours are fun. Other similar-sounding services don't stop at as many places or offer as much flexibility. To save time and ensure that you won't find them sold out, order your tickets from Viator.com. They guarantee a price as low as you'd get on the spot, and you get a print-at-home voucher right away.
The Go San Francisco Card offers transportation as well as a number of sights. Use this handy guide to find out all you need to know about it.
Walk: Not only is it the best way to really see the city, it's good exercise and inexpensive. Despite San Francisco's reputation for hills, the waterfront is perfectly flat, and most of Chinatown and North Beach are an easy walk, too. Combine that with a cable car ride up that still hill ahead of you on Hyde or California and you can get almost anywhere.
Cable Cars: They go near most of the popular destinations, especially Union Square, Chinatown, Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman's Wharf, but the wait to get on can be long. Ride once for fun and then find another way to get around. The California Line takes you to the Ferry Building, Chinatown and Nob Hill. All the details are in the Cable Car Guide.
City Bus System: Muni goes everywhere, but it's crowded at rush hour and when school gets out. Use it to get to the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park and the beaches.
Historic "F" Line Trolley: Using restored historic trolley cars from all over the world, it runs along Market Street and The Embarcadero from the Castro district to Fisherman's Wharf. It's a good way to get to Fisherman's Wharf, the Ferry Building and Union Square.
Taxis: may be a good option, especially if several people are traveling, but getting one can be a problem at peak times (in other words, when you really need one).
- BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit): BART is a regional transportation system that covers much of the San Francisco Bay area. It's less useful than other options for getting around the tourist areas, but it does run to San Francisco Airport, Mission Dolores and the Mission District.
Getting Around San Francisco on the Water
- Blue and Gold Ferry
- Red and White Ferry
- Golden Gate Ferries take you across the bay to Sausalito, Tiburon and Angel Island
- Alcatraz Cruises is the only one that actually goes to the island. The others just pass by it.