Getting Around the San Francisco Bay Area: A Public Transit Guide

Pier 39 in San Francisco, CA
Historic Trolley at Pier 39 in San Francisco, CA.

Betsy Malloy Photography

It may seem an overwhelming array hills and neighborhoods, but San Francisco is actually a pretty compact place: a snug 49-square-mile city on the northern end of the San Francisco Peninsula, jutting up between the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay. While the San Francisco Bay Area, encompassing the surrounding North, East, and South Bay regions, extends quite a bit further, it's still a fairly easy place to get around—you just have to know your options. Despite the obvious 'obstacles,' San Francisco is easy to navigate on foot, and there are public transit options a plenty—each of them offering there own perks and covering their own specific areas. Want to get from SFO to Fisherman's Wharf, or SF's Mission District to Berkeley conveniently and efficiently? Just follow this handy guide.

How to Ride the B.A.R.T

BART in the SF Bay Area

Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, is the San Francisco Bay Area's main regional transit system, and is one of the first forms of public transit visitors tend to use when coming to San Francisco. That's because the decades old system—first operating in TK—connects both San Francisco International Airport and Oakland International Airport with the rest of the greater Bay Area (save for the North Bay). In San Francisco proper, BART trains are best for connecting the Mission District with Union Square and downtown, but for truly getting around the city, MUNI is the way to go. 

BART trains operate 5:00 am – midnight on weekdays, 6:00 am – midnight on Saturdays, and 8:00 am – midnight on Sundays, though you can sometimes catch a train a little past midnight if it's already en route. They are scheduled to run every 15 minutes on weekdays and every 20 minutes during nights and on weekends, and typically operate on time. One thing you'll quickly realize: BART trains are loud and slightly rickety, but they get the job done. There are 48 BART stations and trains run both below ground (including through the Transbay Tube beneath the San Francisco Bay) and along elevated tracks. Most trains have between 4–10 cars and travel at an average speed of up to 70 miles per hour (110 km/h). Main transfer stations (for switching between BART trains) are McArthur, Oakland City Center, and Bay Fair in the East Bay, and Balboa Park south of San Francisco.. Fares vary according to distance, but can run as low as $2 within SF city limits.

BART Trains are best identified by the names of their lines (visible on an electronic sign within the station or at the stop), and there's typical BART maps within stations and on trains for travelers to reference.

  • Richmond–Warm Springs/South Fremont line: Connecting East Bay cities between Contra Costa and Alameda counties including Berkeley, San Leandro, and Hayward
  • Antioch–SFO/Millbrae line: Connects Contra Costa and San Mateo Counties with stops in Walnut Creek, Oakland, San Francisco, and SFO
  • Warm Springs/South Fremont–Daly City line: Alameda to San Mateo counties running
  • Fremont to Daly City line
  • Richmond–Daly City/Millbrae line
  • Dublin/Pleasanton–Daly City line
  • SFO–Millbrae line
  • Coliseum–Oakland International Airport line: These are not actual BART trains, but a fleet of cable-drawn vehicle connecting the Oakland Coliseum stop with Oakland International Airport, a 3.2-mile (5.1 km) route.

All BART stations have Clipper vending machines and ticket vending machines (except Pittsburg Center and Antioch which only sell Clipper) which accept all U.S. coins and dollar bills (excluding $50 and $100 bills). Select machines accept credit and debit cards.

Just “tag and go” at the fare entry and your gate will open, with the correct fare being automatically deducted. If you're paying with a ticket, insert it and it will be returned on the other side. You'll be using this same ticket for both entering and exiting the BART system. If there's not enough money on it to pay your fare you can add $$ at the Addfare machines before exiting the BART system or look for a station agent to assist.

How to Ride the MUNI

A Muni Metro Train
 Timothy Vollmer/Flickr 

The San Francisco Municipal Railway, or MUNI, is San Francisco proper's main public transit system, operating both the metro trains and buses that connect downtown SF with its 'Outerlands,' including spots like Ocean Beach, San Francisco State University, and the San Francisco Zoo. MUNI is also responsible for the fleet of historic streetcars and SF's legendary cable cars, two favorite attractions among city visitors.

For those in town for a limited spell and looking to use public transit, Muni Passports (good on buses, metros, street cars, and cable cars) are available for 1, 3, and 7 days.

When boarding MUNI and paying by cash, be sure and take the automatic receipt that prints up once your fare is paid. This shows your proof of purchase (meaning you won't incur a hefty fee if MUNI transit officials do a spot check) and acts as a transfer, which is good for up to 90 minutes from the time of purchase (the rule of thumb is your rides must be completed within that 90 minutes).

To use a Clipper Card on board, simply hold it up to the scanner that's typically to the right of both the train's or bus's front and back doors, and it will automatically deduct your fare. 

How to Ride Caltrain:

The Bay Area's Caltrain
Oushie/Getty Images  

If you're looking to travel down the peninsula to South Bay places like Stanford, Palo Alto, and San Jose, Caltrain is your best best. It's a comfortable way to travel, with double-decker cars, space for bicycles on TK, and food and drink service on board. Tickets must be purchased before boarding the train, at ticket vending machines within the station or beside the rail track. The cost of each ticket depends on the number of zones you're traveling between (there are six zones total). Along with cash and credit/ATM cards, travelers can also use Clipper cards to pay for their tickets prior to boarding.

How to Pay for BART, Caltrain & Muni

  • Clipper Card: Good an all forms of Bay Area public transit, including BART, Muni, Caltrain, cable cars, Marin Transit buses, and SF Bay Ferry. A new Clipper Card cost $3, and they're super convenient You can value each time you travel (at a machine or online), or set it up with Autoload (online so that it automatically reloads once your balance falls below $10. Clipper Cars are available for purchase at MUNI ticket offices, ticket machines (including BART and Caltrain), over the phone, and from Bay Area Walgreens' cashiers.
  • MuniMobile: The SFMTA’s official ticketing app. Don't have cash on hand or the correct change? Purchase tickets through this handy app and pay as you go.
  • Cash: Exact change is required to ride Muni ($3 cash), and fares can be paid at the small machine in front (directly next to the metro or bus operator) as you board. Kids ages four and under ride free.  

Other Transit Options

San Francisco's Iconic Cablle Cars
 Wonwoo Lee/Getty Images 

  • Drive Yourself: The most laid-back people I know can get purple-faced, screaming angry when they have to find a parking spot in San Francisco. Avoid driving unless you have a good reason to. And think twice before renting a car. Parking is expensive, adding $40 or more to your hotel bill per night.
  • Bus Tours: City Sightseeing double-decker buses stop at many of the most famous sights. Cable Car Charters' Motorized Cable Car Tours offer more stops and flexibility than others similar tours.
  • CityPASS: Bay Area visitors can also use CityPASS to access public transit. Along with a three-day Muni and cable car use, they includes access to various museums (such as the California Academy of Sciences) and a Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure.
  • 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 see the city up close, but it's also 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 hill ahead of you on Hyde or California, and you can get almost anywhere.
  • Cable Cars: They go near most of the popular destinations, including Nob Hill, Chinatown, and Ghirardelli Square, and are a unique SF way to get around. Single cable car rides cost $7 per person. $3 for seniors or those traveling with disabilities, and you can use your Clipper Card.
  • Historic Trolley: The Market Street Railway 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. These restored historic trolley cars come from all over the world, and are also part of the Muni metro system.
  • Shared Vehicles: Taxis or ride shares like Uber and Lyft can be good options, especially if several people are traveling, and are especially convenient later in the evening when public transit is limited.
  • Bicycles and Bike Shares: Both Lyft's Ford GOBikes and dockless e-bike shares like Uber's JUMP can be found throughout the city, and are especially useful for short jaunts from place to place. In some cases, you're even able to use a Clipper Card to pay. Bike rental places include Golden Gate Tours & Bike Rentals in the Haight-Ashbury near Golden Gate Park, and Blazing Saddles in Fisherman's Wharf.
  • Car Rental: For a trip out of town, rent a car for the days you need it only. Mobility-impaired travelers can rent accessible minivans with ramps or lifts, scooters and wheelchairs through Wheelchair Getaways. They'll pick you up at the airport when you arrive and drop you off when you're done, too.
  • Ferry: Some of the ferries are more of a sightseeing trip than a means of transportation, but they can take you to some destinations across the water and entertain you at the same time. These are the companies that offer ferry services:
  • Golden Gate Ferries take you across the bay to Sausalito, Tiburon and Angel Island.
  • Red and White Ferry
  • Blue and Gold Ferry
  • Alcatraz Cruises is the only SF Bay ferry system that actually goes to Alcatraz Island.