How To Get To San Francisco Without A Car: Tourist’s Guide (2024)

So, you’ve decided to explore the vibrant city of San Francisco, but how do you get there without a car? Whether you are jetting in from afar or coming up from Silicon Valley, there are plenty of convenient transportation options.

In this article, we’ll talk about the different ways to get to San Francisco depending on your starting point. We’ll also weigh your options depending on your travel style, including where to stay in San Francisco without a car.

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From the airport (SFO)

Let’s start with the most common entry point for out-of-town visitors: San Francisco International Airport (SFO). It is located about 15 miles or a 20-minute drive from downtown San Francisco, which is not too far away.

I remember the first time I landed in SFO, eager to explore the iconic San Francisco sights. The good news is, getting from SFO to the heart of the city is a breeze.

How to get to San Francisco without a car

1. Public transportation via BART

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system is a staple mode of public transportation to San Francisco. The BART station is conveniently located at the airport, and a direct BART ride gets you to downtown San Francisco in about 30 minutes. It costs around $10.55 (check fees here) depending on your destination and you’ll also get to enjoy the sights along the way.

Look out for the yellow or red lines which are almost identical for the purposes of taking you into the city. The main difference between these lines are the ending points, which are in Antioch and Richmond respectively.

In order to take the BART, download the Clipper App and you can also use your phone to pay for the ride by adding a Clipper Card to your mobile wallet. It’s also easy to manage funds and view your ride history this way.

Safety tips for BART

Hold on to your belongings well especially if you are sitting near the doors. There have been cases of snatches happening as doors closed. I personally haven’t witnessed anything like this, but it doesn’t hurt to be careful.

In addition, stay alert and aware of your surroundings. If you don’t feel comfortable sitting down, you could also choose a corner to stand in where you can see everything that’s happening in the cabin.

Our interesting experiences with BART

On our first BART ride, we saw a piece of foil and a blade left on the seat. No one was around – it was just very surprising to see that left behind.

Another time we saw a lady acting suspiciously, and when it came to her stop she fumbled and dropped her makeup as she got up to leave. I’m trying not to jump to any conclusion, but just trying to give some examples of what you might encounter.

Aside from these interesting sights, it felt safe and we’re usually at ease when taking the BART to and from SFO airport. The rides are also quite frequent so not too much planning was required.

How to get to San Francisco without a car - Union Square/Powell Station
Powell Station exit near Union Square

2. Taxis and ridesharing

For those who prefer a direct route, taxis and ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft are readily available at the airport. This can be a more comfortable option if you have luggage in tow or simply want a door-to-door experience.

Taxis can be more expensive than Uber/Lyft, but they can pick you up near the arrival gate. On the other hand, ridesharing pick-ups have designated zones which can be a bit further away. In SFO, you will need to meet your driver at Level 5 of the parking garage instead of right outside the arrival area.

Do also make sure to pick a vehicle that is large enough for the number of passengers and baggage you have. If you are arriving at odd hours, chances are there are no BART services and rideshares will be your best option. We like this option the most since it doesn’t cost much more for 2 people to share a ride compared to taking BART.

From the Silicon Valley or San Jose

Perhaps you were in Silicon Valley or San Jose for work, or you’ve just finished meeting some friends. Here are several options of ways to get to San Francisco without a car.

1. Caltrain

Coming up from the south, Caltrain is a popular choice. It takes between 1 to 1.5 hours to get to San Francisco from the Silicon Valley area. This typically includes places like San Jose, Cupertino, Palo Alto, etc. You can expect it to cost around $8 to 10.

You might be wondering – what’s the difference between Caltrain and BART?

Caltrain is a type of commuter railway, whereas BART is more like a subway. They cover slightly different areas – Caltrain serves much of the peninsula, whereas BART covers a broader region around the Bay Area.

Caltrains do have specific schedules with varying frequency especially in the off-peak periods, so it’s important to plan your time accordingly. You can check the timings while searching on Google Maps, or the official schedule here. The different service types will have names based on their routes and stops, such as L1/L3/etc. This will also be shown in the Google Maps directions result.

Do remember to tap in and out when you’re at the Caltrain platforms as this is how they determine the correct fare. You can also purchase Clipper cards at Caltrain stations if you don’t want to use the Clipper App.

2. Drive then BART

If you already have a rental car, you can consider driving to Daly City and then taking the BART to downtown San Francisco. You can find more information about Daly City BART station parking here.

There are a few benefits of doing this:

  • Parking is cheap ($3/day during peak periods, free on weekends)
  • BART services are frequent with a wide range of routes going through the Daly City station
  • Saves the trouble of parking in San Francisco
  • Faster journey through the Bay Area Peninsula via Highway 280 which is usually not too congested (compared to 101)
  • No need to rush to meet specific Caltrain timings

Overall, this option provides a seamless transition from car to public transit. You will get the best of both worlds – the freedom of driving and the efficiency of BART.

3. Drive then rideshare

If you want to make it even quicker, consider hopping onto Uber/Lyft from Daly City into San Francisco. That way, you don’t even need to deal with any public transit.

This can be relatively cost effective if you’re carpooling. Depending on where you’re headed, it could be collectively cheaper to book a $15-20 ride share compared to paying for BART.

In general, if you’re headed to somewhere on the west side of San Francisco, getting Uber/Lyft is most likely better since there wouldn’t be a direct BART service from Daly City. On the other hand, downtown areas like Mission district, Union Square, and Embarcadero are quite easy to get to via BART.

Is San Francisco still worth visiting?

As you plan your journey, you might wonder if San Francisco is still the enchanting city it’s often portrayed to be.

I would say yes – if you have time to spare.

Haight-Ashbury San Francisco

If you are planning a California road trip with a tight timeline, you may want to simply drive past San Francisco without stopping there.

Despite the media’s focus on the negative issues like substance use and homeless encampments in certain areas, there are parts of the city that are absolutely worth checking out. I admit that I’m still learning to view these situations through the lens of compassion. Anyway, I totally understand if you’re feeling apprehensive.

Here’s why I think it’s still worth to visit the charming city of San Francisco:

  • Lots of good food
  • Ample natural spaces where you can relax or go hiking, such as: Twin Peaks, Batteries to Bluffs Trail, Crissy Field Beach, the Presidio, etc
  • Eclectic neighbourhoods like Haight-Ashbury that come with such a rich history
  • The iconic Golden Gate Bridge is really gorgeous from places like Marshall’s Beach

If you want to feel more at ease, I find the districts on the west side of San Francisco more appealing for tourists. It would feel more “San Francisco” compared to walking through Union Square or areas bordering the Tenderloin. Your experience may vary, but I hope you’ll enjoy your visit to this bustling city!

Where is the best place to stay in San Francisco without a car?

Choosing the right neighborhood during your stay can significantly impact your San Francisco experience, especially if you’re opting to go carless. Here are a few neighborhoods that offer both convenience and a relatively safer vibe.

When it comes to safety, I’ve shortlisted the districts based on what I’ll actually recommend to friends and family. You can check out this article for full list of recommended districts.

As for convenience, I’ve chosen these places based on whether there’s a direct line of public transit. This is especially crucial because you may have luggage that can be difficult to lug around when changing lines.

Palace of Fine Arts
Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco

Best location for tourist attractions: Marina District

If you’re looking for a place that is relatively close to most of the major tourist attractions in San Francisco, consider staying in the Marina District. It’s not as convenient to get to compared to the previous neighborhoods, but you can always book Uber/Lyft to your hotel.

Where to stay:

Attractions near Marina District:

  • Palace of Fine Arts
  • Crissy Field
  • Walt Disney Family Museum
  • Presidio of San Francisco

Connectivity to SFO airport and Daly City: Financial District

If you’re planning to take public transit into San Francisco from either SFO airport or Daly City, the best place to stay would be in the Financial District.

It will only take about 30 minutes from SFO airport, or 25 minutes from Daly City station. There are no line changes required and this area is very well connected to other parts of San Francisco as well.

Where to stay:

Attractions near Financial District:

  • Ferry Building
  • Embarcadero Center

Connectivity to Silicon Valley and San Jose in South Bay Area: Mission Bay

If you’re coming from the South Bay Area via Caltrain, you’ll have a direct ride all the way to San Francisco Station. This is the closest Caltrain station to the Mission Bay, and only takes about 10-15 minutes to walk there. There are lots of events and activities happening in this area so it’s usually quite lively. It’s also a relatively newer district with parks and modern hotels to help you feel right at home.

Where to stay:

Attractions near Mission Bay:

  • Warriors’ Chase Center
  • Oracle Park

Is it better to walk or drive in San Francisco?

In case you’re still wondering whether to walk or drive in San Francisco, let’s take a look at a few factors to help you decide. It very much depends on your comfort level and patience.

Walking in San Francisco

Walking is my preferred mode of transport in San Francisco. The city’s unique charm lies in its hilly streets, historic architecture, and hidden gems that reveal themselves when you explore on foot. From the Painted Ladies to Lombard Street, some experiences are best enjoyed step by step. In addition, you’ll have the freedom to make spontaneous plans.

Cable Cars and Public Transit

San Francisco’s iconic cable cars aren’t just a tourist attraction – they’re a practical mode of public transportation, especially when you need to conquer those steep hills. Couple that with buses, trolleys, and the efficient BART system, and you’ve got a comprehensive network that can take you almost anywhere you want to go.

The Driving Dilemma

Driving in San Francisco, on the other hand, can be an adventure in itself. The city’s hills and narrow streets can be challenging for those not accustomed to them. Parking can also be a headache, especially when there’s an event going on that you’re not aware of.

Is it safe to drive in San Francisco? What are the risks?

In case you’re not yet aware, car break-ins are a risk you should be careful about. The general advice is not to leave belongings in the car when it’s parked. For example, don’t leave luggage in the car even if you’re only stopping somewhere for a short while before heading to the airport. Believe it or not, some tourists have had the unthinkable happen to them in the final hours of their trip.

In my experience, the best approach is to embrace the walkable nature of the city and use public transit for longer journeys. I would save driving for specific day trips or activities outside the city center. You can also rent a car from San Francisco via Turo, Zipcar, or traditional companies like those you can find on Rentalcars.com.

Haight-Ashbury San Francisco

Additional thoughts on how to get to San Francisco without a car

Getting to San Francisco without a car is not only practical but also part of the adventure. Whether you’re arriving from the airport, or shuttling to/from other parts of the Bay Area, there’s good connectivity to San Francisco. Do plan your route in advance so you will know if there are specific timings you need to meet, especially when it comes to Caltrains.

No matter which mode of transport you choose, don’t forget to enjoy the experience! Embrace the unexpected as you get a glimpse of life in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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