Getting around in San Francisco

San Francisco is a rare American city where you don’t need a car to see everything. In fact, given the chronic shortage of parking downtown, horrible traffic and zealous meter maids who love to give expensive parking tickets, going carless makes sense.

The public transportation system, though much maligned by locals for its unpredictable schedule, covers every neighborhood inexpensively via its system of cable cars, buses, and trolleys. Bikes are a good option, as marked bike routes – with lanes – direct riders to all major points of interest.

Walking the compact metropolis is the best bet, with each turn revealing surprises. Often these are in the form of stunning homes and bustling marketplaces, but on killer hills, some angled at 30 degrees and all punishment on the legs. Wear comfortable shoes.

The San Francisco Visitor Information Center, on the lower level of Hallidie Plaza at the end of the cable car line on Market Street (Mon-Fri 8.30am-5pm, Sat & Sun 9am-3pm; tel 415/391-2000), has free maps of the city and the Bay Area and can help with lodging and travel plans.

With well over three thousand restaurants crammed onto the small peninsula and scores of bars and cafés open all day, eating in San Francisco is never difficult. Eating is the culture in this town, with excellent food often at modest prices. For interesting SF ours, click here.

Be warned, though – San Francisco closes early, and you’ll be struggling to get served much after 10 pm. Mexican food is big in the Mission, Italian places abound in North Beach, and, of course, Chinatown naturally has plenty of Chinese, while Japan Center – the heart of Japantown, located at Post between Geary, Laguna, and Fillmore, a mile west of Union Square – boasts a few fine Japanese places.

In health-conscious San Francisco, you’ll find vegetarian entrees on every menu and quite a few entirely vegetarian restaurants. With the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma Valley on the city’s doorstep, quality wines have a high profile in most San Francisco restaurants.

While boasting the large-scale facilities and international names you’d expect in a major city, San Francisco’s shopping scene is low-key and unpretentious. This means prices are slightly lower, and shopping here is a pleasant, relatively stress-free activity.

If you want to run the gauntlet of designer labels, or just watch the style brigade consume, Union Square is the place to be. The heart of the city’s shopping territory, it has a good selection of big-name and chic stores – Neiman Marcus, whose prices have earned it the nickname “Needless Markup,” Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Gump’s and a completely redesigned Macy’s – worth a few hours if you’re into serious dollar-dropping.

SoMa is home to the Sony Metreon mall at Fourth Street and Mission, a form of “shopper-tainment” with its technology-driven stores and state-of-the-art movie complex.

Compared to many US cities, where you need money and attitude in equal measure, San Francisco’s nightlife scene demands little of either. It is not unusual for restaurants to provide live music and you can often eat and be entertained for no extra cost. This is no 24-hour city, and the approach to socializing is often surprisingly low-key, with little of the pandering to fads and fashions that go on in New York or LA.

You can get lots of San Francisco tourism pointers information from the SF Visitor Information Center (Market & Powell streets, lower level of Hallidie Plaza), close to the Powell Street BART station.

All international and most domestic flights arrive at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), located about fifteen miles south of the city. San Mateo County Transit (SamTrans) buses leave every half-hour from the lower level of the airport; the #KX express takes around 30 minutes to reach the Transbay Terminal downtown, while the slower #292 stops everywhere and takes nearly an hour.

On the #KX, you’re allowed only one carry-on bag; on the #292, you can bring as much as you want, provided you can carry it onto the bus yourself. The SFO Airporter bus picks up outside each baggage claim area every fifteen minutes and travels to Union Square and the Financial District. The blue SuperShuttle, American Airporter Shuttle, and Bay Shuttle minibusses depart every five minutes from the lower level of the circular road and take passengers to any city-center destination. Be ruthless – competition for these and the several other companies running shuttle service is fierce and queues nonexistent.

Several domestic airlines (Jet Blue and Southwest are two) and United fly into Oakland International Airport (OAK), across the bay. This is actually closer to downtown San Francisco than SFO and is efficiently connected with the city by the BART shuttle bus, which drops you at the Coliseum BART station. Get on BART and San Francisco’s downtown stops are fifteen minutes away.