How to tour San Francisco with or without a car
San Francisco is a city like none other. After arriving, the first thing I thought was, “Why haven’t I come here sooner?” But with only two days to explore, we made the most of our rental car AND without it.
My mom was born in San Francisco in 1949 and had never been back. So, I figure it was about time. We booked our flight and were ready to go. The question was, do we rent a car or not? You can definitely get around much easier with a rental car but parking is hard to find and expensive. And there something to be said about heading out into the unknown on foot. Well, why not do both?
San Francisco WITHOUT a car
Even though we rented a car, I didn’t want to deal with parking downtown, so the one of the two days that we were there, we hit all the main sites downtown on foot and cable car.
Here’s what we saw in one day WITHOUT using our rental car:
- Lombard Street
- Ghirardelli Square
- Pier 39
- Fisherman’s Warf
- Coit Tower
- Filbert Steps
Reserve a hotel close to downtown San Francisco
This will make your life a whole lot easier if most of the tourist spots are within walking distance of your hotel anyway. Check out these helpful posts:
- Where to stay in San Francisco on a budget
- The best places to stay in San Francisco – Union Square and Nob Hill
- Top cheap San Francisco Hotels
Ride the cable car
If you’re in San Fran, you have to ride the cable car at least once. I downloaded the MuniMobile on my phone, which is the official mobile ticketing app for public transportation San Francisco. I bought a one-day visitor passport for myself and my mom. Just show the conductor your tickets on your phone and you’re done. Simple. We were able to get around so easily and we weren’t exhausted because we didn’t have to walk as much.
Here’s a great post about how to ride a cable car in SF. And check out this great map of the cable car routes.
Get an early start
We left our hotel room at 7 a.m. That’s right! This is an urban vacation. It’s not like you’re sitting on the beach all day. The cable cars are less crowded, Lombard Street is beautiful with the sunrise, Fisherman’s Warf is peaceful and Pier 39 is just you and the sea lions.
We had already seen so much by 8:30 a.m. and then we hopped on our boat ride to Alcatraz. Speaking of Alcatraz, book your tickets ahead of time. They will most likely be sold out if you try to by them the same day. By the way, Alcatraz was my favorite part of the whole trip.
After Alcatraz, take a walk over to the Filbert Steps which lead you straight up to Coit Tower for the best view of the city. Grab some grub and cheap souvenirs for the kids in Chinatown and the Fortune Cookie Factory, spend some time shopping at Union Square and finish your day relaxing in the plaza at Ghirardelli Square with some chocolates in hand.
All of this can be done with a good pair of shoes and some cable car tickets.
San Francisco WITH a car
For the second half of our two-day excursion, I am very glad we had a rental car. We saw so much more than we could have otherwise. But I did learn a thing or two along the way.
Here’s what we visited with our rental car:
- Golden Gate Park
- Golden Gate Bridge
- Muir Woods
- Twin Peaks
- Painted Ladies
Plan on spending a bit of money on parking
While we were touring the city on foot the first day, our car was sitting in a nearby parking garage: $30. Then we went to a movie and parked in another parking garage: $28. Finally, we wised up and parked our car on the street for the last night: $0.
Basically, try to find a spot on the street. If you can’t, then park in a garage. You’ll spend a little bit of money, but you’re on vacation. Don’t stress over it. For everything you need to know about parking in San Francisco, click here.
GPS is your friend
This might be a no-brainer, but keep your phone charged and use your GPS. We would have been completely lost with out it. It also allowed for a more impromptu adventure for the both of us.
Drive with no destination in mind
My mom’s favorite part of our trip with just driving up and down the steep hills and admiring the Victorian architecture. It’s such a quaint city. In particular, Golden Gate Park is a great place to drive through. You can park and stretch your legs when you see something you like. Better yet, grab some take out and enjoy a fun picnic.
Visit a beach
Although we didn’t have time to visit a beach while we were there, San Francisco has plenty to choose from. Here’s a great post to learn more.
Other tips and tricks
- If you’re a Full House fan, don’t miss out on the Painted Ladies at Alamo Square.
- Reserve your parking spot or shuttle time for Muir Woods. It’s required now.
- Check out Twin Peaks and reserve some time to hike up some nearby trails.
- Try to visit a farmer’s market while you’re there. They are so fun!
What are some places you recommend visiting in SF? Leave your comments below.
Related link: Ashland Oregon: 7 reasons why it’s worth the drive