San Francisco is one of the world’s great cities to visit, and some say to live. It is certainly the best the USA has to offer. Years ago business took me from Washington DC to San Francisco several times, making San Francisco one of my favorite destinations until I got to know London, Prague, Rome and Vienna. After the first trip, I planned my visits so that I stayed in the hotel furthest away from the work site by cable car, a spectacular way to commute, but times change. We visited San Francisco over Labor Day weekend (2008) and didn’t even ride the cable cars which had been transformed from part of the local mass transit system into an expensive ($5 per trip) tourist ride with long lines to board. Our local host said the natives have abandoned the cable cars to tourists.
Based on several visits and a exceptional local host, a friend who live in and knows San Francisco from top to bottom, the top sights in San Francisco are: 1] the ferry boat ride to Sausalito on clear day; 2] a cable car ride; 3] Architecture, including Alamo Square and environs, Victorian houses, the Financial District, San Francisco row houses, and "little houses on the hillside, little houses made of ticky-tacky"; 4] the views from the top of Coit Tower or the Crown Room at the Fairmont Hotel (day and night views) if it should reopen. Be sure to ride the glass exterior elevator and see the hotel lobby; 5] the coast from Cliff House to the Golden Gate bridge; 6] Alcatraz is reached by ferry and visited on a guided tour. Advanced reservations are mandatory.; 7] Fort Point, underneath the Golden Gate Bridge; 8] Golden Gate Park and the nearby San Francisco zoo.
Beware: Chinatown (Grant St.), Fisherman’s Wharf, and Pier 39 are tacky tourist traps, overpriced and overrun with tourists who don’t know they should have stayed away and seen things worth seeing instead. Our local host insisted on taking us the waterfront. I asked, "Why did you bring us here?" He replied, "Everybody wants to come here." I said, "Everybody is a fool." He did not disagree. Still, we found some minor amusements. Pier 39 is so gross that its fun. The colony of sea lions that hangs out near Pier 39 are best seen from Pier 41. The Victorian game machines museum on Pier 43 are almost worth a trip to the waterfront, free entry, 25-50 cents to make the things go– see the great Earthquake in live 3-D photos. The National Maritime Museum on Hyde St Pier has a collection of old ships that can be sometimes visited. The problem is staff shortage in the National Park Service brought about by conservative Republican budget cutting. At high noon on our visit, only two of nearly a dozen ships were open. A commercial attraction next to the Victorian Games Museum has visits to a WWII Liberty ship and WWII submarine(fee).
Some other sights worth seeing after the above are 1] City Hall under the dome, the setting for several scenes in "Dirty Harry" movies; 2] St Mary’s Cathedral; 3] The California Legion of Honor, a small art museum with a good collection; 4] the Cable Car Museum; 5] the Grennwich Steps descending from Coit Tower; 5] The Garden Court(restaurant) at the Palace Hotel; 6] Yerba Buena Garden
There are a lot of decent but overpriced seafood restaurants along the waterfront. Be prepared to wait at high season for a high priced lunch.
Public operated facilities– the ferry to Sausalito, Tiburon, Larkspur, and Angle Island; Muni(buses and trams); The Legion of Honor Art Museum; etc.-- have good discounts for those over 65. The Muni fare drops from $1.50 a ride to 50 cents for seniors.
San Francisco is a walking city. Our local host took us uphill by bus and then we would walk down, a wise plan but I don’t know if a casual visitor could pull it off. Some of the better walks are 1] a tour of the fountains of the financial district (our local host knows this. I don’t know how you can do it on your own, but see what you can Google); 2] Ferry to Sausalito, then walk back over the Golden Gate bridge and though the Presideo; 3] downhill from any place.
Parking is difficult or costly. In three days, we saw one available parking space, and lots of double parked cars. Parking at the Marriott was $50 a day, near Fisherman’s Wharf, $18, which might have been just for the work day. On the other hand, public transit is pretty good, although a bit slow.
It used to be that the cable cars were a great way to travel around parts of the city, but with their transformation into a tourist industry, maybe son so much today. At $5 a ride, no transfers, the most sensible way to travel is with the 1, or 5 day Muni pass which covers busses, trollies, and cable cars at a greatly reduced rate– $15 for 3 days, unlimited rides. However, note that these are not 24 hour days timed from when you first use the pass. Instead, the first day you use it, even if it is at 11:59 pm, counts as day one gone regardless of the time. The problem here is the lines at the cable cars. These are really long in high season and your chances of getting on board at any stop between the termini is nil.
If you are not going to gamble on being able to use cable cars for routine trips, consider not getting a day or multi-day pass. Other Muni(busses, trolley) rides cost $1.50 per trip and include a transfer that is good for unlimited riding for 90 minutes, but figure two hours as the transfer slips are are only approximate in their timing.
The F line trolley, Market St to Fisherman’s wharf is a working museum of old, authentic trolley cars. During high season, it is packed with tourists making the mistake of visiting Fisherman’s Wharf. If you stay at hotel near the Civic Center, you stand a chance of actually getting on board.
BART is not part of the Muni system, and changes by distance traveled. It is of little use to the visitor except for the lines to SFO and Oakland Airport. It is also exceptionally noisy, you don’t want to ride BART if it can be avoided.
The least expensive way to get to SFO is by bus. It leaves the Transbay Bay terminal every 30 minutes and makes several stops on Market St. The Airport express bus does not allow luggage on board. BART from downtown to SFO costs $5-6, you can take luggage, and don’t have to worry about traffic tie-ups on the expressway. It takes about an hour.
To use BART, find the fare card machines, look up the cost to your destination, insert cash or credit cad in the ticket machine, select the cost of your fare (it starts at $20, handy for commuters, but tourists have to work down), etc. The ticket machine will issue a ticket. Insert it in the gate to enter. Keep the ticket, because you have to insert in the gate to exit at your destination. If you entered the exact fare, the gate opens and the machine eats your ticket. If you entered too much or too little, the farecard pops out of the gate machine.