Travel & Day Trips

Do You Need a Car to Visit San Francisco? A Local’s Detailed Advice

When many tourists head to the San Francisco Bay Area, they wonder if they need to rent a car. Are they going to have trouble visiting Fisherman’s Wharf, the Golden Gate Bridge, or other sites without a vehicle?

As a local who has lived in the Bay Area for a decade, I can tell you that you do not need a car to get around San Francisco.

Here’s why not–and also some better ways to get around our city.

Why You Don’t Need a Car In San Francisco

Although there’s a huge amount you can do in San Francisco, the city itself isn’t very big. Unlike New York or other cities that sprawl over vast areas, San Francisco is only about 7 miles wide. We’re constrained by the geography of our city’s location on a peninsula, so there’s just not that much room to build.

For that reason, you can easily move around San Francisco without needing to rent a car.

There are several other reasons why you shouldn’t rent a car to visit San Francisco:

  • Car rentals at SFO airport are expensive! You’re competing with business travelers heading down to Silicon Valley, and they pay a ton. I often see rates over $200 per day for rental cars at SFO.
  • Parking in San Francisco is tough. The city is basically allergic to street parking and even converted many of its coveted street parking spots to parklets during the pandemic. Garages will charge you $55 per day or more to park downtown.
  • Traffic is bad, especially around rush hour. You can easily spend an hour driving downtown if you go at rush hour and don’t know the local roads.
  • Gas is expensive. California has some of the priciest fuel in the country.

Many San Francisco residents don’t own a car for exactly these reasons. If you’re visiting our city, you don’t need one either.

How to Get Around San Francisco Without a Car

There are plenty of ways for visitors to get around San Francisco without owning a car. Here are a few of the best.

Use BART, Caltrain and Muni

Even the iconic cable cars are part of the Muni transportation system

To be honest, San Francisco doesn’t have the best public transit system, especially in the Western parts of the city. That said, our public transit is excellent at getting visitors into and out of the city and for moving you around downtown, the Financial District, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Mission.

  • To get into San Francisco from SFO, take BART. It’s hands down the cheapest and easiest method, and I always used it to get to SF from the airport before I moved to the Bay Area for good.
  • If you’re heading to our city from points further South (maybe you’re pitching your startup in Mountain View or coming from a conference), take Caltrain instead.
  • Once you’re in the city, Muni offers street cars, light rail, and other ways to get around. Muni’s service is best around the stadiums, the Embarcadero, and Fisherman’s Wharf. They even run restored vintage street cars on this line.

Even San Francisco’s iconic cable cars are operated by Muni and are actually part of the city’s public transit!

Ride a Bike

Biking in Mission Bay

San Francisco is one of the most bike-friendly cities in America. Thousands of San Franciscans use bikes to get around the city, and we have some of the best bike infrastructure that I’ve seen outside of Holland.

If you’re not planning to bring your own bike, you can rent one through Blazing Saddles. They’re one of the most popular San Francisco bike rental places for visitors.

One caveat: San Francisco is hilly. That’s another reason to rent a bike from a trusted local company. Their staff can tell you if your desired ride is realistic, or sends you straight up a near-vertical hill.

Take an Uber

Uber was created in San Francisco and is headquartered in the city’s Mission Bay neighborhood. It’s no surprise, then, that Uber is basically the unofficial way to get around the city.

You will never have trouble getting an Uber in San Francisco unless you’re traveling during an absolutely insane peak time. San Francisco’s drivers also tend to be super familiar with local roads and can avoid mistakes like trying to cross Market Street at rush hour.

Use a Scooter

Lime scooters are everywhere in San Francisco.

Electric scooters got their start down in SoCal, but they’re still wildly popular in San Fran. You can find them all over the city.

Lime, Scoot, Spin, and Jump are all licensed to operate scooter rental services in San Francisco. I recommend Lime. Create an account before you visit, download their app, and you can grab any Lime scooter in the city, scan the app, and drive off.

For safety, bring a helmet and stay off the sidwalks.

Rent a Gocar 

Go car passes a bike

Okay, so this is technically a car. But these tiny yellow vehicles are way easier to park than a rental car, and they come with a GPS guided tour of the city.

GoCars are ubiquitous in the city, and they’re a great way to explore faster, if you don’t mind finding places to stash them while you go to see an attraction.

San Francisco isn’t too rainy, but if the day is looking stormy, you might want to skip these open-topped cars. Otherwise, it’s a super popular option.

Use a Tour Bus

Some people feel that San Francisco’s open-topped tour buses are a bit too touristy to be worth using. But I disagree. They’re actually super convenient, and I’ve even ridden them as a local when a wanted to spend a day hanging out around the city.

The advantage of a hop-on/off bus is the fact that you can cover a lot of ground. Again, San Francisco isn’t that big, so by traveling between a few stops, you can see a ton of the city quickly and cheaply.

The open tops of the busses also lend themselves to photographing San Francisco’s unique architecture, including our colorful Victorian homes.

I recommend Big Bus, which is the most prominent tour bus operator in the city. 

Do You Need a Car For San Francisco Day Trips?

Again, you definitely won’t need a car if you’re visiting San Francisco and staying in the city. But what if you want to venture farther afield and to see more of the Bay Area on a day trip?

Guess what: you still don’t need a car. Here’s why.

Day Trip To Napa; Car Required?

Taking a tour bus is the best way to see Napa

Heading to Napa or Sonoma is extremely popular for visitors to San Francisco. I love visiting wineries, including V Sattui and Domaine Carneros.

Yes, you can rent a car and drive there. But it’s way easier (and more fun) to take a private bus or limo.

Many operators offer tours of Napa and Sonoma that pick up and drop off in San Francisco. They’ll take you over the Golden Gate Bridge, drive you around wine country all day, and then bring you back home.

Buses are great because they’re way safer than driving yourself. Everyone in your party can enjoy some wine and have a good time, instead of needing to designate a driver. Professional drivers often tend to know the best wineries, and can help cut through the tourist hype to take you to cool places.

I originally discovered V Sattui, one of my favorite Napa places, on a bus tour.

Do You Need to Drive to Muir Woods?

Trust me: you do not want to drive to Muir Woods. I live in the Bay Area and own a car, and even I would take public transit there at this point. Several years ago, driving to Muir Woods was reasonable. But it’s become so popular that getting parking is nearly impossible.

Instead, take a Golden Gate Ferry to Larkspur and use the Muir Woods shuttle. You can also book a Muir Woods private bus tour, which is a great option if you don’t want to take the ferry. Many buses pick up right in San Francisco.

Does Silicon Valley Require Driving?

Heading to Silicon Valley to get your next big idea funded? You might enjoy renting a Tesla to blend in, but a car still isn’t required. Take the Cal Train to Mountain View or Palo Alto, and then catch an Uber to your VC office of choice.

If You Absolutely Must Rent a Car in SF, Here’s How to Do It Right

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that you really don’t need a car to visit San Francisco. But if you absolutely MUST rent a car while visiting, there’s a right and a wrong way to do it.

Firstly, I’ll concede that there are a few situations where San Francisco travelers really do need a car:

  • You’re visiting friends in a far-flung part of the Bay Area, like the deeper East Bay
  • You’re heading down the coast to Monterey or Carmel
  • You’re planning to make a road trip (Highway 1 anyone) part of your travel experience. I.e. you’re driving for the sake of driving.
  • You’re traveling with kids and need to transport lots of stuff and carseats.

If that describes you, there are two ways that I recommend getting a car if you’re visiting San Francisco.

Turo

Turo is a peer-to-peer car rental service that’s headquartered in San Francisco. Basically, the service allows you to rent a car from a local instead of using a rental car agency.

The upshot? Personal service, local knowledge, and often lower prices than at a traditional rental car place. You also get a wider selection of cars, including Bay Area staples like Teslas and Rivians.

Zipcar

Another solid option is Zipcar, which allows you to rent cars by the hour. They have locations all around San Francisco where you can pick up a car. Just create a Zipcar account before you visit, and you’ll be good to go.

Another perk? Zipcars owns some parking spaces around the city, so you’ll have an easier time parking in several places.

Conclusion

If you’re planning to visit San Francisco, you definitely don’t need a car. Between public transit, tour operators, Uber, scooters, and the good old-fashioned bicycle, you’ll have no trouble getting around the City by the Bay.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.

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