A BARTable visitor's guide to San Francisco
All photos courtesy of San Francisco Travel
You’ve landed at SFO, with no itinerary for exploring San Francisco. What do you do?
Perhaps you’ve heard of the city’s famous water views, colorful Victorian houses, excellent taquerias, quirky bars, world-class museums and urban parks. Well we’re here to tell you can find all of those here and more! We’ve compiled some of the best spots to check out on your trip to SF, all along the BART map so you don’t have to stress about driving, parking, traffic and any other car-related difficulties.
When you land, head to the BART station located at SFO’s International Terminal. You can either walk or take the free AirTrain from any terminal to get directly to the station. Purchase a Clipper card for $3 at any of the BART kiosks and put a set amount of money on your ticket — $9.15 will get you to downtown, one-way. (Note: If you purchase a BART blue ticket, you will receive a $0.50 surcharge per trip).
Take an Antioch train and hop on. The first stop we recommend checking out is 24th St. Mission, six stops away from SFO.
24th St. Mission
The Mission District is rich in history and Latin culture. When exploring the neighborhood you’ll find treasures like celebrated murals, galleries and award-winning burrito spots, just to name a few. For bites, check out either La Taqueria or El Farolito. La Taqueria claimed the title of best burrito in the U.S. from FiveThirtyEight in 2014, and El Farolito has been known as its long-time rival. See for yourself which is better.
Curious where to get drinks after? There’s El Techo, one of the city’s iconic rooftop bars. It serves up Latin American street eats and cocktails like pina coladas and margaritas.
If you feel like working off some calories, challenge your buddies to Urban Putt for a mini golf match; the course is inspired by local landscapes and underwater fun. There’s also a bar and restaurant inside.
16th St. Mission
To truly experience the heart of the Mission, you have to visit Dolores Park. It’s the go-to spot for locals who want to hang out with friends, soak in some sun and have a stellar view of the city’s skyline. Compared to other popular parks in the city (Golden Gate and Alamo Square), “Dolo” is one of the most central and BART-accessible.
Time for some sweets and coffee? Head over to Tartine Bakery and see why it’s known as one of the best bakeries in the city. Try a banana cream tart or morning bun or any other Tartine treat; just don’t be too surprised if there’s a line!
Civic Center/UN Plaza
Civic Center is an area concentrated with local governmental and cultural institutions. City Hall is a beautiful Beaux-Arts monument to admire; across the street is Bill Graham Civic Auditorium that often attracts some of the biggest names in music. There is also the War Memorial Opera House and San Francisco Symphony. Closeby is the Asian Art Museum, which houses one of the most comprehensive collections of Asian Art in the world.
An adjacent neighborhood to Civic Center is Hayes Valley, one of the most chic areas in SF. Spend time perusing unique boutiques or having a bite at one of the area’s charming eateries. Try Souvla — Michelle Obama loves it so much she ordered some for her plane ride from SF to DC back in December. If you’re craving exotic cocktails and pirate-themed decor, Smuggler’s Cove is only a few blocks away.
For some travelers, squeezing in shopping into an itinerary is a must. The Westfield San Francisco Centre is an urban mall at its finest, and is connected directly to the Powell Street transit station through an underground entrance. Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s are the big name shops, mixed with many other notable brands. There are great local eateries and a Century Theatres multiplex.
Also worth checking out is Union Square, a public plaza that’s surrounded by one of the nation’s largest collections of department stores, upscale boutiques and galleries. It’s also a great resting spot with plenty of public seating, and there are usually seasonal events and local art to enjoy.
Montgomery Street is in the heart of the financial district, so here’s where you can witness the hustle and bustle of work life for locals who come from all over the Bay Area. A nice respite from the fast-paced nature of FiDi is the Yerba Buena Gardens. Pack a picnic and sit in the esplanade, or grab some one-of-a kind tea at Samovar Tea Lounge. Nearby is SFMOMA — one of the largest museums in the world to hold solely modern and contemporary art. It also has 45,000 square feet of art-filled public space for those without tickets.
The last San Francisco stop before going into East Bay is Embarcadero, which is right next to the San Francisco Ferry Building. Perched on top of the building is the iconic 245 feet clock tower, which can be spotted from miles away. Inside the Ferry Building is a marketplace open every day of the week; you can easily get lost looking at different vendors or trying all the samples. Cowgirl Creamery is famous for their gourmet American and European cheeses and Hog Island is a must for oyster fans. The best part is grabbing a seat outside and getting a great view of the Bay Bridge.
Places a bit off the BART map, but still worth seeing:
Coit Tower: There are not many places in SF to get a 360-degree view of the city, but you can definitely get one at Coit Tower. The 210-foot white slender tower stands proudly in the city skyline, nestled in Pioneer Park in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood. Tickets range from $2-$9; children four and under are free. To get to Coit Tower via BART, exit at Montgomery Street and walk to Sansome and Sutter streets. Wait for the 10 or 12 bus, and ride to Pacific Avenue and Kearny Street. Then walk 11 minutes to the tower.
Pier 39/Fisherman’s Wharf: You’ll be a fish in a sea of tourists here, but if you haven’t experienced Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf, you need to see it at least once. Seafood spots, sourdough bread bowls, endless souvenir shops, sea lions and Ghirardelli Square. Beyond the touristy stuff is a historic neighborhood filled with tales of the Barbary Coast and maritime roots. Exit at Embarcadero and walk to The Embarcadero/Ferry Building. Wait for the E or F bus, and exit at The Embarcadero and Stockton Street stop. Then walk 3 minutes to Pier 39.
The Painted Ladies: “Full House” made these ladies famous, but these colorful structures have been around way before the show began airing. San Francisco had a colorist movement in the 70s where houses in the city started getting painted with bright colors — thus transformed into “Painted Ladies.” One of the best known streets with the ladies is at 710-720 Steiner St., across from Alamo Square Park. It’s sometimes known as “Postcard Row,” with a perfect view of the skyline behind it. Exit Civic Center/UN Plaza and walk to Market and Hyde streets. Wait for the 21 Stanyan Street bus, and get off at Hayes and Steiner streets. Then walk 2 minutes to 710 Steiner Street.
Golden Gate Bridge: To many, there’s nothing that symbolizes San Francisco more than the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s one of the most photographed bridges in the world, and its bright “International Orange” color is sure to make any picture pop. You can walk, bike or drive across the bridge, which spans 1.7 miles. Exit at Embarcadero and walk to Fremont Street between Mission and Market streets. Wait for the 54 or 56 bus and ride to the Golden Gate Bridge Toll Plaza-Hwy 101. Then walk 19 minutes to the Golden Gate Bridge.
More BART tips
- If you purchase a Clipper card, you can use it to ride BART in addition to all major Bay Area transit systems, including SF Muni, Caltrain and the San Francisco Bay Ferry
- One-way trips between SF BART stations are less expensive than the SF Muni system
- Use BART’s QuickPlanner to plan your trip at bart.gov
- Monday to Friday, 4am-midnight
- Saturday, 6am-midnight
- Sunday, 8am to midnight