We have VT members who are geniuses at spelling out metro transit procedures. I am not one of them. Thankfully, the SF MUNI system has an excellent website that will tell you virtually anything you need to know. Here are a couple of general tips to get you started:
• A MUNI ticket or pass book covers rides on buses, cable cars, subways, trams and streetcars within the system but not BART or ferries.
• You can buy a good map of the system for $3 at major stations and bookstores
• A single-ride ticket runs $2 (at time of this writing) for just about everything but cable cars - those are $6
• If you are in town for more than a day or two and plan to use the system at lot, a pass is recommended. They come in 1-day (usually not worth the price), 3-day and 7-day amounts and you must use multi-day passes on consecutive days. These cover you for unlimited rides on ANY mode of transport in the MUNI system (not BART or ferries.) With a pass, you don't need to worry about transfers (see below) or an additional cost for cable cars.
• If using a single-ride ticket, you may transfer to other buses or trams (not cable cars) as needed within a 90-minute period. Always request a transfer when you board a bus or streetcar as it's also proof that you paid your ticket so it's important to have one for random checks. When entering subways, your transfer will be automatically dispensed at the faregate once you insert your ticket - don't forget to take it!!
• The F-line streetcars are your friend. They run at frequent intervals along Market and Embarcadero streets from The Castro to Fisherman's Wharf with lots of stops along the way.
• Cable cars and F-line streetcars fill quickly at peak times of the day. If you're waiting at a stop and the one you want blows right by, it's full. Just wait for the next one or walk to a stop further up the line.
• Cable cars only cover a limited part of the city. To explore many of the neighborhoods, you will need to take a bus, tram, subway, streetcar or combination of transport.
• Not all MUNI lines run 24/7 so be sure to check operating hours
So, take a look at the website and post any questions you may have in the San Francisco forum - one of us will get an answer to you. I used my pass only when needing to get from point A to point B in a hurry, or when I couldn't walk one more step!
The buses are also run by MUNI and most are environmentally friendly, running on cables. MUNI also operated the cable cars, trolleys, trains and streetcars. A standard one way fare on the bus is $1.25 for buses (keep in mind it's $2 for cable cars), however, your best bet is probably to purchase a 1 day ($9), 3 day ($15) or 7 day ($20) Passport, which is good for all public transportation and alleviates the need to worry about having exact change or to remember to buy the appropriate token. You can buy these at most grocery stores or convenience stores.
Like the more famous Cable Car, the steel wheeled street car or trolley was once in danger of being eliminated completely. In 1974 Maurice Klebolt argued that the old trolleys be run along the waterfront as a tourist attraction. After the completion of the Market Street stretch of the underground BART and MUNI trains in the early 1980's, revival of using the trolleys as surface transportation from the Castro District to Fisherman's Wharf became a popular idea. Because this route is generally flat, it also makes the most of these power hungry steel rail bound transports. San Francisco's bargaining to acquire retired wrecks from all over the world is to be commended. Today, MUNI boasts having more trolley cars with origins in other cities than any other transit agency in the world. In exchange for one California Street Cable Car, the original "Street Car Named Desire" was acquired from New Orleans. Similarly, unique historic trolleys have been acquired from Oporto, Portugal, Kobe and Hiroshima, Japan, Hamburg, Germany, Orel and Moscow, Russia, Melbourne, Australia, and other places outside the USA. One open-topped street car from Blackpool, England is among this group of antiques that have been restored and painted to the original international colors. These cars are so treasured though that they are not always operational. Among those in regular service are the original double-ended street cars built for MUNI in 1948, some of which are painted to the colors of trolleys in St. Louis and Philadelphia. There are 13 single-ended cars originally built for Philadelphia in 1946, but which have been restored and painted to the colors of same design metro trolleys in Brooklyn, Cincinnati, Chicago, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Boston, Baltimore, Louisville, Newark, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. In addition, 10 "Peter DeWitt" cars from Milan Italy, having a central conductor to collect fares, have been purchased. Links below detail much more about this system.
Muni Passports are very useful for 9 dollars per day you have unlimited use of the cable cars, mini buses and the historical streetcars, also for the subway but we did not use it. We got for two days with the auction, so we only needed for another day, not bad valued.
When I first moved to San Francisco, I heard nonstop complaints about the muni bus system. That has changed. One thing our former Mayor Willie Brown did was hire a crackerjack director who bought new buses, donated the old ones to the Salt Lake City Olympics and whipped the system into shape.
I use the Muni to go all over San Francisco. The fare is $1.25 per trip (or you can buy a day pass for buses and cable cars). For your $1.25, you get a transfer that will allow you to get back on any bus, officially for 90 minutes, but the bus drivers are VERY lax about this. Transfers are good on the trolleys and F line, but not the cable car.
The F line is a recent wonderful addition to San Francisco. In 2000, San Francisco, after decades of effort, completely refurbished and put into operation several antique streetcars and trolleys from all around the world. The F line runs from Castro, down Market, along the Embarcadero (waterfront) and all the way to Fisherman's wharf.
The F line is operated by Muni, so your Muni pass and transfers will work on this line. The line is fun to ride and very scenic.
The easiest way to get to the Mission/Castro district from our hotel at Union Square was to ride on board one of the historic F line streetcars. These are part of the regular San Francisco Muni (Municipal Transportation Agency) system, and therefore tickets only cost $2 (cash and Muni passes are accepted). The F line runs along Market Street, and the historic streetcars have been brought to San Francisco from all over the US, with some even coming from as far as Europe, Australia and Japan. To visit Mission Dolores, you can get off at the 14th and Church Station; otherwise, the line ends a few steps away from the Castro Theatre. It's yet another unusual and fun way to travel around San Francisco!
Though San Franciscans love to complain about it, MUNI is generally an excellent way to get around. MUNI is in charge of the buses, metro, and cable cars (which charge separately). BART is a separate entity.
Buy a MUNI map! It's about $3.00 and is probably the best single map of the city - containing most tourist sites and how to get to them.
Fares for buses/metro are $1.50 (exact change only), which includes an unlimited transfer that is good for at least 90 min. There are a variety of 1-7 day passes, and some multi-attraction cards let you ride the bus for free. If you want to take a cable car ride make sure it's included (some passes aren't good on cable cars - some will only get you a discount). Try metro stations and the visitors' center - don't ask the drivers!
Food and drink are not allowed but EVERYONE brings coffee on the bus. Smoking is punishable by death.
Muni's metro system is only one line - going from Embarcadero down to Van Ness along Market, and then branching off like a hydra to take commuters to outlying areas. Since most tourist places are north - and uphill - from Market Street, the Metro is of only limited use. If you're staying in the Union Square area and hitting the main tourist destinations, it's unlikely you'll ride the Metro at all.
Getting around SF means you'll be taking the bus. Sorry.
Some routes have limited stops to speed up the ride - they always have green placards and the letter 'L' after the number. They generally run during commute hours. It's always a good idea to ask the driver how close the bus stops to your destination.
It's common for the bus to speed away from your stop without opening the back door to let everyone off. Simply yell "back door" and they'll let you out.
As with all bus systems, the riff-raff sit in the back... try to sit in the front. Crazy people talking to themselves are common and generally won't bother you. If a person is genuinely threatening, move to the front, tell the driver (so that they can call the police), and DO NOT GET OFF THE BUS!
The MUNI train, antique trolley, and cable car system only service a fraction of San Francisco, unfortunately, so the electric bus is the best alternative, and not really a bad one. For example, to get to the famed Haight-Ashbury intersection, one can walk up the rather steep climb of Haight Street, through the Lower Haight neighborhood, and past Buena Vista Park, or one can take the MUNI bus. We often like to walk, but through the Haight Street corridor, MUNI buses #6 and #7 run frequently enough for a visitor to get up and back from the Haight within an hour or so from the Civic Center Plaza area. The restored housing is certainly worth the work-out of walking.
A few years ago, MUNI thought it would be fun to pull out some of its' vintage trolley cars to run up and down Market Street on holiday weekends. It proved to be so popular that they made it permanent, and the vintage trolleys run the F line everyday. They operate from Castro & Market, all the way down Market to the Ferry Building, and then turn up the Embarcadero, passing Pier 39 on the way to Fisherman's Wharf.
Note that these are NOT Cable Cars - they are electrified trains. But many if them are from the 40s and 50s (and before) and they will have plaques on them stating their city of origin.
They are a really cool bit of history, and, while I wouldn't suggest you go out of your way to ride one, if you're going this way anyway you might as well take the classy route. They're no more expensive than the bus, and tend to have fewer bums riding them (for some reason).
My favorites are the orange ones from Milan (see photo). They are some of the oldest - dating back to 1895. They have gorgeous wood interiors and signs and advertisements in Italian.
IMPORTANT NOTE: I wouldn't recommend taking the F trolleys - especially to Fisherman's Wharf - if you are at all pressed for time. The cars are slow anyway, but add to that hordes of tourists asking the driver directions and trying to come up with exact change, and your trip can slow to a snail's pace.
NEWS FLASH: The Market Street Railway - which maintains the classic streetcars - has just opened its own museum! It's free, fun, and right down by the Ferry Building. Read about it here!
Unlike most of the cities in the US I have been to or lived in, San Francisco imo has decent mass transportation.
I honestly could stay here indefinitely without a car, and never miss a thing
(I can de-plane at SFO, hop on Bart, and be at my hotel in about 40 minutes for about $5.00 .....
try that in Colorado, TX, or LA...)
The muni, walking, and affordable & reliable cabs get me all over town safely, quickly and relatively hassle-free.
BART gets you almost anywhere in the Bay Area.
Here are the BART Fares & Schedules to download in PDF format.
Ferrry Service gets you over the water to Marin County.
Lots of my friends commute into the City via BART regularly & painlessly from Walnut Creek, Oakland, etc.
I have found the MUNI to be safe, clean, and somewhat reliable whenever I have used it (disclaimer... but I'm just a tourist, I don't depend on it everyday at rush hour....)
My favorite time-saving MUNI run is downtown metro (under Market St.) from Castro to Embarcadero.
MUNI INFO HERE:
SF Muni's F line connects Fisherman's Wharf to the Castro district via the Embarcadero and Market Street. What makes it unique is the fleet of vintage cars from all over the world that plies its route. Riding these streetcars is like stepping back in time.
I find the F line streetcars to be the perfect complement to San Francisco's cable cars. The cable car takes you over the hills; the vintage streetcar takes you around them. Their combined routes have stops near or at many of the city's "must-sees."
Fare for the vintage streetcar is $1.50; fare for the cable car is $5.
The San Francisco Municipal Railway (MUNI) is the city's mass transportation system, operating the above and underground metro, cable cars, and bus services. San Francisco is thankfully one of the few cities in the United States that you don't really need to drive in order to get around, as it can be a total nightmare (please, take it from me). Fares are usually cheap, and the system is very safe to ride in.
If you're driving up to San Francisco but don't feel like driving around it, here's some advice: park your car near San Francisco State University, in one of the residential neighborhoods. There's two MUNI metro stops nearby. Hop aboard and it'll take you directly into downtown in less than 15 minutes.
If you're traveling along the Embarcadero, the main broad boulevard that goes along the waterfront from Fisherman's Wharf to Pac Bell Park, you can take the trolley line. These were put in to place only a few years ago and have a wonderful old San Francisco feel. For one dollar, you can go the route (for adults, cheaper for kids) and can get transfers to get on to the regular bus lines to go beyond the Embarcadero. They accept bus transfers, as well, so if you got there by bus, you don't have to pay another $1 to get up or down the Embarcadero.
The San Francisco Municipal Railway is called the Muni, and includes the historic streetcars, cable cars, and buses, but not the BART subway system or CalTrain. The Muni operates 24/7 and carries some 200 million passengers each year. Bus, historic streetcar, and Metro trips for adults cost $1.50, including a free transfer while the cable cars rip off tourists at $5 for a short ride over the hill. The Muni routes are very complex and seem to require at least one transfer to get anywhere unless you are along the waterfront or Market Street (the F-line runs this entire route)
The historic streetcars have been in operation since the system was begun in 1962. The first historic streetcar (from Hamburg Germany) was purchased in 1979 and since then street cars have been acquired from 14 American cities and 7 international cities.