The Gravys go to SF!
August 24, 2010 1:29 PM   Subscribe

2 Days in San Francisco for sightseeing, should we rent a car?

The Gravys are flying into SF, spending 2 nights, and then driving down the coast to Long Beach. It is Mr. Gravy's first trip to SF and I haven't been for 15 years. Should we rent a car right away or is it just as easy to see the city by mass transit? We'll probably want to go to Fisherman's Wharf, Chinatown, Golden Gate Park, and possibly Alcatraz. (I've never been to Alcatraz) We'll be there from Sunday 1:00 pm until Tuesday late morning. Any advice you want to give, I'm open to suggestions including restaurants, hotels, must-sees, must-dos.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy to Travel & Transportation around San Francisco, CA (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
No. Do not rent a car.
posted by parmanparman at 1:34 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

For the trip you are planning, I would absolutely not rent a car.
posted by Zophi at 1:36 PM on August 24, 2010

It's much easier to take public transit than it is to find parking, all things being equal.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:36 PM on August 24, 2010

Don't rent a car. You'll spend more time and money trying to find parking/parking it than you would if you just buy a full-day Muni pass that tourists buy (apologies for not remembering the name of it - I'm home with a cold and somewhat brainless).

You can zip through Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39 on your way to the ferry to Alcatraz; my opinion only, but neither the Wharf nor Pier 39 is worth much time - it's a lot of stuff for sale that tourists will buy, and you can buy that stuff in almost any city anywhere. Alcatraz, however, is cool!

Chinatown is an easy stroll from North Beach, which you should also explore, if for no other reason than to visit City Lights Books.

Golden Gate Park, in addition to being an amazing park, has the Cal Academy of Sciences and the De Young Museum, and they are conveniently across from each other.
posted by rtha at 1:37 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I haven't been in California since the recent budget crisis, but last time I was in SF in 2005 it was incredibly walkable with the bus/subway. I would recommend getting a 3-day Muni passport for each of you.
posted by muddgirl at 1:38 PM on August 24, 2010

As far as an anecdote goes, I traveled to SF once without having gone there, and I would think renting a car, finding parking, and getting around would be a bigger hassle than it would be to figure out public transit. I traveled alone, however. If you need to get someplace specific, Taxis are the way to go, they were cheaper than I expected.
posted by hellojed at 1:38 PM on August 24, 2010

No. Do not rent a car. Parking is like $45/day in the downtown area and public transit (and walking) will get you everywhere you need to go.
posted by kdar at 1:44 PM on August 24, 2010

Phew, I don't think I ever had a faster response to a question before.

I kind of expected that the hassle of parking would outweigh the convenience of having a car to get around, but like I said it has been 15 years since I visited.

Ooo rtha, my husband will most definitely want to go to City Lights Books...I hadn't thought of that.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 1:45 PM on August 24, 2010

Mrs. Fleebnork and I recently took a trip to SF.

The BART will take you from the airport to the middle of the city.

You can get a MUNI passport... sounds like the 3-day would be right for you. This allows you unlimited use of any of the buses and streetcars for the 3 days. (Note: MUNI Passport is not for BART, they are separate entities) If you have an iPhone, download the MUNI app. It shows you realtime locations of buses as well as having good integration with maps so you can figure out which bus to take to get to a given location.

We stayed at The Parsonage B&B. It was very comfortable and homey, and the location was excellent for making use of mass transit to go anywhere. The breakfasts are great, and the hosts are great, too.

The Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park is beautiful. The Conservatory is also worth a trip if you enjoy gardening and plants.

The Legion of Honor museum is excellent if you enjoy art and sculpture. Their cafe has good food, so it's a good place to visit and overlap a mealtime.

Get advance tickets for Alcatraz, and allow yourself 3 to 4 hours. Most of Alcatraz is self-guided but it's big enough that you'll want time to stroll around. DO take the audio tour of the prison block. It is very well-done. I have been told their nighttime tours are spooky fun. Your ticket time is for your boat ride TO the island. Once you are there, you may wander freely and return on any boat at any time.

Coit Tower is worth a trip. Spectacular views of the city. The bus line that reaches Coit Tower runs down the north side of the hill and meets the waterfront. We hiked up the other side of the hill, and it was quite a climb. Do not attempt unless you're prepared for a steep hike and stair climb! The bus takes you right to the foot of the tower.

We also took a helicopter tour. It is expensive, but the views and ride were something most people don't experience. We felt that it was worth every penny. The shuttle bus can pick you up from a few different locations in the city, they drive you across the Golden Gate Bridge, you board the helicopter on the other side, and return the same way. They do pick up from the waterfront, so this is an excellent thing to plan either before or after an Alcatraz visit.

Feel free to browse my photos from our trip.

That's all I can think of at the moment, but I am happy to answer more questions.
posted by Fleebnork at 1:56 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, City Lights Books is sort of on the way up the hill to Coit Tower. Although, I'd suggest making it part of your downhill journey, since books are heavy.
posted by Fleebnork at 1:58 PM on August 24, 2010

If you're there before September 5, and enjoy Broadway musicals, Wicked is playing at the Orpheum.

I was there earlier this year, and saw it on a whim (no reservations, they had open seats an hour or so before the show). Both the musical and the Orpheum itself (beautiful architecture) were awesome (if you like that sort of thing).

I also agree with not getting a car...a combination of public transit and walking was perfect, and I can't even imagine how hard it would be to do with a car.
posted by greenmagnet at 1:59 PM on August 24, 2010

If you do tour Alcatraz, I'd strongly recommend the night time tour.
posted by kylej at 2:09 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just another vote for the Muni passport. I LOVE all-you-can-eat public transportation. Keep in mind it won't cover BART, but you mostly only need BART for getting in and out of town. The Muni passport DOES cover the cable cars - do not wait at Powell for one. Walk up a few blocks or take it back to Powell from Chinatown or Ghiradelli Square.

[Not a local, just a reasonable frequent (yearly) visitor]
posted by maryr at 2:27 PM on August 24, 2010

If you're going to be checking out City Lights be sure to stop in at Vesuvio, which is right across the alley, for a pint or two. Pop upstairs and grab a table by the window for a great people watching experience. It's become a "must do" for me each time I'm there. It may not channel The Beat experience like it once did, but it still makes me happy to spend a couple hours writing upstairs.
posted by FlamingBore at 2:38 PM on August 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

A car would be a huge inconvenience on your itinerary.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 2:54 PM on August 24, 2010

Ok, I'm in a rush so I didn't read the other comments, but absolutely do not rent a car. I travel to San Francisco from Oregon every few months to see friends, and after the first few times I started taking the train despite the extra cost and time. Driving a car in San Francisco sucks, especially in terms of finding safe and convenient overnight parking that does not cost a lot. The only time I appreciated bringing it was when we all drove up to twin peaks, but that is more because driving a car to that sort of place is fun and not because it is otherwise inaccessible by mass transit.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 3:29 PM on August 24, 2010

Ok, message received loud and clear-- we definitely won't rent a car until we are ready to leave the city. Thank you all for your suggestions, they are much appreciated.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 4:46 PM on August 24, 2010

I've got to admit, driving in SF is a lot of fun... The one way streets, the crazy Market St intersections, the dramatic tension of being at a stop sign on a steep incline and not being sure when you step on the gas whether you'll move forward or roll back into the car behind you... Ah, it's a one of a kind driving experience. Unfortunately driving implies parking, and the parking is a huge incovenience. Don't rent a car while you see the city, but maybe drive around a bit on your way out of town?

The first time I went to SF my friend and I spent an hour and 45 minutes driving around the same four or six blocks near Broadway and Columbus trying to find a spot. Finally we gave up and went to the Haight. Not a SINGLE spot in all that time. I was beside myself.
posted by malapropist at 4:47 PM on August 24, 2010

Nthing the "don't rent a car" crowd. The city is just over 7 miles across so you can do a walking tour starting at the Ferry Building (East), heading up the hill staircases to see Coit Tower, wander through North Beach and grab some Italian lunch (and truffles at XOX truffles), then keep heading West and decide on a route. I like to hit Geary and the Russian delis on my way to either the Presidio or the Sutro Baths and Ocean beach at the end. It's do-able during daylight hours if you walk at a decent clip.

I would definitely skip Fisherman's Wharf and explore the Ferry Building instead if you are at all a foodie. The coolest thing at Fisherman's Wharf is the Musee Mechanique, which is full of turn of the century Penny Arcade machines.

I like taking out of towners to the Mission district via BART. The 24th St. Station is less sketchy than the 16th St. Station but both should be ok duing the day. Check out Humphry Slocumbe (and their two headed calf mascot) for interesting ice cream flavors. Also try Mitchell's (Filipino and tropical flavors) or Bi-Rite Ice Cream conveniently near Dolores park. Valencia Street has some interesting stuff like 826 Valencia's Pirate Supply Store and the animal skeleton/gardening/insect store Paxton Gate. There is plenty of good Central American food around to be had in the Mission.

Check out SF Station for art and events during the time you will be here.
posted by benzenedream at 5:06 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

See if you can't buy the Alcatraz ferry tickets now. I've never been because they are always sold out.
posted by notned at 7:36 PM on August 24, 2010

No! I was there for nearly a week a few years ago, sans car, and was frustrated I didn't have MORE time for on-foot and public-transport exploration. The city is quite well covered by public transportation and yields many rewards to the pedestrians.
posted by Miko at 8:43 PM on August 24, 2010

If I were a geek (which I am) and I wanted to see Chinatown and surrounding areas and do something wacky at the same time (which I often do), I would do the first leg of Jejune Institute again -- only on a weekday (no, it's not a cult. It's awesome.)

And bring extra money for a bag of flat fortune cookies from the fortune cookie factory. Car free and gives you some interesting interaction in Chinatown that doesn't involve trinket stores, "Somy" brand electronics and dusty dim sum (seriously, avoid the Chinatown dim sum and have some elsewhere, even across the street from Vesuvio/City Lights).
posted by Gucky at 12:16 AM on August 25, 2010

Sorry I'm late to answer, but I have one MUST DO. We just spent 10 days there in July and our Alcatraz trip was great. Send a memail to Primalux, who is a tour guide there. She will give you a behind the scenes VIP tour that will knock your socks off. Be sure to buy tickets ahead of time from their website and go on a day that she's there. She's super nice and enjoys doing this. Of all the things we did, her special tour is the first thing we mention when people ask us about our trip.
posted by raisingsand at 8:37 PM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

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