Northern California’s ‘Bay Area’ and the city of San Francisco remain one of America’s most unique and adored urban affairs. The quirky geography of the city is an attraction in itself, characterised by steep hills, fantastic Pacific shorelines and a number of massive bridges including the quintessential Golden Gate. With all of this, San Francisco boasts an eclectic demographic mix featuring a vibrant youth culture, flourishing Asian neighbourhoods, moneyed professionals and one of the world’s most well-established gay communities. Those visiting here can sample a massive array of excellent cuisine and fresh seafood, cruise town on the city’s iconic cable cars, head out for red-hot nightlife or grab a rental car and set out for some of North America’s best scenery and top wineries.
Who to Book With
Car rental is easy to come by in the Bay Area. Visitors can find nearly every US rental company at San Francisco International Airport just south of the city, notably Hertz, Budget, Avis, Fox, Payless, Thrifty, Dollar, Enterprise, Advantage and National. Additionally, look for Hertz, Budget, Avis, Enterprise, National and Alamo offices downtown or nearby in the Financial District. Make sure to book with plenty of time to spare at any of the above locations.
Best Time to go
San Francisco’s mild climate, bustling economy and popularity as a top city break make it a busy destination throughout the year. And despite a regular increase of fog and high winds, an additional push occurs during mid to late summer. Rental cars can be particularly expensive here compared to many US destinations any time of year, so book online as soon as your plans are set to lock in competitive rates.
Need to Know Essentials
You’ll need to bring the following documentation to the rental counter in San Francisco:
- A valid driver’s license (some companies may ask for an International Driving Permit – check ahead).
- Your booking number
- The credit card used to reserve your hire car
- Your passport
For more info read our FAQ's.
With such a huge variety of attractions in and around the Bay Area, renting a car in San Francisco can be an excellent way to see much more than the average tourist. However, this location is particularly tricky for motoring when compared to most other destinations in North America.
The streets in downtown are some of the steepest in any major urban area worldwide, which can be daunting for some. We mean it when we say they are steep. Additionally, they are often one-way affairs and the inter-city can be difficult to navigate.
Parking is a major issue as well. If you’re looking to simply park for a few hours during the day to visit an attraction, eat or go shopping, you’ll likely be able to find something. However, in the evening hours, you may have to wait until sunrise before you find an open, legal place to park without paying absurd rates. Finally, be on constant lookout for the continuous onslaught of cable cars, pedestrians, skateboarders and cyclists that frequent the streets here.
Nonetheless, your car hire is perfect for getting away to places like the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the old charismatic fishing town of Monterrey and the fabulous wine country of Napa Valley. While in town, you can leave your rental car at most hotels and explore on foot and via public transport.
For more info on driving, refer to our US guide.
San Francisco features one of the best transport systems in the US. It can be extremely useful for visitors transiting downtown and key parts of the Bay Area. However, for onward travel and outlying attractions a rental car is generally a safe bet.
San Francisco Bay area visitors can make use of four different rail systems in operation here. Popular with many tourists is the famous SF Cable Car network, which connects a limited number of points downtown including Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown and the Financial District. Meanwhile the Muni metro/light rail system runs below the majority of San Francisco proper and features stops at dozens of key locations. Meanwhile, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) network offers faster, lengthier trips to points across the Bay Area, including Oakland, SFO Airport, Millbrae and numerous municipalities to the south toward San Jose. Finally, long-distance passengers can head to Emeryville near Oakland to board direct Amtrak services to Sacramento, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Diego.
Buses and Trams
Muni operates San Francisco’s public bus system, which provides comprehensive service throughout the city via diesel buses and electric trolleys, in addition to a number of charismatic streetcar lines. Be sure to visit the Muni website for up to date fare information, ticketing, a useful journey planner and schedules. Alternatively, if you’re looking to head out of town by bus, look for the Greyhound coach station at the corner of Folsom and Main Street downtown.
Taxis are exceptionally expensive in San Francisco though can be very useful, especially late at night when traffic is absent and public transport is limited. If you’re looking to get a cab during weekend party hours, be sure to call ahead. Major firms include Yellow Cabs and DeSoto Cabs.
Although San Francisco has more than enough attractions to keep nearly any visitor busy for an extended stay, the outlying portions of the Bay Area and Northern California are not to be missed. To catch a glimpse, hire a car and take to the road in this timeless tourist region. To get you started, we’ve provided a few recommended destinations.
Point Reyes National Seashore - For a breath of cool pacific air and unspoilt coastline, head north to visit this tremendously beautiful preserve. It is just over an hour across the Golden Gate Bridge and is excellent for whale watching, particularly in January and again during the spring.
Napa Valley - Wine lovers should not hesitate to head inland to Napa Valley, the most famous wine growing region in North America. Here, visitors can fill up on tours, tasting, gourmet cuisine, excellent scenery and hundreds of quaint bed & breakfast properties. Don’t forget to stop by the Napa Valley Museum for some extended insight into the region.
Monterey - Meanwhile, the small fishing and beach town of Monterey about two hours south of downtown San Francisco is another great getaway. This wonderful seaside community boasts the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the best anywhere, in addition to excellent dining, world-renowned golf courses and family entertainment.
Winchester Mystery House - For something a little closer, consider a trip to the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose. Known as the ‘world’s oddest mansion’, this Victorian structure was built by a widow of the Winchester firearm family at the end of the 1800s. Seemingly aimless, its stairways lead to nowhere and baffling features continue to puzzle historians to this day.