Don’t drive to San Francisco and pay $35 or more per day to park. Don’t fly and then spend steadily on a ride-sharing service or taxicabs. Don’t imagine those storied but slow cable cars will get you everywhere you want to be.
Instead, after that flight to San Francisco or Oakland, followed by the BART ride into the heart of the city, place your faith in those quaint old streetcars that rattle along the waterfront and Market Street.
That’s what I did in March. For three days, I counted on that many-hued streetcar fleet to move me along the waterfront and up Market to the Castro District on the route known as the F-line.
First, about the cars themselves: As many as 20 reconditioned vintage cars roll at any one time, most dating from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Their color schemes pay tribute to streetcar systems from around the world, most abandoned long ago.
The streetcars are supposed to run every six to 15 minutes, and for me they did, except on one afternoon when the wait was 20 to 25 minutes. A single ride costs $2.75, so it’s a better bargain to buy a Muni pass (one day for $21, three days for $32, a week for $42; for where to purchase go to lat.ms/SFMTA), which lets you ride streetcars, cable cars and Muni buses.
Now, here’s some of what you’ll find on the way:
Even if you’ve been to San Francisco a dozen times, well-trafficked Fisherman’s Wharf and environs are likely to figure in your plans. The streetcar turns around at Jones and Jefferson streets, where you can hop off.
Need a place to stay? Walk three minutes west (by Google’s reckoning) from the turn-around and you will arrive at the Argonaut Hotel (495 Jefferson St.; (800) 790-1415, www.argonauthotel.com), a well-placed but high-priced family lodging with an entertaining nautical theme. Rates typically start at about $440 a night.
Head east through the Fisherman’s Wharf area, and you can play vintage arcade games and mechanical musical instruments in the Musee Mecanique (Pier 45; (415) 346-2000, www.museemecaniquesf.com) about three minutes east of Jones Street. Or tear into a hunk of fresh sourdough bread at the Boudin Bakery and Cafe (160 Jefferson St.; (415) 928-1849, lat.ms/boudinatwharf). At Pier 39, a 10-minute walk east of Jones and along the streetcar route, you can browse dozens more shops and restaurants.
Step off the streetcar at Greenwich Street and you have two strong options. One is to grab some grub and a beer by the water and (if it’s night) listen to jazz at snug, welcoming Pier 23 Cafe (Embarcadero; (415) 362-5125, pier23cafe.com) just across the street.
Or you could walk three minutes west to the base of the Filbert Steps and start climbing. Those steps will take you up Telegraph Hill to Pioneer Park, where Coit Tower (1 Telegraph Hill Blvd.; (415) 249-0995, lat.ms/coittower) aims skyward.
This detour is worth some time because the fascinating ’30s murals at the base of the tower were made much brighter and bolder by a 2014 cleanup. That same upgrade improved the top of the tower, where views of the city and bay are as wide as can be — a full 360 degrees. The tower admission charge is $8 for adult out-of-towners, $6 for locals.
The next stop as your streetcar continues along the Embarcadero is Green Street. If you have some interest in how the physical world works, or your kids do, it’s just a few steps to the Exploratorium (Pier 15, (415) 528-4444, www.exploratorium.edu. $29.95 for adults, $19.95 to $24.95 for children and students ages 4 to 17).
Many people like to walk or bike the Embarcadero between Pier 15 and the Ferry Building — it’s an eight-minute journey past a formerly industrial waterfront now dotted with restaurants. Whether you walk that distance or exit the streetcar at the Ferry Building stop, the ferry complex (www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com) has plenty to keep you busy.
You may want to sit down to a casual Mexican lunch at Mijita (Ferry Building Marketplace No. 44; (415) 399-0814, www.mijitasf.com) or an upscale Vietnamese modern dinner at the Slanted Door (Ferry Building Marketplace No. 3; (415) 861-8032, slanteddoor.com).
Either way, give yourself a few minutes to marvel at the merchandise that lines the long, airy 1898 building: mushrooms; pig parts; artisan bread, cheese and desserts; travel books; fancy ceramic dishes; premium ice cream …
After that, the nuts and bolts of streetcar history might seem like old news indeed. But these are the machines that are carrying you, and their history is an absorbing tale, told in the San Francisco Railway Museum and Gift Shop (77 Steuart St.; (415) 974-1948, www.streetcar.org/museum), a few steps from the F-Line’s Steuart Street stop.
Even if nothing else in the snug space grabs your attention, you’ll be spellbound by a 12-minute documentary snippet shot on a ride along Market Street just before the 1906 quake.
On the same block, about a minute’s walk from the Steuart Street streetcar stop, is a sleek place to stay better suited to an anniversary weekend than a family jaunt: the boutique Hotel Vitale (8 Mission St.; (888) 890-8688, lat.ms/hotelvitale), which has a spa, restaurant and terraces with great views of the bay. Fall rates begin at about $400 a night.
Up Market Street
Market has been a gritty thoroughfare for a long time, but gentrification is changing things.
At the streetcar’s 3rd and Kearny streets stop, get off and head south four short blocks on 3rd, about five minutes. There you’ll find SFMOMA (151 3rd St.; (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org; $25 per adult; closed Wednesdays), one of the west’s premier contemporary art museums. It reopened last year after a massive expan-sion.
If you get off the streetcar at its 5th and Powell stop, you’ll be in the heart of the San Francisco tourism hurricane, a few steps from the Powell and Market cable car turn-around, about eight minutes (three blocks) south of the nearly infinite shopping options of Union Square.
About halfway from the Powell streetcar stop to Union Square stands the Hotel Stratford (242 Powell St.; (415) 397-7080, www.hotelstratford.com), a plain budget hotel where I’ve stayed twice. It can be loud, but rates sometimes start at less than $200.
At the 9th and Larkin streetcar stop, you have a good eating opportunity. The Market (1355 Market St.; (415) 767-5130, www.visitthemarket.com) is a food hall with an industrial flair, and it takes up most of the block between 9th and 10th.
Who, you may wonder, are all these young, prosperous, busy customers?
The answer: Twitter headquarters is upstairs.
From here, it’s a quick ride to the end of the line at Castro Street and, just like that, you’re at the gateway to one of America’s most famously gay neighborhoods.
Rainbows decorate the sidewalks and flagpoles. The Twin Peaks Tavern (401 Castro St.; (415) 864-9470; www.twinpeakstavern.com) has been an icon for years. A couple of doors down (and less than three minutes from the streetcar stop), the Castro Theater (429 Castro St.; (415) 621-6120, www.castrotheatre.com) has made movie sing-alongs a more or less weekly thing.