- Pacific Highway — whether you drive Northwest or Southeast toward Los Angeles, the Pacific Highway (Highway 1) is one of the great driving roads of the USA.
- Redwoods — carry on up the Pacific Highway towards the border with Oregon, and you can visit the dramatic redwoods National Park, where you will encounter the tallest trees in the world.
- Wine country — drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to visit the superb wine country which sits just to the north of San Francisco. Visit the famous Napa Valley or the slightly more laid-back Sonoma Valley. However, you can still get to this wine region by bus and then take a guided tour from there, and this area is also great for cycling (although the wine might make your pedalling a bit wobbly).
- Yosemite — head directly east from San Francisco for a couple of hours and you will hit the world-famous Yosemite National Park. You can continue even further east towards the border with Nevada, where you will find White Mountain Peak, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states.
- One-way rental — you can easily start your trip to California by picking up a hire car in San Francisco and then dropping it off later in Los Angeles. You can also drop it off in Portland or Seattle to the north, or in Las Vegas.
Generally, if you pick the right rental car company, you should be able to arrange a one-way rental to any of these relatively nearby cities without paying an extra fee.
- Lombard Street — although there is really no need to have a hire car just to visit downtown San Francisco on its own, if you already have a car, then take a drive down the famous Lombard Street, the movie directors’ favourite venue for car scenes.
- Kings Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park — these two national parks sit on top of each other, and are around a three-hour drive from either San Francisco or Los Angeles. A natural one-way tour of these eastern Californian natural wonders, if starting from San Francisco, might head to Yosemite first, then Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks and then further east to Death Valley for a much drier, starker experience. From Death Valley you could easily continue south west to Los Angeles, straight down to San Diego or back through the Big Sur to San Francisco.
- City of San Francisco — whilst San Francisco itself needs no introduction, the city structure is vastly different from fellow Californian mega-city Los Angeles, where we strongly recommend getting a hire car. This is because San Francisco has a large and very clearly defined central area, and this very much follows the traditional tightly packed European urban model.
- Alcatraz Ferry — San Francisco’s world famous former prison is obviously somewhere you don’t need a car to get to.
- San Francisco cable cars — although the naming might be slightly confusing, as in most other cities these would be referred to as trams, the San Francisco cable cars are legitimately named as such because they run on a pulley system, with traction provided by cables running underneath the street.
These delightful streetcars are as much an icon of San Francisco as the red Routemaster bus is of London, except that the poor Routemaster has been retired from all but one or two ceremonial routes!
- BART — originating in the late 70s and long before Simpsons, BART stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit, the ultramodern underground system that provides easy transport through the San Francisco Bay region. BART is also supplemented by the “Muni”, a system of trams which also runs underground through the city centre, in a tunnel just above the BART line.
- Just keep walking — of all the American cities I have visited, San Francisco has to be one of the most delightful just to enjoy walking around. Apart from downtown San Francisco itself, the other obvious area to head towards is Golden Gate Park, and then through the simple grid pattern of Richmond to the Presidio and right up to Fort Point, for close-up views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
- Golden Gate Bridge — although the bridge is most naturally associated with cars, it is possible to walk or cycle across it, and this is undoubtedly the best way to take in the breathtaking views of and from the bridge. If you only take one walk in the San Francisco area, then make it this one, and take advantage of being able to take pictures of the scene directly, rather than from a moving car or bus. Access varies by time of day, with pedestrians generally using the eastern (Bay) side, whilst only cyclists can use the western (Pacific) side.
- Ferries — numerous ferries shunt back and forth across the Bay Area, supplementing the bus network which uses the main bridges, and the rail network, which includes tunnels for BART.
- California Academy of Sciences — If there is one new building that is a must-see above all others, it is the California Academy of Sciences, designed by Italian “Starchitect” Renzo Piano. This facility, with its massive living green roof is situated in Golden Gate Park, so it is easy to get to using public transport. You can even make a night time visit on a Thursday, providing you are aged 21 or over, as drinks are served.
- Marin County cycling — the area immediately to the north of the Golden Gate Bridge is renowned for cycling, and this from where the famous Marin bikes brand takes its name. You should have no problem arranging bike hire for the day or longer, often including van pickups.
- Marin County Civic Center — as featured in the film Gattaca, Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael is one of the most famous Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. Although it would be just as easy to pop in here in a rental car, this prominent public building is also easy to reach using Golden Gate transit buses.
- Pacific coast by rail — Highway 1 makes a great drive, but you can also head along a similar alignment by taking the train south to Los Angeles. Amtrak Viewliner coaches all have massive panorama windows, and there’s no need for any arguments about who does the driving.
Another amazing, but much longer, rail trip is to head east from San Francisco towards Denver, heading through the breathtaking Rocky Mountains.
- Open jaw trips — these days it is easy to visit two or more different cities and to return home from a different location. Whilst low-cost airlines will let you book individual single trips anyway, if you are flying in to California from Europe or Asia, your best bet is to travel with an airline that serves both the cities you want to fly in/out from/to. United Airlines has a hub operation in Los Angeles as well San Francisco, so they might be ideal. From the UK, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic operate flights from London to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, giving plenty of options for open jaw ticketing.
Whilst there is certainly no need for a hire car within San Francisco itself, there are still many other places outside the Bay Area which can also be visited by using public transport, or even by bike, especially as California is one of the more progressive states with regard to cycling infrastructure. However, cycle trails are still sporadic, whereas rail options are very limited once you try to go beyond the reaches of the BART system. Commuter rail in California really is just that – a system developed for peak time travel into the Bay Area, and not much use for tourism. To reach the great Californian outdoors, including national parks like Yosemite, you will still really need a car.
Verdict – yes