I moved to San Francisco about three and a half years ago, from the almost completely car-dependent state of Florida. In that time, I have not owned a car and have driven sparingly, basically only when I leave town to go on vacation. We have a transit system here which is … okay, all things considered. Yes, I know it’s far superior to anything any city Florida could ever put together, but on the other hand, a city like San Francisco needs more than that, and more than this; and yes, I am well aware I’m spoiled now.
In any case, it works well enough to get me from point A to point B most of the time. We do have intracity rail here—two different systems run by two different agencies requiring two separate fare payments, because of course it’s like that—but there are vast sections of the city not served by either. So we ride buses. We ride buses a lot.
You can see a lot of San Francisco from a Muni bus. In fact, if you choose your routes wisely and are paying attention, you can get a surprisingly good feel for the city before you climb even a single hill. Here are the three lines that, in my opinion, do the best job (collectively speaking) of showing you the city for just $2.50. Ride them all from one end to the other. Then ride them back again.
- 30 Stockton.
Neighborhoods: SOMA, Union Square, Chinatown, North Beach, The Marina
The 30 is an excellent “starter” line for first-time visitors to San Francisco. It doesn’t go anywhere you might consider scary, for one thing, avoiding the Tenderloin altogether and bypassing the grittier sections of SOMA. And where it does go will deliver just enough of the city’s iconic sights (including Coit Tower, if you happen to be sitting on the correct side of the bus and look in the right direction at just the right moment) to make you feel like you’ve really been here. One interesting thing you’ll see on the 30: Galileo High School, whose football field was once named for notable alumnus OJ Simpson. (They changed that around 1995 or so. Not sure why.) The towers across the street were apparently designed specifically to amplify crowd noise at football games, which is something I’d expect to see in Texas or Florida more than San Francisco.
- 33 Ashbury / 18th.
Neighborhoods: Potrero Hill, The Mission, The Castro, Diamond Heights, The Haight, Inner Richmond, Lower Pacific Heights
I ride the 33 all the time: it’s my pipeline to Mission Dolores Park and, further down, Pop’s Bar, which are two of my go-to attractions in the city. On this line, you’ll see how all segments of San Francisco society lives, from the still-rowdy-and-not-quite-fully-gentrified Mission all the way to fancy-pants Lower Pac Heights. The ridership can get a little more lively than what you’d be likely to see on the 30, especially through the Mission, but it’s nothing to worry about, so just sit back and enjoy the sights and sounds of life in the big city. Speaking of which, this line gives you what is, for my money, the best view (pictured above) of the actual city itself from a bus, as your driver makes the hairpin turn coming down from Clayton onto Market Street before descending into the Castro.
- 38 Geary.
Neighborhoods: FiDi, Tenderloin, Western Addition, Fillmore, Japantown, Richmond
Geary Boulevard puts on no airs; it does not pretend that it exists for any reason other than to funnel as many cars as possible between the Richmond and downtown, with as little hindrance as possible. The 38 runs from the beach to the Transbay – the full width of the city – and is a workhorse of a line, one that shuttles thousands of riders from home to work and back again every day, or to one cluster or another of less-presumptuous restaurants and bars that generally cater to people who live nearby. This is not a line that puts much of the beauty of San Francisco on display. However, if you want to see how the city goes about its daily and mostly un-glamorous business, the 38 will show you that.
Honorable mention: 22 Fillmore.
Neighborhoods: Dogpatch, The Mission, Duboce Triangle, Lower Haight, The Fillmore, Japantown, Pacific Heights, Cow Hollow, The Marina
I’ve only ridden the 22 a handful of times, which is why it only gets an honorable mention from me: it doesn’t go all that close to my apartment, and I dislike transfers and try to avoid them whenever possible. That said, the 22 gives you a quick tour of some historically-significant neighborhoods (like The Fillmore, which was once the West Coast jazz capital) as well as the same basic cross-section of San Francisco society that you’ll get with the 33, with a view of the skyline that’s almost as good.
So that’s it, then: my completely objective, not-at-all-subject-to-debate list that settles, once and for all, a question that has torn San Francisco apart since time immemorial. But if you somehow have your own opinions, I’d love to read them in the comments.