Friday, Sep. 26, 2008

City Basics

Arriving. The city's a 20-minute, roughly $25 cab ride from San Francisco International Airport. From Oakland International, it costs twice as much. You can also take BART from either location, which is always cheaper and often faster than a cab.

Getting Around. San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods, and people here love to walk and bike. If you do walk, wear comfortable shoes — the hills can be pretty steep. Be warned also that the tsunami-sized hills mean that the straightest distance between two points isn't always the fastest.

Otherwise, San Francisco has more modes of transportation than a typical Star Wars movie — BART (which is mostly a subway), light rail, trolley cars, electric Muni buses, rickshaws, ferries, Segways. The very best way to navigate these overlapping transport systems is via the Web, at You can also call 511 to get the same free travel service.

Driving. Renting a car and driving are easy in San Francisco; finding a place to park is not. Patient drivers will usually find on-street parking (outside of the financial district) especially after 6 p.m. when the meters go off duty. But if you're in a hurry, you'll probably end up paying $10 to $20 a day at a lot. Be wary of enterprising hobos who sometimes hang around, pretending to be attendants in lots that actually have self-service kiosks. (A sign at the entrance should let you know what you're dealing with.) For a big city, traffic is surprisingly manageable, unless you are entering or leaving the city during rush hour. And even then, it's not so bad.

Taxis. Most people here telephone for cabs (415-212-4141), rather than flagging them down in the street. It's possible to hail a cab, but it's likely the cabbie will ignore you, since he's on the way to pick up a caller.

Tipping. In restaurants, a tip of 15% to 20% is expected, even when the service sucks. Which it most likely will: The waiters and waitresses in this town, tattooed and pierced like the Yanomamo, tend to come from middle- and upper-middle-class families and don't really have time for your bourgeois nonsense. To paraphrase William Burroughs: San Francisco is where young people go to retire. That said, the food will make up for it.

Wi-Fi. The Bay Area prides itself on being technologically advanced. That said, there's no free citywide Wi-Fi. You can, however, find free Wi-Fi in many places.

Dealing with the Great Weather. So, here's the deal: Yes, this is California and the weather is great, but do not show up in shorts and expect Malibu Beach–type temperatures. (You can always pick out the tourists at the airport by their bare legs and short pants.) San Francisco is home to "micro-climates" — the weather in the city varies radically by time of day and by neighborhood. It might be 70 degrees F one moment and 20 degrees cooler the next. So it's imperative to layer — there's a reason California guys wear so much fleece. Always bring a jacket or sweater, no matter where you're going or how nice it looks in the morning.