San Francisco: an idiosyncratic guide
Public transit in the Bay Area is great, as long as you're not going to be out after midnight. Ooops. Anyway, if you need to get around inside San Francisco, there are "Owl" bus lines that never stop. If you need to get back outside of the city... check the "Problems After Midnight" section below.
There are public transit maps on nearly every bus stop in SF, but I find them largely illegible, particularly the lines marked in yellow ink, particularly when you're trying to read them at night. Even carrying a flashlight doesn't help much. It also doesn't help much that the transit maps for SF are bewildering in the first place (a tangled web of intersecting colored lines). If you need to do something fancy (and you care a lot about where you're going) you probably need to ask for help from a local... and buy your own transit map at the first opportunity.
A few hints: the 6, 7 and 71 lines run down Market and then turn right on Haight (Some of these bus routes start at different places on Market Street though, so if you're north of 5th street, you won't see all three of these lines.) But none of these run after midnight. On the other hand the N Judah is an Owl line (this is a trolley/light rail type thing, that starts as an underground line leaving from the MUNI subway stations along Market). So you can grab the N any time... get off at the "East Portal" stop and walk north several blocks to find the Lower Haight, or get off at the Cole and Carl street stop, and walk north a few blocks to the Upper Haight. There, now that wasn't complicated, was it?
Here's another fun-with-transit puzzle: Suppose you're in Soma and you want to get to the Mission. Why not take the 14 bus all the way down Mission Street? Answer, because it's really slow, and you can almost walk it faster than the bus will get you there. You're probably better off getting the BART somewhere on Market Street, and riding it toward Daly City/Colma, and getting off at the 16th or 24th Street stops on Mission Street. Scumzoid warning on both of these, though (be careful at night). On the other hand, the last BART runs around midnight, and the 14 is a 24 hour line. Also, I have to admit that the passengers on the 14 have a much more interesting, surreal quality about them.
An obscure Owl line that's a favorite of mine is the 24 that connects the lower Haight, Castro, Noe Valley and Bernal Heights. So if you want to get from the Lower Haight to the Castro without doing a small hike, go to Divisidero and Haight, and catch the 24 going south. There are a couple of stops in the middle of the Castro strip, Castro at Market, and also Castro at 18th.
Incidentally, there's an obvious way of getting between Soma and Noe Valley that you might want to try: the J Church trolley line. The J stops at the underground MUNI stations (as opposed to BART, though they often share the same hole in the ground, which confuses tourists no end) along Market Street. The J turns left and goes above ground on Church Street. It doesn't run 24 hours (so you couldn't use it as an easy way to get to Sparky's at 3am, for example), but it might be a convenient way to run out to Dolores Park in the afternoon, before a stroll down into the Mission.
The MUNI busses/trolleys all cost $1.50 now (no change is made, but they do take bills, and all coins including pennies). The driver should give you a transfer pass that will be good for around 2 hours (though you may win the jackpot and get a "late night special"). So you can get some place by a fancy route with a lot of transfers for a little over a buck, or alternately you can do short excursions where the return trip is free.
The deal with "late night" service, is that if you're riding after 10pm or so your transfer will be good until morning instead of for just the next few hours -- though if you get on at one of the big "subway" stations downtown on Market Street you won't get a "late night", instead they rip you off with a printed transfer that's good for precisely 90 minutes.
Cable Cars are $5 one-way and there's nothing like a transfer pass issued.
Remember that MUNI is essentially an entirely separate system from BART. BART charges based on distance, and for a short trip that stays inside SF it's comparable to a MUNI fare, though you don't get a transfer out of the deal.
I used to think that the cable cars and the MUNI busses were also entirely separate systems, but it turns out that there are day passes that they call "passports" that let you ride around on both busses and cable cars for no extra charge. (Great name, huh? "Passport"? Try telling a German tourist they need to get another passport...). These sound like an okay deal to me (1-day for $11, 3-day for $18, 7-day for $24, as of late 2007)... one or two cable car fares and a few bus rides would cost more than a 1-day pass. You might have to go out of your way a bit just to buy one, though. There's a pointer to a list of locations below: Reference. Worst come to worst, you duck into the tourist hub where Powell street ends at Market... if you go by there, beware the sucking vortex of the Fisherman's Wharf line.
If you do need to get across the Bay late at night, it used to be you'd be in trouble... you're best way across the Bay is the BART train, but the last BART isn't much later than midnight. There's no pedestrian walkway on the Bay Bridge, so you can't walk it either (there have been times when I would have liked to). A cab might cost $30 or so. But as I understand it there is now a bus that crosses the bridge after midnight, it's one of the AC Transit busses: the "800". And it's got one of those racks on the front to carry your bike on it, too. This is a definite improvement. This route starts at Market and Van Ness in SF, and takes you through downtown Oakland and Berkeley. Reference)
But if you were planning on using CalTrans to go down the peninsula, you could still be in trouble. the last train out of SF is midnight (on Sundays 10pm). There used to be some 24 hour SamTrans busses (e.g. the KX) but they cut back on the hours on those severely.
Next: The other side of the clock