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A driver's view of cars on a road moving towards a large building that says "San Francisco International."
Ali Asghar drives to a second waiting area for taxi drivers before being dispatched to the terminals to pick up passengers at San Francisco International Airport on Sept. 25, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Layover at SFO? How to See (a Little) of San Francisco in a Few Hours

Layover at SFO? How to See (a Little) of San Francisco in a Few Hours

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Are you an exhausted passenger just getting off your plane? Are you hoping to stretch your legs, grab a bite to eat, and use a bathroom that isn’t the size of a coffin or inside an airport terminal?

Is the airport that you landed at San Francisco International Airport, a.k.a. SFO?

We’ve got good news: If you have a layover at SFO this travel season — and aren’t the kind of airline passenger that feels the need to be at their gate five hours early — you have several options for visiting San Francisco itself during your wait time. That’s thanks to BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system that provides direct trains between SFO and the city itself.

By using the SFO-San Francisco BART line as our guide point, here are some places to jump off and explore around that station — with just a handful of suggestions to get you started. You can bring your luggage along, but you might be more comfortable stashing it at SFO during this time. The round trip fare for these itineraries will cost you around $20 — use BART’s fare calculator tool to see exact ticket costs.

A map of BART service.

And if you’re usually a cautious traveler who prefers to wait out a day-long layover in the terminal? Imagine it as a spur-of-the-moment, movie-like adventure before you get home or go on to your next adventure. Imagine it like Ferris Bueller traveling to Chicago for the day. Imagine just eating a really good burrito.

(If you’re reading this as a Bay Area resident and have even more ideas for an SFO layover, use the comment box at the bottom of this story to tell us what you’d add.)

A quick primer on using BART

BART trains run both above ground and below ground around the Bay Area. The system runs 5 a.m. to 12 a.m. on weekdays, 6 a.m. to 12 a.m. on Saturdays and 8 a.m. to 12 a.m. on Sundays. Holiday hours for BART service will also vary.

More Travel Tips From KQED

From SFO, the Red Line (last stop: Richmond) and the Yellow Line (last stop: Antioch) north will take you into San Francisco itself.

Paper tickets are no longer sold for BART, so a Clipper card is the only way to pay for your BART fare (which you’ll tap at the turnstiles at each station.) You can either purchase a plastic Clipper card for $3 at the SFO BART station, and load that with money for your fare, or you can download the Clipper app to your iPhone or Android and load your fare that way, which saves on the $3 cost of a physical card.

As with any major metropolitan transit system, it’s a good idea to stay alert to your surroundings while riding BART — especially if you’re particularly tired from travel. Thefts can occur, so don’t flash your phone or expensive electronics.

(A heads up: You may also see signs in San Francisco for Muni, the SFMTA’s transit network within the city itself. Muni is a separate system — that includes trains, buses, streetcars and SF’s iconic cable cars — but it uses many of the same stations as BART, and riders can transfer easily from BART to Muni this way with a Clipper card. The itineraries suggested below don’t use Muni, but there’s nothing to stop you from choosing your own adventure and hopping on Muni, too, if you’ve got more time.)

People on bikes and skateboards ride down a bike path in the middle of a city street.
Bicyclists ride on the Valencia Street bike lane in San Francisco’s Mission District on Sept. 21, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Four San Francisco itineraries for an SFO layover

  1. Closest: Get off at 24th station in Mission (around 22 minutes from SFO)

Your nearest hotspot to stop near SFO is the Mission District. Here, Mission and Valencia are some of the most bustling streets in San Francisco. Valencia especially offers many stores to window-shop and peek in. (Like one gift shop dedicated to taxidermy.)

A view from the corner of Dolores Park in San Francisco. (Olivia Allen-Price/KQED)
  1. A little further: Get off at Civic Center/UN Plaza (around 26 minutes from SFO)
A woman waves through a window of a restaurant.
Ying Huang, owner of House of Dim Sum, waves at Steven Lee and Beverly Yip as they lead a Chinatown walking tour for attendees of APEC in San Francisco on Wednesday evening. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
  1. A little further yet: Get off at Montgomery (around 30 minutes from SFO)
The Transamerica Pyramid seen from Montgomery Street in San Francisco on Nov. 30, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
  1. Furthest: Get off at Embarcadero (around 32 minutes from SFO)

Enjoy the beautiful city, grab photos and a gift or two! (And be sure to get back to SFO with enough time to clear security and make it to boarding on time.)

KQED’s Carly Severn, Marisol Medina-Cadena, Adrienne Lee, and Rik Panganiban contributed to this story.

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