Sonoma–Marin Area Rail Transit - SMART train at the San Rafael station

Why is it so difficult getting from San Francisco to Santa Rosa and Sonoma County?

Cover: Sonoma–Marin Area Rail Transit – SMART train at the San Rafael station
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media
Article by Kim Hull


San Francisco at sunset
San Francisco at sunset. Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Four years ago we decided we wanted to live near San Francisco. More accurately – we wanted to live in San Francisco but, to avoid the ridiculously high cost of living in the City by the Bay, we drew a circle around San Francisco taking in all cities located within 60 miles, and examined which cities seemed to have a somewhat reasonable cost of living (it’s California, so that is a relative term) with decent amenities.

Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, San Francisco
Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, San Francisco Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

We chose Santa Rosa, a mid-sized city, with two Whole Foods, quite a few restaurants, and a location in the center of Sonoma’s wine region. We envisioned daily life amongst the vines and frequent day trips into San Francisco for lunch and shopping.

Then, we encountered life with the 101. For those not acquainted with California’s north–south highway route, in northern California the 101 connects San Francisco to the North Bay area and frequently achieves near standstill conditions. We only went into the city a handful of times and, after eight months in the North Bay area, we decided to move to Lake Tahoe to be closer to the mountains.  In the end, we still spent about as much time in San Francisco as we did when we were living in Santa Rosa.

San Francisco
San Francisco Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Even now with our nomad lifestyle, we still get back to the west coast multiple times per year and one thing that continues to amaze us is how few good/easy options exist for getting between San Francisco and Sonoma County. According to the San Francisco Tourism Board, over 25 million people visit San Francisco each year. I’m betting quite a few of them drink wine and would like to visit the beautiful wine region of Sonoma – so why is it so difficult to get there?

View of San Francisco and Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
View of San Francisco and Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

The one-day wine tour

Drinking wine in Sonoma
Drinking wine in Sonoma, Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

If you are in San Francisco and want to just do a one day Sonoma or Napa day wine tour, there are a variety of private coach tours for about $120-$150 per person available that leave San Francisco in the morning and return in the evening. However, if you are seeking a true wine country experience, spending a day or two (or more) while casually sampling wines and enjoying the slower pace of Sonoma County, a one-day tour just won’t do.

Sonoma County, California
Sonoma County, California Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Getting from San Francisco to Sonoma County by car

There are many cities where renting a car is as big a hassle as it is an expense. By the time you rent a car, navigate where you need to go, find parking, pay for parking, pay for in and outs, and pay for gas – that’s quite a bit of irritation and money that could have been used for taking Ubers or Lyfts – and nobody has to drive. For those opting for the rental car experience, once you leave San Francisco, you get to hop on the 101 and head north for a not so leisurely experience getting to Santa Rosa. While having a car in wine country is convenient, it also requires designating a driver, which if there are only two of you, takes a bit of the fun out of wine tasting.

Getting from San Francisco to Santa Rosa by Uber or Lyft – Cost: About $100 for 2

Lyft San Francisco to Santa Rosa
Lyft San Francisco to Santa Rosa

In the U.S., ride sharing, namely Uber and Lyft, is our typical mode of transportation. We’ve only had a few bad experiences (filthy car, bizarre driver, and, one of my favorites, the driver got lost and wouldn’t believe the app knew how to get there and just yelled back at the phone as we drove in the wrong direction). But, those are by far the exception – we take numerous ride shares every week of the year and most are great.

Uber San Francisco to Santa Rosa

That said, a long distance ride share can be expensive. A comparison of both Uber and Lyft fees revealed the ride to Santa Rosa would be about $100 + tip. Doable, but a bit pricey – so we continued exploring options.

Grapes on the vine, Sonoma County
Grapes on the vine, Sonoma County Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Airporter: San Francisco to Santa Rosa – Cost: $86 for 2

When we lived in Santa Rosa and we’d fly out of SFO or Oakland, we’d use the Airporter to get to and from the airport. The Airporter picks up/drops off at the Park & Ride near the fairgrounds in Santa Rosa or at the Santa Rosa airport. A one-way adult fare to/from either SFO or the Oakland airports and Sonoma County is $34 per person. The buses are comfortable and it’s a good option if going straight to/from Santa Rosa to/from either airport.

But, what if you want to spend a few days in San Francisco then head up to Sonoma for a few more days? The Airporter doesn’t run between downtown San Francisco and Santa Rosa, so you need to get back out to SFO or OAK from San Francisco to catch one. BART fare from downtown San Francisco to SFO is $8.95 per person or a Lyft or Uber runs about $35-$50 to the airport. So for two people, the trip to Santa Rosa from downtown San Francisco using the BART – Airporter route would run about $86.

Getting from San Francisco to Sonoma County by the SMART train – Cost: $75 for 2

SMART (Sonoma–Marin Area Rail Transit) train at the San Rafael station
SMART (Sonoma–Marin Area Rail Transit) train at the San Rafael station Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

The first phase of the SMART (Sonoma–Marin Area Rail Transit) train, a 43-mile / 69-kilometer rail service between Northern Santa Rosa and Downtown San Rafael, began operating in June 2017. Over the next few years, SMART is scheduled to expand service to Larkspur on the south end of the route in Marin County and to Windsor, Healdsburg, and Cloverdale on the northern end in wine country.

But, first, you have to get to San Rafael from San Francisco. Option1 is taking a bus from San Francisco to San Rafael – not expensive, but rather slow with many stops. Option 2 is to catch the Golden Gate ferry from the San Francisco Ferry building to the Larkspur Ferry Terminal, then taking the route 31 shuttle to connect to the SMART train station. The ferry cost is $11.50 for each person. Option 3 is to take an Uber or Lyft to the SMART train station in San Rafael.

Uber from San Francisco to San Rafael SMART station
Uber from San Francisco to San Rafael SMART station Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Considering we needed to get from our hotel on Nob Hill to the ferry terminal or bus station and each had a large roller bag, we would have needed a Uber or Lyft to get that far, so we decided on option 3 for simplicity. The Uber to the San Rafael SMART train station cost $45 + tip. We then caught the SMART train to Santa Rosa for $9.50 per person using the mobile app. The train is about an hour ride from San Rafael to Santa Rosa. The train was clean, with plenty storage areas for luggage and bikes. Some seats on the train have tables, others are airline style.

Riding on the Sonoma–Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) near Petaluma
Riding on the Sonoma–Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) near Petaluma Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

The train was packed – standing room only. While I tried to get a bit of work done on the ride, we had seatmates at our table and the train was very loud, so it was a bit challenging. I’m not sure if it is some sort of acoustic issue or we just had a car of extremely loud talkers, but we’ve ridden trains in 10 countries this year and I’ve yet to experience so much noise on a train. The kid behind me screamed most of the way and kicked my chair while his father stood in the aisle playing with a yo-yo. In the end, we got to Santa Rosa and it was fairly inexpensive, but not what I’d call a relaxing experience.

Lyft and Uber in wine country

Drinking a Larsen Projekt grenache rosé in Santa Rosa
Drinking a Larsen Projekt grenache rosé in Santa Rosa Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Once we arrived at the Santa Rosa airport train platform, we called a Lyft. Our wait time was only 3 minutes and the fare to our hotel was $10 + tip. We were a bit worried that ride share may not be plentiful in Sonoma Country but we used Uber the entire time during our three-day stay and typically only waited 5-10 minutes for the car to arrive.

Sonoma County wine tasting
Sonoma County wine tasting Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

That is good  – no, great news. If ever there was a place to not drive, it is in wine country. Uber provides the flexibility to craft your own tasting agenda – you pick the wineries, you chose the amount of time spent at each location, and everyone can sample the wines and safely return to their hotels without driving.

Fountaingrove Round Barn, Santa Rosa
Fountaingrove Round Barn, Santa Rosa Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Disclaimer: The content & opinions expressed are entirely our own. We received no compensation for this article. Reviews are opinion only and Chasing Light Media accepts no responsibility for how the information is used.

Powell-Mark Cable Car

CityPASS San Francisco: Cut the cost of San Francisco travel

Cover: San Francisco Powell and Market cable car
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media
Article by Kim Hull


We visit San Francisco every few months and, while it has a firm grasp on the #1 spot as our favorite city in the United States, it is expensive. When overnight hotel parking runs $50, a couple of martinis $30, and a bowl of soup $10, a chance to save some money without compromising on the experience is always welcomed.

CityPASS San Francisco
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Having discovered CityPASS while in Chicago, which saved us both time and money, we now begin destination planning with CityPASS at the same time we book the hotel and other travel arrangements. While CityPASS always saves on top museums and attractions, in San Francisco, there’s another really big advantage – CityPASS includes a week’s worth of Muni transportation, including riding the cable cars.

Saving 49% (or more) with CityPASS San Francisco

CityPASS calculates the savings for each city by taking the regular price of a ticket if you purchased it at the attraction, adding all the tickets provided together, and subtracting the cost of the CityPASS booklet. For San Francisco, that works out as…

  • A 7-day cable car and MUNI pass – $40
  • California Academy of Sciences – $34.95
  • Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure – $30
  • A choice of the Exploratorium at $29.95 or the de Young Museum at $10
  • A choice of the Monterey Bay Aquarium at $49.95 or the Aquarium of the Bay at $29.95

The CityPASS booklet runs $94. If you go to all of the highest priced attractions, it would cost $184.85, so that’s a 49% savings. Even when you choose the least expensive options, as we did, it is still a 35% savings over purchasing the attractions individually at the regular price. However, a single one-way cable car ride is $7 and it costs $2.25 for one Muni bus or rail fare, so you can imagine how fast the CityPASS savings rack up versus just hitting the streets and hopping on and off cable cars and buses as you work your way around San Francisco.

CityPASS San Francisco attractions

7-day Cable Car and Muni Bus Passport

CityPASS attraction: Powell-Market Cable Car
CityPASS attraction: Powell-Market Cable Car
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

No trip to San Francisco is complete without a ride on an iconic cable car. Invented in San Francisco in 1873 by Andrew Smith Hallidie, the beloved cable cars are both an attraction and a means of transportation and San Francisco has three lines…

  • California Street Cable Car Line, which runs east/west from Van Ness Avenue to the Financial District
  • Powell-Hyde, which transports passengers back and forth from Ghiradelli Square to Market Street
  • Powell-Mason, which runs between Fisherman’s Wharf and Market Street.

The F Line of streetcars also travel along the Embarcadero from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Castro District. For the rest of the city, a network of Muni buses, light rail vehicles, diesel buses, alternative fuel vehicles, and electric trolley coaches get you where you want to go.

CityPASS includes a seven-day Muni pass, so once you’ve exchanged your CityPASS voucher for a CityPASS booklet, simply show the booklet as you enter any cable car, streetcar or other Muni method of transportation and have a seat.

CityPASS attraction: Streetcars
CityPASS attraction: Streetcars
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

California Academy of Sciences

CityPASS San Francisco attraction: California Academy of Sciences, Steinhart Aquarium
CityPASS San Francisco attraction: California Academy of Sciences, Steinhart Aquarium
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Home to nearly 40,000 animals, the California Academy of Sciences is a museum, an aquarium, a planetarium and it even has a rainforest. As you climb the ramp of the glass-enclosed four-story rainforest, butterflies and birds fly, frogs chirp and huge fish swim below. Other museum highlights include the Steinhart Aquarium, a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, the African Hall, the Foucault pendulum, the world’s deepest indoor living coral reef, the Shake House earthquake simulator, a colony of African penguins, and an 87-foot-long blue whale skeleton.

The CityPASS booklet includes general admission to all of the California Academy of Sciences exhibits. The museum was the first attraction we visited, but the CityPASS booklet vouchers don’t have to be used in any specific order, just sometime within 9 days of their first use.

CityPASS San Francisco attraction: California Academy of Sciences, Osher Rainforest
CityPASS attraction: California Academy of Sciences, Osher Rainforest
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure

CityPASS San Francisco attraction: Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure
CityPASS San Francisco attraction: Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

There’s no better way to experience the City by the Bay than to head out on the bay on a cruise. CityPASS has a couple of Blue & Gold Cruise Adventures options – a one-hour bay cruise or a spin around the bay aboard the RocketBoat, a thirty-minute speedboat thrill ride.

We opted for the bay cruise, which leaves from Pier 39, sails to the Golden Gate Bridge, then turns back and passes by Alcatraz, before heading back into port. The narrated ride is a wonderful way to view and photograph the San Francisco skyline, the waterfront, the Rock, and the Golden Gate up close and underneath. The Blue & Gold Cruise Adventures are large and have both indoor and outdoor seating. Reservations are not taken; simply present the CityPASS voucher at theBlue & Gold Cruise ticket booth at Pier 39, select the time of the cruise, and you receive a boarding pass for the cruise.

Exploratorium or de Young Museum

CityPASS San Francisco: The de Young Museum
CityPASS: The de Young Museum
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

The next option was to visit either the Exploratorium or the de Young Museum. We opted for the de Young, as the Exploratorium was closed on Mondays, the day we had scheduled for Embarcadero & Fisherman’s Wharf activities.

The de Young, which is located directly across from the California Academy of Sciences, is a beautiful museum and CityPASS admission also includes access to Hamon Tower at the Young, as well as entrance to the Legion of Honor at Lincoln Park. Together, the two museums form the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, home to one of the largest art collections in California.

CityPASS San Francisco attraction: de Young Museum
CityPASS attraction: de Young Museum
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

The de Young’s collections include over 27,000 works of art with American art from the 17th to the 21st centuries, photography, paintings, costumes, textiles, and art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. Also located at the Young, Hamon Observation Tower offers 360-degree views of San Francisco. The Legion of Honor showcases over 124,000 works of art and is well-known for its European collections of paintings, sculpture and decorative arts.

CityPASS San Francisco attraction: Hamon Observation Tower at de Young Museum
CityPASS San Francisco attraction: Hamon Observation Tower at de Young Museum
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

What did we miss? The Exploratorium, which is located at Pier 15 and is a place of exploration – as the name would imply – and home to the glass-and-steel Bay Observatory and numerous science, art, and human perception exhibits. If you have the time, here’s how you can experience both the de Young and the Exploratorium for only a few more dollars. In the back of the CityPASS booklet, there’s a page labeled, “CityPASS Coupon” with a heading “Why choose one attraction when you can see both?” The Exploratorium is regularly priced $29.95, so use the CityPASS voucher for that attraction. Admission to the de Young is only $10 – a bargain because it is a stunning museum. But, with the coupon page, you get $2 off, so it’s only $8.

Aquarium of the Bay or Monterey Bay Aquarium

CityPASS San Francisco: Aquarium of the Bay
CityPASS San Francisco: Aquarium of the Bay
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

The next choice is either the Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39 in San Francisco or the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, which is a couple of hours away. We love Monterey, and if you have the opportunity to add on a day or two to your San Francisco visit, the Monterey Bay Aquarium should definitely be on your agenda.

CityPASS San Francisco attraction: Aquarium of the Bay
CityPASS San Francisco attraction: Aquarium of the Bay
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

However, if you want to stay in the city, Aquarium Bay is awesome. Visitors walk through 300 feet of clear tunnels while viewing over 20,000 marine animals native to the San Francisco Bay area. Sharks and rays swim overhead and inches from you in the tunnels – it feels like you are diving or snorkeling, but without getting wet! At the Touch the Bay exhibit, you can touch sharks, rays and sea stars and then watch the river otters play. A very cool place to visit, the CityPASS booklet provides general admission entrance to the aquarium.

CityPASS San Francisco attraction: Monterey Bay Aquarium
CityPASS San Francisco attraction: Monterey Bay Aquarium
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

CityPASS San Francisco – Is it worth it?

Always a fan of CityPASS for saving money, in San Francisco it makes even more sense because of the 7 day Muni pass. A 7 day Muni pass is $40 so that only leaves $54 in admission fees to break even. If you plan to do at least two of the more expensive attractions, like a bay cruise, you should definitely look into getting a CityPASS.

Where do you get a CityPASS San Francisco?

You can purchase a CityPASS voucher on the CityPASS website that can be exchanged for a booklet at any of the attractions, you can have the CityPASS booklet mailed to you or you can purchase a CityPASS booklet at any of the attractions when you visit.


Disclosure & disclaimer: We received complimentary CityPASS San Francisco booklets for this review. The content & opinions expressed are entirely our own. Reviews are opinion only and Chasing Light Media accepts no responsibility for how the information is used.

CityPASS San Francisco attraction: Cable Car rides
CityPASS San Francisco attraction: Cable Car rides
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media