karen portrait circle

By Karen

Posted May 2, 2024.

Parking in San Francisco: my insider secrets!

...tips on where the locals park

The idea of finding parking in San Francisco strikes fear into the hearts of many otherwise brave travelers. But it doesn't have to be that way.

I have a confession to make. I've spent over 30 years in San Francisco and I rarely use public transportation. As a result, I have a lot of experience in finding parking places in San Francisco!

Hence my guide on how to park like a local.

  • Overview on how street parking works
  • The big no-no's in parking in SF
  • How to park free at many attractions
  • How I park in the crowded tourist areas
  • Tips for parking at the popular spots
  • Using the parking meters
  • Avoiding car break-ins

I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase through some of the affiliate links on this page. See disclosure policy. This helps me provide all the free information on the site. Thank you!

Street parking rules for San Francisco

Parallel parking:

  • Turn your wheels when you park on a hill so that if if roll forward, you go into the curb.
  • Wheels should be no more than 18 inches from the curb.
  • No double parking.

Curb colors:

  • Red: no parking, ever
  • Blue: disabled only. No time limit
  • White: drop off only, 5 minute parking
  • Yellow: commercial vehicles only, delivery trucks
  • Green: 10 minute limit

Parking boo-boos; don't do this

  1. Watch for tow-away areas. There are busy streets in San Francisco that have metered parking, except for rush hour. These tend to be the heavy traffic corridors, like Franklin Street. They will tow your car if it's parked there during the stated tow-away hours. Check for the tow-away signs.
  2. Big ticket zones. You can get a parking ticket for an expired meter ($96 downtown). Beware of parking in a bus zone ($110) marked as such, parking too close to a fire hydrant ($110), or leaving your car on the street on a street cleaning day during certain hours ($85). If the curb is red, don't park there ($110). And always read the signs near where you are considering parking.
  3. Residential permit areas. Some neighborhoods in San Francisco restrict extended parking to the people living in the neighborhood. They have stickers on their cars showing they are residents. Non-residents are limited to 2 hours of parking in those areas. Again, check the signs.

For the curious: here's the list of all possible parking fines.

Free parking in San Francisco

What if you could just get in your car, drive to an attraction, and park free, right there. It's not a fantasy!

Surprisingly, there are lots of great things to do in San Francisco with big, free parking lots.

I made a list of the 10 best attractions with free parking, no hassles. Enjoy!

Using San Francisco parking meters

San Francisco makes it pretty easy to pay at the parking meters.

The city is in the process of replacing all the old parking meters. The new meters will still take coins and credit and debit cards, but the PayByPhone system uses a new app and is license-plate based. They predict the replacement will be finished in 2025.

Both meter styles take coins (except pennies) and accept VISA, Mastercard, American Express, and Discover cards, and debit cards.

You can pay by phone using the PayByPhone Parking app, or calling 1-866-490-7275 and using a credit card. The app allows even you to add money on to the meter to extend the time before it expires, and will remind you when the meter is about to expire. More official nitty-gritty on using the meters

San Francisco parking meterOriginal San Francisco parking meter
New San Francisco parking meterNew SF parking meter

After the switch over to new meters, half of the parking spaces will have area parking zones, instead of individual meters. You'll put in your zone and auto license number to pay. 

The prepaid SFMTA parking cards have been discontinued. The city recommends using their PaybyPhone system now.

Good to know: though most of the meters are only enforced 9 am to 6 pm, Monday through Saturday, there are some areas of town where the meters operate on Sundays too (bummer!).  

The Sunday meters are in Fisherman's Wharf and the Embarcadero area. Always check the meter to see when it runs.

You get a break on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year's Day. Meters aren't enforced.

Where to park in places like Fisherman's Wharf

There are lots of areas in San Francisco where there aren't any great places to park.

Popular areas like Fisherman's Wharf, Alcatraz Landing, Union Square, downtown, Pier 39 and the Ferry Building are challenging. 

For those, we have Spot Hero. Spot Hero is an app that helps you find less expensive parking spots in lots and garages in an area, and lets you actually reserve the spot. So you can pay less and just drive there and park. 

I use Spot Hero a lot; it's really solved a lot of the problems with parking in the city. You can check an area for what's available and book it over the app. 

See Spot Hero for more info. I also wrote a review of the available parking apps for San Francisco.

My parking recommendations for various areas:

Parking in Fisherman's Wharf & Pier 39

Fisherman's Wharf has a number of parking garages but they tend to be quite expensive and sometimes they fill up.

When I go down to this area, I usually book a spot using Spot Hero. Street parking here is tough, and who wants to circle and circle.

If you want to try it, there's the lot behind the big Fisherman's Wharf sign, at Beach and Taylor Streets (2860 Taylor), next to Pier 41 where the Red & White Ferry docks.

It's very conveniently located and has validated parking if you eat at one of the restaurants listed on their sign, which can save money. It's hit or miss, though, depending on how full it is and whether you want to use one of the eateries listed. 

Parking lot near Pier 41 at Fisherman's Wharf SFParking lot near Pier 41

Pier 39 has a deal that if you reserve a spot in the Pier 39 garage, you can stay all day for $20 (weekends $25), which is a pretty good deal if you're visiting for hours, considering they charge $10 per hour normally (or $12/hr weekends). To reserve, see Pier 39 parking. The Pier 39 restaurants also do validation and give you a free hour of parking.

Parking for the Alcatraz Ferry

The most convenient parking for trips to Alcatraz, which leave from Alcatraz landing at Pier 33, is probably the parking lot across the street. 

It's convenient but there's no attendant, so as usual, leave nothing in your car. On one of my trips, I think it was after the Alcatraz Night Tour, we came back to get our car and one unfortunate couple found their SUV had been broken into. Based on recent reviews, the problem has gotten worse, so I wouldn't recommend parking there.

As an alternative, you could park at Pier 27, just a five minute walk from Pier 33; they have a big lot and it's usually available unless there's a cruise ship in port.

Pier 27 parking lot San Francisco EmbarcaderoParking lot at Pier 27 on the Embarcadero

Also, check the parking garage at 80 Francisco Street (but they can't accomodate larger vehicles like full size SUV's and trucks).

For an overview of parking in that area, see my article on Embarcadero parking.

Parking in Chinatown

Chinatown is a very congested area with lots of traffic and not that many parking choices. Forget street parking. 

I think the best solution is to park in the garage underneath Portsmouth Square, right in the heart of everything. It's somewhat less expensive than some of the other choices and it's big enough so it should be easy to get a spot in there. This is where I park when I go to Chinatown.

A good fall back choice is the St. Mary's Square Garage at 433 Kearny Street. It's just a block from Grant Avenue, where most of the shops are.

See more info on the parking options for Chinatown and photos.

Parking near Union Square

Union Square has a parking garage right under the square, but I don't think that's the best place to park. It's expensive and can fill up.

I park at the Sutter-Stockton Garage on Sutter Street (entrance at 444 Stockton Street), about a block from the square. It's less expensive, huge, and I've never had trouble getting a space there.

Sutter-Stockton Garage in San FranciscoSutter-Stockton Garage, Stockton Street Entrance

There are twelve floors to the garage, and some floors have two sections. A word to the wise (or the spatially-challenged, like me). Write down or memorize (or take a photo) of the floor number you park on before you get on the elevator.

I once got distracted when parking there with my son and forgot to note which floor I parked on. I spent a fun hour hauling a baby and related equipment up and down, searching for my car! The floors are also color-coded, so now I just note which color the floor is.

Aerial view of Sutter-Stockton Garage in SF from 450 SutterView of the Sutter-Stockton Garage from 450 Sutter Building

Great view of the garage from my dentist's office in the 450 Sutter Street building!

Parking Downtown

Downtown San Francisco is one place where you would probably want to use an app like Spot Hero to find a garage for you.

Driving in traffic looking for a garage wouldn't be much fun.

Street view in downtown San FranciscoCity street in downtown San Francisco

Parking for Shows - Civic Center

Civic Center in San Francisco is a hub near a number of performance venues, as well as the majestic City Hall building.

The SF Symphony, SF Opera, SF Ballet, Asian Art Museum, SF Main Library, Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, Orpheum Theater, as well as other performing arts venues are right near the area called the Civic Center, the open plaza in front of City Hall.

San Francisco City Hall in the fogSan Francisco City Hall in the fog

There is a large garage, oddly named the Civic Center Plaza Garage, under the Cvic Center plaza, very convenient for daytime visits.

Best bet for visiting the Asian Art Museum, federal building, and City Hall.

Entrance to the Civic Center Garage in San FranciscoEntrance to the underground Civic Center Garage

After dark, I recommend using the Performing Arts Garage, just a block away at 360 Grove Street.

This is the favorite garage for evening performances and a lot of people will be heading over to it after a performance so it feels very safe at night (the Civic Center garage less so).

Best choice for a night at the opera or symphony. But get a spot well before the performance time.

Parking for the Golden Gate Bridge

If you're looking to park near the Golden Gate Bridge, you're in luck! It's one of the easiest attractions in San Francisco to park near.

There are lots of parking lots on both ends of the bridge, and some of them are free.

Check out my article on the best places to park at the bridge, along with maps and photos.

Parking in Golden Gate Park

Parking in Golden Gate Park is pretty easy because there are miles of roads through the park where you can park for free.

There is a parking garage underneath the Music Concourse which serves several attractions: the California Academy of Sciences, the deYoung Art Museum and the Japanese Tea Garden. However, the garage is rather expensive so you can usually find free parking along the roads leading to this area if you're willing to walk a little.

Some the the roads, or sections of certain roads, are closed to car traffic now, but you can see on the map that there are still plenty of roads to park on (green line is closed to cars).

Map of roadways in Golden Gate ParkMap showing roads closed to cars in Golden Gate Park

But the park is a hot spot for car break-ins, so remember not to leave anything in the car.

Insider tip: there's a collection of nice restaurants just outside the park near 9th Ave and Irving Street, but parking there is miserable. Take a look on MLK Drive just to the right as you enter the park on 9th Ave at Lincoln Ave. There's a longish stretch of free parking there, an easy walk to the restaurants.

Parking for Lombard Street

The crooked part of Lombard Street is in a residential area of the city.

Parking on the streets around there is free, but has a two hour limit, which should be plenty of time to explore the street.

But be very wary of car break-ins here; another prime spot for them.

Parking near the Painted Ladies

The Painted Ladies of Full House fame are located in the 900 block of Steiner Street on Alamo Square.

The street parking around here is free, but has a two hour limit. No lots or garages nearby. 

Another break-in zone.

Parking at SF Beaches

Most beaches in San Francisco have free parking lots associated with them.

See SF beaches for a list of the beaches. Ocean Beach and Baker Beach have the biggest parking lots.

Twin Peaks parking

Parking at Twin Peaks is free. See my article on Twin Peaks that shows maps and photos of where the parking areas are up there.

Coit tower parking

Coit Tower has a smallish, free parking lot right at the entrance to the tower.

It's usually not hard to get a spot here. Follow Lombard Street all the way to the end and it takes you up to the tower.

Car break-ins in San Francisco

Car break-ins are a huge problem in San Francisco, as you've probably heard. There has been a sizable drop in them so far this year in 2024, but they're still a serious problem.

I've got a whole section on car break-ins on my article on San Francisco crime, with maps of which areas are the worst hit and info on which locations have the most break-ins.

Leave nothing in your car when you park!

Handy links and tools for parking

More travel tips

Share this page: