Insider tips on how to tour the Golden State’s biggest cities without getting behind the wheel.

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Editor’s note: Urban California is fabled as the land of the freeway and the home of the brave (you’d better be, if you’re going to drive there). For visitors that can be daunting. But a combination of old reliable (though sometimes overlooked) public transit, along with recent extensions that take you new places, means tourists arriving by plane can increasingly walk right past the car-rental counter. Here are tales of three cities and what you can see without getting behind the wheel:

SAN FRANCISCO

Don’t drive to San Francisco and pay $35 or more per day to park. And don’t imagine those storied but slow cable cars will get you everywhere you want to be.

Instead, after that flight followed by the BART ride into the heart of the city, place your faith in those quaint old streetcars that rattle along the waterfront and Market Street.

As many as 20 reconditioned vintage streetcars roll at any one time, most dating from the 1930s to 1950s.

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The streetcars are supposed to run every six to 15 minutes. A single ride costs $2.75, so it’s a better bargain to buy a Muni pass (one day for $21, three days for $32, a week for $42; lat.ms/SFMTA), which lets you ride streetcars, cable cars and Muni buses.

Some of what you’ll find on the way:

FISHERMAN’S WHARF: Even if you’ve been to San Francisco a dozen times, well-trafficked Fisherman’s Wharf is likely to figure in your plans. The F-Line streetcar turns around at Jones and Jefferson streets, where you can hop off.

Head east through the Fisherman’s Wharf area, and you can play vintage arcade games and mechanical musical instruments in the Musee Mecanique (Pier 45; museemecaniquesf.com), about three minutes east of Jones Street. Or tear into a hunk of fresh sourdough bread at the Boudin Bakery and Cafe (160 Jefferson St.; lat.ms/boudinatwharf).

EMBARCADERO: Step off the streetcar at Greenwich Street and you have two strong options. One is to grab some grub and a beer by the water and (if it’s night) listen to jazz at snug, welcoming Pier 23 Cafe (Embarcadero; pier23cafe.com).

Or you could walk three minutes west to the base of the Filbert Steps and start climbing. Those steps will take you up Telegraph Hill to where Coit Tower (1 Telegraph Hill Blvd.; lat.ms/coittower) aims skyward.

This detour is worth some time because the fascinating 1930s murals at the base of the tower were made much brighter and bolder by a 2014 cleanup. That same upgrade improved the top of the tower, where views of the city and bay are as wide as can be. Tower admission is $8 for adult out-of-towners, $6 for locals.

A baker makes turtle-shaped sourdough bread as passerby watch through a window at the Boudin Bakery on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. (Eric Risberg/The Associated Press)
A baker makes turtle-shaped sourdough bread as passerby watch through a window at the Boudin Bakery on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. (Eric Risberg/The Associated Press)

The next stop as your streetcar continues along the Embarcadero is Green Street. If you have some interest in how the physical world works, or your kids do, it’s just a few steps to the Exploratorium (Pier 15, exploratorium.edu; $19.95-$29.95).

UP MARKET STREET: Market has been a gritty thoroughfare for a long time, but gentrification is changing things.

At the F Line’s Third and Kearny streets stop, get off and head south four short blocks on Third. There you’ll find SFMOMA (151 Third St.; sfmoma.org; $25), one of the west’s premier contemporary art museums. It reopened last year after a massive expansion.

At the Ninth and Larkin streetcar stop, you have a good eating opportunity. The Market (1355 Market St.; visitthemarket.com) is a food hall with an industrial flair, and it takes up most of the block between Ninth and 10th.

Who, you may wonder, are all these young, prosperous, busy customers?

The answer: Twitter headquarters is upstairs.

From here, it’s a quick ride to the end of the F Line at Castro Street, at the gateway to one of America’s most famously gay neighborhoods.

Rainbows decorate the sidewalks and flagpoles. The Twin Peaks Tavern (401 Castro St.; twinpeakstavern.com) has been an icon for years. A couple of doors down, the Castro Theater (429 Castro St.; castrotheatre.com) has made movie singalongs a more or less weekly thing.

— Christopher Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

Young folklorico dancers perform in the courtyard of Fiesta de Reyes in San Diego’s Old Town. Tacos and churros are just steps away.  (Jan Molen/Los Angeles Times))
Young folklorico dancers perform in the courtyard of Fiesta de Reyes in San Diego’s Old Town. Tacos and churros are just steps away. (Jan Molen/Los Angeles Times))

SAN DIEGO

My family and I are always more than ready to ditch our car after a bumper-to-bumper drive to San Diego. On three recent trips we did just that, trading our car for the city’s Green Line trolley to visit Old Town, Little Italy and more.

Traveling by light rail is easy here. Arrival times are posted electronically, and we found the trolley cars convenient, clean and brightly illuminated at night.

Reusable Compass Cards, $2 each, can be loaded with a one-day pass for $5 at any trolley station or online (sdmts.com). A three-day pass costs $12. On Saturdays and Sundays, up to two children, 12 and younger, may ride for free when accompanied by a paying adult. For information on other discounts, check the Metropolitan Transit System’s website, lat.ms/sdmtsfares.

We twice set up base camp near the transit center at Old Town State Historic Park. Not only did we save on room rates, but hotel parking also was cheaper ($20 and $18) than what we could find in the Gaslamp Quarter.

Here are some places to go without your car:

OLD TOWN STATE HISTORIC PARK: Experience the early history of San Diego and California here (San Diego Avenue and Twiggs Street, oldtownsan­diego.org) through 1800s-era buildings, blacksmithing demonstrations and tales of ghosts. We took a nighttime tour (oldtownsmosthaunted.com) that was fun, not scary.

Just outside the park, we found Casa del Rey Moro, a small museum that highlights Africans’ influence on the Americas (2471 Congress St.;africanmuseumsandiego.com).

Stores are plentiful in Old Town. Bazaar del Mundo (4133 Taylor St.; bazaardelmundo.com) is a beautiful collection of shops. At Fiesta de Reyes (2754 Calhoun St.; fiestadereyes.com), souvenir and specialty stores surround the courtyard restaurant Casa de Reyes (2754 Calhoun St.; casadereyesrestaurant.com). We stopped at Nibble Chocolate (2754 Calhoun St.; nibblechocolate.com) for samples and a lesson in making the confection.

No surprise, Mexican restaurants are everywhere in Old Town. When choosing, consider these options: outdoor dining, mariachis, handmade tortillas, tequila selection and discounts for kids.

LITTLE ITALY/SAN DIEGO HARBOR: Go east from the County Center/Little Italy trolley stop, and you will be among some of San Diego’s most talked about restaurants.

Go west and you’ll find Waterfront Park (lat.ms/waterfrontpark), with a playground and interactive water fountain.

Just beyond is the Embarcadero, a boardwalk along San Diego Harbor. Start your walk at the beautiful ships and Soviet-era submarine of the Maritime Museum (1492 N. Harbor Drive; sdmaritime.org).

Head south to the Broadway Pier to catch the ferry to Coronado (990 N. Harbor Drive, lat.ms/coronadoferry). The short ride through San Diego Bay, $9.50 round trip, took me past sailboats and kite surfers on the way to the Coronado Ferry Landing (lat.ms/ferryshops), a marketplace with rooflines that mimic the Hotel del Coronado’s.

The USS Midway Museum (910 N. Harbor Drive; midway.org) is one pier over. The popular Carnitas’ Snack Shack (1004 N. Harbor Drive; carnitassnackshack.com) is here, too.

— Jan Molen, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES

From downtown to the ocean beach without a car, taxi, Uber or Lyft! For many Angelenos this is a thrilling, terrifying idea, a tightrope walk without a net in a stiff ocean breeze. But you can do it.

In fact, you can do it at least two ways, thanks to the Metro Rapid Line 720 and last year’s westward expansion of the light-rail Metro Expo Line.

First, you roll by express bus from downtown by way of Wilshire Boulevard to the ocean (typically a 60- to 90-minute trip). Then you hop off in Santa Monica and return by train (47 minutes if all goes well). The combined cost? Just $7 (the price of a Metro Day Pass: lat.ms/metrodaypass). What else can you buy in L.A. for $7?

Beachgoers play on the sand at Santa Monica, just north of the amusement-park pier. A light-rail extension added last year facilitates easy access from downtown Los Angeles.  (Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)
Beachgoers play on the sand at Santa Monica, just north of the amusement-park pier. A light-rail extension added last year facilitates easy access from downtown Los Angeles. (Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

HEART OF DOWNTOWN: Before you hop on the westbound bus, consider your urban options. You could step into the Central Library (630 W. Fifth St., lat.ms/centrallibrary), climb one level and admire the globe-and-zodiac chandelier and the murals, which illustrate California history. If you’re hungry, stroll to the bustle of Grand Central Market (317 S. Broadway; grandcentralmarket.com). Ten minutes from the bus stop, you could go up — way up — in the new 73-story Wilshire Grand skyscraper, whose main tenant is an 889-room Intercontinental Hotel (900 Wilshire Blvd.; dtla.intercontinental.com). The hotel’s Spire 73, a rooftop lounge that claims to be the highest open-air bar in the Western Hemisphere, gives you jaw-dropping views.

And now, to explore beyond downtown, you board one of those long, red-and-silver Metro Rapid buses that stop at Fifth Street near Grand Avenue, then head west on Wilshire.

KOREATOWN: If you hop off the bus at Wilshire and Normandie Avenue in Koreatown, you’ll be almost directly below a big red-and-black mural by Shepard Fairey. That’s the facade of the Line Hotel (3515 Wilshire Blvd., thelinehotel.com), a trendy and recently revived property in a neighborhood known for its nightlife. One story up, there’s Commissary, a sort of greenhouse that’s a great spot for breakfast, lunch or dinner by the pool. Greenery is everywhere, and the walls and ceilings are mostly translucent.

MUSEUM ROW: Farther west, at Wilshire and Fairfax Avenue, hike a few blocks east from the bus stop to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Blvd., lacma.org). LACMA is fronted by the “Urban Light” lamppost installation by artist Chris Burden. In back is “Levitated Mass,” the 340-ton boulder that artist Michael Heizer selected and placed on the museum grounds in 2012. You can see those for free. Roaming the encyclopedic art collection inside costs $15 per adult.

Next door is the kid-friendly La Brea Tar Pits and Museum (5801 Wilshire Blvd.; tarpits.org), featuring perhaps the longest-running death scene in town: the doomed mock mammoth mired in tar in the park along Wilshire. Choose your lunch from the dozen or so food trucks parked on Wilshire.

SANTA MONICA: This is the big payoff — to reach a beach community without touching an automobile. Whether you exit the Rapid bus in Santa Monica at Wilshire or Santa Monica Boulevard, you’re within a block of the splendidly carless Third Street Promenade and its bevy of street performers and national brands. Just beyond that, the beach, the highly photogenic pier and many hotels await.

The pier is at the foot of Colorado Avenue. (It’s $8 to ride the Pacific Wheel Ferris wheel.) Depending on how much time you have, you can wander among the street and pier performers or sit for a meal.

To catch the train for the return journey downtown, head to Fourth and Colorado, where the Metro station stands atop a little hill.

— Christopher Reynolds, Los Angeles Times