San Francisco-Oakland Airport Guide

Travel Channel's guide to a Bay Area layover.
By: Mark Hiss
Show: The Layover
Episode: San Francisco

Thanks to a well-appointed airport less than 15 miles away from downtown San Francisco and a convenient public transportation system, a layover at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) can easily be transformed into a playover. And even if you’re cooling your heels across the bay at Oakland International Airport (OAK), a number of Bay Area activities and attractions are within easy reach.

Day Tripping
The reliable Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) can take you directly from SFO to San Francisco’s city center in roughly 30 minutes. You can indulge in shopping around Union Square, graze delectable gourmet treats at the Ferry Building, or take in the latest exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Trains are scheduled about every 15 minutes (until around midnight).

In Oakland, you’ll need to hop aboard the AirBart shuttle bus, which runs about every 10 minutes (until midnight) for a 15-minute ride to the Coliseum/Oakland Airport BART station. Just 2 stops down the line from there is the Lake Merritt station, where you can exit, walk 1 block, and find the engaging Oakland Museum of California; it features the art, culture and natural history of California. Or jump on BART’s Richmond line to the Downtown Berkeley station, and wander the streets and campus of this lively college town; it’s about a 20-minute trip from the Oakland Airport station. You can also take Daly City-bound trains across the bay into San Francisco (20 minutes).

Coming and Going
For your own set of wheels, major car rental operators are available at both airports. At SFO, the Rental Car Center is only accessible via the facility’s people-mover system known as AirTrain (use the Blue Line). In Oakland, shuttle buses run every 10 minutes to the rental center, located less than 10 minutes from the terminals. Companies located off-site will pick you up from there.

For cab rides from SFO to downtown San Francisco or from OAK to Berkeley, expect to pay upwards of $40 (depending on traffic, both trips can take 20 to 40 minutes). If you don’t have time constraints, SuperShuttle and other shared-ride operators are a less expensive option.

Airport Culture
Don’t quite have enough time to take an off-site excursion? No worries. SFO is practically a vacation destination in itself. It features art exhibits, spa services and upscale dining from celebrity chefs. SFO Museum has 20 galleries scattered throughout the airport, while the Aviation Museum & Library, located in the International Terminal, offers a permanent collection surveying the development of commercial flight.

Fun for the Kids
If you have kids in tow, take a treasure-hunt style tour that offers prizes. Or turn them loose at the SFO Kids’ Spot, stocked with interactive, science-related displays. There are also aquariums and a children’s art gallery.

Food Finds
You’ll find plenty of worthwhile dining options, including local stalwarts like Lark Creek Grill, featuring steak, seafood and table service; iconic Anchor Brewing Company; and even an outpost of beloved Buena Vista Cafe, famed for its Irish coffee. You can nibble on local, organic goods at a foodie marketplace, or dive into tapas and cocktails at Cat Cora Kitchen, an eponymous eatery from the Iron Chef veteran.

Personal Comforts
For more mundane pursuits there are shower facilities, DVD units for rent and a full-service travel agency offering everything from luggage storage to notary services; free Wi-Fi is provided throughout SFO. There’s also the Berman Reflection Room for meditation, while XpresSpa offers massages and pedicures.

Alas, petite OAK lacks the state-of-the-art amenities of its sister facility across the bay, but it makes up for any deficiencies with an on-time reliability that fog-encumbered SFO can’t match. And in addition to some impressive site-specific artwork and free Wi-Fi, OAK also has 2 unique features in close proximity: the Oakland Aviation Museum and 18 holes of golf at the Metropolitan Golf Links.

The Overnighter
Both airports are served by a number of national chain hotels. The Hilton Garden Inn San Francisco Airport North has a free airport shuttle, free Wi-Fi and a 24-hour convenience mart. For something with a more boutique feel, though, check into the Villa Montes Hotel; it gets bonus points for its sauna and free wine reception. Near OAK, the Holiday Inn & Suites, with its 24/7 airport shuttle, sports bar and heated pool is a solid choice.

Mark Hiss is a San Francisco-based writer.

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