No visit to San Francisco would be complete without a ride on the iconic cable cars. Ride up and down the steep hills of the city, hang on tight as you swing around corners, and take in awesome views of the bay. Feel the wind in your face and listen to the clanging of the bell. Hopping on a cable car is more than a way to get from point A to point B; it’s a fun, multisensory experience.
A National Historic Landmark since 1962, the San Francisco cable cars are both the first of their kind in the world and the last hand-operated cars still running. Andrew Hallidie designed the cable car lines in 1869 after he witnessed an accident involving horses that had been drawing carts on the rain-slicked hills. Hallidie’s invention proved to be a great one for public transportation, and his cars are still running nearly 150 years later.
More than 13 million people ride the cable cars each year, crowding in and hanging on. You’ll want to be strategic about your riding so that you’re not crushed inside, missing the views. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your time on the famous cable cars.
1. Before You Board, Look At The Three Lines On A Map
The cable cars are an iconic feature of the city, but they only run in certain areas. At their high point, the tracks covered 75 miles. Today, the cable cars cover only about 5 miles of San Francisco. For that reason, I recommend that visitors take a quick look at a map of the route before boarding.
It’s fairly simple to plot out your ride, because each car runs back and forth on one of three routes. You can ride the Powell/Mason and Powell/Hyde lines between the Union Square area and Fisherman’s Wharf. The third line, the California line, runs the other direction (east to west), perpendicular to the Powell lines. It journeys through a financial district and ends up at the other end of the long wharf.
Depending on how long you are visiting and the sights you want to see, you could ride one, two, or all three of the lines. Knowing where the cars go will help you plan.
2. If You Plan To Ride Often, Purchase A Pass
You can pay for one ride at a time with cash or with the MuniMobile app, but individual rides can add up quickly.
If you plan to ride often, a transit pass will save you money. The most popular are the passes for one, three, and seven days and the San Francisco CityPASS, which includes three days of transit and four attractions. These passes cover all cable car rides as well as rides on the city buses and historic streetcars that run along the wharf. You’ll save even more money if you use these on the MuniMobile app rather than having a paper pass.
Pro Tip: You can buy these passes at the Union Square cable car turnaround ticket booth.
3. Be Strategic About Where You Board
You can board at the turntables at the ends of the Powell lines, or you can wait at any stop along the routes (each stop is marked with a sign). If a car isn’t full, it will stop, and you can hop on. I’ve found that the cars are so often full that it’s easier to head for a turnaround point at Union Square or Fisherman’s Wharf. The line may look intimidating, but the cars run regularly, and you likely won’t have to wait too long.
Pro Tip: The California line tends to be the least busy and is a perfect choice if you want to ride just for fun. The cars on this line are a bit roomier, too. You can catch a ride at any point along this line and end up at the Ferry Building, a great place for a coffee or lunch.
4. Claim Your Place For The Best Ride
You don’t have to sit or stand where you don’t want to. The gripman and brakeman operating the car often tell people to move inside, just to get them boarded and ready for departure. You may feel intimidated by this. But if you want to ride on the outside, either sitting or standing up hanging onto a pole, you have options. I prefer standing on the running board with my arms circling a pole, even in the rain, so I’ve learned some ways to get around the “move inside” instructions.
You can let others in line go ahead of you and wait for the next car. You’ll then be toward the front of the line and can head directly for the space you want to occupy.
If the car is almost full and the only seats are inside, you can get on and move inside. Then as people get off along the way, you can move outside.
At a turnaround, where the car is empty to start with, run around to the side away from the line when you get through the gate. People tend to board on the side by the line for convenience. The car is completely stopped at the turnarounds, so you can go around the back or front without putting yourself in danger. When I say “run,” I’m not kidding. People rush to get a spot on the cable cars!
Pro Tip: On the two Powell lines, the best views of the city and bay are on the right side on the way down to Fisherman’s Wharf and on the left side going up to Union Square.
5. Keep Your Hands And Arms Inside, And Hang On Tight
If you are standing on the running board and hanging onto a pole, be sure to keep leaning into the car rather than out into the street. Your car will encounter cars going the opposite direction, close enough that you could high-five the riders going by. Be careful to stay in your own space.
Even if you are riding inside, you will feel the sharp turns and sudden stops. If you’re standing inside, hang onto the straps hanging from the ceiling to avoid crashing into your fellow passengers.
Pro Tip: If you have a backpack, wear it in front or give it to someone sitting down to hold for you.
6. Speak Up To Get Off
The cars may or may not stop at a particular street. If you want to get off, tell the gripman about a block before the stop. He is right in the middle of the car, so this is easy to do. Wait for the car to make a complete stop before stepping out. Also, watch for traffic as you exit. Sometimes the cars stop in the middle of the street rather than at a curb.
7. Understand How The Cable Cars Work
The cable running under the street never stops. It moves constantly at 9 miles per hour. The gripman uses a pincher contraption in the middle of the car to hook onto the underground cable. Then the cable pulls the car, and off you go!
Letting go of the cable allows the car to glide to a stop, but there are also three brakes to halt the cars, a great safety feature. The brakeman works along with the gripman to drive. Cars share the streets with the cable cars, and pedestrians tend to dart out from all directions, so good brakes are crucial.
8. Hop Off At The Cable Car Museum To See The Cables In Action
The San Francisco Cable Car Museum houses the huge cables that run the three lines. The cables run nonstop over 8-foot pulleys turned by gears. The power is now electric, though originally it was driven by a steam engine. The cables disappear underneath the ground as they head out to the streets. The noise in the room is deafening.
Pro Tip: Board either of the Powell lines, which both go right by the Cable Car Museum. Tell the gripman you want to get off, and then spend a half-hour or so enjoying the antique cars and displays as well as watching the cables turn.
9. Interact With The Gripman And Brakeman
The gripman and brakeman can make the ride really fun. I’ve encountered grumpy ones, but in general they add joy to the experience.
One brakeman sang us all a rhymed travelogue of the city. One gripman had us chanting the names of the kids on the car as he rang the bell: “Nico, Nico, Nico” (ring-ring, ring-ring, ring-ring). Another brakeman let me stand in the back to take photos. Then he called my husband back and told him to hang on to me. “Okay, we’re coming to a sharp turn and then a steep hill. Ready? Let go and hang over the edge and take pictures!” This was certainly not prudent, but you only live once, right? And another had us all jumping up and down as we rounded a corner. I’m not sure that was safe, but our car was filled with laughter.
Pro Tip: Many of your fellow riders are also in the city on vacation -- in short, you’re all there to have fun! So, don’t be afraid to interact with and banter with others. One woman offered to catch my grandson if he started to fall from the running board, and we immediately became friends. Smile and chat, and your ride will be even more memorable.
Cable car rides are a highlight of any trip to San Francisco, and a little planning will enhance your experience. You’ll be an expert rider in no time!
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