There has been some confusion about the number of Cable Car lines still running, so check out the link below for a map and explanations about the routes. This is the system in short. The larger two brake double open-ended California line runs from the Financial District to Van Ness. This line is more likely to have local commuters with whom one can chat, but the views are fewer and there aren't any hair raising turns. The other two lines run up Powell toward Fisherman's Wharf. Most tourists will want the Powell-Hyde Street line because that takes one right to the cable car turn around at the Ghiradelli Chocolate Factory. But, both lines have some excellent rises, descents, and great hair raising turns. On weekends, it's often easier to walk around the city and then use the cable car as a return to the foot of Powell, often for free. Unless the car is standing room only, it's pretty easy to climb on anywhere along the route. I find the downhill and curves the best part of the ride anyway, but for those only visiting once in a generation, take a complete ride. These cars are truely unique antique transportation. When visiting the Cable Car Museum, be sure to go down the steps and watch the pulleys moving the cables under the street. Many visitors to the museum don't go down the stairwell.
From what I understand, there are tourist cable cars and regular cable cars that everyday people use. There are some that seem very old, but restored and these are very cool. I spoke to one driver while he was on break and his had been brought over from Italy and had interior wood finishings. Very nice.
The driving force behind the San Francisco cable car system came from a man who witnessed a horrible accident on a typically damp summer day in 1869. Andrew Smith Hallidie saw the toll slippery grades could extract when a horse- drawn streetcar slid backwards under its heavy load. The steep slope with wet cobblestones and a heavily weighted vehicle combined to drag five horses to their deaths.
Basically, there are three cable car routes in operation:
This is just a fun way to get around some areas of the city. You can catch a cable car around Market & Powell and take it to fisherman's wharf. Most of the people riding the cable car will be other tourists like yourself.
Down Powell and Market, you can watch the cable cars turn around and head back up the hill, pulled by an underground cable. This careful job is done by the gripman and the brakeman who turn patiently their cable car on the turntable. When this is done and that you have patiently waited in line for 40 minutes, you can hop on and try to stand on the outside running board for a better view and sensation…
It is a long wait and an expensive ride, but you don’t everyday have the opportunity and the priviledge to ride a National Historic Landmark… :-)
Besides, we enjoyed the tottering ride aboard this charming wooden card, ratteling up and down the hills. We got impressive views from the top of the hills, especially towards the Bay. Those little wagons really have a genuine character...
If you get the chance, watch the complicity between the gripman and the brakeman…one drives and tells the other one when to brake !
The most interesting of the 3 remaining lines (againt 8 in 1889) is Powell and Hyde, it is the most spectacular, with terrific views and descents.
Of course, the terminus spots are packed with tourists…so if you don’t want to loose too much time, wait one or two stops ahead. You can buy your ticket at the booth or inside the cable car (5 dollars – one way. So it is probably better to take a 3-days ticket or a combined ticket with MUNI pass), but it depends on how long you stay and what you want to do. Walking is a great way to discover San Francisco too…
For over 125 years the San Francisco cable car has been the enduring symbol of the City by the Bay and a cheap and fun way to tour San Francisco. One cable car route goes up Powell to Mason Street and the other one goes up Hyde Street closer to Ghirardelli Square, The California Line does not go to the turn around and is less crowded.
The three lines in San Francisco:
Powell Mason Line:
Powell/Market - Nob Hill - Bay Street/Fisherman's Wharf.
Powell Hyde Line:
Powell/Market - Russian Hill - Victoria Parc/Fisherman's Wharf.
California Street Line:
Financial District - China Town - Nob Hill - Van Ness Avenue.
The driver of the cable car is known as the grip man. We learned that this is a highly skilled job, requiring the grip man to release the grip at certain points in order to coast the vehicle over the pulleys or another line and to anticipate well in order to avoid collisions with other traffic that may not understand the limitations of the cable car. Only a small proportion of people who attempt the training course actuall pass it.
Our trip from Market to Fisherman's Wharf was quite exciting. Not only because of the sometimes beautiful sights of San Francisco, but mainly because of the grip man of the cable car. We noticed that he was still a trainee and at one point we didn't have enough speed to make it up the hill. Therefore we had to go backwards and try it again. At another point he was "speeding" just before we were trying to overwin the next hill. Because of his bad timing the front of the cable car lifted up of the ground and colapsed back in the track. It was quite a thrill! Looking back at the trip we can say that is was very slow and noisy, but the ambience of the wooden benches and leather straps was where it was all about.
Cable Car Powerhouse
Mason Street SF, CA 94108
The cable car was high on our list of San Francisco attractions we wanted to experience. On our first day in the city we already saw a long line of tourists waiting at the base of Powell Street. There were so many people that were waiting for the next cable car! The amount of people that was able to get on the car at once was limited and therefore the wating line grew and grew. So the next day we deicided to get in line early. After our breakfast at the W-Hotel we left at about 8 o'clock in the morning and we only had to wait about 10 minutes. That wasn't too bad!
Besides that ... it was a fun 10 minutes wait, because we saw the grip man turning his car at the turnable, while the conductor stood next to the turnable latch. We were surpised to see this, but learned that the track doesn't make a loop. The cable car needs to be rotated to be sent back on its journey. Lesson learned.
The San Francisco cable car (system) is old, but it is by no means dangerous. It moves at a fairly slow speed with lots of stops. You're rewarded with views when the cable car reaches a crest on the hill to let someone off. On some of the hills you can see the city and the San Francisco Bay Area beyond. When you take the cable car it will only cost you a couple of dollars (for us it was $2.-) to ride it, so this is an attraction you can't afford to miss.
Cable Car Powerhouse
Mason Street SF, CA 94108
For us to understand the importance of the San Francisco Cable Car we learned some of its history. The cable car was introduced to San Francisco on August 2nd, 1873. This way of transportation was much saver than getting the car uphill and downhill by horses. The first cable car to descend down Clay Street on Nob Hill was an immediate succes. Throughout the 1890s eight transit companies operated over 600 cars. Due to the 1906 earthquake most of the cable car system was destroyed and a municipal railway replaced most of the remaining lines. In 1982 the city of San Francisco began a major two-year restoration project. Nowadays there are 37 cars driving on 3 lines.
San Francisco's cable cars are unique in that they are the only street railway in which the cars do not operate under their own power. Instead, the cars are propelled mechanically by "gripping" a continuously moving steel cable which runs in a conduit underneath a slot between the rails. The cable, in turn, is kept in motion by an engine in a centrally-located powerhouse.
While the cable cars are used to a certain extent by commuters, their low speed, small service area and premium fares make them primarily a tourist attraction.
Cable Car Powerhouse
Mason Street SF, CA 94108
No visit to San Francisco is complete without at least one ride on the famous Cable Cars. They provide transportation all over the old downtown area, including Chinatown, North Beach, Fisherman's Wharf, the Financial District, and points nearby. Most cable stops are close to other public transportation, such as the BART/MUNI network, the ferry boats, and the bus lines. To learn more about this system, see my tip on the Cable Car Museum.
Take the cable car from outside the visitors info center on the corner of Powell & Market this take you on the most wonderful old cable car journey to either china town or the cannery not far from peir 39
Of course San Francisco is famous for it's cable cars, so go ahead and take a ride. But be prepared to be paying $5 a ride though! When I first moved here it was $3, which was bad enough. But I guess they know that you tourists are coming, so pay up. He he he. ;-)
The Powell/Hyde line takes you from Market Street to Ghiradhelli Square.
The Powell/Mason line takes you from Market Street to Fisherman's Wharf
(both these start off at the same station at Market & Powell)
The California line runs from Market Street to Van Ness and passes through the Financial District, Nob Hill, and Chinatown.
It's part of San Franciscos history, so we wanted to take a cable care ride.It's actually expensive. We paid $ 5 for one way from Powell Street to Fisherman's Wharf. But from where the cable car stops, you still have to walk a few blocks to Fisherman's Wharf.
For us toursts, San Francisco cable cars are not a means of transportation but a tourist attraction, one of the things one has to "see" if they go to the City by the Bay. They also provide transportation to many of the city’s most popular areas. Drivers are pretty nice so they can help you get wherever you want to go.
There seem to be three different routes but I didn't become familiar with them. Anybody can tell you how they work, but just don't take a different each time you get up or you'll get lost.
Buy tickets for the San Francisco cable cars at the turnarounds or from the conductor as you board. There are no transfers. You have to pay again every time you ride. If you plan to make more than two rides a day and visit a few attractions, buy a Muni PASSPORT. A daily passport is 11 USD and a monthly passport is 45 USD, with those you can use it or any other city bus as many times as you want.
The cable cars run from about 6 AM to about 1 AM.
Get on board and enjoy a piece of San Francisco History!
to us in the uk they are trams ..but the locals get pretty upset if you call the cable cars that they are proud of the trams..cable cars..they are a cheap althought quite busy with tourists mostly of getting around the city quite quickly.