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The Cable Car: A San Francisco Icon

The Complete Guide to Riding the Cable Cars and Visiting the Cable Car Museum.


The Cable Car: A San Francisco Icon
Image Courtesy of Jesse Garcia
The only mobile National Monument in the United States, San Francisco's cable cars were built to help residents go up and down the city's steep hills without fainting from exhaustion. Now the cable cars are one of the city's top tourist attractions and landmarks, although they are still used by some residents to get to and from work every day. During the summer high season the wait for a ride can be unreasonably, and almost unbearably, long, but there are a couple of secrets to avoiding the crowds and riding the cable cars hassle-free.

The Cable Car Lines

There are three cable car lines in San Francisco and all three cross Nob Hill, which lies just north of downtown. Two of the lines connect the Union Square area with Fisherman's Wharf, and these are the lines that are absolutely packed and insane much of the year. The third line actually intersects them and crosses Nob Hill from east to west, and is largely off of the tourist radar (hint, hint).

See all three routes on this Route Map.

  • The Powell-Hyde Line: The Powell-Hyde line is the most scenic of the three cable car lines. It begins at the Market and Powell street cable car turnaround and heads up Nob Hill, passing by Union Square on the way. At Jackson Street, it turns west and heads down to Hyde Street, a tree lined street that is dotted with small elegant restaurants and cafes. The cable car takes Hyde Street over Russian Hill, passing by Lombard Street (The "Crookedest Street in the World") before ending its journey at the waterfront cable car turnaround just below Ghiradelli Square in Fisherman's Wharf.

  • The Powell-Mason Line: The Powell-Mason Line also begins at the cable car turnaround on Market Street and heads up Nob Hill, but instead of crossing over to Hyde, it cruises down Mason Street to Columbus Avenue instead. Getting off here will leave you just a few blocks below North Beach, but most riders continue on to the end of the line at Bay Street, a couple of blocks inland from Fisherman's Wharf.

  • The California Street Line: The California Street line begins in the Financial District, just a few blocks inland from the Ferry Building Marketplace on Market Street. It runs up California and through Chinatown, then over Nob Hill, before ending at Van Ness Avenue. Outside of the business travelers who often stay at the hotels on Van Ness, this line is primarily used by locals who commute into downtown on it and is usually free of the long lines that plague the other two routes.

    Riding the Cable Car

    Cable Car fares are paid directly to the driver or bought from one of the attended booths at either of the turnarounds. Fares are $6 per person at the time of writing and are good for one-way travel only. One, Three and Seven Day passes are also available from the booths, which include unlimited travel on all San Francisco public transportation; cable cars, historic trolleys, subways and buses.

    Those that purchase a San Francisco City Pass, get a 7 day transportation pass that includes unlimited rides on the cable cars as well admission to five different major San Francisco attractions.

    You can also board the cable car at any point along its route, and most drives actually leave a couple extra spaces for late boarders when they leave the turnaround. If you don’t abuse this option, it can save you hours of time waiting in line.

    The Cable Car Museum

    Located inside the actual cable car barn and powerhouse on Nob Hill where the steel engines and massive winding wheels that pull the cables along their track under the ground are on display, the non-profit Cable Car Museum is a fascinating attraction in its own right. Besides a large collection of mechanical equipment, old cable cars and historic photographs, the onsite gift shop stocks coffee table books, souvenirs and other specialty items.

    • Location:1201 Mason Street, San Francisco, CA
    • Hours:10am - 6pm Daily
    • Admission:Free
    • Contact(415) 474-1887 www.cablecarmuseum.org

    A Bit of Cable Car History

    Cable cars were introduced in San Francisco in 1873 by Andrew Smith Hallidie and the Clay Street Railroad company. By the time of the great fire of 1906, cable cars criss-crossed the entire city, from Ocean Beach to the Ferry Building. After the city burned however, many of the cable car lines where re-opened using cheaper and more energy efficient electric streetcars. The cable cars where still much better at navigating the steep slopes of the downtown hills however and so they were rebuilt or renovated in the center of the city.

    The cable cars were almost destroyed again in the 1940's, when the overzealous automobile industry launched its crusade against public transportation that completely wiped out the streetcars of Los Angeles and decimated the lines in San Francisco as well. Despite the fact that the San Francisco mayor and several other key, yet corrupt, politicians backed the auto industry, a focused group of citizens banded together to fight for the survival of the Cable Cars and their line. The battle was not easy but the Citizens Committee to Save the Cable Cars, along with support from across the nation, including a pro cable car editorial by Eleanor Roosevelt, finally resulted in a popular city vote that overwhelmingly secured the future of the cable car as a San Francisco icon.

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