A creaking handbrake seems to be the only thing between you and cruel fate as your 15,000-pound cable car picks up speed downhill, careening towards oncoming traffic. Let the travel expert from our brand new Pocket San Francisco travel guide take you on a cable car thrill-ride through San Francisco.
Ride the lines
Depending on whether you want a leisurely ride with killer views or a speedy journey from A to B, choose your line wisely. Powell-Mason cars are quickest to reach Fisherman’s Wharf; Powell-Hyde cars are more scenic; and the original east-west California line is the most historic. Find schedules on transit.511.org and maps at www.sfmuni.com.
- Powell-Hyde Cable Car. The journey is the destination on this hilly line, with the Golden Gate Bridge popping in and out of view. Hop off the cable car atop zig-zagging Lombard St to see Russian Hill’s priceless pine-framed panorama, which belongs not to resident billionaire and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, but penniless poet George Sterling: Sterling Park.
- Powell-Mason Cable Car. Powell-Mason’s ascent up Nob Hill feels like the world’s longest roller-coaster climb. Stop for a hilltop martini, or continue to Chinatown’s Chinese Historical Society. The route crosses North Beach at Washington Square Park, ringed with pizza possibilities and Diego Rivera murals at nearby San Francisco Art Institute. Near the terminus are two riveting attractions: USS Pampanito and Musée Mecanique.
- California St Cable Car. History buffs and crowd-shy visitors prefer the California cable car, in operation since 1878. This divine ride west heads through Chinatown past Old St Mary’s and climbs Nob Hill to Grace Cathedral. Alight at Polk St for boutique-browsing and cocktails with Sasquatch at Bigfoot Lodge. The Van Ness terminus is a few blocks northeast of Japantown.
- Powell Street Cable Car Turnaround. At Powell and Market Sts, you’ll spot cable-car operators gripping trolleys and slooowly turning them around by hand on a revolving wooden platform. Cable cars can’t go in reverse, and this ‘turnaround’ is where the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines end and begin. Tourists line up here to secure a seat, with street performers and doomsday preachers as entertainment - or not. Locals hop on further uphill.
- Friedel Klussmann Cable Car Turnaround. The Powell-Hyde turnaround at Fisherman’s Wharf is named after the gardener who rallied her ladies’ garden club in 1947 against the mayor’s scheme to replace Powell cable car lines with buses - the mayor lost to the ‘Cable Car Lady’ by a landslide. In 1952, Klussmann campaigned to rescue the insolvent California line. Upon her death in 1986, cable cars citywide were draped in black.
- Cable cars stop almost every block on California and Powell-Mason lines, and stop every block on north-south stretches of the Powell-Hyde line.
- To board on hills, act fast: leap on to the baseboard and grab the closest leather hand-strap.
- Powell St and Fisherman’s Wharf cable car turnarounds usually have lines, but they move fast. To skip the queue, head further up the line and jump on when the cable car approaches.
- This Victorian transport is not childproof - you won’t find car seats or seat belts. Kids love open-air seating in front, but holding them inside the car is safer.
- Cable cars are not handicap-accessible.
Thirsty for more expert insight on sunny San Fran, or just craving that hilltop martini? Snap up a copy of the freshest San Francisco travel tips in our hot-off-the-press Pocket San Francisco travel guide. Buy it here.