The Cable Cars of San Francisco are one of the City’s most iconic attractions. The City’s Cars have been getting people around San Francisco for decades now and they are more popular than ever due to booming tourist numbers visiting the City. Everyone visiting the City should give them a ride at least once during their trip as they are such good fun and even a little scary at times. The good news is that all Cable Car routes have now re-opened since the brief Covid-19 shut down. Our guide to riding cable cars in San Francisco will provide you with everything you need to know about this iconic method of Transport.
In the Boom years of the City Cable cars were the primary method of getting around. At its peak, the System had 23 lines and serviced every part of the city. Nowadays this is reduced to just 3 lines and mainly serves tourists.
The System was first opened in 1873 and was highly regarded in the City the system rapidly expanded to its peak of 23 lines. But not long after its inception, the Concept of electrically powered streetcars was born and these threatened to replace the more complicated and expensive Cable cars.
Resistance to the new Electric cars was strong as the overhead cables were considered ugly. But progress always has its way and was helped by the 1909 earthquake that pretty much destroyed the remaining cable car infrastructure. Still, some lines remained as San Francisco’s unique topography meant some hills were just too steep to use electric Cars. Only when the advent of gasoline-driven Buses made these areas accessible did the Cable cars fall completely out of fashion.
However when the last few lines were scheduled to be closed the City’s residents fought back and forced the City to keep them open and running. Until 1979 when they were so old and decrepit that they were forced to close for safety reasons.
Fortunately, this was only ever planned as a restoration closure and the System reopened months later. And has been maintained and upgraded to this day. Now serving a Staggering 7 million people, mainly tourists, and is a huge income boost for the City.
How Do the San Francisco Cable Cars Work
The Cable Car system is delightfully Simple. The cars themselves are not powered in any way. Instead, the Cable installed under the Pavement is the moving element, The Cable runs around a Giant circuit constantly moving around again and again like a huge conveyer belt.
The Driver or Gripman operates the Car’s Brake. But instead of slowing the Car the Brake “Grabs” onto the Cable and is then hauled along the Track. To slow down He simply released the Brake and the Car slows (the cars also have regular brakes to slow down quicker). If you stand by a Cable Car track you can hear the cables rumbling away under the street. It’s a little unnerving at times!
If you found the above interesting you may like the Cable Car Museum. The museum explains the history and workings of the Museum really well and is very interesting if you are into that sort of thing. And it’s free.
As well as the Cable cars the City also operates a heritage Streetcar line. This line runs the length of the Embarcadero and links with the Light rail system. Riding this is included on any MUNI Passport and is a bit more functional as a transport system. They are nowhere near as fun as the Cable cars though and run mainly on the flat.
Despite the ride being little more than a trip in a tram, it is actually quite an experience. San Francisco’s streets are staggeringly steep at times and despite the slow speed of the cars, it can feel pretty scary as they chug up the inlines and teeter over the brows of the slopes.
The first point of call is a Ticket Kiosk. Here you can purchase a Passport or single-ride Tickets. A single ride can also be purchased on the Cable Car too. The Ticket Kiosks are at the terminal stations on the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines. If you are Riding the California Line you will need to get a Passport from another location or just purchase a single ride. All locations for purchasing Passes can be found here.
You can then join the queue. Cars take up to 65 people and run very frequently (every 10mins ish) so the Queue moves pretty fast. But still, at busy times the queue can be well over an hour. As you near the front you need to assess which car you need. At all stations, there is only one end destination, apart from at Powell/Market street where the cars service two routes. This will clearly be marked on the roofs of the Cars. And don’t worry too much if you are going to the end as both lines terminate fairly close to each other. Should you be at the front of the Queue and the wrong car comes in just step aside and let the people behind jump on board.
The Cars have two sections the Front and the Cabin. The front end is open-air with a line of outwards-facing seats along with a Rail. The rail is standing room only and is very intimate with the person sitting down. Great for Couples with the Shilverous Gent standing, not so great for strangers! Riding in the front and especially on the rail is great fun and highly recommended. It really feels as if it probably shouldn’t be allowed as you roll in and out of traffic literally inches from passing cars with very little between you and the pavement!
The rear compartment is partially enclosed from the elements and much more civilized but less exciting. We always try and get on the front as it really is so much fun. However when it’s cold or raining then it’s suddenly a lot less fun. Should you have a preference and the next car is full in your desired section feel free to stand aside and let people behind through so you get first pick of the next car along.
The Gripmen are normally accompanied by a conductor and the pairing normally has a habit of making the journey interesting and humorous, All though this is not required these people Normally enjoy their jobs and appreciate their cars are filled with tourists who will enjoy and banter along the way. Expect loud larger-than-life characters to be in charge of your Car. Take some time to appreciate the Skill of the Gripmen. The job is not an easy one. The art of Gripping the Cable is made much harder by the fact they are operating in a live traffic environment where drivers may not understand the cars can’t turn or swerve. The cable does not run under 100% of the track so parts need to be coast to get to the cable on the Other side. And the Grip Lever is an Archaic device and requires incredible strength to operate. Most people would not be able to shift it! So Gripmen can be Larger than life in more ways than one!
The Ride can be quite a Hairy one. The Hills seem impossibly steep at times and you will be amazed the car is capable of climbing them, ahh the Miricle of Modern Technology (1873!). If you are riding the Rail then be alert to what is going on. The gap between passing and stationary traffic is pretty limited and oncoming cars are fairly close. Be ready to breathe in out of the way when things are getting squeezed. It’s all part of the fun. And hold on tight too is can be a little bumpy!
Another fun part of the Journey is the Top of the hills. The Cars seem to Teeter on the crest as the Gripman gets the car to hold onto the Cable. You are never sure it’s going to hold and the run down the street sure looks like a long steep drop. Rest assured the Gripman is in perfect control and you are in very little danger, it just doesn’t always feel that way.
For what is simply a trip across town on public transport it’s really quite a wild ride. Ok, it’s not a white-knuckle thrill ride but you will be pretty amazed at the perceived excitement.
Finally when it’s your stop just inform the Driver or Guard and they will pull up and let you off.
There are now only 3 routes left out of the 23 original. These run North to South and East to West. Two Lines share the initial section before separating while the third runs perpendicular. Across the City. See the Map Below.
Staring at near Union Square in the Heart of the City at the Junction of Powell and Market this line runs fairly directly through the City to Fishermans Wharf. It is a simple and direct connection between the two main parts of the City however with not that much to see on the way.
Powell hyde starts off sharing the same Station and piece of track as Powell-Mason. However, just after reaching Wahington/Jackson Street the cars heads further west and up Nob/Russian Hill. From the Top, there are some Staggering views and the Car really navigates some of the Citys Steepest streets. The line terminates at the Maritime National Park area right near Ghirardelli Square and only a stone’s throw from Fisherman’s wharf. From Union Square, it’s a great round trip, out on the Powell-hyde Explore the Ghiraildi Square and Fishermans Wharf then catch the Powell-Mason back into town.
The California line runs perpendicular to the other two. From the Embarcadero in the east of the city right up nob hill in the west terminating at Van Ness Av (101). It’s the shortest and Least useful route but has some excellent views of Downtown San Francisco.
Powel-Hyde Line. Simple. Assuming the question is which gives the best Ride that is. Obviously, you need the line that’s going where you want but for pure fun and excitement, the Powel-Hyde line is streets ahead of the others. The Climb up Russian Hill and down the other side is Incredible. It really makes you question the safety of what you are experiencing (there are incredibly few accidents). This is the Full Cable Car Experience and if you are using the Cars as an experience/ride as we suggest then this is THE line you want.
San Francisco Cable Car Prices:
Cable cars cost $8 per trip…Which is pretty pricey. There are quite a few options to make it better value:
You can purchase a Muni Passport that allows unlimited travel on ALL Muni transports. So that’s Buses, Light Rail, Historic Streetcars AND Cable Cars!
- 1 Day Muni Passport: $24
- 3 Day Muni Passport: $36
- 7 Day Muni Passport: $47
If you use MUNIMobile or a Clipper Card these Prices are Slashed!
- 1 Day – $13.00
- 3 Day – $31.00
- 7 Day – $41.00
As you can see the more days you buy the better the value. This is probably because you will be far less likely to keep using the Trams the longer you are there! As you will see below.
You can also get a 3-day Muni pass as part of the San Francisco CityPASS – $94 gets you the 3-Day Muni Passport along with entry to a number of Top San Francisco Attractions. Read our San Francisco CityPASS Review Here.
As you can see from our Line Map above there are large parts of the City that are not served in any way by Cable Cars or Historic Streetcars. The MUNI transport system is, however, a very efficient and comprehensive system that will get you to any location in the City you want. While Single Ride Cable Car tickets do not include transfers the MUNI Links are very cheap. And any Visitors’ Passports 1,3 or 7 days, all include any Muni Transport links so you can use the Cable cars as any single part of your trip.
You can read more about getting around San Francisco here. It is Worth Mentioning the BART line is not covered by the Passports so If you are coming from further afield or the Airport on the BART you will have to pay separately.
Using the Cable Cars as Transport
This is generally not a great idea. There are always alternatives that are cheaper(or at least the same) and much quicker and more convenient. The System is an 1800’s Technology and they really don’t go too fast. However, due to the direct routes, the trip does pass pretty fast and it takes no time at all to get across the City. The Big problem with using them to get around is simply the hellish queues.
It just doesn’t make sense to queue for 30-45 mins to get across San Francisco. You could walk the distance in less time. There is also sure to be an alternative to the Cable car. The MUNI Transport system is very comprehensive so you will never NEED to get a Cable car. However, there are some instances where they are useful.
If you are visiting the City and A trip on the Cable Cars is a must-do, then it makes perfect sense to combine the Ride on the Cable cars with getting to your destination. Yes, you could almost certainly find a faster alternative but you are killing two birds with one stone. For example, say you are in Union Square and want to check out Fisherman’s wharf, but you have still yet to get your Cable car Fix. In this instance, it makes perfect sense to take the Powel-Mason or Powell-Hyde Line right through to the Wharf and Tick two off your list. However, If you are heading there for a Bay Cruise and have a Time limit…Get the Bus!
Also if you are Midway between terminus stations and near a stop it might be worth trying to flag down a car and hop on to your destination. Only if you have a pass as it’s an expensive trip otherwise. And if you are up early then the queues are often light so hop on.
Overall we suggest you don’t ever rely on the Cars to get about but utilize them IF convenient and to never rely on them. Use with a light heart and open mind and enjoy the experience. If in a rush AVOID. And coming from the airport? Definitely, avoid it. We made that mistake after an 11-hour flight! And on that note…
Luggage – Can you take luggage on the Cable Cars
Not really. If the Car is quiet and there is excess space then yeah you might be allowed to squeeze your suitcases on. But again you are not going to want to rely on this. Just don’t risk it and plan an alternative.
Beating the Queues
We are constantly amazed by most people’s top tips to beat the queues and equally amazed when we see people trying it.
“Simply walk a few stops down from the main terminus station and there will be no Queue”
We have heard this tip from people who purport to be locals or experts. We suspect that not only have they never ridden the Cars but never even thought about how the system works. Simply put they are right there will be NO queue. But that is because there is almost ZERO chance of ever getting a ride from these stops. At least not during busy times when you will need to queue.
Why? well at times the queue for a Car can be upwards of two hours! Even at quieter times, the queue is 30-45 mins. Now with a queue like this, you can be assured the operators don’t let a car leave until it is FULL, to the Brim, with people even hanging on the sides (actually they are the first spots to fill). So until someone gets off, there is simply no room to accept more riders.
The People who have just spent the last 30-180mins queuing for a cable car are unlikely to be wanting to go to 2-3 stops, a journey they could have walked in around 10-15 mins. They are far more likely to ride the entire distance to the far end of the line or until at least near the end of the line. Very few people disembark before the halfway mark. This tip just doesn’t work and you will be one of the confused and stunned-looking tourists desperately trying to flag down yet another FULL Car before eventually joining the back of the queue.
You are also made to disembark as the cars reach the Turnarounds, so don’t think you can hop on and ride to the end and stay on for the turnaround. The operators are wise to this!
So what can you do to avoid the Queues? Very little, unfortunately. You could try getting on after the halfway point as there is a chance someone will have disembarked. But you are only getting a part trip and will be charged the full fare. So pretty pointless unless you have a Pass or genuinely want to get on at that point.
Other than that the only option is to get your ass up and out of bed. The Stations are next to deserted early on. We have walked right up to the front of the Queue and got straight on the rail with no wait whatsoever. The First trip is 6:20 am Weekdays and 6:30 am on Weekends, although quite infrequent to begin with. The Queues don’t really start to build until after 9ish.
Really, as we have said Cable Cars are not really very good as a mode of transport they are more of an attraction in their own right. Think of them more like a theme park ride. If you want to ride you have to Queue.
Have Your Say
Let us know if you have ridden the San Francisco Cable cars before. Did you enjoy the Experience or were the Queues just too much? Maybe you are local and have a way to beat the Queues? Do you use them for transport? Just leave us a comment below or if you have any questions again just drop us a comment.