How to Ride The Iconic San Francisco Cable Cars

San Francisco cable cars

After a year of being shut down, the San Francisco cable cars are open! It’s finally time to hop on this iconic ride through the streets of San Francisco. The cable cars are high on many San Francisco bucket lists! They’re one of the top tourist attractions in the city, but locals use them as well. Sure, there are cheaper, and possibly faster, ways to get around the city, but they’re definitely not as fun, or scenic! In this post – we are going to talk about exactly how to ride the San Francisco cable cars during your visit to the city.

San Francisco Cable Car History

The cable cars have been a part of the San Francisco transportation scene since 1873. Horses had a difficult time climbing up the hills of San Francisco, much like me. The cable cars were invented to alleviate this problem. 

At the peak of the cable car system, there were 8 cable car companies with lines servicing Golden Gate Park, the Castro, the Mission, and the Presidio.

As transportation technology developed, the San Francisco cable cars were almost obsolete. But voters made their voices heard and the city kept the three cable car lines you can ride today!

San Francisco Cable Car Routes

There are currently three cable car routes you can ride in San Francisco. All three cable cars intersect at the Powell/California intersection in case you want to switch!

Powell/Hyde: Downtown to Fisherman’s Wharf via Chinatown & Lombard St.

The Powell/Hyde cable car route is possibly the most popular cable car line as there are a number of hills, awesome views, and it passes the top of Lombard Street.

The line has a turntables location on Market and Powell right near Union Square. At this end of the line, you can shop in name-brand stores in Union Square and on Market Street.

The other turntable location is on Hyde and Beach directly across the street from Buena Vista Cafe. This location is also right down the street from Union Square and a short (flat) 10-minute walk through Fisherman’s Wharf to Pier 39. 

Interesting Stops on the Powell/Hyde Line

  • Chinatown: Stop for Dim Sum, find out how the Fortune Cookie is made, or simply wander the streets of Chinatown.
  • Lombard St: Walk down the street that claims to be the most crooked in the world. While it’s technically not – it is quite photogenic and a nice walk down.
  • California St: if you want to switch lines, hop-off here. Or if you want to get a photo of the hill leading to the Bay Bridge in between the tall downtown buildings – this is the spot to do it!

Powell/Mason: Downtown to Fisherman’s Wharf via Chinatown & North Beach

The Powell/Mason cable car route is similar to the Powell/Hyde route. It begins at the same turntable station on Market and Powell near Union Square, climbs up the Powell St Hill, and crosses California. But as the Powell/Hyde line continues down Hyde Street, the Powell/Mason line only goes to Taylor Street. It then passes through the outskirts of Chinatown and joins Columbus St in the heart of North Beach.

The other turnaround is located at Bay and Taylor which is just two blocks away from Fisherman’s Wharf and a short walk to Pier 39. 

Interesting Stops on the Powell/Mason Line

  • Chinatown: One of the most popular places to visit in San Francisco is Chinatown. Hop off here to explore this area on your own, take a walking tour, and catch a glimpse at local life.
  • California St: An iconic photo of San Francisco awaits at the top of California Street. You’ll see the bay bridge lined up perfectly in between two tall Financial buildings. 
  • North Beach: Stop at North Beach for some great food and unique shopping! This is a great area for San Francisco nightlife as well. 
  • Cable Car Museum: Want to learn more about how the San Francisco cable cars work? This line has a stop directly next to the Free Cable Car Museum. Simply ask the driver to let you know which stop to get off and they will! 

California: Van Ness to the Embarcadero via Nob Hill & Financial District

While the two Powell lines above are more popular as they ride through tourist destinations, I personally prefer the California line.

The California line cable cars have two open seating areas with a closed seating area in the middle. This means more opportunity to stand on the side!

I also really like the ride down California street into the Financial District. It’s one of my favorite views in San Francisco!

The California cable car line however does not have a turntable. It has a different mechanism that allows it to move in both directions.

The ends of the California cable car route are Van Ness and Market street, just one block away from the Ferry Building.

Interesting Stops on the California Line

  • California St.: Hop off at the top of California street to snap a photo of this epic view. Then hop back on the next cable car and continue the journey downhill into the financial district. 
  • Nob Hill: the California line passes through the Nob Hill neighborhood which is home to the stunning Grace Cathedral and a couple of very ritzy hotels. While pricey,, these hotels have great bars such as the Tonga Room in the Fairmont and Top of the Mark in the Mark Hopkins Hotel.
  • Polk Street: Get off at Polk street for some good food, shopping, and people-watching. This area has a great local vibe!
  • Ferry Building: Walk to the Ferry Building for lunch or the Farmers Market. You could then extend your walk along the Embarcadero to Cupid’s Span

How to Ride the Cable Car

Getting On the Cable Cars

You can get on the cable car at any of the stops on the route. There is usually a long line at the turntables, but if you walk to the next stop there’s a better chance of squeezing on!

Getting Off of the Cable Cars

Getting off the cable cars is unique and an important part of the process.

The cable cars actually stop in the middle of the intersection in the middle of the road. So as you exit, there will be cars driving by. Don’t just jump off and cross the street!

Make sure to look for traffic and cross only when safe.

Also, don’t cross in front of the cable car, cross behind it

Where to Sit on the Cable Cars

For the two Powell lines try to snag a seat on the Bay side of the car. This will provide you with the best views!

For the California line, snag a spot in the section facing downtown. This provides a thrill when you’re heading downhill towards the Embarcadero. And when you’re leaving downtown towards Van Ness you’ll have a great view of the hill as well. 

There are outdoor and indoor seating options. I love the outdoor area, but it can get chilly. If it’s a cold day, the inside might be more enjoyable.

I highly recommend standing if you can manage it for the entire ride. Just don’t lean out and hold on to your valuables!

How to Stand on the Cable Cars

As I mentioned above, standing is a really fun way to ride the cable cars. There are designated places you can stand on the side, and the driver will let you know if you’re in the wrong spot. 

If the cable car is busy, be prepared to stand the entirety of the ride which is roughly 30. You’ll also have to move if people sitting need to get off.

Cable Car Price

A one-way cable car ticket costs $8, round trip is $16. If you happen to get off the cable car mid-route but want to hop back on, it will cost you another $8, there are no transfers

A more cost-effective way to ride the cable cars is to purchase a 1, 3, or 7-day passport. This ticket is valid for travel on the cable cars, street cars, and buses throughout the city. They cost $24, $36, and $47 respectively. If you’re planning on utilizing public transit in San Francisco during your visit, this is the best way to go.

How to Purchase Cable Car Tickets

Tickets must be purchased in advance from the kiosks if you’re getting on at the turntable stations. If you’re getting on mid-route, you can purchase your tickets from the driver in exact cash.

You can also purchase tickets using the Muni Mobile app. Or, if you happen to have a Clipper Card, you can use this to pay for your Cable Car ticket as well. 

Insider Tip: If you’re purchasing a 1, 3, or 7-day Passport there is a discount by purchasing it through the Muni Mobile app! They’ll be $13, $31, and $41 respectively!

Cable Car Hours

The cable cars are back to full service as of September 1, 2021. They run from 7:00 am – 10:30 pm Monday through Sunday

Cable Car Safety Tips

I sprinkled some safety tips for riding the cable cars throughout this post. But I want to make sure I highlight them as well. 

  1. Don’t lean out! If you choose to stand, make sure you’ve got a strong grip on the bar and don’t lean out.
  2. Check for traffic: as much as this seems like a rollercoaster ride, it’s still public transportation. Check for traffic before crossing the street to get on or off the cable car. 
  3. Cross behind the car. When you get off, cross behind the cable car just in case it starts moving!
  4. Keep hold of all belongings. Yes, get that video of you cruising on the side as it rolls down California street. But have a tight grip on that cell phone! 

Riding the Cable Cars in San Francisco is seriously a fun way to see the city. Is it pretty touristy – sure. But you’ll still see locals hopping on and off with you. They just know better than to wait in the lines at the turn arounds! And now, so do you! You are now fully equipped to have a fun day riding the San Francisco Cable Cars!

If you have any questions – feel free to reach out. And don’t forget to download your San Francisco bucket list bingo card and add these other sites to your San Francisco itinerary.

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