This post is a guide to riding the famous San Francisco cable cars. including tips on tickets, routes, and how to ride.
We give you tips on which important attractions and sights can be seen with each particular line. We also include a ride (and tutorial) on our San Francisco in One Day Tour.
- WHERE TO BOARD
- TICKETS + SCHEDULES
- HOW TO RIDE A CABLE CAR
- CABLE CARS VS. STREETCARS
- THINGS TO DO IN SAN FRANCISCO
How Do the Famous Cable Cars Work?
Actually, it's quite simple.
The cable car runs on a track that is connected to a cable line. The cable lines are always moving through the city streets at a constant speed.
When the conductor needs to stop, he or she simply releases the car's grip on the cable. To move, the grip is initiated again.
Thus all the movement of the cars comes from the tracks and below.
DID YOU KNOW?
The San Francisco Cable Cars were named a National Historic Landmark in 1964.
There are three routes you can choose from:
- Powell-Hyde Line (Blue line)
- Powell-Mason Line (Green line)
- California Line (Red Line)
Click on the image below to open a larger interactive map.
Though each route provides breathtaking views, your experience will vary depending on the direction the car is going, your location in the car, your driver, and traffic.
All three lines intersect at the California Street and Powell Street intersection.
Most San Franciscans will tell you that the Powell-Hyde line is the most exciting trip to take and we wholeheartedly agree.
The Powell-Hyde Street line starts at the cable car turnaround at Powell Street and Market Street (map).
As it rides north along Powell Street, you pass by Union Square, through the downtown area, and ride up to Nob Hill where the views can’t be beaten.
You'll also pass the Cable Car Museum, which is located at 1201 Mason Street, worth a visit if you are interested in the mechanics and history of cable cars.
As the ride continues up (and up, and up) to Russian Hill, you'll cross Lombard Street, known as the "Crookedest Street in the World."
It's from this stop (Hyde and Lombard) that you will get an unobstructed view of Alcatraz Island.
The car then plunges (VERY slowly) down the steep Russian Hill and you'll arrive at Fisherman's Wharf. From there, where you connect with our Fisherman's Wharf tour or see Pier 39 at the end of the route!
TIP: For the best views, we suggest riding on the right side of the car if you're departing from Powell & Market, and the left side if you're departing from Hyde & Beach.
Which cable car goes to Chinatown?
The California Line will take you to the southern end of Chinatown. It's not the most popular cable car line in the Bay Area, but it's an excellent option if you want to visit this historic district of San Francisco.
This cable car service will also take you to the Financial District!
Which cable car goes to Lombard Street?
As we mentioned previously, the Powell-Hyde line will take you to the top of Lombard Street, but if you want to see it from the bottom, you should take the Powell-Mason street line instead.
It's also worth noting that the Powell-Mason line ends just a few blocks short of the Aquatic Park.
The easiest way place to start your cable car ride is at one of the turnarounds (beginning/end of the line).
Below is a video of the Powell-Market Sts. turnaround where you can see the conductor and grip operator literally turn the cable car around so it can head back in the other direction!
You may also start your cable car ride at any stop along the route.
Stops are located about every two blocks along each line, and you'll see a brown and white sign that says MUNI Cable Car Stop.
When waiting at the stop, you'll see the cable car approaching from a distance. - when it nears you, raise your hand to signal the driver to stop or the driver may pass you by!
Keep in mind that if you board at a stop that is somewhat near the beginning of the cable car line, the car might be full and you won't be allowed to board.
You have a few different payment options to buy your ticket:
The most convenient way is to purchase tickets from the MUNImobile app.
You then use the app to open the ticket image which you then show the conductor! It's very cool and super convenient.
You can also buy your tickets at the ticket booths located at the Powell-Market Street turnaround and the Hyde-Beach Street cable car turnaround.
Be warned: lines at the ticket booths can be very long.
Buy your ticket from the cable car conductor. Officially, you can only pay with exact change.
However, conductors often give back change, but you must pay with small bills ($1,$5, $10, $20). The driver won't take any money larger than a $20 bill.
You can buy your tickets from the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau (also at Powell and Market).
TIP: Instead of waiting in long lines at the ticket booths, walk up a few blocks and catch your cable car there and purchase your ticket from the conductor.
But remember, you must have small bills to purchase your ticket from the cable car conductor.
You may have heard that you can hop off and on cable cars as many times as you like once you purchase a ticket.
This isn't exactly true, though there is a way to use cable cars as a hop-on/hop-off tour experience.
So, how much does it cost to take a cable car ride in San Francisco?
Single Ride Tickets are $7 per person
These tickets are valid for a single ride. If you start your ride, then get out of the car and try to board a different car, you will have to pay another $7.
Visitor Passport Tickets 1 day $20, 3 days $31, 7 days $40
These tickets give you unlimited rides on cable cars and other transportation modes (Muni, Muni Metro, and historic streetcars).
You can purchase a one-day, three-day, or seven-day Passport (Must be consecutive days).
If you are interested in taking more than one ride or doing a self-planned hop-on/hop-off trip, you may want to buy a Visitor Passport Ticket.
For more information check the San Francisco MTA website.
An extra bonus: if you are buying a Visitor Passport ticket, these tickets sometimes have coupons for discounts at San Francisco attractions.
One of the most common discounts is for stores at Ghirardelli Square.
So head over to the Powell-Hyde line and then hop over to Ghirardelli for a delicious ice cream sundae after your ride!
TIP: If you are thinking about taking a guided hop-on/hop-off bus tour, take a look at our post for all the options as well as recommendations Which San Francisco Bus Tour Is Best?
CABLE CAR SCHEDULES
The cable cars in San Francisco begin running around 7:00 am and they run until about 10:30 PM.
The schedule varies throughout the day, but you can get the exact timing of departure for each route by looking at the San Francisco MTA schedule page.
Riding a cable car is somewhere between riding an open-air bus and taking a roller coaster ride (but a slow roller coaster!)
If you have never ridden a cable car before, it's good to know the 'rules of the road', especially if you want to have the best views or the most comfortable ride -- or both!
When you board the cable car, you'll have to decide what kind of ride you want to take.
Many people prefer to sit down for a more comfortable ride (although the wooden benches are pretty hard, and the cable car does bounce around a bit).
Other people prefer to stand up and hold onto the poles to make the ride a little more exciting, especially as the car goes up and down the steep San Francisco hills.
Be sure to keep your backpacks, bags, and purses toward the center of the car and not dangling outside of the car because trucks, buses, and other cable cars pass in close proximity.
Most importantly make sure to keep your arms and legs inside the car--we don't want anybody getting hurt!
Here's a video where you can see for yourself the best way to ride the cable cars and what you shouldn't do while riding one (like waving...not a great idea!)
HISTORY OF THE CABLE CAR
Before cable cars were invented, the only form of mass transit was horse-drawn trolleys.
That's fine in flat areas of the region. But San Francisco is well known for its steep hills.
Enter Andrew Hallidie, a wealthy businessman who, after witnessing a bad horse-trolley accident said to himself, "There's got to be a better way!"
He put his time, money, and energy into discovering that better way, and in 1873 the San Francisco Cable Car took to the streets.
They quickly became one of the city’s most widely used and most recognized modes of transportation.
Though the cable car system was nearly eliminated twice (once due to the destruction caused by the 1906 earthquake, and again in 1947 at the hands of the city’s mayor), the cable car has always managed to stay on its tracks.
The San Francisco cable cars were designated a National Historic Landmark in the early 1960s, the first public transportation system to do so.
You can read more about its history at San Francisco Cable Cars: The Invention that Changed a City.
Despite the common belief that the San Francisco Cable Car and San Francisco Streetcars are synonymous and interchangeable, this isn’t actually the case.
The cable car runs on a track that is connected to a cable line, thus all the movement of the cars comes from the tracks and below.
The streetcar runs on tracks as well but has an electrical pole on top connecting it to a wire, its main source of power.
You can read more about the city's streetcars at How to Ride San Francisco's Historic Streetcar.
The San Francisco Cable Car looks like this:
The San Francisco Streetcar looks like this:
Hop on, hold tight, and enjoy your ride in San Francisco!!