Did you know that San Francisco’s cable cars are officially a “moving” National Historic Landmark? The cars first clanged their bells on the steep streets of this city in 1873. Andrew Hallidie began to build the cable car lines after he saw an accident that injured and killed horses that had been drawing carts on the rain-slicked hills. Hallidie thought up a better way for public transport. His idea proved to be a great one, as the cars are still running nearly 150 years later.
Today San Francisco’s cable cars offer three lines. You can ride the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines from the Union Square area down to Fisherman’s Wharf. The third line, California, runs the other direction (east-west) across the Powell lines. It also ends up at the wharf. Cable cars share the streets with autos, which can get interesting.
How to Ride
You can board at the turntables at the end of the lines. Or you can wait at any stop marked with a sign. If the cars aren’t full, they will stop and you can hop on. The most fun way to ride is to stand on the running boards on either side and hang onto a pole. Just be sure to keep your arms and legs close to the pole, especially when passing a cable car going the opposite way. Riders are close enough to people on that car to high five.
The gripmen and brakemen can make the ride really funny. A brakeman sang us all a rhymed travelogue of the city. One gripman had us all chanting the names of the kids on the car as he rang the bell. “Nico, Nico, Nico” (ring-ring, ring-ring, ring-ring). Another brakeman let me stand in the back to take photos. Then he called my husband back and told him to hang on to me. “OK, we’re coming to a sharp turn and then a steep hill. Ready? Let go and hang over the edge and take pictures!” You only live once, right? And another had us all jumping up and down as we rounded a corner. (I’m not sure that’s safe, but it was certainly fun.)
How the Cars Go
Letting go of the cable brings the car to a stop, but there are also three brakes to halt the cars, a great safety feature. The cars start and stop frequently, so you’ll want to be sure to hang on either a pole or strap if you’re standing.
The Cable Car Museum
We ended our visit to San Francisco at the Cable Car Museum, where you can see the cables running for the three lines. This is where San Francisco’s cable cars spend the night, and where all the mechanics are on view.
A visit to San Francisco just isn’t complete without a ride on the famous cable cars. Hop on and enjoy the ride as the cars whisk you around corners and up and down hilly streets. Laugh with the other passengers and take in the sights and sounds of the city. You’ll love it and remember it for a long time to come.
A one-way fare of any length costs $7. One-day passes and three-day passes are available. We rode seven times in three days, so we definitely saved money with the pass.
Check the official website for up-to-date prices and information on the places you can buy passes.