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The Beginner’s Guide to San Francisco’s Cable Cars

Two cable cars heading to different directions in San Francisco cable car city

No trip to the City by the Bay is complete without experiencing a cable car ride. Without a doubt, it’s one of the most fun things to do in San Francisco.

This iconic mode of transport started plying the city’s hilly streets in 1873. While five of its eight original lines were closed in 1947, the three remaining lines continue to serve the city to this day.

Over the years, however, the cable cars have largely become tourist attractions instead of a practical way to get around. They run every 15 to 20 minutes, with a maximum capacity of 65 passengers.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SMFTA) has temporarily shut down the cable cars’ operations. But the agency has announced that the Powell-Hyde services will likely resume in the fall.

In the meantime, read through this guide to plan your cable car adventure ahead.

Getting to know the routes

The San Francisco cable car has three routes:

  • Powell-Hyde line
  • Powell-Mason line
  • California line

Keep in mind that each experience will vary depending on the traffic, the route, your driver, and other factors.

Powell-Hyde Line

Any local will tell you that this is the most exciting line to take. It starts at the Powell Street and Market Street terminal, then traverses Powell Street, Jackson Street, and Hyde Street where it stops close to Ghirardelli Square.

This route will take you up steep hills, where you’ll get the chance to see some of the best places to visit in the Bay Area, including:

  • Alcatraz Island, which can be seen from the top of Hyde and Lombard hills
  • Coit Tower
  • San Francisco Bay
  • Union Square

You may exit at Lombard Street and explore the “World’s Crookedest Street,” or continue on to Fisherman’s Wharf, where you’ll find more iconic San Francisco attractions, such as Ghirardelli Square, the San Francisco Maritime Museum, and The Buena Vista Café.

Powell-Mason Line

The Powell/Mason line also starts at the Powell Street and Market Street turnaround. It goes down Powell Street then makes a left turn at John Street and eventually ends at the terminal on Mason Street.

From there, you can walk to Fisherman’s Wharf near Pier 39. Pier 39 is a must-visit for anyone traveling to San Francisco. This iconic pier is known for its streets lined with souvenir shops and street performers.

On Fisherman’s Wharf, one of the best things to do is have a bowl of clam chowder (best served on sourdough bread bowls) from the street side vendors. There are plenty of seafood choices and amazing seaside views in this area.

The Powell-Mason line also stops right in front of the Cable Car Museum, so you can make a quick visit before heading to your next destination.

California Line

The California line is the only cable car line that runs east to west. It starts at the terminal on Market and Drumm Streets, travels through the Financial District, over Nob Hill, and ends at the junction of Van Ness Avenue and California Street.

Nob Hill is home to some of the most luxurious attractions in San Francisco. You’ll find five-star hotels and posh nightclubs with the most breathtaking views of the city.

Buying tickets for your rides

There are several ways to get tickets for a cable car ride.

  • The MuniMobile app is the most convenient method to purchase your ticket. You can show your phone displaying the ticket’s QR code to the conductor.
  • If you want a ticket to bring home as a souvenir, you can buy it at the ticket booths in the turnarounds at Powell-Market Street and Hyde-Beach Street. However, queues for these booths can be very long.
  • You can directly purchase your tickets from the conductor, using bills not exceeding $20.
  • Tickets are also available at the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau (located at Powell-Market Street).

Tips for riding the cable car

Here are a few useful tips on how you can fully enjoy your cable car experience:

  • If you’re taking the Powell/Hyde line, stay on the eastern side to get the best views of the bay and Lombard Street. This means the right-hand side coming from downtown, and left-hand side if you’re departing from Fisherman’s Wharf.
  • Try to get to the front of the car, stand, and hang on to the pole. The front of the cable car is the spot most tourists vie for, and it’s the best way to take in the views of the city.
  • Don’t forget to bring a light jacket or a windbreaker even during summer. It can get chilly in the cable car as you move up the hills.
  • Be sure to keep your belongings, such as purses, backpacks, and bags, inside the car to prevent accidents.

Learn more about the best things to do in the Bay Area and San Francisco, and explore your real estate options in the area with the local experts at Team Hatvany. Get in touch at 415.710.6462 or send an email to team(at)teamhatvany(dotted)com.

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