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How To Ride SF Cable Cars & Trams

SF cable cars
SF cable cars: the California Line is the best way to get from the Embarcadero to Nob Hill

One of the first things that pops into most people’s minds when they hear the words “San Francisco” is an image of a cable car (the other one is the Golden Gate Bridge obviously). It’s considered an indelible element of the city and many visitors coming here already want to take a ride on one, to experience the romance of days gone by. And why not? They are a great way to see the city, precisely because SF cable cars were intended to be used by San Franciscans to get around, not as a tourist attraction.

Now the system operates three cable car lines: the California line, the Powell-Mason line and the Powell-Hyde line. There’s also a heritage streetcar route, the F Market & Wharves line, which operates historic streetcars from all over the world on a route right through the middle of the city and along the waterfront.

In this article I’ll give you the background and history of SF cable cars and explain the best way to use them today. For more detailed information about using public transport in the Bay Area, including BART and MUNI trains, read this article.

A Short History of San Francisco’s Cable Cars

Andrew Hallidie is widely considered to be the inventor of the SF cable car. An immigrant, he arrived in California from London in 1852 with his father, who had an interest in a gold mine in Mariposa county. The state had only recently become part of the U.S. at the time and life as a prospector would have been tough and dangerous.

Nevertheless, when the mine the father had invested in turned out not to be the, er, gold mine that he had expected, Hallidie was undaunted. He elected to remain in California and become a gold miner on his own, even as Hallidie senior returned to the U.K., in 1853. Hallidie junior still felt like he had a fortune to make in America.

Several years later Hallidie moved to San Francisco and he later developed and promoted the world’s first cable car company, the Clay Street Hill Railway. According to legend he saw some horses struggling to pull a tram up a hill and realized his wire ropes, operated by a steam winch, would be ideal for the job – much like in the mines where he’d worked years earlier.

On August 2, 1873, only a day later than publicized, the cable car line opened and was an immediate success, ultimately making Hallidie a rich man.

Soon other companies were established, the next being the Sutter Street Railway in 1877, and then, the following year, the California Street Cable Railroad, which opened up Nob Hill for the millionaires’ mansions (Leland Stanford owned the company). Before long there were seven different companies operating cable car lines in San Francisco.

San Francisco Cable Car Map from 1890's
San Francisco Cable Car Map from 1890’s

Even by the 1920’s though the system was under a lot of pressure to justify itself, as the improved buses of the era were more and more capable of dealing with our steep hills.

In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s there was a concerted effort by the city’s government to close the last remaining cable car lines but, thankfully, a San Francisco lady called Friedel Klussmann organized a campaign to save them. Ultimately they were taken over by the San Francisco Municipal Railway (MUNI) and amalgamated into the three lines we still have today.

Cable Cars Today

The principle of Hallidie’s design is still in use today. The cables run underneath the streets, connected to machines that pull the cables at an average speed of 9.5 miles per hour. The operator operates a lever that grips the cable to a greater or lesser extent, depending on how fast they want to drive the car. To stop the driver, known as the grip man or woman, releases the cable and then brakes, in a triumph of dexterity, strength and coordination.

The most popular line for visitors is the Powell-Hyde line, which runs between Union Square and Aquatic Park (near Ghirardelli Square). The route goes over Nob Hill and Russian Hill, past Lombard Street, and offers great views of Alcatraz as it drops down to the Bay.

The Powell-Mason line starts/ends at the same place, near Union Square, and goes though Chinatown and North Beach, before reaching Bay Street, a couple of blocks from Fisherman’s Wharf.

The third SF cable car route in operation is the California Street line, which runs from Market Street, near the Embarcadero, up past the big hotels on Nob Hill and down to Van Ness Avenue, near the Civic Center. It’s the most-used line for commuters.

SF Cable Car & Historic Streetcar Map
SF Cable Car & Historic Streetcar Map

Trams

What’s the difference between a cable car and a tram you ask? San Francisco has one tram (or streetcar) route, which is the 6 mile F Market & Wharves line that runs between Castro and Fisherman’s Wharf, via Market Street and the Embarcadero.

This line uses a host of vintage cars, sourced from SF itself and from many other cities around the world, including Melbourne, Milan and Moscow. These trams, which are much bigger than the cable cars, run on electricity, which they get via power lines suspended above the street.

For an in-depth look at how Maya Angelou became the first black female conductor on an SF tram, when the city was forced to racially integrate due to staffing shortages during World War Two, read this article.

Guide to Taking SF Cable Cars and Trams

Taking the cable car or tram is high on the list of things to do for most visitors to San Francisco, and it is absolutely something that you should do if you get the smallest chance. However there are just a couple of things to consider first.

WHICH ROUTE SHOULD I TAKE?

The busiest cable cars lines are the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde routes. The crowds of visitors wanting to take them near Fisherman’s Wharf and Aquatic Park can be sizable and the cars are small, often meaning long lines at peak times.

The best (only) way to avoid that is to take the line from Market Street, which tends to have fewer passengers, or take the California Street line, which is the least busy of the three.

The F Market & Wharves Heritage Streetcar line is a great way to get to Castro or Fisherman’s Wharf, two interesting and popular neighborhoods to explore, and passes through the middle of the Financial District. The carriages don’t tend to fill up as much as the cable cars can.

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?

Unfortunately riding our cable cars isn’t cheap – a one-way fare is $8. The best way to do it is to get a one or three day MUNI visitor pass, which is respectively $13 or $31, and allows unlimited travel on MUNI for the duration of the pass. It’s a great deal.

The F Market & Wharves line operates according to the normal MUNI fare schedule and the price of a ticket is the same as a bus ($2-4 depending on the distance).

HOW DO I GET A TICKET?

Tickets can be purchased from a conductor on the cable cars and from the driver on the streetcars, or they can be purchased from automated machines at all major stations.

As you would expect there is an app that you can get, which allows users to purchase and redeem tickets for use on cable cars, trams, trains and buses. You can get it for free via the SFMTA website here and it is far and away the easiest way to purchase and use tickets on MUNI.

Short video explaining how to use SF cable cars and trams

Our SF in a Day and Half-Day SF City Highlight tours begin with a couple of cable car rides. We also usually take the F Market & Wharves line too when we go to the Castro. All metro travel is included in the price.

If you have any feedback on How To Ride SF Cable Cars & Trams,  please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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