The San Francisco Cable Car is for Tourists and That’s 100% Okay

When my friends and I were in San Francisco for a few days we did some touristy things. We went to Alcatraz. We wandered around Fisherman’s Wharf. We saw the sea lions at Pier 39. We walked through Chinatown. We went on a double decker bus tour. We went across The Golden Gate Bridge and then took photos on the other side. We even had lunch at a Hard Rock Cafe and Boudin Bakery (which was where sourdough bread was first popularized in San Francisco).

The one other tourist thing we really wanted to do in San Francisco was to ride the cable car. You know the one. It’s featured in pretty much every movie or TV show set in San Francisco. The first two days we were there we had a hop on/off bus pass and used that to get around the city. The next two days my friends and I got a Clipper Card, which is a transit pass. We used it on the bus, the tram, the BART (subway), and on the cable cars.

San Francisco Cable Car.

One of the famous cable cars in San Francisco. The city is the last one in the world to have manually operated cable cars.

Powell-Hyde Cable Car Turnaround

For our first attempt to take the cable car we went to the Powell-Hyde turnaround. There are three different cable car lines in San Francisco. On the Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines the cable cars only operate from one end. So when they get to the end of the line the operators get out and turn the cable car (like physically turn it; not a metaphor). Here’s a video.


The Powell-Hyde turn around is right by Ghirardelli Square, and the Hyde Street Pier. These are pretty busy and touristy areas of the city, and so there will likely always be a queue of people here. The first time we here we only waited about 10 minutes. When we got to the car, we were hoping we’d get the seats on the side (the ones facing out to the street). Since it was busy we had to sit inside, in the middle of the car. Still we got to ride the cable car.

During our time in San Francisco they were doing work on the Powell-Hyde line. This meant that we could only ride the cable car partway on this particular line. After that we had to take a free shuttle bus for the rest of the line. Turns out this work was going to finish a couple days after we left, but it did kinda suck for our trip. It also meant that the cable car turnaround at the other end of the line (the one by our hostel) wasn’t in operation. Oh well, c’est la vie, right?

San Francisco Cable Car Museum

One thing we did do was wander inside the free San Francisco Cable Car Museum. It shows the history of the cable car, and has lots of information about how cable cars work. The cable cars themselves don’t have any kind of motor or engine in them. Instead they are moved by a cable that runs underneath a track on the road. On the cable cars themselves is a lever that operates as a braking system. At the museum you can watch the now electrical powered motors drive the large wheels that pull the cables under the ground to move these cable cars. If you’re outside by a cable car track you can hear the cable moving underneath. It was interesting to see this and to learn about the history of the cable car. This is a neat museum to spend a little bit of time in if you’re in the area.

This explains the difference between a cable car and a street car.

Final Day

The last day we went back to the turn-around for the Powell-Hyde line and the queue was insane. We waited for about 90 minutes to get on the cable car. Depending on your circumstance you might just give up and walk. But looking up at the massive we decided to wait it out, rather than to walk it. While I was in line I couldn’t help but think to myself, “yep the cable in San Francisco is 100% for tourists. There’s no way a local is waiting in this giant line to go to work or to the grocery store.” Perhaps back in the day when the cable car was one of the only forms of public transit locals would take it, but I doubt they would now. Not with the other forms of public transit in San Francisco that are quicker and go to more places.

We finally got on the cable car (again had to sit inside), and went up toward Lombard Street. We decided it’d be easier to walk down Lombard than up. It’s worth knowing that the cable cars don’t have a way to indicate a stop inside the car (there’s no buttons to push, or strings to pull). Instead you need to tell the driver where you want to get off. Outside there are cable car stops along the routes, so if you’re waiting at a stop the cable car will stop there. Anyway after walking down Lombard (on the sidewalks; you can’t walk down the crooked road) we caught the shuttle to the end of the line. Then we walked over to where the California Line cable cars operate.

Car driving down Lombard Street in San Francisco, California.

We decided to walk down from Lombard Street to California Street to take another cable car. Going down is much easier than going up. It’s important to know if you’re walking down Lombard Street you need to stay on the sidewalk. There are city employees (I believe they’d work for the city) there to make no tourist is walking onto the road. Be safe people.

The California Line

The California line runs along California Street (hence the name) from Polk Gulch to the Financial district. Unlike the cable cars on the other two lines (Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason) the cable cars on the California line can be operated from either end of the car. That means there isn’t a turnaround spot for people (tourists mostly) to take photos and videos. Instead the cars on this line have a lever on both ends of the car. So when it’s time to move from one direction to another, the operator just moves to the other side of the car. Then the car moves in the other direction.

View from a cable car.

One thing about San Francisco being on several hills is that at some point you’ll be at the top of one and you’ll get a pretty nice view. Of course it’s hard to stand on the side of a cable car and snap a photo while the car is stopped at a red light, but you do what you can.

The real reason we went to the California line is because we figured it wouldn’t be as busy as the other two. And it wasn’t. We ended up getting seats on the side of the car, like we wanted to originally. And then I decided, since I was here, I should stand up on the platform outside. You know the photos of the people standing on the cable car and riding it up/down the steep hills of San Francisco? Yep, that was me. Also I was totally singing “The Trolley Song” from the musical¬†Meet Me in St. Louis in my head, despite the fact we were on a cable car, and not in St. Louis.

Locals waving

We had some friendly locals wave to all of us tourists on the cable car. Pretty sure that’s not happening if you’re a local just taking the bus. Note: I cannot make any guarantees friendly locals will wave to you if you ride the cable car in San Francisco, but it’s still fun.

Standing on the cable car is a lot of fun, and one of my friends remarked, “I didn’t realize this was a childhood dream until now.” The cable cars only go about 9 miles an hour, so this isn’t a roller coaster type of experience. Then again I don’t know any other time I’ve been able to stand on the outside of a moving vehicle (in safe and legal way). Riding the cable car like this was a lot of fun. I took a short video of riding the cable car below.

Sometimes you go to a place and there’s a touristy things to do. and. Some people might be, “oh no it’s too touristy.” If that’s you, then cool. I definitely understand some tourist attractions are overrated, but I also understand that some things are tourist attractions because there’s something unique about them. When it comes to travel, you do you (provided you’re not doing anything unsafe, illegal or culturally inappropriate). So if you want to skip out on taking the cable car in San Francisco then go ahead I guess. But for me I’m happy I did this thing that is 100% this for tourists. And I’ll hop on a cable car next time I’m in San Francisco as well.

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