Cable Cars in San Francisco

Riding Cable Cars in San Francisco up and down the hills of San Francisco is like nothing else. Even though they are a symbol of the early innovations that made the city famous, taking a cable car is always a fun thing to do. The first part of the cable car journey is waiting at the turnarounds (at Powell or California and Market Streets) or along the routes for the cable cars to come by. As soon as you get on the cable car, you can either find a seat or hold on to the handles.

The gripmen move the cars by pulling on the grips. And let’s not forget the bell of the cable car. It’s loud enough to hear from blocks away. It’s used to get the attention of cars coming from the opposite direction.

The cable cars are the last cable car system in the world that is run by hand. They are a type of tramway where the cars are pulled along by wires that are buried in the street. In 1964, these cable cars, which look like they came from the Smithsonian, were named a national historic site. They work pretty much the same as they did when Andrew S. Hallidie drove the first car down Clay Street on August 2, 1873. They have been fixed up and given new tracks, cables, turns, and cable-powered machines.

San Francisco Cable Car History

The cable car system in San Francisco is the only one left in the world that still works. The cable cars move by holding onto an underground cable that is always moving. This cable is driven by an engine in a powerhouse in the middle of the system. On the cable car, the “grip man” is the person who controls the grip and rings the bell. The car also has a driver, who takes the money and helps the grip man keep an eye on everything.

In 1873, San Francisco’s cable car system was built. Local folklore says that Andrew Hallidie got the idea to build the cable car system when he saw wagon horses die because Jackson Street was so steep. By 1890, there were almost 20 trains that helped people get around the city. This system was the basis for similar ones in towns all over the world. But the system didn’t last long because electric streetcars came out at the end of the 1800s and were a better way to get around that was cheaper and faster. The 1906 earthquake, which damaged so much of the city’s infrastructure, was the last straw for the old cable car system.

By 1912, only three cable car lines were still running, and those were only because electric streetcars couldn’t go up the steepest streets. By the 1920s, buses could also be used instead of these lines. But some people did want to keep the historic cable cars going, and there was a lot of talk about how to do that.

How do Cable Cars Work?

The cable cars are different because they don’t have an engine to move them through the city streets. Under the road, there is a steady-moving iron wire that the cable car “hooks up” to on the surface.

In other words, for the cable car to move, the driver has to move a lever that looks like a pair of pliers and grabs the cable through a hole in the road. How much pressure is used to grab the cable affects how fast the cable car goes. Instead of tightening the grip on the wire to stop the cable car, the operator loosens it and hits the brakes.

At the end of the road, there is a big circular platform where you can turn the cable car around and send it back on its way in the opposite direction.

How to Ride Cable Cars in San Francisco?

  • To ride cable cars, people must buy a ticket. No matter how old you are or what time of day it is, a single ride costs $8. You can use exact cash or the MuniMobile app to pay. Opens in a new window or a Clipper card opens in a new window.
  • Along each route, there are certain places where the cable cars stop. Get in line and wait for the cable car to come close and stop. As you step off the curb, pay attention to what’s around you. Cable cars share the road with cars and buses. Listen to what the driver tells you about where you can sit or stand. After you get on, payment will be taken.
  • At the San Francisco Cable Car MuseumOpens in the new window (1201 Mason St.), you can learn about the history of the city’s cable cars and even see the huge parts that keep the system going. This fun place is always free and is open every day of the year (except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day).

San Francisco Cable Car Routes

Once upon a time, the whole city was served by cable car lines. Today, there are only three lines left, but they can take you to some of the most popular places in San Francisco.

You can choose one of three lines:

  • You can get on the California Line at the corner of California and Market Streets.
  • Powell-Mason: Picks you up at the Powell Street Cable Car return on Market Street in Union Square.
  • Powell-Hyde: This line also picks you up at the Powell Street Cable Car stop.

The three lines go through these neighbourhoods:

  • North Beach
  • Fisherman’s Wharf
  • Union Square
  • Nob Hill
  • Chinatown
  • Embarcadero

Cable Cars in San Francisco Schedule

Even on holidays, the cable cars in San Francisco run every day of the year. You’ll find that people from the city, as well as visitors, use them to get around, so they are always running.

Every day, all three cable car lines in San Francisco start around 7 am and run until around 10:30 pm. All of them leave about every 15 to 20 minutes and run often.

How to Pay for the Cable Car Ride?

You’ll pay when you get on. Each cable car is run by two people. One is the driver, who is called the “grip man” or “grip woman,” and the other takes money and helps people get on board.

After everyone is on board, they take cash. So, once you’re in your seat and the car is going, you’ll be asked for your fare (cash, ticket, or pass).

One exception is that you need a ticket or pass to get on at one of the cable car turnarounds at Powell & Market, Hyde & Beach, or Bay & Taylor between 8 am and 5 pm. That is, they don’t accept cash at those turns.

But at each of these turns, there is a ticket stand where you can buy tickets or passes. Or, you can just pay cash and get on at a stop farther away.

Payment Options

  • Cash: The official site says that they only give exact change, but they do give change for bills of $20 or less. 
  • Paper tickets: These one-way tickets can be bought at the ticket booths near the cable car stops at each end of the trip.
  • MuniMobile app: If you download the MuniMobile app, you can buy single tickets for yourself or for a group, or you can buy one of San Francisco’s many transport passes.
  • Clipper Card: A Clipper Card is a local card that lets you put money or passes on it and scan it to pay.
  • 1, 3 and 7-day transit passes: you can ride all of San Francisco’s buses, trolleys, and cable cars as much as you want. Pass information is below.

Since the California Line doesn’t have a ticket booth, you can only pay for cable cars with cash or passes (unless you got tickets somewhere else).

San Francisco Cable Car Tips

  • The busy streets and steep hills in our city can make for a fun ride. Don’t let go. Please don’t lean outward if you’re standing and hanging onto the special poles on the outside of the car.
  • Wait until the car stops completely before getting out. Then, before you leave, look at the nearby street. Before crossing a cable car intersection, you should stop, look around, and listen carefully. Please remember that the green “X” means “go ahead” for cable cars, not for people walking. 
  • You can’t bring full-size bikes or folded bikes on cable cars. If you’re taking your bike with you, check out other Muni paths.
  • People with service animals are asked to sit inside the cable car, either on their owners’ laps or as far away from the aisle as possible. Service animals must sit on their owners’ laps when going on the outside of the cable car.
  • There is no way for people with disabilities to get on cable cars.

Insider Tips for Riding the Cable Cars

In addition to the tips in this piece, here are some other insider tips that will help you enjoy your ride on a San Francisco cable car as much as possible:

  • You want to be on the side that faces the bay so you can see the most. That’s the eastern side of the Powell cars, which is the right side for cars going from downtown and the left side for cars leaving from Fisherman’s Wharf.
  • When you get off the cable car, don’t cross in front of it. Instead, wait for it to go by. Even though the drivers are always paying attention, this is a big truck that can’t turn to avoid you, so be careful!
  • When it rains, cable cars can sometimes be late. When the tracks are wet, it takes them longer to slow down. If you’re on a plan, you might want to keep that in mind.
  • Even on warm days, the cable car can get cold as it goes up and down the hills. Bring something to block the wind.
  • Put your bags and backpacks on your lap or at your feet. They shouldn’t be hanging off the car.
  • Keep holding on. And keep an eye on your kids. This is a way to get around, not a ride, so you should treat it with the care and safety it deserves.

San Francisco Cable Car Museum

The address of the museum is 1201 Mason Street. If you want to learn more about cable cars, this museum might be a good place to go. The Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines both stop right in front of the museum and the California St. line stops only three blocks away on Mason Street. It makes sense to take a cable car to this museum, and it’s also the best way to get there since the museum doesn’t have a parking lot.

When you go to the San Francisco Cable Car Museum, you’ll find that it’s more than just a simple museum. It’s also where the steel lines that the cable cars ride on were made.

Cable Cars: Transportation vs. Tourist Attraction

People often think that cable cars are just rides for tourists. Even though it is one of the city’s biggest draws, it is also a good way to get around, and some people who live in the city do use it (usually in the off-season, when the cars aren’t as crowded).

Even if you are just visiting, it is important to know this because there are a few rare times when the cable car is faster and more handy than the bus system. For example, during peak times when there aren’t as many tourists, it can be faster to take a cable car than a bus to get to Chinatown. (But keep in mind that it also costs more!)

Which is the Best Route?

There are three different cable car lines, but they all go up and down steep hills and are very exciting.

Both lines that leave from Powell and Market Streets go to Fisherman’s Wharf, but they do so in different ways.

The California Line goes in the opposite direction of the other two.


San Francisco’s cable car system, built in 1873, is the last hand-run tramway system in the world. Named a national historic site in 1964, it functions similarly to the first car driven by Andrew S. Hallidie in 1873. Updated with new tracks, cables, turns, and cable-powered machines, the system relies on underground cables driven by an engine in a powerhouse. Despite damage from the 1906 earthquake, some people continue to maintain the historic system.

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