San Francisco’s cable cars are a big part of the city’s charm. And unlike the some of the other best things to do in San Francisco—iconic spots like Coit Tower, Golden Gate Park and the Ferry Plaza—it comes to you! That is, as long as you know where the stops are. Riding the cable car can be intimidating for first timers but we’ve got all you need to know to avoid long lines of less-informed tourists and get you moving in style.
1. There’s more than one way to pay
Cable cars are the most expensive of San Francisco's public transportation options, in part because they’re as much an attraction as they are a way to get around. The $7 one-way ticket price applies to everyone—adults, youth and seniors (except in the very early morning before 7am and late night after 9pm). If you happen to have cash on hand, you can pay the fare directly to the conductor when you board, but if you don’t have small bills, don’t expect to get change back. You can also purchase a MuniMobile or Clipper Card ticket from any Muni kiosk—find them at any underground Muni station or on Market street and the Embarcadero.
2. Take the right car
There are three separate cable car lines in San Francisco running between the downtown, Nob Hill and Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhoods with stops everywhere in between. Like buses and subways, each cable car line has a completely different route. The Powell/Mason line skirts along the edge of North Beach all the way to Pier 39. Powell/Hyde takes you to Ghiradelli Square, passing by Lombard St, the supposed crookedest street in the world (in fact, it’s not even the crookedest street in the city) and offering incredible views of Alcatraz. And the California line trucks up Nob Hill towards the famed Fairmont Hotel and historic Grace Cathedral. If you’re part of a large group and don’t have a line preference, take the California car which is more spacious than cars on the other lines.
3. Avoid the lines by boarding at a cable car stop instead of at the turntables
At the beginning and end of each route is a turntable which spins the cars in the right direction. These stops, especially the ones at the intersection of Market St and Powell St, Powell St and Hyde St, and Fisherman’s Wharf, tend to draw long lines of tourists waiting for their turn to ride the iconic cars. And while they are the beginning and end of the route, even boarding just a stop or two away from the turntables can mean the difference between waiting for 30 minutes and hopping right on. For a list of cable car stops, check the Muni website.
4. Be prepared for the cold
Part of the charm of the cable car is that it’s open on the sides. The lack of walls guarantees an unobstructed view of the city but it also guarantees that most of the time, especially when the sun goes down, there’s no escape from the ocean breeze and bone-chilling fog. Even if it’s a warm, sunny day, the farther up the hills the car goes, the more likely it is that you’ll be bracing against the wind. Dress in layers or, better yet, bring a proper wind breaker to keep you toasty warm on your journey.
5. Tell the driver where you plan to get off
There are no buttons to push or cords to pull in order to let the driver know when you want to get off the cable car. At peak hours the car will pause at each stop but on quieter days, the driver may keep rolling until he sees an oncoming passenger. Avoid missing your stop by letting the driver know which stop you need when you board. If you aren’t sure of your stop, let the driver know which attraction you are headed towards, they’ll be able to guide you to the right location.
Bonus: See the engines that pull the cable cars through the city
On the corner of Mason and Washington Streets on the Powell/Mason line is The Cable Car Museum, a free archive of all things related to the cable car. Exhibits and photographs at the museum document the history of this iconic mode of transportation, the world’s only mobile national monument. Perhaps its most interesting feature, though, is the massive system of engines that pull the thick ground cables to keep the cars moving throughout the city. The museum is open daily from 10am-6pm April to October and 10am-5pm November through March.