San Francisco's cable cars travel to many well-known sights: Fisherman's Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, Chinatown, North Beach, Union Square. They can also take you on a journey of discovery into some of the city's neighborhoods.
This trip on two of the three lines can be done in a day and will take you to three very different parts of town: posh Nob Hill, peaceful Pacific Heights and the waterfront.
Listen. The bells clang, the cars groan as they go up and down the hills. The cables sing. Over it all, you hear tourists chattering and people discussing their lives. Like San Franciscans in general, the grip persons are a diverse lot. In one day of riding, I saw a long beard (halfway down his chest), a pierced nose, a Little Richard wanna-be, and a long gray ponytail under a green beret.
If you're brave, ride on the outside. Stand on the running board and hang onto one of the poles on the outside of the car. It's a vulnerable, thrilling feeling, but watch out for other cable cars approaching. They pass quite close and it's easy to get hurt; don't learn this the hard way.
Before you start this tour, learn how to ride the cable cars and how to avoid paying for a new ticket every time you get on.
Powell-Hyde Line: Cable Car Museum and Russian Hill
From the Powell Street turnaround at Market Street near Union Square, take the Powell-Hyde Line. Two lines leave from this same spot, so you need to check the name at the end of the car. It should say Powell-Hyde (it has a brown sign).
The cable car ascends, passing Union Square and Nob Hill and then turns left onto Jackson Street. A block after the turn, at Mason Street, is the Cable Car Museum. Get off and go inside to watch the sheaves that control the three continuous loops of cable. Peer down at the machines that turn them and marvel that it all works as well as it does. Aside from people going to the museum, the surrounding neighborhood is peaceful.
Reboard the cable car going up Jackson. Get off at Pacific Avenue on Russian Hill to explore the neighborhood. The cable car passes through this quiet neighborhood like an intruder, banging and clanging through with its load of tourists.
There are many choices for an evening meal on Hyde Street, and the easiest way to identify a good spot is to see how crowded it is. If you have room afterward, stop at the original Swensen's ice cream parlor on Hyde between Union Street and Warner Place for dessert.
Continue on Hyde toward the waterfront, walking if you can. Take a side trip onto Filbert Street to enjoy a sweeping view of Telegraph Hill and the San Francisco Bay. Hyde Street crests between Filbert and Greenwich then goes down gently toward Lombard Street.
At Lombard Street, pandemonium often breaks out. The one-block section of Lombard called the "crookedest" street draws flocks of tourists. They're everywhere - walking up and down, taking photos and creating a traffic hazard. In the supreme act of touristy gotta-tick-off-all-the-sights mania, some of them even hail a taxi or call an Uber just to take them down the street.
The park across Hyde at Greenwich is the opposite of the busy Lombard Street scene. Benches invite you to linger in the shade. On the west side of the hill are fine views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Palace of Fine Arts and the Presidio.
Re-board the cable car at Lombard, where the roller coaster ride begins as the tracks plunge sharply downhill toward the end of the line where you can explore Ghirardelli Square, the Maritime Museum, and Fisherman's Wharf.
California Line: Nob Hill
When you leave Fisherman's Wharf, don't get back on at Hyde Street, where lines are perpetually long. Instead, walk to Taylor and Bay (where lines are shorter) and take the cable car back toward Union Square.
Get off at California (where the cable car lines cross) and walk west toward the big hotels. People - even children - always seem to be in a hush on Nob Hill. Around 1900, the hill was adorned with the finest homes in San Francisco, built with money earned from the Gold Rush and railroads. Only the big, brown Huntington Mansion survived the 1906 fire. Nearby, you'll find the Mark Hopkins Hotel, whose Top of the Mark restaurant and bar affords some of the city's best views.
In Huntington Park, even the trees are formal, but there's plenty of activity. Artists sketch and kids play around the classical fountains. Next to the park is Grace Cathedral, a Gothic-style cathedral with Florentine bronze doors. Inside are frescoes of California history, both secular and religious. Inside and outside are two lovely labyrinths, perfect for a contemplative walk.
Get back on the California cable car and get off at Polk Street for a look at a San Francisco neighborhood. Here you'll find The Swan Oyster Depot, opened in 1912 and still going strong. Just up California, near Leavenworth, is Zeki's Bar, a local watering hole.
To get back to where you started, take the California Line cable car back to where you got on it earlier on Nob Hill, then walk down to Union Square or take another cable car back to the Powell Street turnaround.