How to Ride a Cable Car in San Francisco

  • 01 of 06

    How to Ride a Cable Car in San Francisco

    Riding a San Francsico Cable Car
    ••• Riding a San Francsico Cable Car. ©2009 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    You may think of the San Francisco's iconic cable cars as a city "sight" rather than as transportation. Most people do. They're cute and old-fashioned in the best kind of way.

    The San Francisco cable car is both a unique experience and a fun means of transportation, but they have a few downsides. If you show up at the busiest boarding areas, you could be in for a long wait. Getting on one mid-route can be confusing - and asking them to stop isn't as obvious as you might think.

    I put together this guide to help you enjoy your cable car ride with a minimum of fuss, disappointment, or aggravation.

    Rider's Guide to How Cable Cars Work

    Each cable car has a staff of two. The conductor sells tickets and looks after the passengers.

    The gripman runs the car, connecting it to the cable to move and disconnecting before applying the brakes. Their official title is "grip person," but no matter what you call them, the way they work is interesting.

    Levers and handle latch...MORE the car onto a moving cable that runs continuously underneath the street. To stop, they release the cable and put the brakes (a big piece of wood that drags the ground). The hard part of the job is to do it all smoothly. And along with all that, the grip person is also the bell-ringer, signaling the car's approach Some of them do that with lots of style.

    If you need information about cable car accessibility and hours, want to see what others think of the cable cars or are interested in their history, skip on over to the overview guide. If you're ready to ride, just keep clicking "Next."

    See Them Now: Check out these Cable Car Photos. You can also find out how to use the cable car to take a self-guided Tour of San Francisco using the cable cars.

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  • 02 of 06

    San Francisco Cable Car Map: Where They Go, Which One to Ride

    Map of the San Francisco Cable Car Routes
    ••• Map of the San Francisco Cable Car Routes. Adapted from Google Maps

    Three cable car lines run through San Francisco. The San Francisco cable car map above shows their routes. If you want to get to a specific place, you need to pay attention to the maps, but if you're just riding for fun, it may not matter much.

    The Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines take off from the same station near Union Square. Check the signs on the cars to be sure you get on the one you intended to.

    Powell-Hyde Line (Green)

    Runs Between: Powell at Market and Hyde at Jefferson

    The Powell-Hyde line runs exactly where you'd expect from its name, from the corner of Powell and Market Streets to the end of Hyde at the waterfront. For maximum fun, take the Powell-Hyde car from Union Square to the top of Lombard Street, get off there and walk down the "crooked" street and then it's just a few blocks to the waterfront.

    The boarding area on Hyde near Ghirardelli Square can be super-busy with long lines. If you're heading toward Union Square from there, you may get there...MORE faster if your walk a few blocks over to the intersection of Taylor and North Point streets to catch the Powell-Mason line instead.

    What the Powell-Hyde Line Passes:

    Powell-Mason Line (Blue)

    Runs Between: Powell at Market and Mason at North Point

    This route starts from the same point near Union Square at Powell and Market Streets as the Powell-Hyde Line.

    If you're headed to Union Square from Fisherman's Wharf on the cable car, the boarding area at for this line is less busy than the one over at Hyde Street.

    What the Powell-Mason Line Passes:

    California Line (Red)

    Runs Between: California at Market and California at Van Ness

    If all you want to do is say you rode a cable car, this is the one to take. It's the least busy of the three.

    You'll get plenty of thrills as it makes a steep climb to the top of Nob Hill, then back down to Van Ness. If you get on at California and Market, a ride to the top of Nob Hill will give a good riding experience, and one of the steepest hill climbs in the cable car system. You can get off at California and Taylor, explore the surrounding Nob Hill area and walk from there to Chinatown or down to Union Square.

    What it Passes:
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  • 03 of 06

    Fares and How to Get Cable Car Tickets

    San Francisco Cable Car Ticket Booth Near Union Square
    ••• San Francisco Cable Car Ticket Booth Near Union Square. ©Betsy Malloy Photography

    Everyone older than the age of four needs a ticket to ride the cable car.

    Your payment is good for only one ride, and if you transfer from one line to another (or even if you get off to look around and get back on the same line), you'll pay again. All-day and multi-day passes are available, which are also good for the Market Street F-Line streetcar and all the city-run buses. 

    You can buy tickets and passes from the conductor on the cable car. You can also get them before you board from machines or attended booths. You'll find them at Powell and Market (near Union Square) and Hyde at Beach (just below Ghirardelli Square). If you buy a San Francisco CityPass to get better prices on city attractions, it includes a 7-day MUNI passport. To find out more about whether it's right for you, see the San Francisco CityPASS Guide.

    If you find lots of people waiting when you arrive at the cable car stop, you can save time by sending one person to buy tickets while the rest of your group...MORE gets in line. If you plan to buy tickets from the conductor, the San Francisco Muni website says they can give $20 maximum in change, so it's best to have smaller bills on hand.

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  • 04 of 06

    Boarding the Cable Car

    Sign at a San Francisco Cable Car Stop
    ••• Sign at a San Francisco Cable Car Stop. Marcin Wichery/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    The physical part of boarding is easy. Just step up, and you're on.

    The hard part is figuring out how to get a cable car to pick you up as it rattles past. It's easy when you know how, though. At the end of each line, the boarding areas are obvious. Anywhere else along one of the cable car lines, just look for a sign like the one above and stand on the curb next to it to wait.

    Make sure you're on the correct side of the road to get where you want to go. The sign also lists where the car is going, so that's easy to do. The sign above says it's going to Bay and Taylor.

    To confirm your intention to board, give a little wave as the car approaches. Stay on the curb until the car stops.

    Once the car has come to a stop, just walk out to it, making sure there aren't any approaching cars. If you don't already have a ticket or an all-day pass, you can buy one from the conductor on board. 

    Just one word of explanation: If the cable car is completely full (and it can...MORE sometimes be jam-packed for several stops after it leaves the end of a line), it won't stop no matter how much you wave or yell. If there's no room, there's just no room. And if several pass you, all too full to stop, it may be time to re-evaluate your plans.

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  • 05 of 06

    Where to Ride: In Or Out?

    Touring San Francisco from a Cable Car
    ••• Touring San Francisco from a Cable Car. Albert photo/Getty Images

    The people riding on the outside of this cable car can see everything and feel the wind in their hair. The folks sitting just behind them still get a nice experience, but they have to peek around the hangers-on. Sometimes, so may people stand on the outside that seated passengers may not see much other than the person standing in front of them.

    To see the grip person in action, step inside. They work between the rows of benches at the back. For safety, you'll have to stay clear and inside the marked passenger area so they can do their work.

    Inside the car (where the windows are), you'll see a little bit out of the windows if you stand. If you sit down in a crowded car, all you'll see are the hip pockets of your fellow passengers standing in front of you.

    If you're riding the cable car for the fun of the experience, you can choose the seating that suits you best. I like to stand inside, just behind the grip where I can see out and watch them work.

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  • 06 of 06

    How to Get Off the Cable Car

    Bell-Ringing Cord in a Cable Car
    ••• Bell-Ringing Cord in a Cable Car. ©Betsy Malloy Photography

    Getting off a cable car sounds easy, doesn't it? You just step down, and it's done. If you're riding to the end of the line, that's all you'll have to worry about.

    If you want to get off somewhere along the way - maybe in Chinatown or North Beach - you'll have to let the gripman and conductor know about that.

    If you're used to riding a city bus, the obvious thing to do may not be what you think. Pulling the cord on a city bus says you want to get off, but that isn't the case on the cable car. The white cord you see in the photo above isn't for you - it rings the cable car's bell.

    To ask for a stop, use the old-fashioned method instead: Just say so. The typical way to do that is to say "Next stop, please," loud enough for the conductor or grip to hear you. Cable cars take a little while to come to a halt, so say it at least a half block ahead of time, or you might have to wait until the next stop.