How to Tour San Francisco by Cable Car

San Francisco Cable Cars
Hal Bergman Photography / Getty Images

Getting around San Francisco on its iconic cable cars is a lot of fun for kids and adults alike, and it is sure to rank among the most memorable experiences of your family's stay in the Golden City.

Cable cars were designated National Historic Landmarks in 1964, but they're much more than museum pieces for tourists. They are an integral, working part of Muni, the city's public transportation system, operating up and down the steep hills of San Francisco. From Union Square to Fisherman's Wharf and Nob Hill, cable cars offer an iconic way to make our way around the city.

Cable Car Basics

San Francisco’s cable cars run daily from 6 am to 12:30 am. Some cable car stops display a schedule but in any case, you can expect cable cars to run about every 10 to 15 minutes.

The current one-way fare is $7 per person (July 2015). If you will be doing a lot of sightseeing, it makes more sense to buy an all-day pass for $17; a three-day pass for $26; or a seven-day pass for $35. You can buy single-ride tickets and one-day passes directly from the cable car operator, but multi-day passes must be purchased at ticket booths at Powell & Market or Hyde & Beach streets.

You can board at the turntable endpoints of any cable car route or anywhere a cable car stop sign is posted. Listen for the ringing bell, which will signal the cable car arrival.

You can board at either end of the car. Seating on cable cars is very limited, so you may have to wait for the next car if there isn't enough room. 

Tips for Riding Cable Cars

If you're buying a one-way fare, you'll get more bang for your buck if you board at the end of a line—but that's where lines will be longest. Instead, try walking one stop up from the turnarounds and get on there, where it's less crowded.

If you are boarding mid-line, wait on the sidewalk and wave to request the operator to stop. You can hop off at any stop once the cable car has come to a complete stop.

For the best views, try to sit on the side of the car that faces the bay. On the Powell cars, that's the right side of cars leaving from downtown and the left side of cars leaving from Fisherman’s Wharf.

Riders may stand on the running boards and hang onto the outer poles as the car moves, but they do so at their own risk. It's safer to have kids stay seated while the car is moving.

Of the three cable car lines, the two Powell lines are the best for sightseeing. Here are some highlights:

Powell-Hyde Line

The Powell-Hyde line is arguably the most scenic of all three lines. It begins at Market Street and ends at Hyde St. & Beach St. near Ghiradelli Square. Along the way, you can visit:

Powell-Mason Line

In operation since 1888, the Powell-Mason line is the oldest of the three lines. It begins at Market Street and ends at Bay Street in Fisherman's Wharf, with a stop at Union Square.

California Street Line

The California Street line runs east-west from Van Ness Avenue to the Financial District. It crosses the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines at the intersection of California Street and Powell Street in Nob Hill.

  • Chinatown
  • Nob Hill