The San Francisco Cable Car system has been in almost continuous use for nearly 140 years! These antique looking wooden box cars grip a cable below the surface of the street (hence the name "cable car") and climb the steep hills of San Francisco carrying up to 50 passengers, many hanging off the sides of the cable car itself. Every year millions of people who come to San Francisco descent on the cable cars as one the first attractions they want to see. Riding a cable car when visiting San Francisco is an absolute must. Three different lines allow visitors access to various areas of the city via the cable car. Two of the lines depart from Powell and Market Streets and end its journey in two different areas of Fisherman's Wharf (Hyde Street or Bay and Taylor) while a third line departs California Street and ends at California and Van Nuys Streets (known as the California Line) the cable cars transport riders up and down steep hills, through all of the city's main neighborhoods (Nob Hill, Pacific Heights, past China Town and Union Square) while giving them unparalleled views of the city, San Francisco Bay and the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges.
Not All Routes Created Equal
When traveling to San Francisco to ride the cable cars visitors need to know one important fact-not all the cable car lines are created equal. Meaning some have better views and more convenient stops than the others. That said the must ride line of the entire Cable Car system is the Powell-Hyde line beginning at Powell and Market Streets and ending in the heart of Fisherman's Wharf where Hyde Street terminates at the bay. Bay and Taylor get you somewhat closer to Fisherman's Wharf at the expense of some lost views and not arriving on the water front.
Passengers taking the cable car on the Powell/Hyde line should make a point to board on the right hand side (when parked at boarding area on Powell, side closest to you). For those that want some adventure, stand on the edge, hold on to the pole and if possible for best views stand at the very first position. Those looking to sit, grab a bench facing out the right. It is this side of the cable car that gives riders the best views that include Lombard Street, Union Square, the Bay Bridge, San Francisco Bay and finally Alcatraz. As the cable car ascends the hills the conductor will ring the bell. The views will be spectacular, everything from your typical Victorian houses of San Francisco to the bay beyond. The climax of the journey begins at the top of the Hyde Street hill. This one steep hill and if you are in front, as you approach it you won't be able to see the drop below, a line of cement that seems to abruptly stop as if there is a cliff and then the blue sky and bay against it. Once you cross the threshold you quickly see the steep hill before you. The conductors (both in the cab of the car and one in the rear) will work tirelessly yanking he brake handles to keep the wooden brakes firmly applied. This keeps the cable car from running out of the control down the steep hill. This indeed is the final treat and well worth the up to hour wait for these final moments. The frantic pace of the conductors braking actions, burning wood smell, somewhat acceleration of the cable car itself,breath taking views of San Francisco Bay, the piers of Fisherman's wharf below rapidly approaching along with Alcatraz in the distance all gives an excitement and thrill that maybe one of the best when seeing San Francisco.
Upon terminating at the end of Hyde Street passengers will disembark on the bay and have immediate access to Ghirardelli Square, Fisherman's Wharf, Hyde Street Pier and more.
Those passengers either returning from Fisherman's Wharf via Hyde Street or beginning the cable car journey from this location it is suggested that on the return, if there is room, to stand in the rear next to the conductor. This will afford breath taking views on the climb up Hyde Street of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz and the Wharf below-as well as make for an awesome photo opportunity.
Getting on off the street vs. waiting at the end of the lines/turntables
Without a doubt you are better off boarding the cable car at the end points where they are turned on the table then trying to board halfway along the line almost bus style. Most passengers riding the cable car are getting on at the the first point and getting off at the last point. Locals without a lot of experience or those who think that they have broader "common sense" will tell you to get the cable car off the street "just a few blocks up from say Powell and Market near Union Square". Don't do it! These cable cars will arrive completely packed and IF you do manage to squeeze on your not going to get placed in an ideal spot. We can't tell you how many times we have ridden the cable car and it sometimes will be so full from the original departure point it just passes those on the street waiting to hop on only to hear them yell, "Your the 7th, 8th, 9th, whatever cable car to pass us with no room".
To differentiate which cable car runs which line look at the sign posted on the front wall of the cable car to the left of the single headlight. It will differentiate what route that car is schedule. Cable cars on the Bay/Taylor route usually are in yellow with black font indicating this route while cable cars enroute to Fisherman's Wharf via Hyde Street are brown with yellow lettering (See Figure map image below)
Getting the Cable Car at Powell and Market can be quite hectic. On the weekends this area is flooded with tourists and on the weekdays its an even mix of tourists and the suits headed for work in an even mix. To throw a splash of color on this whole scene add in homeless people on every corner who maintain a safe distance but are very eager to "help" you find your way. The caciphony of sires, ding dings of the arriving and departing cable cars, street performers and crowds make this part of San Francisco one of the most exciting, at times grid locked and most certain stimulating areas of the city.
Traveling with Families:
Riding the Cable car can be quite the adventure. Parents with kids should watch them at all times. Its not recommended (perhaps not even allowed) to have children hang off the side. Those with children in strollers can stow the strollers in the rear compartment of the cable car next to the brake conductor that rides in the back. As mentioned above in terms of accessing the cable car at a midpoint versus the beginning or ending lines, its advised when with children to board at a beginning line (Powell/Market, Hyde Street or Bay/Talor) so that you can get the kids seated and if need be strollers stowed away.
Engineering behind the cable car
As mentioned above the cable cars are powered by a mechanism that extends from underneath the cable car through a slit in the street and and to the cable below. If you look at the cable car tracks you will notice 3 lines all parallel to each other. The two outer metal indents are for the wheels and in the center the opening to the cable below. Whenever within a block of the cable car line the loud hum of the cables running under the street can be heard. When cable cars are not in motion go up to the center line and pier down through the opening to observe the actual cable in motion. The cable car is powered up the hills when the conductor pulls a grip lever to grab and release the cable as needed. Think of the whole operation as an upside down ski lift.