One of the iconic images of San Francisco is of cable cars hurtling down steep hillsides. So, like any first time visitor to the city, I was keen to try it for myself.
Cable car, San Francisco

One of the cable cars on the Powell Mason line

San Francisco’s Cable Cars: The Only Way to Travel

Apart from being a must-do experience for tourists, the cable cars were at one time literally the only way to travel to many parts of San Francisco. This is a city of hills, many of which were virtually inaccessible until the arrival of the cable car. Even in the 1940s, when attempts were made to replace the cars with more modern forms of transport, it was found that buses could not tackle the steepest hills so effectively.

We armed ourselves with a one day MUNI passport (giving access to buses and streetcars as well) and went off to see what it was all about.

Cable Car

A cable car at the bottom of Powell Street

A White Knuckle Ride

We started at the Powell Street turnaround, where the Powell-Hyde line begins its ascent to the top of Nob Hill. We watched the grip men turning the car round: amazingly the cable cars operate in much the same way today as they did when they began in 1843, with a manual turnaround and hand operated brakes.
Powell Street turnaround, San Francisco

The cars are turned round manually by grip men

When the car was ready passengers started to pile in. We chose an outside bench and watched as people crowded into the inside or perched precariously on the footplate. Then, with a great deal of clattering and clanging bells, we were off. Going up the hill wasn’t too bad, although the car did wobble a bit and I watched anxiously as one of the standing passengers clung on with one hand and leant out to photograph the passing scenery. But when we reached the top and went down the other side it was like being on a fast and furious roller-coaster, without the protection of safety belts! Eventually I relaxed and started to enjoy the spectacular views looking down steep side streets all the way to the Bay.
San Francisco

Looking down towards the Bay – it felt like going over a precipice!

San Francisco Cable Car Museum

We rode the line to the end and jumped on a trolley bus (the cable car lines don’t join up at the ends so we were glad of the MUNI card). It was a wet day, and we passed much of the day riding around, to Fisherman’s Quay, to the bars of Columbus Street, and to the Cable Car Museum on Mason Street.

The Museum is housed in the historic powerhouse, and we spent some time watching the engines and winding wheels and peering into the basement where you can see the cables as they run beneath the street. We also learnt about the history of the cable cars and saw some of the vehicles that were in use in the 19th century.

Our final ride was on the California Line, which was considerably less crowded than the Powell-Hyde. It stopped close to the Embarcadero, giving us the chance to walk down to the Port Building and end the day with drinks at the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant.

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