Cable Cars in San Francisco: Discover Their History, Routes and Tips for Riding

Jill on a windy day at the Golden Gate Bridge

by Jill Loeffler  •

Updated: May 19, 2024

Do you want a fun way to get around the city? If so, then the cable cars in San Francisco are the way to go!

This tourist attraction is VERY popular - so you'll probably have to wait in line for a little while for a seat (unless you take advantage of my local's secret below!). It's a ride that you will never forget!

The SF cable cars run seven days a week including holidays. They are a popular form of transportation not only for tourists but also for residents. 

A cable car in San Francisco riding down Hyde Street

The first SF cable car line was put on the tracks on August 2, 1873. Horses and carriages had a very tough time getting up and down the steep hills, especially when it was raining. So, the system was built to get San Franciscans around safely.

The city kept adding more and by 1889 it consisted of eight different lines. Over the years, the use of the cable cars in the city declined as faster transportation was developed. 

In 1947, the city attempted to close down all of the San Francisco cable car lines. The locals protested and were able to retain the remaining three cable car lines that still run today.

The oldest line still in operation is the California cable car line. It currently runs up and down California Street from Nob Hill to the Financial District.

San Francisco Cable Car Routes

The map below shows you each of the three San Francisco cable car routes. The arrows indicate the starting/ending point of each line.

The green arrows are for the Powell/Hyde line, the red arrows are for the California line and the blue ones are for the Powell/Mason line.

Map of the starting and ending points of the San Francisco cable cars

Disclaimer: I receive a small commission from some of the links on this page.

How to Use the San Francisco Cable Cars

How do you use the cable cars in San Francisco? If this is your first visit or the first time riding the cable cars, there is no need to worry. They are easy to pay and use. Here are a few things to keep in mind before your first ride.

Climbing Aboard: You will board the cable cars on either the front or the back. The first step is quite steep, so grab one of the railings to help you climb aboard. You are welcome to sit either inside or out.

There are also several places for those interested in standing. If you waited in line for a while, the outside seats and standing spots will fill up first. You are welcome to stay in line for the next cable car if you decide you want a better seat than what is available.

Paying: Riding the cable cars in San Francisco is not free. In fact, it's more expensive than riding the bus or light rail. But of course, it is worth it for the unique experience on these national landmarks!

When boarding at the terminals located at Powell & Market, Bay & Taylor, or Hyde & Beach Streets between 8 am and 5 pm, you must purchase your fare in advance before getting on. When boarding at any other non-terminal locations, or outside the hours of 8 am to 5 pm, you may pay your fare to the cable car operator. 

You can either pay in cash (exact change is required) or with a pass or transit app. Click here for payment details.

Standing Riders: If you get a coveted standing spot, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, you will need to stand for the entire trip or for about 35 to 40 minutes. Make sure to keep your hands and feet inside the cable car and don't lean out. Make sure to hold on tight!

Exiting: The cable cars stops are very different from our other public transit options. The cable car lines are in the middle of busy streets and the cars do not stop when the cable cars stop to let off passengers.

Before you step off the car, check for traffic before you proceed. You will then want to hurry over to the sidewalk to avoid any oncoming traffic. Also, make sure to wait until the cable car has come to a full stop before getting off. 

These are just a few quick things to help you prepare for a safe ride on our historic cable cars. 

Powell/Hyde Line: Union Square, Lombard Street to Fisherman's Wharf

The Powell/Hyde line is one of two cable cars in San Francisco that run from Union Square to Pier 39 and Fisherman's Wharf.

This is my favorite line, since you get the chance to pass by Lombard Street and see amazing views of the bay on the final hill of the ride. It's the one I always recommend when you ride from Union Square to Fisherman's Wharf.

The Powell/Hyde line beings near Union Square at the turnaround at Powell Street and Market Street. Powell dead-ends right before Market Street and you'll see the starting point for this line once you arrive. This line goes up Powell Street for about a mile.

The Powell/Hyde cable car waiting at a stop in the middle of Hyde Street.

It then turns west and goes forward for about five blocks. Then it turns north again onto Hyde Street. It then follows Hyde Street all the way down to Jefferson Street and ends in the wonderful Fisherman's Wharf neighborhood.

Local secret: Try to sit in the front of the cable car on the east side. This gives you the best view. If you aren't sure which way is east, your seat will face away from Sephora. 

By sitting here, you are in the best position to get a look at the famous Lombard Street. You are also in a great position to see the SF bay as you head down Hyde Street toward Fisherman's Wharf. 

Double check the signs for this SF cable car when you board. The Powell/Mason line picks up in the same location, so make sure yours says "Powell/Hyde" before boarding.

On this line, you could get off at Lombard Street to take pictures. This cable car is an excellent choice to select if you are heading straight to Lombard Street, Ghirardelli Square, Aquatic Park or another location on the west end of Fisherman's Wharf.

If you hop off at Lombard Street to take some photos or to walk down "the most crooked street in SF", you have a few options to continue making your way to Fisherman's Wharf:

  • Use Your Muni Passport & Jump on Another Cable Car: If you plan on taking the cable cars or public transit a lot (and visiting a few of the top museums), look into the Muni Visitor Passport. The card is a great bargain as it is valid for 1, 3 or 7 days, which includes unlimited rides on all cable cars, buses, and street cars. Show you card and hop back onto the Powell/Hyde cable car to the Fisherman's Wharf stop.
  • Walk to Fisherman's Wharf: This is a great option if you don't mind a short walk. Fisherman's Wharf is only about six blocks from Lombard Street. I would recommend walking to the bottom of Lombard Street, taking your photos, then walking north on Leavenworth Street. This route is flatter than continuing up Hyde Street and will take you right into the west side of Fisherman's Wharf.
  • Pay Again and Hop Back on the Next Cable Car: If you only bought a single ride ticket, you can still take the cable car from Hyde Street to Fisherman's Wharf. You'll need to pay for another full ticket, either in cash with exact change, or with your Clipper card or MuniMobile app. Wait on Hyde Street for the next cable car and jump on wherever you can.

Without question, the Powell/Hyde line is my favorite of the cable cars in San Francisco. The ride has the most hills and it is fun to see Lombard Street along the way. 

Local Secret: When picking up this cable car from Fisherman's Wharf, do not stand in line at the turnaround at Hyde and Beach Streets waiting for your turn.

Simply walk up Hyde Street to the stop at North Point Street. When the cable car leaves the turnaround, there is always a little room to pick up passengers along the way.

This locals' technique will save you up to two to three hours of time standing in line! You can also use this technique for any stop on the routes. Even though you won't get the best seat, at least you won't have to wait in line as long.

Powell/Mason Line

The Powell/Mason line also runs from Union Square to Fisherman's Wharf, but this line takes a slightly different route to get there. 

I recommend taking this one on the trip from Fisherman's Wharf to Union Square. By taking the Powell/Hyde line going north and this one going south, you get to see some different sights in the city. 

The Powell/Mason line at a stop near Chinatown.

Just like the Powell/Hyde line, I recommend sitting on the east side of the cable car. This allows you to look out towards the San Francisco skyline and the bay. 

When starting from Union Square, this line first heads up Powell Street. It does a quick turn west onto Jackson Street and after one block it then turns again heading north up Mason Street.

If you are heading towards North Beach for the day, this is the line to choose. You can jump off at Columbus Street in North Beach. 

You can also ride all the way to Bay Street and walk just three blocks to Jefferson Street (the main street in Fisherman's Wharf).

An added attraction for this line is the free Cable Car Museum. It stops right in front of the museum, so you can get off where the line turns at Jackson and Mason and head inside for a visit.

California Line

The California line is the only cable car in San Francisco that runs east to west. It starts at California and Drumm Street (near Market Street) in the Financial District.

It stays on California the whole way, heading up and over Nob Hill and ending at Van Ness Avenue. 

The California cable car line in San Francisco's Nob Hill

Seating Tips for Market Street: If you pick the cable car up at the terminal between Drumm and Davis Street, find a seat in the back on the north side facing the Hyatt Hotel. From these seats, you will get a great look down the hill as you head up California Street.

Seating Tips for Van Ness: If you catch the cable car on the other end at California and Van Ness, I recommend you sit in the front on the north side of the car. You know you are in the right seats if you are facing away from Starbucks and Wells Fargo.

These seats afford you a view of Grace Cathedral, the Fairmont Hotel, and one of the old 'Big Four' mansions (the Flood Mansion) at California and Mason Streets. You also great some great views of the city as you head up or down the steep hill of California Street.

San Francisco Cable Car Schedule

The cable cars in San Francisco run 365 days a year including holidays. You will find that tourists aren't the only ones that use them to get around the city, so they are always in operation.

All three San Francisco cable car lines start around 7 am and run until around 10:30 pm daily.

All of them run often and leave about every 15 to 20 minutes.

Payment Options, Tips & Discount Passes

There are a few payment options for the cable cars San Francisco.

Single ride tickets: This ticket costs $8 and allows you to ride one way on one line. Children 4 and under ride for free.

Certain terminal locations require you to purchase your fare at the kiosk in advance before boarding. Kiosk hours are 8 am to 5 pm, so outside of those hours, you will just pay when you get on. These terminals are located at Powell & Market, Bay & Taylor, and Hyde & Beach Streets.

When you hop on a cable car mid-route, not at the terminal or turnaround, you will pay the operator onboard.

If you decide to hop off mid-route, you will have to pay again to re-board and finish the route. The cable cars do not offer transfers.

Muni Passports, Clipper Cards, and mobile apps

The Muni Visitor Passport allows unlimited rides on all cable cars, buses, and street cars in the San Francisco Muni system. Depending on how long you plan to stay in the city, you can buy one for 1, 3, or 7 days. These are a great deal, as they cost $13, $31, and $41 respectively (as compared to the $8 single ride ticket).

You can either purchase a Paper Passport at one of the vending locations, or get it through the MuniMobile app on your phone. 

The Clipper Card is the all-in-one transit card for the Bay Area, including Golden Gate Transit buses, BART metro trains, and Caltrain to other cities outside of San Francisco. This is a good option for those who plan to visit other areas in the region.

You can either buy the physical card for $3 and add money to it, or download the Clipper app on your phone. 

Any of the above options can be used to pre-pay before you board or onboard the cable cars. 

How Do the San Francisco Cable Cars Work?

How do the cable cars in San Francisco work? Cable cars do not have a motor or an engine.

They are pulled along the streets in San Francisco by large cables which are pulled by large wheels. These large cable wheels are powered by engines in a powerhouse inside the Cable Car Museum and Barn in the heart of San Francisco. 

This museum is free, and you are welcome to come and watch these wheels in action every day of the week. Each cable's wheel has a sign above it, so you can see which cables are currently pulling cars around the city streets.

Alcatraz Tours: If you have not booked your trip to Alcatraz, then read this section before you book. It tells you all you need to know about the difference between the morning and night tours. This information will help you decide which tour is right for you.

Attractions by Neighborhood: Discover some of the top attractions by neighborhood. If you want to plan out your trip by neighborhood, I recommend reviewing the information on this page. You can find some great places to visit during your stay.

Museums: There are a number of great museums in San Francisco. Are you looking for history museums? What about art museums? Check out this page to find more about some of the best San Francisco museums.

Cable Cars: Learn All About these San Francisco Rolling Attractions

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