Adventures on the San Francisco Cable Car

Something the world's iconic destinations all have in common are landmarks that, over time, become symbols of their city. In London there is Big Ben, Sydney has the famed Opera House, and everyone is familiar with that hunk of metal towering above Paris. Like all great cities, San Francisco is fortunate to have several landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and the TransAmerica building, that are instantly identifiable with the City by the Bay. Then there's the historic San Francisco cable car system, which after close to 140 years in operation is still ringing that familiar bell while moving people around the city.

Sort of.

San Francisco Cable Car
This is only moderately crowded.

Once the primary form of public transportation in San Francisco, today the cable car system is a shell of its former self. The devastating 1906 earthquake destroyed much of the system's infrastructure, which was largely replaced with electric streetcars during the rebuilding of the city. What remains are three cable car lines - California, Powell-Hyde, and Powell-Mason - which, as we would learn, serve little purpose in the way of transportation and instead have become one of San Francisco's most popular tourist attractions.
San Francisco Cable Car
The highly technical controls.

For the better part of three days, I watched from my window at the Omni San Francisco as the California cable car line rumbled past. Every car was overflowing with fanny packs and "I escaped from Alcatraz" t-shirts, which did little to inspire me to purchase a ticket myself. Not to mention that I have this thing against modes of transportation that end up taking more time than if I'd just used my own two feet. Still, I should have known that there was no way MJ would let us leave San Francisco without at least one ride on the cable car. You know...Just to say we did...
San Francisco Cable Car
The cable car zooming past the Omni

In an effort to avoid the brutally long lines, we got up early on our last day in San Francisco and walked down to the start of the California line. We waited patiently behind the yellow stripe, while an empty cable car sat parked about 50 feet from the stop. The conductors were just hanging out on board, laughing and enjoying a smoke, while the rest of us were made to stand and watch. I'm unaccustomed to transportation systems that just stop for a smoke break, but apparently this is pretty common in San Francisco.
San Francisco Cable Car
Ding Ding! Get outa the way kid!

Once these guys were back on the clock, the car pulled forward and we hopped on board. The other benefit of arriving early - besides no line - was not being forced to squeeze in like a clown car at the circus. Of course, we both still took advantage of the opportunity to hang off the car as we zoomed up California Street.
San Francisco Cable Car
When is it my turn to stand?

After an exhilarating ride to the top of Nob Hill, the car came to a stop at the intersection with the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines. We decided it would be fun to hop off here and ride down the hill to the Fisherman's Wharf area, and just remain on board for the ride back up the hill to Lombard Street. This proved to be an insanely stupid decision...
San Francisco Cable Car
The ride up California Street

We waited as car after car rolled by, packed to the gills with sardines tourists. Then, just as we were about to throw in the towel and walk it, an empty car came on the line and we were back on our way. We coasted down Nob Hill, past our dinner destination for the night - Gary Danko - and eventually came to a stop at the terminus near Fisherman's Wharf. It was here that our best laid plans went south, when the conductor announced that everyone must disembark the trolley. If we wanted to ride back up the hill as MJ and I had intended, we'd have to wait in line with the rest of the poor unfortunate souls.
San Francisco Cable Car
Hey...there's Lombard Street! Hey...there's a cable car!

I did a quick calculation and determined that the wait was about 90 minutes. Let me say that again. A 90 minute wait. To ride a trolley. I don't care how historic the cable car system might be, I know a sketchy deal when I hear one and that was most definitely it. Needless to say we grabbed an iced coffee and set off on our walk up to Lombard Street. A crazy adventure in itself considering it more resembled rock climbing than walking.
San Francisco Cable Car
Whadya say we see what this baby can do!

So yes, I'll admit that our short ride on the San Francisco cable car system was fun, but it definitely falls into the "once is enough" category of attractions. There are so many other things to see and do in the City by the Bay, I wouldn't suggest investing a lot of time waiting for a one-way ride on an overflowing trolley. Instead, find one that's gone on break, hop on for a quick photo, and keep on walking. You'll get there faster.
San Francisco Cable Car
Like this.

If you go...
  • Go early or not at all.
  • Use the California line - Less frequented by tourists.
  • Don't waste money on a multi-day pass from your hotel.
Enjoy Your Stay