Riding the Rails: A Guide to San Francisco's Cable Car System

Chances are, when you think of San Francisco, you either picture the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, or envision yourself hanging off the side of one of the historic cable cars. I had the chance to do both when I visited San Francisco last September with a group of friends for a 'ladies' trip, but in this post, I'll be regaling you with tales of the latter.

One of San Francisco's historic cable cars.

Riding the cable cars is easy. Getting on them, and getting a good seat at that, is a little trickier. My goal is to give you a guide on where to board the cable cars, how to navigate the lines, and some helpful tidbits to make your ride safe and enjoyable.

A Brief Note on Cable Cars

When I travel, I always like to learn a little of the history of the region I am exploring. This included the cable car system for me upon visiting San Francisco. One of the first things I learned about the cable car system sprung from a misconception that I had, one that a local corrected for me. I was calling the cable cars 'trolleys', and was politely informed that these machines do not have motors and cannot run independently, and therefore are not trolleys. Instead, they are pulled along by a cable embedded in the ground beneath the rails and essentially drug along the streets, hence the name 'cable car'.

THIS is a San Francisco trolley, not a cable car!

Meanwhile, real trolleys are powered by overhead wires via a trolley pole which conducts electricity to the vehicle. (That's why they are called trolleys, even though the real name is 'streetcar'.) So many terms! You don't have to memorize it all: just walk away from this post knowing San Francisco's historic transit system is comprised of cable cars, and while there are trolleys or streetcars found in town, you should try to avoid mixing the two up.


Whenever I asked people for information on riding the cable cars, inevitably they'd bring up the term 'turnaround' and glaze over it like they expected me to know what the heck they were talking about. I did not. But I nodded anyway. Eventually I found out for myself what a cable car turnaround was, and trust me, it is pretty cool.

It is also slightly important to know what a turnaround is if you plan on mapping a route anywhere in San Francisco using the cable cars. Basically, the turnaround point is the end of the line for that particular cable car route. The way cable cars are designed is that each car is pulled along the track system using an underground cable - not a motor as explained above. Those massive cables are attached to a pulley system which must originate somewhere, and that somewhere is the end of the line where the turnaround station is. Cable cars do not move in reverse, so these turnaround stations are a necessity of cable car travel.

A cable car turnaround in all of its glory. Image via.

The turnarounds are shaped like giant lollipops, with the cable car track being the lollipop stick, and the turnaround station being the circle at the top. The circle is made of wood, and is the diameter of a cable car length. When the cable cars reach these endpoints, they come to a stop. The cable car operators jump out (and there are workers at the turnaround station as well that assist in this process) and grab handles attached to the sides of the turnaround. Together, these hard-working people manually spin the cable car around, using the rotating wooden circle to re-align the cable car on the tracks so it can go back from whence it came.

Because these stations are considered the 'beginning' of the line as well, this is also where you can expect to find the longest cues of hopeful riders. If you are not picky about where you'd like to sit on a cable car (interior or hanging off the side), then my advice is to catch the vehicle at one of its stops a few blocks down the line. Then you won't have to wait in a 45-minute line up.

Two Ways to Ride

We tried boarding the cable cars both ways. On our first ride, we took the advice of locals to jump aboard a few blocks away from the turnaround. As promised, we did not have to wait in line and simply walked right on the cable car easy as you please. However, all of the outer positions were taken, and we had been hoping to hang off of the side of the cable car in full tourist mode. Instead, we were cramped in the centre of a standing-room-only cable car, trying not to step on people's feet and inhaling each other's hair we were crushed so close. I did not particularly enjoy that cable car ride.

Squished and hot inside the cramped cable car.

The next time we rode the cable car, we stuck it out in the line-up at the Powell/Market turnaround, hoping that our position in line would grant us first choice in cable car seating. We totally lucked out and were able to dangle all six of us on one edge of the cable car. It was great fun and exactly what I'd been hoping for. Riding the cable car this way was still cramped, and I actually had to rest my purse on the lap of the passenger sitting beside me in the interior of the car, but the breeze provided fresh air and the views could not be beat.

Hanging from the side of a cable car was my San Francisco goal.

If you just want to get from point A to point B and the cable car is a practical and affordable method to do so, then I suggest boarding the cable car quickly and efficiently at a remote stop to save time on the line-ups. If you are in it for the experience and want to hang off the side of the cable car like a dog out a car window, then you probably would benefit from patiently standing in line at a turnaround station so you can try to be first to board.

The Lines

There are three lines that the cable cars run on: the Powell/Hyde line, the Powell/Mason line, and the California/Van Ness line. My friends and I experienced rides on both of the Powell lines, but never had a chance to ride the California line. Each line offers different views of the city, as well as obviously taking you to different locations around San Francisco.

Cruising through San Francisco via cable car is pretty fun.

The Powell/Hyde line - This was the first cable car we rode in San Francisco. It begins at a turnaround at Aquatic Park near Ghirardelli Square by Fisherman's Wharf, and goes all the way to the Powell/Market turnaround on Market street. This line takes you to several visitor attractions, including Lombard Street and Chinatown (well, one block from Chinatown but walking one block is pretty reasonable).

The Powell/Mason line - We also had the opportunity to ride on this cable car line. This particular line begins near Fisherman's Wharf as well, although on the other end of the street by North Beach, closer to Pier 39. It ends at the same Powell/Market turnaround. The Powell/Mason line and the Powell/Hyde line converge and split near the Nob Hill neighbourhood, so just make sure you are catching the correct cable car for your final destination.

The California/Van Ness line - I don't know anything about this line as I didn't ride on it, but I did the Googling for you and have reported back here. This is a short line running between Van Ness Street to the Embarcadero, right through the Financial District and going over the top of Nob Hill. I can't say much more as I have no personal experience with this line. If anyone reading this post has traveled along the California and has something neat to share, feel free to leave a comment below!

The Fares

At the time of our visit, in September of 2016, the cost to ride a cable car was an affordable $7.00 for a single trip, which is very decent considering you are not just getting transportation to your destination but also a memorable 'ride'. If you think you'll be using the cable cars several times in one day, you can purchase a day pass for $21.00. There are also 3-day and 7-day passes for $32.00 and $42.00 respectively for visitors who are addicted to the cable car experience.

Happy to be exploring San Francisco on a cable car!

We just bought our single-ride passes straight from the conductor while we were on board the cable car. You can also purchase them on your phone and have an electronic copy of your ticket saved on your device.

Rules and Regulations

There aren't many 'rules' per se when it comes to riding San Francisco's cable cars. However, for the love of everything you hold dear, don't lean over the side of the cable car. You might lose a purse, or worse, a limb on a passing vehicle, whether it is parked or not. That is not a joke. We had a couple of lovely drivers remind us gently of this rule, and one extremely gruff gentleman driver who took this rule very seriously and barked it at anyone who even remotely swayed over the invisible line.

A view of Alcatraz from the Powell/Hyde trolley.

But I get it. On the ride where we were fortunate enough to get a standing spot, hanging onto the side of the car a la the "Full House" TV intro, it was tight at times. The cable cars are wide, and sometimes people don't park properly on the streets. A few cars were only inches away from the edge of the cable car at certain spots in our trip, and I almost lost a butt cheek at one point. Several times we had to crush our bodies into the interior of the cable car, nearly sitting on the laps of the passengers inside. So don't lean over the side. Don't give high fives to passers-by. Don't let your bags or purses dangle carelessly, lest you lose that bag, or that purse, or an arm, or a bum. It is a real danger, people.

Helpful Tips

If you want to have a peaceful and less crowded trolley ride, may I suggest getting up at the crack of dawn and making yourself available to board a trolley at 6 a.m., when they first begin running for the day. Much more beyond that, and they really start to get packed.

Once the popular cable car lines start to get busy, line-ups can be ridiculously long, especially at the turnaround points where the lines start/stop. Give yourself plenty of time to explore the city if you plan on using a cable car for transportation, and really think about where you'd like to sit on the cable car to plan how you'll choose to board.

Cable cars can get crowded, so watch your personal effects closely. I am not saying pickpockets run amok on San Francisco's cable car system, but with busy spaces filled with known tourists, there is always the chance. Better safe than sorry!

Enjoy your ride! And please, if you have any other advice or helpful stories to add to this post, please ensure you leave a comment below.

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