Cable cars, unusual transport

An integral part of the city's transport network, the cable cars, otherwise known as trams, are one of the city's emblems and a national historic heritage. Inaugurated in 1873, San Francisco's first trams were attached to cables to help the carriages climb the city's steep streets. You can't leave San Francisco without taking a cable car ride!

Historic cable car in San Francisco, California

- © canadastock / Shutterstock
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A historic means of transport

Unlike the Paris tramways, the "cable cars" have no engines, and are powered by a cable traction system. The driver pulls the train forward by hooking it onto the cable that runs along the streets, and stops it by unhooking the cable, like a cable car. This new means of transport immediately appealed to local residents for its practicality and speed.

Cable Car at a standstill, side view, late model, San Francisco, California

- © Sarunyu L / Shutterstock

The success of San Francisco's Cable Cars led to their expansion to several American cities. In 1892, the arrival of the conventional tram called into question the existence of the very expensive Cable Car technology. They came close to disappearing altogether on several occasions, but each time there was a wave of protests. Since 1955, there has been a law stating that the operation of the three lines can only be interrupted after a majority vote, which is unlikely to happen.

A system that is still relevant today

The cable car network has 3 lines that take you to some of San Francisco's most interesting districts.

  • Powell-Hyde passes through Union Square, serving the Cable Car Museum and Lombard Street.
  • Powell-Mason runs through North Beach before reaching its terminus near Fisherman's Wharf.
  • California Street follows the street of the same name through the financial district, Chinatown and Nob Hill.

How do I borrow a cable car?

Nothing could be simpler: just wait at one of the stops. Be careful: they are on pavements, but cable cars run in the middle of roads and avenues, and therefore in the middle of traffic. So be careful when crossing! To get the most out of the experience, it's best to stand outside or on the footboard. But be careful here too: acceleration and braking can be violent, and you risk being thrown off if you don't hold on tight! A little tip: to avoid queuing at the terminus, walk to the next stop and get on without waiting.

Passengers on the step

- © Benny Marty / Shutterstock

Practical info

👛 F ares: Cables cars are part of the MUNI network, but the fares are not the same. A single journey in the "cable cars" costs $7 for adults, compared with $2.50 for the rest of the public transport system. Fortunately, there are several good deals available: if you're staying in the city for several days, there's nothing like the Muni Pass or the City Pass, which offer an unlimited number of journeys. And if you have the Go San Francisco Card, one free journey a day is included in the package.

🚋 Organising your San Francisco cable car trip San Francisco

🚋 Organising your San Francisco cable car trip

Official San Francisco Cable Cars website where you can buy tickets or a pass and plan your journey
£14 / person

A museum to find out more

The last stop is the Cable Car Museum on Nob Hill, where you can learn more about the history and operation of these rolling museums. The main exhibition focuses on the Cable Car itself, its history, its maintenance... The top floor of the museum is dedicated to the machinery and the museum also has a fine collection of historic Cables cars, photographs, etc.

⏰ O pening times: 1 April to 31 October, 10am to 6pm and 1 November to 31 March, 10am to 5pm.

👛 Admission: free

Historic cable car equipment, Cable Car Museum, San Francisco, California

- © zhu difeng / Shutterstock

Where to sleep?

Stanford Court San Francisco San Francisco

Stanford Court San Francisco

4-star hotel located a stone's throw from the Powell and California tram stop. Its rooms offer a view of the city's rooftops.
8.6 Superb
£200 / night
by Editorial Team
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