Updated: December 2017

Cable Car Tours in San Francisco:

If you are planning a trip to San Francisco then you need to set aside a tour on the famous cable cars. Mostly used for tourist these days, the San Francisco cable car lines have been in use for over 100 years and they are still running today. I just did a weekend getaway with my wife and kids and we did an hour long journey on the cable cars from Hyde and Beach down to Powell and Market and then did the return trip. The current cable cars run on 3 lines - the Powell/Hyde, Powell/Mason, and California Street. We had stayed near the Hyde and Beach cable car station so that is the line we got on first thing on a Saturday morning. You will probably find a line forming at the main starting points so be patient as the cable cars leave every 10 minutes or so. Each car can hold about 40 people with some hanging onto the outside of the car. Our kids loved the ride and the conductors on the cable cars are fun to watch and listen to as they do their job. If you don't want to wait in the longer lines at the turnarounds, go to the cable car stops along the route and wait for one there.

I found the lines to be around 3 cable cars long on a Saturday morning (about 30 minutes wait). Try to get on early as the crowds definitely increase as the day goes on and you could be looking at an hour wait. There are ticket booths near the turnarounds but you can also buy tickets on board (more about that down below). One more note on the tickets - it's not cheap to take a ride ($5 each way), so don't expect to use cable cars as a way to get around the city when you are in town. Plus they don't run all over the city like bus lines. The cable cars have inside and outside seating. The interior seats are great if the weather is raining or excessively chilly. The seats up near the conductor are great for the best views of the streets and city itself. They face outwards giving you a clean look at all the neighborhoods that you pass through. You can even stand up along the outside of the cable car as it moves along the line. I'm not sure if you have to be an adult, but I can't imagine a parent wanting their little child trying this. When I boarded the cable car I was holding our 4 year old son in my arms and the conductor immediately announced that someone had to give up their seat for me. The hills are fun to go up and down and you can get off at any of the stops if you want. Chinatown, Nob Hill, Fisherman's Wharf, Market, Russian Hill, etc. are the popular places to go. Over all we had a great time and the $15 we paid for the ride was well worth it.

Cable Car Route & Maps:

Where do the cable cars go in San Francisco? That's the first question that most people want to know. The SF cable cars do wind through the city but aren't the most convenient way to get to everything. Essentially they are meant for tourists but some locals do ride them as well. The 3 lines include the Hyde/Powell, Mason/Powell, and California line. A decent map of the cable car routes can be found at http://www.sfcablecar.com/routes.html. I like the Wikipedia page on the cable car system of San Francisco with a street by street diagram showing where all the stops are. You can find it online HERE. If you hop on at Hyde and Beach and take the cable car down to Powell and Market you are looking at roughly 25 minutes or so. The return trip is similar and you are free to get off at any of the stops if you want to explore the city. The cable cars run 7 days a week and you will find special schedules on weekends. Look for the signs along the route where the cable car will be stopping and you can wait there to get on. The conductor or gripman will direct you if there is available space on board.

SF Cable Cars Fare:

How much are cable car fares? This is a bit confusing even if you go to the cable car official website listed above. Their sites mentions $3/each way but the rate as of 2007 is $5 for a single ride. On my recent trip in July 2009 we paid $5 for adults and our 4 year old son was able to ride for FREE. We started at Hyde and Beach at the turnaround location where the cable cars are turned and pointed back up the hills. You wait in a line and when you get on the conductor collects the cable car fare. Once you are on the route making stops and starts it seems like nobody pays to get on. I was reading online that an independent audit showed that 40% of all riders are doing it for FREE and essentially the tourists that wait in lines at the turnarounds are subsidizing the cable cars by paying their fair share. When we road the cable car, the conductor told us that when we got off at Powell and Market that we should go up 1 stop to the Powell and O'Farrell stop to avoid the lines. We did just that but still expected to pay something for the return trip. We sat on the interior of the car and never were approached for the fee. The cost to take the cable car back was ZERO. We saw dozens of people get on the car along the route back to Hyde and Beach and no one paid a penny. Seems like the only way you have to pay is if you join all the tourists in the lines that form near the turnaround spots. CABLE CAR TIP - Avoid the turnarounds due to long lines and walk up the block to the next stop and hop on almost immediately. You may even get lucky and ride for free like all the others.