Everything you need when planing a vacation trip to San Francisco
Ridding the cable cars in front of Mark Hopkins on Nob Hill


The Cable Car Museum and Powerhouse

In a Nutshell...

For well over a century and a quarter, cable cars have been hauling passengers up and down the hills of San Francisco pulled by cables that run just under the street. Today there are three lines covering 69 city blocks.  The main two lines link the major tourist districts of Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf. This, and the facts that they are fun to ride, and a quintessential San Franciscan experience helps, explain why they are such a popular tourist attraction.


  • Fun to ride
  • A good link between touristy Fisherman’s Wharf and the high-end Union Square shopping district
  • A uniquely San Franciscan experience


  • Long lines at the turnarounds
  • Packed passengers


6:00 am – 12:30 am daily

Ages 5 and up, $6.00 (cash only) one way, All Day Passports, $14.00 (sold by the conductors) Monthly Muni passes and City Pass accepted.


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Riding Tip

Early morning at Union Square as a cable car rolls down the hill.


The number one thing you should know about riding the cable cars is that you do not need to wait in the long lines at the turnarounds (at the ends of the lines) to get a ride. The conductors always leave some extra spaces when they load up at the turnarounds so they can pick up passengers along the way. It is much better to follow the tracks a few blocks to the next stop and get on there.



At the Powell Street turnaround


Cable cars are a San Franciscan invention.  The first line started in 1873, the brain child of cable manufacturer, Andrew Smith Hallidie. The idea came to him after witnessing a horrific accident where a team of horses was being whipped as they hauled a street car up the steep incline of Jackson Street. They stumbled and then were dragged back down the hill to their death. He envisioned a steam powered system where a trolley could grip a cable (hence the operators being called grip men – in more than a hundred years, there has been only two grip women) that would pull the trolley safely up the hills, where they could then roll back down the hill.

One of the more interesting engineering keys to success is that the steel cables have a rope at their core. While the steel provides the strength to handle the load, the rope provides some give when the grip man clamps down on the cable, giving a firm hold that will not allow the slick steel to slide through.

Hallidie’s idea was put into practice and was a big success. Eventually, there were eight separate cable car companies operating some 600 cable cars on 53 miles of lines covering much of the city.



Overhead wires for trolly buses


During the 1890’s electric streetcars became a more practical form of city transit. While they covered the city with an ugly spider’s web of electric cables, they cost only half as much to build a line as compared to cable cars and their operation costs were only about 17% as much. I do not need to tell you who usually comes out the winner when beauty verses economy.

When the great 1906 earthquake shook the city, it destroyed most of the cable lines and trolley barns. The fire that followed the quake destroyed some 117 cable cars. Due to their greater efficiency, it was only natural as the city was rebuilt, that modern electric streetcar lines replaced the old cable car lines.


Saving the Cable Cars

Cable car near the Cable Car Museum and Powerhouse


By the early 1950’s, there were only five cable car lines left in operation. The city government wanted to bring the cable car era to an end by eliminating them completely from the streets of San Francisco. The city’s citizens rose up and forced the matter to a citywide public vote.  It was put into law by an overwhelming majority vote that the city government was obligated to keep the cable cars in operation. And so, it was that we still have them ringing their bells up and down the hills of San Francisco today.

In the 1980’s the system was completely overhaul, costing some $60 million. It is now time for yet another overhaul and plans are in the works to start closing off parts of the system while the overhaul is being carried out.


Cable Car Museum

The big wheels that power the cable car system


The powerhouse atop Nob Hill (it is the brick building pictured at the top of this page) that provides the muscle to the cables, does double duty as a museum. It houses some early cable cars, has displays showing how the system works, as well as an exhibit of historic photos from the heydays of the cable car era. Of course you can also watch the wheels turn as they pull the cables. Admission is free and it is opened daily with the exceptions of Thanksgiving Day, Christmas and New Years.

Cable Car Museum, 1201 Mason Street, San Francisco, CA
(415) 474-1887/ CableCarMuseum.org


Bell Ringing Contest

On Powell Street going past the Sir Francis Drake Hotel


Since 1962, on the second or third Thursday of July, San Francisco has been holding its annual Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest on Powell Street, in front of the St. Francis Hotel on Union Square. Thousands attend to hear the gripmen and conductors compete for the top spots as the city’s favorite bell ringers. To get this year’s exact date visit:




View Cable Car Routes in a larger map



bottem of the shadow


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