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San Francisco Cable Cars Explained

San Francisco Cable Cars are a Piece of History


San Francisco Cable Cars Explained

Riding a Cable Car in San Francisco can be a frustrating experience if you don't know where to catch it or have to wait in a long line to ride. This guide helps you get on and off with ease - and avoid those long, annoying lines.

©2006 Betsy Malloy Photography.

Cable Car at Night

©2007 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

Cable Car in Chinatown

©2006 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

For the visitor, San Francisco cable cars are not a means of transportation but a destination, one of the things one has to "see" if they go to the City by the Bay. They also provide transportation to many of the city’s most popular areas.

A cable car ride is one of San Francisco's top-rated sights. Find out what the rest are.

Scenes from the Cable Cars

Enjoy our best shots on a Cable Car Photo Tour

See the Routes: Cable Car Map

Take Our Self-Guided Cable Car Tour to see the sights using the city's unique transportation option.

The Routes

The San Francisco cable cars run on three routes. Use this guide to find out where they go, what they pass and how to make the most of the ride.


Buy tickets for the San Francisco cable cars at the turnarounds or from the conductor as you board. Your payment is good for only one ride and if you get off and want to ride again, you'll pay again.

Check the current fares, which are reduced to for seniors more than 65 years old and disabled persons during non-busy hours only. Children under 5 years old ride for free.

If you plan to ride 3 or more times in the same day, or 4 times in 3 days, an unlimited-ride passport is more economical and they're also good for the Market Street F-Line streetcar and all the city-run buses.

You also get a 7-day MUNI passport when you buy a San Francisco CityPASS, a good deal if you're also going to visit some of the attractions they bundle together.


The cable cars run from about 6:00 a.m. to about 1:00 a.m.


According to a friendly grip person who took time from eating his lunch to answer my question, people in wheelchairs ride the cable cars frequently. You just need someone along to help you get on and off.

History of San Francisco Cable Cars

On August 2, 1873, the first person to ride a San Francisco cable car down Clay Street was Andrew Hallidie, its inventor. He got the idea after witnessing an accident. A horse-drawn carriage was going up a steep hill when the team faltered and the carriage rolled backward downhill, dragging the horses behind it.

Hallidie's invention changed the way people in San Francisco lived, creating a vital link in the San Francisco transportation system and making it feasible for people to live on steep hills, which until then was impossible. The cable cars were an immediate success and by the 1890s, eight transit companies operated 600 cars on 21 routes covering more than 50 miles.

Cable cars remained the primary mode of transportation until the 1906 earthquake, when most of system was destroyed. A municipal railway replaced most lines afterward. The iconic cars are the only vehicles of their kind still in operation and they are designated National Landmarks.

In 2010, the term "gripman" faded into history after being used for 137 years to describe the person who operates the cable car's brakes. When Willa Johnson became the second-ever woman cable car operator on April 12, 2010, the city officially changed the name of the job to "grip person." Johnson's predecessor Fannie Barnes retired from active cable car duty in 2002.

To learn more, visit the Cable Car Barn Museum, which is located at Mason and Washington and can be reached on the Powell-Mason or Powell-Hyde lines.


We rate San Francisco's cable cars 5 stars out of 5. They're an icon of the city, tourist-filled but fun. Stand outside for the best ride.

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