This trip on two of the three lines can be done in a day and will take you to three very different neighborhoods: posh Nob Hill, peaceful Pacific Heights and popular water front.
The ExperienceListen. The bells clang, the cars groan as they go up and down the hills, the cables sing all the time, and over it all you hear tourists chattering and people discussing their lives. Like San Franciscans in general, the grip persons are a diverse lot. In one day, I saw a long beard (halfway down his chest), a pierced nose, a Little Richard wanna-be, and a long gray ponytail under a green beret.
If you're brave, ride on the outside. Stand on the running board and hang on to one of the poles on the outside of the car. It's a vulnerable, thrilling feeling, but be careful and watch out for other cable cars approaching; they pass quite close and you could get hurt.
PracticalitiesTo learn how to ride the cable cars and how to save money on your rides, read our guide to San Francisco cable cars.
Powell-Hyde Line: Cable Car Museum and Russian HillFrom the Powell Street turnaround at Market Street, take the Powell-Hyde Line. Two lines leave from this same spot, so be sure to check the name on the end of the car to be sure it says Powell-Hyde (it has a brown sign).
The cable car ascends, passing Union Square and Nob Hill, then turns left onto Jackson Street. A block after the turn, at Mason Street, is the Cable Car Museum. Watch the sheaves that control the three continuous loops of cable, and peer down at the machines that turn them. For 25 cents, see antique 3-D photos of the 1906 earthquake and fire. Aside from people going to the museum, the neighborhood is very quiet.
Reboard the cable car going up Jackson. Get off at Pacific Avenue on Russian Hill to explore the neighborhood. The cable car passes through this quiet neighborhood like an intruder, barging through with its load of tourists.
There are many choices for an evening meal here, and the easiest way to identify a good spot is to see how crowded it is. If you have room after dinner, stop at the original Swensen's ice cream parlor between Union Street and Warner Place for dessert.
Continue up Hyde, walking if you can. Take a side trip on Filbert to enjoy a sweeping view of Telegraph Hill and the San Francisco Bay. Hyde Street crests between Filbert and Greenwich, then goes down gently toward Lombard Street.
At Lombard Street, peace is broken. The one-block section called the "crookedest" street, draws flocks of tourists. They're everywhere - walking up and down, taking photos, creating a traffic hazard. In the supreme act of touristy gotta-tick-off-all-the-sights mania, some even take a taxi just to go down the street.
The park across Hyde at Greenwich is the opposite of the busy Lombard Street scene. Benches invite you to linger in the shade. On the west side of the hill are fine views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Palace of Fine Arts and the Presidio.
Re-board the cable car at Lombard, where the roller coaster ride begins as it plunges sharply downhill toward the end of the line where you can explore Ghirardelli Square, the Maritime Museum and Fisherman's Wharf.
California Line: Nob HillWhen you're done at Fisherman's Wharf, walk to Taylor and Bay (where lines are shorter) and take the cable car back toward Union Square.
Get off at California (where the cable car lines cross) and walk west toward the big hotels. People, even children, seem to always be in a hush here on Nob Hill. Around 1900, the hill was adorned with the finest homes in San Francisco, built with money earned from the Gold Rush and railroads. Only the big, brown Huntington Mansion survived the 1906 fire. Nearby, you'll find the Mark Hopkins Hotel, whose Top of the Mark restaurant and bar affords some of the city's best views.
In Huntington Park, even the trees are formal, but there's plenty of activity. Artists sketch and kids play around the classical fountains. Next to the park is Grace Cathedral, a Gothic-style cathedral with Florentine bronze doors. Inside are frescoes of California history, from the Spanish explorers to the twentieth century, secular and religious. Both inside and out are two lovely labyrinths, great for a contemplative walk.
Continue on California and get off at Polk Street for a look at a San Francisco neighborhood. Here you'll find The Swan Oyster Depot, opened in 1912 and still going strong. On California, the Lumiere Theatre shows art and foreign films. Just up California, near Leavenworth, is Zeki's Bar, nice, local watering hole.
To get back to where you started, take the California Line back to where you got on it earlier, then walk or take another cable car back to the Powell Street turnaround.