Cable Cars: A Free Ride

When I post about things to see and do in the Bay Area in my blog, I focus on biking and hiking. I also focus on sights and locales that are off the beaten path. San Francisco cable car rides are not off the beaten path, and they don’t involve biking or hiking, either. They’re among the city’s biggest tourist attractions. So what gives with this post?

View from front of the cable car, looking toward downtown from Powell and California Streets.

My excuse, if you want to call it that, is that for the entire month of August, all San Francisco cable car rides were free. They’d been out of commission, like so many things all over the world, for almost the last year and a half. This is part of a city plan to test the equipment after they’d been out of service for so long. Maybe that doesn’t make the most cautious of riders feel so easy when the cars stop and start down some of the steepest urban streets in the country, though the risk seems pretty minimal, or at least not appreciably greater than taking the cars has always been.

Here’s an embarrassing confession: although I’ve lived in the Bay Area for about 35 years, it had been decades since I’ve taken a cable car. Rides are a lot more expensive than they are on the city’s regular streetcars, buses, and trains: $8.00 one way. Cable cars go to Fisherman’s Wharf, which is considered a tourist ghetto by San Francisco residents. Sure, some snobbery comes into play – why pay extra to jam yourself onto a car with a bunch of tourists to someplace you don’t want to go, when you have more important things to do?

The view up Powell Street from the line waiting to board at Powell and Market Streets.

You can’t turn down a free ride, though, so I took a couple in August. So here’s another confession. The ride’s great, fun, and not an overblown tourist hype. Not worth the $16 roundtrip in normal times, perhaps, but certainly worth a ride at some point. Even if, by the time you read this, the free rides will be over, and who knows if they’ll ever happen again.

As far as I could tell, the only line in service during this free month test run was the one people usually take, running downtown from Powell and Market Streets to Fisherman’s Wharf. It was a twenty-thirty-minute wait, but there’s some entertainment on offer when the operators make the manual turnaround at the terminal:

There are some mediocre street entertainers at the stop that are too loud for my taste. Surprisingly, however, one dancer played Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “Firecracker” on his boom box at one point during his routine. That’s not exactly standard fare for street entertainment. (Trivia note: Japan’s YMO were one of the few non-African-American acts to appear on Soul Train.)

There’s no canned music on the cable car, and plenty of views as it makes its way up Powell and then down Hyde to Fisherman’s Wharf. This is from the stop at Lombard (where it’s, famously, the world’s crookedest street) and Hyde:

From Powell and California, the Transamerica Pyramid:

You can see the Bay Bridge at some point, though usually not too much of it:

This isn’t the kind of scenery that will draw many photos from tourists, but near the end of the ride, you’ll see a significant new park (to be called Francisco Park) under construction where there used to be a reservoir:

The ride ends just a few blocks down the hill from there:

There’s another turnaround when you take the ride back to downtown from the Hyde Street terminal. There’s a line, too, though it was more like ten minutes instead of twenty-thirty the second time I took it:

There’s also a view of Golden Gate Bridge from the terminal, though it can be pretty foggy:

What to do in Fisherman’s Wharf? The only thing I like to do, except bicycle through it, is check out the sea lions on Pier 39. There’s always a crowd on the benches, but it’s worth the view: