San Francisco’s Cable Cars, Chinatown & Fisherman’s Wharf

We just had a wonderful visit with my brother Michael and niece Amanda, who came out from Cleveland, OH. Among other fun things, I planned what I think of as the quintessential San Francisco tourist day: A ride on the cable car from Chinatown to Fisherman’s Wharf and back, with lots of stops, sights, and food along the way. Of course, you don’t have to wait for out-of-town visitors to do this — it’s a favorite local day, too. It’s always fun to combine the joy and openness of a tourist with the knowledge and pride of a local.

A Little History

When Andrew Hallidie witnessed a horse-drawn streetcar sliding backwards toward a terrible accident on a steep San Francisco street, he immediately thought of the wire-ropes his father had patented and he himself had used to pull cars filled with ore up and down the mountains during the California Gold Rush. Through Hallidie’s inspiration and perseverance, those wire-ropes became the basis for our current cable car system, which began service in 1873.

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At one time, San Francisco had more than 20 cable car lines. But once the electric streetcar was invented, in 1888, trolleys (which run using overhead wires) began to replace cable cars in most cities, followed by busses and other forms of transportation.  Three cable car routes remain in San Francisco and, as many people know, they are a delight to ride for tourists and locals alike. Following are some fun ways to enjoy Andrew Hallidie’s invention, the cable car that is a symbol of San Francisco and a great way to get around the city.

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The Three Routes, and Fun Side Trips

There are three cable car routes in operation. The three lines are the Powell-Mason Line, the Powell-Hyde Line, and the California Street Line.

Powell-Mason Line: Union Square, Nob Hill, Chinatown, Russian Hill, North Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf

The Powell-Mason line begins at the Powell/Market turntable. It runs up Powell, past Union Square and Nob Hill, takes a dog-leg on Jackson, and then runs on Mason, Columbus, and Taylor, through colorful North Beach, until it reaches the Bay/Taylor turntable at Fisherman’s Wharf. The Wharf is, of course, a wonderful place to experience San Francisco. Stroll the stands along Jefferson Street, or buy a shrimp or crab sandwich at Taylor and enjoy it at a table or on a bench overlooking the Bay.

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We like to stop into the Boudin Bakery (160 Jefferson), which offers a fun interactive exhibit about the history and science of sourdough and other San Francisco foods, as well as a chance to see bread being baked in a factory setting.  If you’re hungry, you may want to partake in the bakery’s famous sourdough bread bowl full of clam chowder, or at least an animal-shaped loaf. The museum and bakery are open 11:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.

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Fisherman’s Wharf is also home to the Musee Mechanique, in Pier 45. Open weekdays,  10 a.m.-7 p.m., Saturday, Sunday and holidays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. The Musee Mechanique features a huge assortment of antique mechanized arcade games, many of which found a home here when the Musee Mechanique at the Cliff House closed in 2002, and many of which are fully functional.

This is a very special place – it offers a unique chance for people of all ages to see and enjoy pre video-era games that conjure the times of player pianos and wooden roller coasters and vanished San Francisco amusements like Playland at the Beach and Sutro Baths. Admission is free. You can buy quarters to play the games.

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There are many laughing characters, like Jolly Jack, below, who is similar to the locally famous Laughing Sal.

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Another really fun area attraction is the Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museum (175 Jefferson), which is surprisingly elaborate and will add to the old-wharf mood.

Powell-Hyde Line: Union Square, Nob Hill, Chinatown, Russian Hill, Fisherman’s Wharf

The Powell-Hyde line also begins at the Powell/Market turntable and continues along some of the same route up Powell. It also turns on Jackson, and then goes all the way to Hyde, which then provides a great ride through Russian Hill. Places to stop along the way is Swenson’s Ice Cream, at Hyde and Union, and San Francisco’s crookedest street, Lombard Street. The lines ends at the  Beach/Hyde turntable near Ghirardelli Square (900 North Point), where you can stop into Ghirardelli Chocolates for chocolate samples or a full-blown sundae, or enjoy lunch at the kid-friendly Lori’s Diner. The Hyde Street Pier, just steps from the cable car, features historic ships you can explore on and around. You may also want to walk down the street to the National  Maritime Museum, at Beach and Polk, which features ship models, interactive demonstrations, and other seafaring items such as diaries and maps. The museum is open daily, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is free. Both the museum and the historic ships are part of the National Park Service.

These are some pictures from Cousin Jake’s visit a few years ago.

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All Fisherman’s Wharf activities are available from either cable car terminus. If you start your trip in Chinatown or Union Square, you can take one cable car line down to Fisherman’s Wharf and the other back to your starting point. (More Chinatown activities, below.)

California Street Line: Financial District, Chinatown, Nob Hill, Civic Center

The California Street line intersects the other two lines at California and Powell. It runs from the terminus at Market and Drumm through the Financial District, Chinatown, and Nob Hill before reaching its other terminus at Van Ness Avenue. This line tends to be less crowded than the other two, though no less fun, and as a result, you can usually just stay on at the end of the line and ride back, instead of having to get out and get in line to come back on, as you may on the other two lines during summer. From this line, you can get out at Grant Avenue or other stops and enjoy Chinatown.

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Chinatown is colorful and fun wherever you walk. You may want to stop into the Chinatown Kite Shop at 717 Grant. The shop features a wide array of kites of all types. Across from the kite shop is the Eastern Bakery (720 Grant), the oldest Chinese bakery in the U.S. Further up Grant is the Rainbow Station Store (1047 Grant), which features all things cute and Japanese – Hello Kitty and other Sanrio plushes, backpacks, mini erasers, food sculptures and stationary.

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A couple of these characters look a little sad to be under this sign.

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At the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (56 Ross Alley, between Jackson and Washington) you can watch as fortune cookies are baked and bent into their famous shape, and then buy some fresh off the machine. The factory is open every day, 10 a.m -8:30 p.m.

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If you’re hungry for something more substantial, there are many dim sum restaurants, which feature a variety of this inexpensive and filling delicacy. We particularly like the House of Dim Sum (735 Jackson, around the corner from the Fortune Cookie Factory, open daily except Tuesdays), where you can get buns stuffed with shrimp, pork, chives, or sweet sesame.

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A cute map with animation to illustrate the various cable car routes is here.

Another source for route descriptions, as well as schedule information, is here.

For more information about the Cable Car Museum and the Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest, as well as tips on how to ride cable cars and fare information, please see my post, More Nitty-Gritty on San Francisco’s Cable Cars.

Mayors have tried to do away with the cable cars all together. Citizens have rallied to save them. Most of the lines have been lost to buses, and San Francisco is one of the few cities in the world to still operate traditional cable cars at all. A day of riding these moving historic landmarks will certainly heighten your appreciation of them, as well as provide a fun, inexpensive family outing.

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

Post updated 8/15/13

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4 Responses to San Francisco’s Cable Cars, Chinatown & Fisherman’s Wharf

  1. Great site! I can’t figure out if there is any way to take my visitors on the cable car all the way over the hills to the wharf without waiting at the turnaround. I have researched without finding answers? Suggestions? Thanks!

  2. Hi Empress! Thanks so much for your nice comment. I’m glad you like the site.

    I know those lines at the turnaround can be long. I’ve found that the Powell/Hyde terminus usually has a much longer wait than the Powell/Mason terminus. So often, I’ll take people down the Powell/Hyde line through Russian Hill to the wharf, walk around, and come back on the Powell/Mason line through North Beach. If you wanted to combine cable-car riding with Muni buses (which are fun in their own way, particularly when you get an old one), you can pick up a bus and ride from the wharf back up the Embarcadero, getting off at the Ferry Building, where you can then catch a California Street cable car, which should get you back to somewhere near your starting point.

    Let me know if this helped!

  3. Wow, thanks for such great info–this is super helpful!!!!

  4. Hi Elle! You’re most welcome. I’m glad this was helpful. I love San Francisco and love showing it off or even just playing “tourist in our town” with my own family. We just did both a couple weeks ago, when we had visitors from out of town. Are you visiting?

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