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"To be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars"...you must be in San Francisco. These quaint wood and steel cars are busy from early morning until after midnight helping tourists get to Fisherman's Wharf, ferrying residents to work, and giving all riders the pleasures of breathtaking views and a symphony of bells.
Introduced in 1873 by Andrew Hallidie, the cable car system works via an underground cable that travels continuously at a speed of nine-and-a-half miles per hour. The car moves forward when the cable car gripman squeezes a lever that grabs on to the moving cable.
At its peak just before 1900, the system had over 600 cars and over 100 miles of tracks. There are now just three lines covering twelve miles: the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines, which travel from downtown to Fisherman's Wharf, and the California Street line that runs along California from the Embarcadero through Chinatown and Nob Hill to Van Ness Avenue.
The cable cars are almost always crowded, especially in the summer, but that's part of the fun. The California Street line tends to be less crowded than the other two and gives you the chance to check out the fancy hotels on the top of Nob Hill. If you really want to ride one of the Powell Street lines, the waiting is probably more pleasant at the wharf end; the Powell-Mason terminus is congested and noisy, and the street scene there can be a little intimidating.
You can buy a $3 ticket good for one direction at machines at the cable car terminals, at hotels near the Powell and Market terminus, or at the nearby police/information booth. You can also pay the conductor on board the car. If you plan to ride the cars several times, you may want to invest in a $6 one-day Muni pass that is good on the cable car lines, buses and streetcars. The pass is available at the Visitors' Center at Hallidie Plaza or from ticket machines at the cable car terminals.
In addition to riding the cable cars, you may wish to visit the Cable Car Museum to learn more about how the system works. The museum has three antique cable cars on display, including the first one ever built. It also has exhibits on the history of the cable car system and a viewing room where you can see the cables in action. The museum is at the corner of Washington and Mason, and admission is free.
Cable Car Details
Cable cars operate daily every ten minutes from 5:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m.
The Cable Car Museum is at 1201 Mason St. at Washington St. It's open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and admission is free.