Riding a cable car in San Francisco

The cable cars in San Francisco are cute in the best kind of way.

Written on 23 January 2019

You haven’t been to San Francisco if you haven’t taken a ride on a cable car.

The cable cars are cute and old fashioned in the best kind of way.

San Francisco is a beautiful hilly and neatly packed city. It is a big magical city with a small-town feel.

I was travelling solo in Los Angeles and for $80 on an American Airline flight, I flew to San Francisco to explore the city.

It’s pretty cool that most city attractions are within reach for exploring so you don’t have to go too far. Riding a cable car is a great and cheap way to see many site attractions. They go near most of the popular destinations, especially Union Square, China Town, Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf.

I googled my way to Market Street one morning to ride a cable car just, so I can say ‘I’ve taken a ride on a cable car in San Francisco’.

It isn’t difficult to locate the start or end of the cable car lines – look for the long line of tourists! The official way to ride a cable car is to join the queue at the start or end of the line. The main turning point is at Market turntable (beginning and end of the line).

These iconic San Francisco cable cars have been in all sorts of movies and photographs so it’s no wonder tourists line up for their chance to take a little cable car halfway to the stars!

The way cable cars work in San Francisco is quite remarkable. In fact, the San Francisco cable car system is the world’s last manually operated cable car system and has become an icon of San Francisco.

I paid $7 for one-way cable ticket on the Powell-Hyde line that would take me up (and up) and over Nob Hill to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Three cable car lines run through San Francisco – the Powell-Mason line, Powell-Hyde line and California line.

Cable cars have no engine or motor on the car themselves. The power source is centralised in the cable car barn and powerhouse at Washington and Mason Streets (also home to the Cable Car Museum). There, powerful electric motors (originally a stationary steam-powered engine) drive giant winding wheels that pull cables through a trench beneath the street, centred under the cable car tracks (that’s what’s in the slots between the tracks).

Street entertainers kept the atmosphere alive while we waited for our turn to ride the cable cars.

A young girl, about twelve years old and her dad were in front of me in the line and told me they had been waiting in the line for more than 45 mins. I thought I heard an Australian accent and I asked where they were visiting from. “We come from Queensland, Australia, “he said. He asked me if I was a local. I laughed. “I come from PNG not far from Queensland,” I said.

“So do you support the Blues or Maroons?” he asked almost immediately. “Neither. I’m not big on rugby league but I love and follow rugby union particularly rugby sevens,” I answered.

Who in Papua New Guinea came up with the notion that rugby league is the country’s national sport? It is not the national sport, in my opinion. Each region and province have their own favourite sport. Many people from Morobe and Milne Bay enjoy soccer, New Guinea Islanders generally love softball and have turned it into a family sport and cricket is enjoyed by most in Central Province. Not everyone plays and enjoy rugby league. Individual sports bring families and tribes together in the spirit of their favourite sport. Rugby league leads perhaps because of the huge government and corporate backing.

We chatted some more and took videos and photos of the cable cars arriving and turning around.

It was interesting to watch the conductor and grip operator literally turn the cable car around, so it can head back in the other direction!

When single-end cable cars reach the ends of the line, they are turned around on giant turntables. The cables under the street revers separately, away from the turntable, wrapping around a large wheel in an underground bunker called a ‘sheave pit’.

Cable cars can hold up to at least 60 or more passengers, half of them seated. The people riding on the outside of the cable car can see everything while those seated enjoy a pleasant experience but have to peek around the hangers-on.

I took the ride hanging on the outside and got my camera and phone ready to take photos and videos.

“If you’re carrying back packs, turn your bags around to the front,” announced the conductor as we got ready for take-off. And with the cheery ringing of cable car bells, we began the climb up the steep hill.

Each cable car has a staff of two. The conductor sells tickets and looks after passengers. The grip person runs the car, connecting it to the cable to move and disconnecting before applying the brakes. Along with all that, the grip person is also the bell-ringer, signalling a car’s approach. The way they work is almost as interesting as the ride itself.

I think the Powell-Hyde line that I was on has the most stunning views of all three lines. Though they all start at the same place, they end up at different areas of the city.

My ride climbed up Nob Hill and through parts of China Town. As we drove through China Town, all I could think of was the movie Pursuit of Happyness that Will Smith and his son Jaden took starring roles in. The story is set and filmed in San Francisco. The misspelling in the title stems from a mural on the wall outside (Christopher) Jaden’s day care centre in China Town.

We went down Hyde Street on Russian Hill and the conductor announced our arrival at Lombard Street (the world’s crookedest street). Lombard Street is famous for its steep, one-block section with eight hairpin turns. Tourists jumped off the cable car to take pictures then we headed downhill.

On the final descent to Fisherman’s Wharf, we were treated to spectacular views of the San Francisco Bay (or the Bay as it is famously known) and Alcatraz Island.

According to history, Alcatraz was one of the world’s most notorious and best-known prisons over the years that housed some 1,576 of America’s most ruthless criminals. It was closed down after 29 years of operation. Alcatraz is a rocky island and the deep waters surrounded by sharks, it seemed impossible for prisoners to escape by swimming.

This does not mean however that prisoners did not try to escape. According to history books, of the 36 inmates who staged 14 escape attempts over the 29 years that Alcatraz served as a federal penitentiary, 23 were recaptured, six were shot and killed, two drowned and five are listed as ‘missing and presumed drowned’.

Movies have since been filmed on Alcatraz Island after the prison was shutdown, Point Blank being the first. Other movies include The Rock, Escape from Alcatraz and Murder in the First.

My ride ended near Fisherman’s Wharf, near the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. The park offers sights and stories of Pacific Coast maritime history that includes a fleet of historic vessels, a visitor centre, a maritime museum and a library.

I hopped off the cable car and wandered through the park. An old man was playing the accordion and drew a small crowd.

A large “Ghirardelli Square’ sign sat at the top end of the park. It’s easier spelling ‘Ghirardelli’ than trying to pronounce the Italian word! Ghirardelli is synonymous with delicious, high quality chocolate. It’s a place to explore American history – the chocolate way.

According to Uncle Google, in 1852, chocolatier Domingo Ghirardelli moved his company to four different locations before settling on North Point Street or what is now known as Ghirardelli Square. Although the original factory was sold and transferred elsewhere in the 1960s, a group of San Franciscans who were eager to preserve the historic factory purchased the property and made the square what it is today – a fabulous hodgepodge of great restaurants, one-of-a-kind shops and mouth-watering chocolate.

The Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop in the Clock Tower building pays homage to the original factory by giving visitors a first-hand view of chocolate manufacturing equipment. After you enjoy creamy, San Francisco-themed sundaes such as “The Ocean Beach Sea Salt Caramel Sundae” or “The Golden Gate Banana Split”, one can read the placards around the square—they tell the story of the factory, how it came to be, and its importance in San Francisco history. It’s not every day you have an excuse to eat chocolate at 9am, but when you’re in Ghirardelli Square, the enticing smells and rich history are reason enough to satisfy your sweet tooth all day long.

I could imagine how lovely it must be for chocolate lovers to take a whiff of rich, world-class chocolate while enjoying the perfectly salty breeze of the San Francisco Bay, I thought to myself as I took a slow walk along the beach. I could see the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, half immersed in the fog.

It was a bit chilly. San Francisco’s weather is strongly influenced by the cool currents of the Pacific Ocean and most times, it is foggy and cold. The fog, caused by icy Pacific water meeting warmer air, is cold and damp often blown in on a chilly ocean breeze.

I strolled to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Fisherman’s Wharf is San Francisco’s most famous waterfront community. It is a very popular tourist attraction that I’m pretty sure locals avoid it like the plague. I was tempted to have seafood at one of the many cute restaurants that lined up the seaside but there were just too many people.

I kept walking. There was another place I wanted to see that San Francisco is well known for. Near Pier 39 I found the place that sold the best and famous sourdough bread – Boudin Bakery.

I walked past the bakery and peered through the glasses with many other tourists to see the different shapes and sizes of sourdough bread created by the bakery.

San Francisco is a clear winner in the sourdough bread department. It’s interesting why San Francisco sourdough bread is the best in the world and tastes better.

Different bacteria make different sour flavours. Many people say San Francisco’s weather is awash in local bacteria species that make its sourdough bread famous! San Francisco is widely regarded as the mecca of sour-style bread.

My legs were getting tired. I opened up a map of San Francisco that I had picked up at the information booth at the airport earlier, and looking as touristy as possible, I looked for directions to where I could flag down a cable car to take me to where I was staying.

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