My best days spent in San Francisco have centered on riding the Powell-Mason cable car line.
Riding the cable cars when we went to San Francisco to visit Aunt Grace who worked as an emergency room nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital and lived in The Avenues was a summer ritual in the 1960s before San Francisco got swept up in the Summer of Love.
The somewhat jerky ride in an open air rail car taking in The City while hanging on for dear life as a 6-year-old tops anything I ever rode at Disneyland. It wasn’t just the cable car ride per se, but the people, the sights and the smells. It also was the wonderful places on each end of the line we visited — shopping near Union Square or dining at Fisherman’s Wharf.
The best ride by far was on May 25, 1993. After proposing to Cynthia on Drake’s Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore we headed to dinner at Alioto’s. I can’t recall much about dinner but I vividly remember kissing after we hopped on the running board of a cable car at the wharf in the drizzling rain. The magic of the moment still lives as does a comment made by a seated French tourist in his native tongue about “stupid Americans” blocking his view.
It was when I decided that the real city of love wasn’t Paris, but San Francisco.
And what’s not to love about San Francisco? When it’s 100 degrees in the Central Valley its winter in The City. There’s virtually every urban experience you could ask for — not to mention endless dining choices that have virtually every nook and cranny of cuisine from the seven continents jammed in 47.9 square miles save Antarctica.
The advent of Pier 39 has been a curse and a blessing. It’s a good place to anchor a day excursion to the city when you have visitors that have never been to California and want to see San Francisco. That usually means a drive by tour of all the key attractions, sometime stopping at Ocean Beach — or Land’s End if I can talk them into that — and settling for Pier 39 for dinner with its world-class views of The Bay, sea lions and human attractions.
On the rare occasions I have a visitor that is willing to settle for a slice of San Francisco in a 10-hour day instead of trying to jam everything in and I have the luxury or working in a mid-week day off, I plan our trip around riding the cable cars — specifically the Powell-Mason Line — from Fisherman’s Wharf to Market Street.
It’s away from the ultimate tourist trap Pier 39 has become — OK, much of San Francisco could be considered a tourist trap — and it gives you a wide variety of dining options on both ends as well as “touristy” shopping at Fisherman’s Wharf and the classic urban variety that awaits at Union Square. In between there are spectacular views.
It’s a day trip that never disappoints for people watching.
The reason I’d recommend planning a day trip around a cable car route midweek this time of year is because the tourist crowd isn’t quite as thick making waiting for cable cars at both ends of the line much more tolerable.
If you haven’t ridden the cable cars for a number of years, expect a bit of sticker shock. It is $7 one way per person. If you are planning to try multiple lines such as California Street to reach Chinatown, there is a $21 per person all-day cable car pass. Both can be bought directly from conductors — or Muni machines. Be warned that conductors only take cash and can make change only up to $20.
When you consider the experience you’re getting, it’s a bargain especially if you explore downtown once you get there. Simply walking around Union Square and browsing stores like Neiman Marcus to see how people who apparently have more money than they know what to do with shop — I’m not in the league of folks that can pay $65 for a pair of men’s brief underwear — is worth it. You can also wander through the theater district or just take in the characters in the form of sidewalk artists and people in general.
And if you’re curious to see how cable cars work and learn their history, drop by the Cable Car Museum at 1201 Mason Street. And, yes, the Washington-Mason line can take you there which is another reason to buy the all-day pass. The museum is located in the Washington/Mason cable car barn and powerhouse.
From a deck in the museum you can see the massive engines and winding wheels that move the cables. There is also an area where you can see the cable line entering the building.
Everything you need to know about cable cars is there, along with a significant collection of historic photographs, models, various devices, tools, and models of cable cars. There are also three antique cable cars from the 1970s.
The gift shop can literally make it possible to ring your bell as genuine cable car bells are for sale among other cable car memorabilia including books, clothing, and cards.
Admission to the museum is free. It’s open from April through October from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and from November through March from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Make no doubt about. San Francisco’s cable cars are a big deal. The City boasts the world’s oldest and largest permanent cable car operation. It is the only place on earth where the cable cars are still operated in the traditional old-fashioned manner. That means they are manually operated by the gripman as you are pulled through street traffic often filled with tourists from all over the world gawking at cable cars that are just an hour plus away from most places in the 209.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email firstname.lastname@example.org