San Francisco Streetcar

The old tram, climbs up Telegraph Hill.

Everyone who visits the Bay City should take a journey on one of the famous streetcars, which have a long history. The first streetcars (technically cable cars) capable of handling San Francisco’s steep hillsides were introduced in 1873 and were an instant success – to such a degree that several new lines were opened. The boom was short-lived – cheaper electric streetcars arrived and the great earthquake of 1906 damaged many lines. By the 1940s the old streetcars were in terminal decline, as buses were by then capable of handling the acute gradients. Happily, a citizens’ revolt saw the retention of three streetcar lines, which remain to this day as a much-loved part of the city’s character.

The survivors are the Powell- Mason, Powell-Hide and California Street Lines, now used more by tourists than commuters. A journey on one or more of these splendid old streetcars (preferably hanging onto the outside!) is a mandatory part of the San Francisco experience. Powell-Mason (Line 59) and Powell-Hide (Line 60) serve residential, shopping and tourist districts (Union Square, Chinatown, North Beach, Nob Hill, Aquatic Park and Fisherman’s Wharf). They share some track and both use single-ended, partially open cars that have to be rotated on turntables at the end of each run. Line 61 runs entirely on California Street, from a terminus at California and Market Streets, close to the waterfront, steeply through Chinatown up to the summit of Nob Hill, then down to Van Ness Avenue. It uses double-ended cars with open sides and an enclosed middle section.

To maintain the romance, all three lines use cars that are either restored originals or faithful replicas, and the changing views from the moving streetcars are among the best in the city.


Time it takes:

Get a passport and ride all three lines in a day, hopping on and off to explore this vibrant city as the fancy takes you.

Best highlights:

 The Cable Car Museum beneath the car barn at Washington and Jackson Streets, where you can also look at the main power house and descend to a large basement where the thick haulage cables are routed to the street.

The famously laid-back Fisherman’s Wharf area, not far from the Taylor and Bay terminus of Line 59.

Grant Street in Chinatown – a feast for the senses with Its colourful shops and crowded sidewalks.

The Maritime National Historical Park with its classic ships, adjacent to  Ghlrardelli Square.

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