Travel: The best views of San Francisco–from Cable Cars
Anyone who brings a camera to San Francisco and doesn’t get on a cable car to capture amazing views is really missing out.
While in town, please do walk to a park overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, climb Coit Tower, revel in the colors of Chinatown and North Beach, laugh at all the cars winding down Lombard Street, enjoy the history and Foodie delights at the Ferry Building.
Those are all great. But this classic San Francisco, your best ride in town, should be stop #1. It’s like like a slow-moving roller coaster that goes up and down steep hills (that’s San Francisco) without the speed. And it has way better views. The best!
The latest PhotowalksTV episode brings you into the heart of the action, direct from the best cable car line in the city, Powell/Hyde, as seen through the lenses of the Insta360 camera and Apple iPhone 14 Pro. I mounted my Insta360 to the front of the cable car to capture the entire ride, while snapping away video and stills on the iPhone as well. And the footage really snaps. Check it out!
This is the San Francisco we all grew up with and loved, before crime got out of control, tents began popping up all over and store closures became a sad sight. That San Francisco of yore still (mostly) exists on the Powell/Hyde line of Russian Hill and Nob Hill mansions and apartments, stately hotels, Alfred Hitchcock filming locations, living history, unbelievable hills in what’s hands down the most photogenic city in the United States.
Three important things to know:
- Like all things relating to photography, you need to arrive early, as in, between the 7 and 8 a.m. hour, before the tourists get there. There are only eight seats on the outside of the car, ones that give you prime photo position. From here, you get great photographer advantage, and the early morning lighting is fantastic.
- Secondly, take the Beach/Hyde route. It has the best photo spots.
- Third: a one-way ticket on the cable car costs $8. Would you like to get back to where you originally boarded? That will cost you another $8. I have a way better deal. The Muni Mobile app will sell you an all-day pass for $13. This enabled me to ride all three lines, for less than a round trip ticket on one, and it was a blast.
This local tradition has been going strong since 1873. Let’s honor this amazing invention that used to get locals around during the time of horse and buggys, whose basic operation hasn’t changed since.
Be sure to also check out the Cable Car Museum (1201 Mason St. and on the Hyde/Beach route) for more history.
Says the SFMTA, the agency that oversees the cars: “No experience is more uniquely San Francisco than a ride on a cable car. Cable cars have come to symbolize our great city…After all, we’re the city that first launched cars pulled along by cables running beneath the street. Invented here nearly 150 years ago and named a National Historic Landmark in 1964, today’s San Francisco cable cars are kept in tip-top shape by our agency.”
Thank you SFMTA!
Beach and Hyde is at the western edge of Fisherman’s Wharf, one block from iconic Ghiradelli Square. The Powell/Hyde line starts off by passing the historic Buena Vista Cafe, which is known for inventing Irish Coffee.
From there, it’s up the hill. You will swing by many San Francisco classics. You’ll go past Lombard Street, the crookedest street in the world, and looking back down the hill, on a good day, you’ll see a great view of Alcatraz Island.
Aside from that, you weave through wonderful San Francisco neighborhoods, passing homes, apartments, shops and the like, and pick up a little bit of Chinatown and North Beach as well, before ending at the urban center of Union Square, and Powell and Market.
The Powell-Mason line is the most popular of the three routes, and it goes through similar terrain as the Powell/Hyde line, minus the Alcatraz and Lombard Street Sightings.
The least popular line is the California, which is unfortunate, as it’s a whole lot of fun and very photogenic too. You get on it at the bottom of California Street, by the Ferry Building, and ride through the financial district, right by the Tadich Grill, the oldest restaurant in California, dating back to 1849. You’ll continue all the way up to that most iconic of San Francisco shots, the cable car barreling down California and Powell, in Nob Hill, by the Fairmont Hotel.
This is like what we saw on the old Rice-a-roni ads of the 1960s.
The California line goes past Polk Street and ends at Van Ness, where, unlike the other lines, you don’t have to buy another ticket to continue the ride. Once it turns around, you can get off and back on, for one more ride down down the classic California Street Nob Hill dash, towards the Bay Bridge.
Enjoy your rides on your next visit, and please watch the video. As always, making it was a labor of love, and I hope you enjoy it.