Playing Tourist Right at Home

Locals use cable cars to explore their own city

Monday, Mar 2, 2009  |  Updated 5:45 AM PDT
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Playing Tourist Right at Home

Playing a tourist in your own home town is not a bad idea in this tough economy.

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Some 7.5 million people ride San Francisco's cable cars each year. Many of them board at Powell and Market streets, the famous turnaround site at the end of the line.

Here tourists can snap pictures of workers manually swiveling the cars around to begin the route again.

But visitors may not realize there are actually three cable lines, each with its own flavor. The scenic Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines both begin at Powell and Market. The third line, which is the least crowded and least known to tourists, runs along hilly California Street and also offers lovely views.

Here are some tips on riding the cable cars and what to look for.

POWELL-MASON LINE

RUNS From Market and Powell Streets to Bay Street

NEIGHBORHOODS Union Square, North Beach, Fisherman's Wharf

WHAT YOU'LL SEE This line passes many city landmarks.

Union Square, known for its shopping, is a block from the start of the line. From there, it's a series of scenic uphill climbs.

From the intersections of Mason-Jackson to Mason-Union, you get an architectural tour of San Francisco's classic row houses. At Mason and Columbus Avenue, you're in the heart of North Beach, a historically Italian neighborhood where you'll find gelato, coffee shops, pizzerias and restaurants. Nearby Washington Square Park, at Columbus Avenue and Union Street, is one of the best people-watching spots in the city.

CALIFORNIA LINE

RUNS California Street, from Drumm Street to Van Ness Avenue

NEIGHBORHOODS The financial district, the exclusive Nob Hill neighborhood.

WHAT YOU'LL SEE If you board at Drumm, hit the Ferry Building in the Embarcadero on Market Street first. Rush-hour ferries serve commuters from Marin County and the East Bay. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, locals shop for produce at the Embarcadero Farmers' Market. At the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant's tasting room, you can taste wines from around the world, and at the Hog Island Oyster Co., you can sample oysters harvested daily from nearby Tomales Bay.

The California line is known for its steep grade. Looking up from Drumm, you can see the Powell cable line crossing California at the top of Nob Hill. As you climb higher, look back and see the architecture of downtown San Francisco, with the water and Bay Bridge as a backdrop.

If you get off at California and Grant, you're just a few blocks from Portsmouth Square in the heart of Chinatown. Continuing along, you'll see Grace Cathedral and the city's poshest hotels, such as the Ritz-Carlton at Stockton, and the Fairmont and Mark Hopkins. The Mark Hopkins is known for its bar, Top of the Mark, on the 19th floor. Here you'll see sweeping, 360-degree views of San Francisco and the bay.

POWELL-HYDE LINE

RUNS From Market and Powell streets to Beach terminal, near the waterfront

NEIGHBORHOODS Union Square, Russian Hill, Fisherman's Wharf

WHAT YOU'LL SEE The Powell-Hyde line offers sweeping vistas of the ocean along Hyde Street. The route starts off just like the Powell-Mason line does, but it splits at Jackson Street to head north.

Hyde and Union is the best spot to get a feel for Russian Hill, a quintessential San Francisco neighborhood. Here, row houses and Victorians mix with restaurants, coffee shops, ice-cream parlors and corner markets.

As the Powell-Hyde line heads down to the water, stop at Hyde and Lombard for views of Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill and the Bay Bridge in the distance. A block down is Lombard Street, known as the "world's crookedest street." At the end of the line, you'll find Fisherman's Wharf, views of Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge.

AVOIDING THE CROWDS

The three lines intersect at California and Powell. You can catch any of them there.

If you board at Powell and Market, be prepared to wait 45 minutes to an hour. Visitors like the spot because of the turnaround, and because it's fun to hang off a pole on the cars' crowded open platforms.

To avoid the crowds, buy your ticket at the Powell-Market booth, then walk a few blocks up Powell Street to the next stop, where the wait will probably be shorter.

TICKETS

FARES $5 each way. Muni Passports, good for unlimited rides on cable cars, buses and light rail (but not on BART), are $11 for one day; $18 for three days; $24 for seven days.
 

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