San Francisco Cable Cars: How to avoid the queues!

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Bucket list: Everyone wants to ride the iconic San Francisco cable cars!


Everyone wants to ride the iconic San Francisco cable cars and during peak season you can wait in long queues just to get your turn. In the past, I’ve waited more than an hour (!)

While the atmosphere in the line can be fun – there’s fellow tourist camaraderie and usually a couple of street entertainers – sometimes you just don’t have the time or inclination to wait in line!

The official way to ride the cable car is to join the queue at the start or end of each line. The main turning point is at Powell/Market turntable (you can’t miss it – look for the line of tourists!). There are also turntables at the end of each line, and watching the turnaround is quite a site itself.


The line starts at Market street and it takes A LONG TIME.



The three cable car routes

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It’s useful to understand the three cable car lines:

The Powell-Mason line starts at Powell/Market and ends at Bay Street at Fisherman’s Wharf, and is nearest Pier 39. 

The Powell-Hyde line also starts at Powell/Market and ends near Ghiradeli Square and is very close to the other side of Fisherman’s Wharf.

The California line runs from the Financial District to Chinatown.


Walk up the Powell Street line (or any line) a bit and wait for one to come by at one of the stops (marked with the sign above)


If you don’t want to wait in the queue

  • Walk up the Powell Street line (or any line) a bit and wait for one to come by at one of the stops, marked with the sign above. If there’s room, they’ll take you on board. If not, keep walking and try the next stop.
  • This obviously works better if you have a smaller party. When I’ve been there the conductors took “the first 6 in line”.
  • If you have a City Pass you can ride it as many times as you like (in 3 consecutive days).




Other cable car tips

  • The line starts at Market street and it takes A LONG TIME.
  • The Market/Bay route stops a few streets from Fisherman’s Wharf and is less popular. If they ask if you want that one, take it and you’ll jump the queue.
  • Our car started at Market Street and picked up 5 groups of “the first 6 in the line” on Powell Street.
  • Beware: I’ve had the cable car pass us up even when it looks like it has room. My theory is that is was a green light and they didn’t want to lose momentum. Or they just weren’t in the mood for picking anyone up!
  • Make the most of standing in the line! Talk to others (lots of tourists from around the world), watch the street entertainers, or send someone to get something to eat.
  • There’s a free cable car museum at Washington and Mason. It’s goes over the history plus you can see cars/cables in action! Well worth a visit.



Visit California If you are visiting California this should be your first point of call, make sure to order the free brochure 

San Francisco Cable Car Museum 1201 Mason St, San Francisco, CA 94108, USA +1 415-474-1887

San Francisco City Pass  900 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94102 + 1 (888) 330-5008


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  1. 12/09/2017 / 08:50

    Oh wow I never even thought about queues being an issue for the cable cars! Good to know in advance of our trip… when we eventually get round to booking it! I can’t wait to explore San Francisco x
    Sonia recently posted…Knoppers come to the UKMy Profile

  2. 05/09/2017 / 11:44

    This is a properly useful post particularly for first time visitors – thanks for sharing. Love SF sooo much.

  3. 05/09/2017 / 11:18

    I would love to ride one of these, I have only ever seen them on the big screen. Great tips for those in a bit of a hurry
    Kara recently posted…Luna Petunia Talking Doll ReviewMy Profile

  4. 04/09/2017 / 20:45

    Is it bad that I quite fancy standing in the queue, soaking up the atmosphere and watching the street entertainers? This assumes of course that I’m just a tourist with no particular destination in mind!

  5. 31/08/2017 / 21:37

    I’m a big fan of cable cars and trams too – we just went on them in Toronto. This is a great, helpful post – a must-read if you’re off to San Francisco, so at least you can act like a local!

  6. 31/08/2017 / 14:39

    I do love a cable car/tram. We just about managed to queue at the right end in Porto and Lisbon – my husband seemed to cotton on that they turn round so was in the right place to be positioned in front of the doors!
    Useful info for people visiting San Francisco.