DIY San Francisco Cable Car Tour: Powell-Hyde

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The historic cable cars hurtling over San Francisco’s hills are one of the icons of the city, up there with the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. Of the three lines still in operation Powell Hyde is the most popular route with tourists. It runs between the heart of downtown San Francisco and Fisherman’s wharf and offers tantalising glimpses of the cityscape and bay as you crest each hill.

Because it’s such a busy line we thought we’d look at some of the attractions you could stop to visit along the way, some well known, some thoroughly off the beaten cable cars’ track.

Start: Hallidie Plaza & Powell and Market Cable Car Turnaround

Stop: Powell St & Market St

Powell and Market Cable Car Turnaround
Image by acebal via flickr

This busy plaza in the midst of downtown is named for Andrew Smith Hallidie, who developed the original cable car system in San Francisco in 1873.

To the east of the park you’ll find the Powell and Market Cable Car turnaround. These historic cars can’t run backwards so at the end of each line the cars must be turned – by hand. Crowds and street performers gather about this revolving wooden platform which the cable car operators use to (slowly) rotate the massive cars 180°.

Union Square

Stop: Powell St & Geary Blvd

Union Square
Image by adrian8_8 via flickr

Union Square has become known as THE place to shop in San Francisco. You’ll find flagship stores for Bloomingdales and Macy’s here, along with many others.

It’s not solely shopping though. Grab a bite in one of the cafes offering outdoor seating in the square itself, or visit one of the area’s art galleries or independent theatres. If you’re visiting in July try to catch the spectacle of the annual bell-ringing contests.

Nob Hill & Grace Cathedral

Stop: Powell St & California St

Stained glass windows of Grace Cathedral
Image by Owen Byrne via flickr

Much of the first section of the Powell-Hyde line runs through Nob Hill, one of San Francisco’s wealthiest districts. Visitors here come to marvel at the grand mansions and swanky hotels set amid leafy parks.

If you disembark here, you can easily stroll past Grace Cathedral. This small replica of Notre Dame Cathedral is a place of peace where yoga is just as likely to take place as prayer beneath the colourful stained glass windows. You can get some lovely views of the cathedral from neighbouring Huntington Park.

China Town

Stop: Powell St & Clay St

China Town
Image by markheybo via flickr

There are four China Towns in San Francisco, but if you jump off the cable car here you’re just one block from the heart of the oldest of them, running along Stockton Street and parallel Grant Avenue.

It’s a colourful district with a mix of traditional tea shops and trinket shops for tourists. There are more than a few hidden gems if you’re looking for some authentic Chinese cuisine.

Cable Car Museum

Stop: Washington St & Mason St

Winding wheels at the Cable Car Museum
Image by Justin Ennis via flickr

Exit beside this free museum if you want to learn even more about what’s powering these iconic cable cars.

The museum is set inside a power house and viewing galleries offer visitors the chance to see the winding wheels and actual cables that are hauling the cable cars up the hills outside. You’ll also see examples of the antique cars that used to power through the streets and a large exhibition of historic photographs.

Swensen’s Ice Cream

Stop: Hyde St & Union St

In the 1980s Swensen’s was at the heart of a global ice cream empire with 400 stores spanning the USA and Asia. Pop in to this, the original ice cream shop dating from 1948, for a good old fashioned sundae in a San Francisco institution – it even featured in 1985 film classic The Goonies.

Lombard Street

Stop: Hyde St & Lombard St

Lombard Street
Image by The Dana Files via flickr

One of San Francisco’s quirkier attractions is Lombard Street’s eight hairpin bends – and its corresponding claim to be the most crooked street in the world. You’ll get a great view from the top of the street, by the cable car stop. You can walk down the steps beside the twisted road for a close up look at the sharp bends, but save some energy for the steep climb back up!

San Francisco Art Institute

Stop: Hyde St & Chestnut St

Diego Rivera, Making a Fresco, 1931
Image by Joaquín Martínez via flickr

This relatively unknown stop in San Francisco is worth a detour alone to see the spectacular murals by famed Mexican artist Diego Rivera.

The institute attracts some of the brightest young talent in the fields of painting, sculpture, film and photography, and you can see exhibitions of current students’ work. You can also get a great view of the harbour from the rooftop cafe. Oh, and it’s free to visit!

End: San Francisco Maritime Museum & Aquatic Park

Stop: Hyde St & Beach St

Maritime Museum
Image by Clinton Steeds via flickr

Before you hit Fisherman’s Wharf don’t miss this unique collection of maritime history at the Aquatic Park. The Maritime Museum itself is located in the Art Deco Bathhouse Building, whose clean lines mimic that of a cruise ship. The real highlight though is the collection of historic ships, dating back to 1886, and all beautifully restored.

Ghirardelli Square

Ghirardelli Square
Image by David Ohmer via flickr

Just one block away from the terminus of the Powell-Hyde cable car you’ll stumble onto Ghirardelli Square. This was the headquarters of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company, until it was redeveloped in to a public square in the 1960s. The chocolate association remains, with a Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop numbering one of the boutiques and restaurants surrounding the square.

Fisherman’s Wharf

Image by David Ohmer via flickr

Bustling Fisherman’s Wharf remains one of the best places to dine on freshly caught seafood in San Francisco, but you’ll find a whole lot more here as well. Street performers draw crowds to their impromptu shows, there are plenty of stores and bars. Sea lions quite enjoy the atmosphere at Fisherman’s Wharf too. You can see them hanging out on the floating docks off Pier 39.

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