aka “The easiest (half) day trip to the city with a transportation-loving toddler.”
A few weekends back, we drove into the city—grabbing breakfast in the car—with pretty much the express purpose of giving Hudson his first ride on a cable car. We ended up spending just a half-day in San Francisco, but it was the perfect morning—with something for everyone.
We used an app called ParkNow to find inexpensive parking near Fisherman’s Wharf before walking a few blocks over to Ghiradelli square. I noted, for future reference, that we were also starting out by Buena Vista Cafe which—if you’re a fan—makes a deliciously strong Irish Coffee (it originated the recipe). But we were on a mission: On weekends, and in the busy summer tourist season, it’s best to be at the cable car turnarounds as early as possible.
There are three cable car routes—the Powell/Hyde and Powell/Mason lines, which are the most popular and afford the most classic (steep) views, and the California/Van Ness line. The first two share one turnaround point at Powell and Market; we chose the Powell/Hyde, which takes you through Russian Hill and passes at the top of Lombard street (the notoriously curvy one), whereas the Powell/Mason line runs through North Beach and runs past the bottom of Lombard (the better view if you’re hoping to check it out). Both would make for a great cross-town overview, and both stop at the Cable Car museum (which is free).
You can start at the turnaround points or board a cable car en route. The turnarounds are best if you’re just going for the joy of the ride or require multiple seats together, but it’s often easy to grab a free spot (especially on off-hours) if you wait by one of the brown and white signs along a route. The gripman will stop for you and wave you aboard. Just be sure to wait until it comes to a complete stop. The one-way fee is $6 and you can pay cash on board, so there’s no reason to wait at the pay-booth for tickets before getting in the car line if that’s something you can do. However, you can also buy day passes and multi-day passes (a day pass is $14 and you can buy that on board as well).
We were lucky to be the first to board one of the cars and snagged two seats in front. Aron chose to hang off the side on the footboard, holding onto one of the poles, while I held tight to Hudson (who had a blast, especially imitating the “ding ding ding” of car’s bell). It’s a pretty thrilling ride. The cars operate along a continuously rotating cable, but also—occasionally—coast downhill on gravity. It also can be quite chilly—surprisingly so in the summer (this is San Francisco after all)—so be sure to bring an extra layer for the wind if you’re sitting or standing on an edge.
Save for the often long waits you might endure at the turnarounds, riding a cable car is easy—and worth doing. Here’s a map of the three routes, from the Cable Car Museum.
After our ride ended at Powell and Market, we veered slightly south past SF MoMA (which, even if you don’t have time to visit, has an incredible gift shop) and gave Hudson a chance to stretch his legs in the Yerba Buena Gardens, before walking back toward Market and over to our favorite Dim Sum spot, Yank Sing, on Stevensen Street.
Eating Dim Sum ranks at the top of my list of things-to-do-in-San-Francisco, and it’s the perfect meal to share with a toddler—because you don’t have to wait to order! You just point! Everything at Yank Sing is so good, but the soup dumplings are especially amazing. You top the perfectly composed little packages with vinegar and some pickled ginger and it all just explodes in your mouth in the best way.
Of course, if Chinese food isn’t your thing, you could just as easily follow Market to the Embarcadero and eat at the Ferry Building on the bay. (And if you’ve never been, I’d probably even suggest you do this first!)
We were embracing the transportation theme of the day so we followed lunch with a ride along the Embarcadero on the F Line. You can board a historic streetcar back on Market and it will take you all along the Embarcadero—past the Ferry Building, the ports to Alcatraz, and the new site of the Exploratorium—to Fisherman’s Wharf. An adult ticket costs $2 and we found it to seem painfully slow at times, especially after the Cable Car-ride, but it’s nice way to travel along the bay if you’re not in a rush.
We got off at Pier 39 to show Hudson the few remaining Sea Lions on the docks and to watch the end of that day’s America’s Cup race (the races will continue in the bay through September 21 this year), before getting back in the car to take a look at the Marina and send a runner to grab coffees and dessert in Pacific Heights for the ride home. Within minutes, Hudson was fast asleep for the drive back to Davis—the best ending to a great half-day in the city.