Free in August: San Francisco Cable Cars - 510 Families
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Free in August: San Francisco Cable Cars

San Francisco’s cable cars are free to all during the remainder of August.

Riding San Francisco’s famous cable cars makes the perfect city adventure for an East Bay kid. For a train-loving kid, it is hard to beat a BART trip to a cable car. Sprinkle in a fun playground, silly souvenir, and a hot chocolate and you might win parent of the year. We love this adventure for special sibling-free time with kids.

How to make a day of Cable Car adventures with your kid

For a fun day in the City with an easy way to see a lot, hop on a city-bound BART train from any East Bay BART station and get off at Powell Street station. Walk toward the A1 Exit to Powell Street Cable Cars and you’ll pop right up in front of the cable car turntable. Stand in line for the Powell-Mason car to go to Fisherman’s Wharf. Stand in line for the Powell-Hyde to go to Ghirardelli Square.

Powell Mason Line Cable Car
She’s taking the Powell-Mason Line to the Wharf | Photo: Jose via Yelp

Grab a coffee and enjoy the street performers while you wait in line or, if the line feels too long, walk up Powell Street a couple of blocks to hop on without waiting.

Pro tip: The Cable Car operators save space for hop-on travelers along the route, but it’s typically “standing room” so if you prefer sitting the line might be your best bet.

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sf cable car routes

 

Take the Cable Car to Fisherman’s Wharf

Either of the lines that run from the Powell Street turntable head to Fisherman’s Wharf arriving about six blocks apart. We slightly recommend the Powell-Mason route for families because it is usually less crowded for about the same experience. For maximum tourist vibes, be sure to get on a Powell-Hyde car. The Powell-Hyde line heads more westerly to Ghirardelli square. Older children will have no trouble walking between the two endpoints. Your mileage will vary with your own kids.

cable car turntable
The Cable Car Turntables are always fun to watch | Photo: Jessie Fritzen

Pro tip: When riding the cable car lines to the Wharf, we made sure to sit facing the east side of the street (towards Embarcadero) to get the best views of Union Square, Coit Tower, TransAmerica Pyramid, and Saints Peter and Paul Church, and Chinatown as you pass through the City.

On the Powell-Mason line, a quick look over your shoulder at Lombard Street will give you a glimpse of the famous crooked road just four blocks up. From the end of the line at Fisherman’s Wharf, it is a quick five-minute walk down Taylor Street toward The Embarcadero, Fisherman’s Wharf, and popular eateries like Hollywood Cafe, Darren’s Cafe, Boudins Bakery Cafe, and Sabella & La Torre.

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Destination: Fisherman’s Wharf & Pier 39

overhead view of pier 39 san francisco
Pier 39 from above | Photo: Pier 39

The end of the Powell/Mason line is Taylor Street and Bay Street. Along Taylor Street heading toward the water, you’ll encounter plenty of souvenir shops (to enjoy or avoid as you see fit). We took a pit stop to get our favorite souvenir, a smashed penny. Walking along the waterfront along The Embarcadero, we love the fantastic views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, ferry boats, and more.

smashed penny in child's hand
Always a favorite! The smashed penny | Photo: Jessie Fritzen

Kid Favorites at Pier 39

pier 39 carousel at night
Pier 39 Carousel | Photo: Pier 39

While you’re at the Wharf, you can’t miss the world-famous Pier 39 full of shops, food, The Aquarium of the Bay, a double-decker carousel, a few small rides, and, of course, the most popular free site, the sea lions. While it can be crowded along the railing at the sea lion viewing area, there are risers for little ones to see the action. Don’t miss the wall of locks close by!

Sea lions at Pier 39
The sea lions sunning themselves at Pier 39 | Photo: Jessie Fritzen
Child with locks on fence
Checking out the locks at Pier 39 | Photo: Jessie Fritzen
sea lion sculpture in SF
Sealion sculptures are all around the Wharf — try to climb on! | Photo: Jessie Fritzen

A Play Stop at Joe DiMaggio Playground

Heading back to Market Street and BART, you can either choose to return to the turntable on Taylor Street and Bay St or walk up Powell Street about six blocks to Joe DiMaggio playground in the heart of North Beach between Lombard and Greenwich streets and Columbus Avenue and Powell Street. Just across the street, you can catch the cable car back to Market and the Powell Street BART station (look for the purple and white cable car stop sign).
Location: 651 Lombard Street, San Francisco

Joe Dimaggio playground in san francisco
DiMaggio Playground | Photo: Anna Azimi
Joe DiMaggio Playground climbing structure
Joe DiMaggio playground climbing structures are awesome | Photo: Jessie Fritzen

Destination 2: Ghirardelli Square

Powell-Hyde is the most popular cable car route and it also runs to Fisherman’s Wharf. If you choose your own adventure to ride the Powell-Hyde line rather than the Powell-Mason line, your destination will be another scenic spot near the waterfront. These cable cars stop at the top of the crookediest block of Lombard Street making it extremely popular with out-of-towners. The end of the line is only a handful of blocks away from the other line at Hyde Street and Beach Street. Ghirardelli Square is just to the west, where kids can enjoy giant ice cream sundaes around the corner of Beach & Larkin Streets. You’re also close to Umbrella Alley for extra cuteness.
Location: 900 North Point Street, San Francisco
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Return Trip: Back to Powell Street Turntable

Returning from the Wharf back to Powell Street and Market can happen at either of the endpoints or by finding those purple and white cable car signs along the routes. As of August 2021, the timetables are not fixed so plan to wait.

Cable Car San Francisco
Returning to Powell & Market Streets on the Powell & Hyde Cable Car Line | Photo: Adam

Alternative: Take the hilliest cable car

The hilliest cable car route is also the least busy. The California Street cable car begins near the Embarcadero BART Station and sticks to California Street through the financial district, past Chinatown, over both Nob Hill and Pacific Heights, and completes its journey at Van Ness Ave. Its route is perpendicular to the other two.

Location: Board at Market Street at Drumm Street in front of the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

Plan your San Francisco adventure

Transit, Prices, and how to pay

BART fares vary depending on the originating station. Pay with a Clipper card or buy a roundtrip ticket at the station for all riders.

San Francisco Cable Cars: free in August 2021, and $8 a ride for all ages beginning September 2021. Pay with a Clipper card, MuniMobile app, or have exact cash. If boarding at a turntable (Powell & Market, Bay & Taylor, or Hyde & Beach Streets) you must purchase your fare in advance. All-day passports are available through the MuniMobile app for $13. See the website for more details.

Pier 39 prices and attractions are on the website >

Smashed penny: 51 cents

Pro tip: Have fun! And don’t forget to bring a jacket because it can get chilly in the city!

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