Maybe it was all those Rice-A-Roni® commercials from my childhood, but I get a thrill when I hear the clang-clang of a San Francisco cable car. These beloved wooden icons, the only moving landmarks in the National Register of Historic Places, are absurdly impractical; San Francisco had nearly torn up all the tracks in 1947 until a public outcry saved the last three lines. And now, whaddya know, they are San Francisco's most iconic attraction, the one must-do for every visitor.
San Francisco's steep hills are notorious; it's a great location for filming car chases (remember Bullitt?) but a challenging place for everyone else. In 1869 engineer Andrew Hallidie watched a team of overworked horses pulling a heavy carriage up a rain-slicked San Francisco hill and resolved to invent a mechanical device to replace the beasts; in 1873 the first cable car traversed Clay Street. They really are ingenious: An electrically powered steel cable under the street constantly moves at 9 1/2 mph, which each car clamps onto with an underground grip to get hauled along (operators are thus called "grippers," not drivers). Listen for the distinctive underground clickity-clack of the cable. Daredevils choose to ride in the open-air sections, not the enclosed seating areas, standing up and hanging onto a strap, which at under 10 mph isn't as perilous as it sounds.
Two cable car routes start at the intersection of Powell and Market streets: The Powell-Hyde line ends at the turnaround in a waterfront park by Ghirardelli Square, and the Powell-Mason line meanders through North Beach to end on the east side of Fisherman's Wharf. The Powell-Hyde line has the steepest climbs and drops, if that's what you're interested in; take it from Market Street north, past crooked Lombard Street on your right, before heading down Russian Hill with a breathtaking vista of Alcatraz and the San Francisco Bay. The California Street line runs east–west from Market and California streets over Nob Hill to Van Ness Avenue. Queues to board the Powell Street cars at either end seem endless, but there are strategies to avoid them: Ride at less-popular night hours, jump on at an intermediate stop (this is iffy in high season, when cars get so full that they can't pick up passengers en route), or board at Powell and Market rather than the crowded turnarounds near Fisherman's Wharf (for the California line, the Van Ness end is less crowded). Even though we waited for over an hour at the Ghiradelli Square terminus, we actually had fun -- street musicians played, tourists swapped travel tips, and we could watch three or four cars pivot grandly around on the turntables. After that long wait, the ride seemed surprisingly short, but no one in my family complained.
Nearest Airport: San Francisco International, 13 miles. Oakland International, 18 miles.
Where to Stay: $$$ Argonaut Hotel, 495 Jefferson St. (tel. 866/415-0704 or 415/563-0800; www.argonauthotel.com). $$ Larkspur Hotel, 524 Sutter St. (tel. 866/823-4669 or 415/421-2865; www.larkspurhotelunionsquare.com).