For a full 150 years, San Francisco’s cable cars have climbed to the Top of Nob Hill and rumbled down Mason Street to deliver riders to Fisherman’s Wharf. In fact, the brown-and-mustard yellow cars are such a staple of the San Francisco experience that clinging onto the side of one of the open-air trains with the wind in your face and the city of seven hills rolling by scores a spot on just about every visitor’s must-do list.
Thanks to the at-times hour-long lines to get onto a car at the famous turnarounds near Union Square and overlooking Aquatic Park, enjoying this piece of the city’s history might not seem all that appealing to locals. But San Francisco’s cable cars can be a thrilling way to see the sights — and visit some of the city’s most famous restaurants and bars.
Here’s how to plan a cable car crawl to some of San Francisco’s legendary food and drink destinations.
What to know about San Francisco’s cable cars
The best way to pay for your cable car rides will be via the MuniMobile app, where visitors can purchase a 1-day pass for $13. Cable car lines start operating at 7:30 a.m. and close at 10:30 p.m. Monday through Sunday. Expect the biggest crowds on weekends; the ideal time to take on this itinerary might be a Thursday evening.
Stop 1: Clock Bar inside the Westin St. Francis
335 Powell Street, San Francisco
The Westin St. Francis, located just off Union Square, has been open since March 21, 1904, and stepping inside the lobby can feel like taking a step back in time. The hotel’s ground floor lounge, Clock Bar, serves a full menu of beer, wine, cocktails, and spirits in a cozy, warmly lit space.
To start the tour, either head south on Powell to the cable car turnaround at Powell and Market streets — or catch a car as it trundles by just outside the hotel on the corner of Powell and Geary streets. Both the Powell-Hyde Line and Powell-Mason Line will get you to your next stop.
Stop 2: Tonga Room
950 Mason Street, San Francisco
Get off at California Street, at the top of Nob Hill. From there it’s a short walk up California to the entrance for the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar inside the Fairmont San Francisco. This legendary and highly immersive tiki bar transports customers to a tropical getaway with its massive central “lagoon” complete with a floating stage for live music, intermittent “rain” that patters from the ceiling, and pirate ship decor. If kids are tagging along, remember the bar and restaurant welcomes customers of all ages until 10 p.m.
Boozy, rum-based tropical drinks such as zombies, mai tais, and jungle birds make solid beverage choices and can be paired with pupus including ahi tuna poke tostadas and fried spring rolls. There’s a $15 entertainment fee per guest and live music starts nightly at 7 p.m.
When you’re ready, head back out to California and Powell streets to jump back on the Powell-Hyde Line. It’ll take you all the way to the waterfront near the foot of Ghirardelli Square. Pro tip: Keep an eye to the right as you pass the “crookedest street in the world.”
Stop 3: Buena Vista Café
2765 Hyde Street, San Francisco
When you reach the end of the line, you’ll be right in front of the historic Buena Vista Cafe, the world-famous San Francisco bar known for introducing Americans to Irish coffee in the early 1950s. The obvious order, then, is the bar’s perfect Irish coffee, which the Buena Vista sells anywhere between 1,500 and 2,000 glasses of every day. There may be a short line out front, but ask the door person nicely and you may be able to belly up to the bar for a quick drink.
Stop 4: Scoma’s
1965 Al Scoma Way, San Francisco
By now it’s likely you’ve worked up an appetite and getting to the final stop on this San Francisco food crawl doesn’t require public transportation. It’s a short 5-minute walk down to the water and up Jefferson Street to Scoma’s, the classic seafood restaurant perched on the dock of the bay.
As far as dining options go in tourist-focused Fisherman’s Wharf, it’s a reliable choice and serves a “lazy man’s” rendition (as in, the crab is already cracked for you) of the city’s most famous dish: cioppino. Other seafood-filled favorites include Dungeness crab cocktail, locally caught petrale doré, and big bowls of hot clam chowder.