I agree with the world. To visit the city by the Golden Gate and not jump aboard a cable car for at least one cling-clanging, hill-climbing ride is tantamount to visiting the Louvre and skipping the Mona Lisa on purpose.
But once that’s been done, take the F-Line.
Although I live a short distance north of the Golden Gate and frequently drive in or take the ferry across the bay to shop or keep an appointment, several times a year I indulge myself with a San Francisco mini-vacation and stay a few days as a tourist. That’s when I hop on and off the F-line.
The F-line consists of vintage trolleys rescued from the dustbins of the world by a dedicated, non-profit group of some 1,200 streetcar lovers. Lovingly spruced into mint condition and donated to the San Francisco Municipal Railway, some 20 trolleys, with others waiting in the wings for refurbishment, rotate in regularly scheduled service.
Which Car is Coming Next?
Much of the fun of riding the F- line is not knowing which car will be coming next. Will I be boarding the bright orange 1928-built tram from Milan? Or will it be the green, cream and red car from Mexico City?
Most importantly, the F-line’s eight-mile run along the Embarcadero and up Market Street makes it perfect for hop-on, hop-off sightseeing. Regular F-line fare with transfers is $2.00; cable cars ask that you pull $5.00 dollars out of your wallet each time you step aboard.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You know that the best way to get to know a place is to get about as the locals do.
- San Francisco’s vintage trolleys gathered from all over the world are fun to ride.
- You like to go exploring on your own and wouldn’t be caught dead on a Grayline tour.
Here’s where the F-line will take you, along with my sightseeing suggestions along the way:
Hop on board at the line’s Fisherman’s Wharf terminal, after first visiting the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, a world-class collection of historic ships and maritime memorabilia and buying a crab cocktail to go from one of the Wharf’s steaming pots. If you are planning to catch the ferry to Alcatraz, hop off a few minutes later at the Powell Street stop.
Fabulous City Views a Climb Away
If you stay on, coming up is an opportunity to make your way to Coit Tower, an Art Deco 1933 monument to San Francisco’s volunteer firefighters perched atop Telegraph Hill — fabulous city views. Get off at the Greenwich stop and walk west (away from the water) through the park-like headquarters of Levi Strauss & Co., to the base of a cliff with staircases – which are actually city streets — clinging to its face. Through the years, residents have created gardens along the staircases; boardwalk “side streets” lead to old cottages, some once owned by sea captains. An easier alternative to the strenuous climb is to disembark earlier at the Pier 39 stop and catch the 39-Coit bus across the street, which reaches the tower via a scenic route through the old Italian neighborhood.
Continuing on, the Washington Street stop is a convenient gateway to the Jackson Square National Historic District, four blocks west. Spared in the 1906 earthquake and fire and dating to 1852, it is the city’s oldest, intact, commercial district now abundant with antique dealers and art galleries.
Traveling along the Embarcadero, for decades San Francisco’s booming maritime center, the landmark Ferry Building dominates the scene with its clock tower modeled on Spain’s Seville Cathedral. While still the city’s transportation hub for ferries criss-crossing the bay, the building has been converted into one of the leading food marketplaces in the country. North of the Ferry Building, other historic piers now contain retail and restaurants; bordering them is a waterside promenade open to anyone who wants to stroll within sloshing distance of the bay.
The F-line now makes the turn to head up Market Street, stopping at the corner of Market and Drumm. Here the California Street cable car line terminal beckons, offering an uncrowded alternative to the popular Powell Street lines. No curves, but steeper hills, beautiful scenery and (usually) no waiting in line on a route that will take you atop Nob Hill with easy access to Chinatown along the way.
The next stop, Second and Montgomery, puts you in the middle of the Wall Street of the West. Two blocks farther on, the Fourth and Stockton stop is convenient to the Union Square area, generally considered the heart of the city’s upscale retail area. A walk south along Fourth takes you to Moscone Center, the city’s convention complex, and Yerba Buena Gardens, an oasis built atop the underground convention halls. Nearby is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the brand new Museum of the African Diasporo.
Disembark at Fifth Street to catch the tourist-packed Powell Street cable line – if you must – with its hilly, twisty run to Fisherman’s Wharf . Here, too, is San Francisco’s enormous Westfield shopping center, chock-a- block with trendy shops and the largest Bloomingdale’s west of New York City.
Hop off at Ninth and Larkin for a short stroll to the Asian Art Museum, housed in a stunning architectural refiguration of the city’s old main library. This stop, or the Van Ness stop coming up, is where to get off to pay a visit to San Francisco’s glorious City Hall or attend a performance at Davies Symphony Hall or the Opera House.
Market Street and a Straight-as-an-Arrow View of Where You’ve Been
The trolley travels now through a scruffy stretch. This is a good time to look back down Market Street for a straight-as-an-arrow view through the city to the Ferry Building. From the late 1950s until 2003, a double-decked freeway whipped across Market, effectively cutting off the landmark building and the Embarcadero from the rest of the city. Damaged in the 1989 earthquake, voters clinched the decision to tear it down opening the way to the renaissance of the waterfront.
The F line dips and climbs to the Dolores Street/Duboce Avenue stop. Walk three blocks south on palm-lined Dolores to visit the historic Mission Dolores founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1776.
Now you are traveling upper Market Street through an area that retains much of the ambiance of a village. Indeed, that is what it once was until connected by cable car service in 1883 to the city core two miles away.
Last stop, the Castro
Last stop, the three-way intersection of 17th, Castro and Market Streets in the heart of the Castro District. World-renowned as a symbol of gay freedom, this is also a vital neighborhood where people live, work, shop and dine.
There you have it – Fisherman’s Wharf to the Castro. Without taking a smidgen away from San Francisco’s deservedly famous cable cars, I give a round of applause to the F- line.
- Carry exact change for the $2 fare; pay when getting on the trolley. Don’t forget to ask for a transfer which allows you 90 minutes of sightseeing along the route without having to pay another $2.
- You can catch one of the vintage street cars anywhere along the route, but a good place to start is Fisherman’s Wharf.
- If you don’t like to stand in line but want to experience a cable car ride, take the California-Van Ness line, not the tourist-crowded Powell Street Fisherman’s Wharf line.
- For more information on the historic trolleys, visit SFMTA and Market Street Railway. Here is more information on San Francisco.