Like London's double-decker buses, riding in one of San Francisco's iconic cable cars is one of those must-do experiences when you're in town. Riding up those steep inclines (so much kinder on your calves!) and hopping on an original single-ended or double-ended car is the best and most authentic way to explore the city sights and absorb some of its history.
Now the world's last manually operated cable car system, only three lines now remain: Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason and California with 40 cars in service. If you are intrigued, as most people are, about how these cable cars tackle the steep gradients of San Francisco's streets, the free Cable Car Museum reveals the inner workings of this iconic mode of transport which was invented in 1873. Housed in the historic Washington/ Mason cable car barn and powerhouse in the Nob Hill district, the museum contains three antique cable cars from the 1870s as well as displays of mechanical devices such as grips, track, cable, brakes, tools and historic photographs.
The museum deck overlooks the whirring of the still-functioning huge engines and massive cable wheels of the powerhouse. Downstairs, you can also view the large sheaves and cable line that enter the barn from a channel underneath the street. There's a vintage car to check out and a cable car bell you can ring. Every July, a Bell Ringing Competition is held in Union Square between cable car crews to determine San Francisco's best cable car bell ringer – a contest enjoyed by both locals and visitors alike. If you're keen, you can also nab your own authentic cable car bell among other memorabilia in the museum store.
To best way to visit the Cable Car Museum is by cable car, of course. Both the Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines stop at the museum.