Visitors might not know there are actually three cable lines, each with its own flavor. The scenic Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines begin at Powell and Market. The third line, which is the least crowded and least known to tourists, runs along hilly California Street and also offers lovely views.
Here are some tips on riding the cable cars and what to look for.
AVOIDING THE CROWDS: The three lines intersect at California and Powell. If you board at Powell and Market, be prepared to wait 45 minutes to an hour. Visitors like the spot because of the turnaround, and because it's fun to hang off a pole on the cars' crowded open platforms.
To avoid the crowds, buy your ticket at the Powell-Market booth, then walk a few blocks up Powell Street to the next stop, where the wait will likely be shorter.
CALIFORNIA LINE: Running 1.2 miles along California Street, from Drumm Street to Van Ness Avenue, the California line runs through the financial district, then to the exclusive Nob Hill neighborhood.
Before boarding, hit the Ferry Building in The Embarcadero on Market Street. Rush-hour ferries serve commuters from Marin County and the East Bay. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, locals shop for produce at the Embarcadero Farmer's Market. At the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant's tasting room, you can taste wines from around the world, and at the Hog Island Oyster Co., you can sample oysters harvested daily from nearby Tomales Bay.
The California line is known for its steep grade. Looking up from Drumm, you can see the Powell cable line crossing California at the top of Nob Hill, with cars and passengers silhouetted against the sky. As you near the top of the hill, look back and see the architecture of downtown San Francisco, with the Pacific and Bay Bridge as a backdrop.
If you get off at California and Grant, you're just a few blocks from Portsmouth Square in the heart of Chinatown. Continuing along the California line, you'll see Grace Cathedral and the city's most posh hotels, including the Ritz-Carlton at Stockton, and the Fairmont and Mark Hopkins hotels across the street from one another at Mason. The Mark Hopkins is known for its sky bar, Top of the Mark, on the 19th floor. Here you'll see sweeping 360-degree views of San Francisco and the bay.
POWELL-MASON LINE: This line passes many city landmarks. Union Square, known for its shopping, is a block from the start. A series of scenic uphill climbs leads to the intersection at California Street, where you can catch any of the three lines.
The Powell-Mason cars then make a left at Powell and Jackson, and a right onto Mason straight down to Fisherman's Wharf.
From the intersections of Mason-Jackson to Mason-Union, you get an architectural tour of San Francisco's classic row houses. At Mason and Columbus Avenue, you're in the heart of North Beach, a historically Italian neighborhood. Nearby, Washington Square Park on Columbus and Union is one of the best people-watching spots in the city.
The Powell-Mason Line veers left at Columbus, and right at Taylor to end at Bay Street, Fisherman's Wharf.
POWELL-HYDE LINE: The Powell-Hyde line offers sweeping vistas of the ocean along Hyde Street. The route starts off identical to the Powell-Mason line, from Market to Jackson streets. At Jackson, they split, with the Powell-Hyde line heading north, then right at Hyde toward Fisherman's Wharf.
Hyde and Union is the best spot to get a feel for Russian Hill. Row houses and Victorians mix with restaurants, coffee shops, ice cream parlors and corner markets. Interesting eateries include Okoze Sushi, 1207 Union; Zarzuela, 2000 Hyde St. (tapas); Swensen's Ice Cream Parlor, at Hyde and Union (40-50 different flavors); Searchlight Market at Hyde and Union (fresh produce and sourdough bread); Frascati, 1901 Hyde St. (Mediterranean bistro).
Also near Hyde and Union is Russian Hill Dog Grooming, where you can see stylists working on high-end poodle haircuts.
As the Powell-Hyde line heads down to the water, stop at Hyde and Lombard for views of the water, Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill and the Bay Bridge in the distance. A block down is Lombard Street, known as the "world's crookedest street." At the end of the line, you'll find Fisherman's Wharf; views of Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge; and the Buena Vista Cafe at Hyde and Beach streets, where you can get a great breakfast of hash browns, corned beef and an omelet. Buena Vista's bartenders make 2,000 Irish coffees a day.
TIPS AND TICKETS: Follow the rails on the street to keep track of where the lines twist and turn. To identify the line, look for the name printed on the car exterior. The Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines are least crowded before 10 a.m.; either can be taken downtown from Fisherman's Wharf.
Locals suggest you ride hanging from the right side when leaving from downtown, and hanging from the left side when leaving from the wharf for the best ocean views. Coming back from the water, both lines pass by the Cable Car Museum (1201 Mason St.), where you can learn about the history of the cable cars and see the underground pulleys that operate them.
Fares are $5 each way. Muni Passports, good for unlimited rides on cable cars, buses and light rail (but not on BART), are $11 for one day; $18 for three days; $24 for seven days. Details at www.sfmta.com/passport.