Riding one of the iconic cable cars is a popular thing to do in San Francisco—but getting to explore them up close takes the experience to a whole other level. This free museum is a thrill for kids, as well as for grownups who have wondered how the historic cable car system really works.
Located in Nob Hill, the museum houses three cable cars from the 1870s, including the last remaining car from the Clay Street Hill Railroad. But it’s not just a look at the cable cars’ past. The museum is part of the Washington-Mason powerhouse and carbarn, which includes the giant mechanisms that power the current system’s cables.
Gearheads will love looking at the displayed tools, grips, track, cable, brakes, and more, as well as the displays detailing the history of the cable car. It’s no wonder, for starters, that cable cars first appeared in hilly San Francisco: their inventor came up with the idea for the steam-powered system after watching carriage horses struggle on a steep street. Check out the gift shop for an authentic cable-car bell, or visit in July for the annual Bell-Ringing Contest, first held in 1949, that now takes place at Union Square.
Another great stop: The SF Railway Museum (also free), across from the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero, which looks at the impact of both cable cars and traditional streetcars. You can even feel like a conductor and take the wheel of a full-size replica of a 1911 San Francisco streetcar.