Not just a tourist attraction: Riding San Francisco's vintage street cars

It's a funny thing when you start to call a city home; those things that make that city iconic are invariably the same things one tends to ignore while living there.

Having now lived in San Francisco for more than six months, I've watched the antique street cars rattle past almost daily, but I've never jumped aboard.

Today though, that's about to change.

Standing on the corner of Market and Church streets – a cross-section on the fringes of the Castro District close to where Harvey Milk made history campaigning for gay rights – I await my chariot, coffee in hand.

Street cars have been a part of the fabric of San Francisco since 1886 when they were introduced as a faster alternative to horse and carts and cable cars. A major turning point came in the early 1980s when a new subway under Market Street was proposed, introducing modern light rail vehicles that would also cover many of the city's main arteries above ground.

It seemed the traditional street car era was doomed until a group of civic activists organised a demonstration project known as the San Francisco Historic Trolley Festival that went a long way towards convincing those at City Hall to retain the historic cars for regular service throughout the year.

As the tram rumbles towards my stop, it's easy to appreciate its art deco splendour.

Painted smoky grey, car number 1070 hails from Newark, New Jersey, a fact illustrated by a small placard on its exterior designed to inform passengers of its place of origin.

Although it escapes many visitors' attention, many of these old street cars were brought in from other parts of the world once the decision was made to hang on to the tradition. Consequently, you're just as likely to find yourself riding a tram built in Blackpool, Milan or even Melbourne as you are from San Francisco.

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Inside, I'm immediately struck by its pristine condition. Everything, from the lighting fixtures to the chrome window handles and the plush, black leather seat cushions looks clean and well maintained, something often at odds with the word "vintage". Clearly the city is invested in maintaining its transport golden goose. Heading further along Market Street, the car fills up fast. The passengers are a mixed bag, though you might expect the majority to be fanny-pack-sporting tourists, many appear to be native San Franciscans. Aesthetics aside, these cars still serve a practical purpose with two routes, the F line and E line spanning the downtown and waterfront areas, though Muni as a whole entity serves a much broader area.

At the Embarcadero, opposite the ferry building, I hop off outside the SF Railway Museum.

Inside, it's surprisingly compact, just one simple room, but it's also slick, modern and well curated with photos and exhibits offering a thorough lowdown on the city's rail history.

While studying them, I strike up a chat with Frank O'Connell, a docent of the museum who grew up riding street cars to school and – in spite of his modest claims to the contrary – an authority on the subject.

"They offer people a deep sense of connection with the past," he says when I ask why vintage street cars still hold such appeal.

"They've helped keep San Francisco's history and culture intact as a living, breathing element, not just as something that's put on the shelf and brought out only at a certain time of year. People find it a lot easier to engage and interact with history when it's a real artefact."

Having soaked up this backstory, I head across the street to the ferry building, another beloved San Francisco institution that's now home to dozens of different food vendors, wine merchants, and restaurants.

Never one to squander an opportunity, I pass a blissful hour eating fresh oysters, drinking wine and watching the tankers and ferries drift back and forth beneath the Bay Bridge.

When it's time to leave, almost on reflex, I pull out my phone to book a car pool home.

Then I hear the shrill bell of vintage street car from across the promenade.

There's no doubt an Uber would be faster, less crowded and deliver me to the front door.

It's a no-brainer.

Slipping my phone back in my pocket, I cross the street and head straight to the nearest street car stop.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/san-francisco

www.sftravel.com

FLY

Qantas flies direct from Sydney to San Francisco up to six times a week. See www.qantas.com

TOUR

San Francisco Railway Museum is at 77 Steuart Street, near the ferry building at the south end of Ferry Plaza. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm. Admission is free. See www.streetcar.org

Ride the vintage trams on the F-Market and Wharves Line. See www.transit.511.org 

Consider a Muni passport for better value if riding street cars and cable cars. A one day pass starts at $US21. See www.sfmta.com

STAY

Scarlet Huntington blends Singapore Straits Chinese heritage with modern luxury at a prime location on Nob Hill with rooms from about $US429 a night. See thescarlethotels.com/huntington-hotel-san-francisco/

Guy Wilkinson travelled at his own expense.

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