Experience some of the best funiculars in the world

by Jun 21, 2023Destinations

Heidelberg Historic Funicular Railway

Funiculars are cable incline railways, originally built to help people get up and down steep slopes. We’ll take you along as we ride some of the world’s best funiculars — one’s you will want to ride too.

Adorable, fascinating, and quaint, funiculars around the world are a travel attraction that shouldn’t be missed, even when the ride might last less than a minute.

A kind of a cross between a railroad and an elevator, the funicular works on a simple yet elegant design: A pulley system under tension moves people up and down very steep hills by using two cars and a long cable. A car is attached to each end of the cable. When one car is going up the mountain, the other is descending at the same time, with each car counterweighting the other.

A seemingly archaic concept, funiculars date to Roman times, according to some, while other historians date the first ones back to the 1500s. That crazy name? It stems from the diminutive of the Latin word for rope (“funis”), which seems appropriate since diminutives imply something cute. And if funiculars are anything, they are cute. And great fun to ride as they trundle up and down very steep hills, from urban centers in the United States to the Alps of Switzerland, where of course you will get great city or mountain vistas.

Dresden Suspension Funicular View

View down to the Elbe River from the Dresden Schwebebahn funicular, the only hanging funicular in the world.

If you love trains, then you will love funiculars, so do you research before you travel somewhere to find them. Sure, you can walk up or down the hill – and we have done that since watching them maneuver the incline up close is entertaining and photogenic – but you must also ride them in at least one direction.

This list of funiculars past and present is certainly not complete, but you can see how mountainous countries, like Austria or Switzerland, have a lot more funiculars due to the steep terrain needing to be surmounted.

Funiculars around the world to see

We have seen, traveled on, or photographed a number of funiculars on several continents. Honestly, the attraction never gets old. Just like historic trains or cog railways, there is simply something about a funicular that draws in kids, rail buffs, history fans, and just plain curious people and travelers seeking a fun local historic sight.

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The best funiculars — our favorites you’ll want to ride too:

United States

Angels Flight Funicular Los Angeles

Angels Flight in downtown Los Angeles is a quaint ride.

Los Angeles – The Angels Flight funicular has been climbing the hill above downtown Los Angeles since 1901. It’s gone through many owners and even relocated, but it still does what funiculars do best – crawl up steep hills. Angels Flight is not really an expensive tourist trap either since you can ride it for just a buck, plus it operates from early (to get people to work) to late. Although they call it the “shortest” funicular in the world, well, it isn’t really, although it is pretty short at just 315 feet up a 33-percent grade.

Where to find it: California Plaza, 350 South Grand Avenue with the Lower Station at 351 South Hill Street, across from Grand Central Market.

Shadowbrook Capitola Funicular

A slightly non-traditional funicular, Shadowbrook’s “Hillevator” is still adorable. Photo used by permission of the Shadowbrook.

Capitola Shadowbrook – The Shadowbrook restaurant in Capitola (near Santa Cruz) is itself a destination, situated on the cliff beside a river in a lush forest. Although you can walk down to the restaurant, the best way to get there is on its very own vintage Capitola Shadowbrook funicular! It was added to the restaurant 11 years after it opened in 1947, as an elevator-like way to get down to the restaurant 70 feet below – so they called it the “Hillevator.” When I was in college in San Francisco, this was THE fancy restaurant to splurge on – with this hybrid funicular with just one car adding to the fun. It’s of course free to ride as transportation to and from the restaurant.

Where to find it: 1750 Wharf Road, Capitola

Germany

Heidelberg Germany Funicular Cable Railway

The historic Heidelberg funicular helps you get to the famous castle and up the Königstuhl mountain for great hikes.

Heidelberg – This charming German city’s “Bergbahn” (mountain railway or funicular) is a fun and perhaps less intense way to get to the top of Heidelberg’s mountain called Königstuhl and to the famous Heidelberg Castle (Schloss). This incline mountain railway has crawled up and down the steep hill to Molkenkur since 1890, with the top Königstuhl station added in 1907. The Heidelberg funicular is pretty long at nearly a mile (1.5 km).

The funicular remains one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city with “tourist” pricing for the entire one-way journey of about $9.50 (9 Euro). Still, it’s a great way to get a bird’s-eye view. This mountain is a wonderful place for hikes and walks close to town so consider walking part way, too. Not that I ever rode it as an exchange student in Heidelberg but I have marveled at it — and ridden it — since those days.

Where to find it: The lower station is at the square called Kornmarkt in old town, with the first stop at the Heidelberg Castle, another midway at Molkenkur, with the upper station at the top of the Königstuhl mountain.

Dresden Suspension Funicular

The Dresden Schwebebahn funicular. See the unique hanging structure?

Dresden – Dresden in Saxony has two funiculars! The so-called Dresden Schwebebahn (Suspension Railway) is in fact the only funicular in the world that is, yes, suspended from its track! It started its historic run in 1901. Just around the corner is the Dresden Standseilbahn (incline railway or funicular), which has been operating since 1895.

Dresden Funicular Standseilbahn

The Dresden Standseilbahn funicular is more traditional but still gets you up and down a hill.

The suspension railway is nearly 900 feet long (274 meters) with a maximum grade of 40 percent, while the funicular with tracks on the ground is nearly 1,800 feet long (547 meters) with a maximum grade of 29 percent. Tickets at the time of this writing were $4.30 (4 Euro) each way. They are both located to the east of Old Town in the hilly (of course!) Loschwitz neighborhood on the Elbe River. Both have well-done history exhibits and are well-worth the experience. Perhaps we’re biased that riding the suspended funicular is extra special, since it’s the only one like it in the world.

Where to find them: The Suspension Railway lower station is at Pillnitzer Landstrasse 5, while the other cable railway funicular is just a block away at Körnerplatz 3.

France

The Funicular In Lyon City

Lyon – Many travelers consider Lyon a true foodie capital. And admittedly the traditional restaurants called “bouchon” are a delight. But if you are doing that much eating, you better do some walking, too, right? And the Fourvière Hill – the historic and hilly area where the city was founded by the Romans way back in 43 B.C. – is a great place to walk it all off — once you ride up (or maybe down?) on the quaint funiculars. Because the views are commanding, too.

Lyon used to have five funicular lines in its historic neighborhoods, but today only two exist. I trotted around and up and down the area on foot, watching the funiculars (“ficelles”) thread up and down the hill. Lots to see, from the grand cathedral to Roman ruins, an ancient Roman amphitheater, a historic cemetery and quaint streets and bistros. The lines have an incline of 30 percent. Although a tourist attraction, locals also use them for basic transportation, so tickets cost the same as regular buses and street cars.

Where to find them: Both start at the St. Jean station at the base of the Fourvière Hill. Beware of possible renovation closures.

Hungary

Budapest Castle Hill Funicular Chain Bridge

Budapest – I think you could spend weeks in this amazing Hungarian city and not see it all. For the record, it was two cities – Buda and Pest – which were merged into one in 1873, along with another called Obuda. The picturesque Chain Bridge links the two side of the river and their cities. We found the ride up the Budapest funicular or Siklo at night with a view of the cities, the historic bridge, and river particularly beautiful.

The line opened in 1870, was destroyed in WWII, but was rebuilt and finally reopened in 1986. Its incline hits a steep 48 percent and takes you on a 90-second journey up the hill covering 312 feet. Since it goes between sites frequented by tourists, the fare at the time of this writing was approximately $3.

Where to find it: At the base of the Chain Bridge in Clark Adam Square on the Buda side of the river.

Norway

Bergen Funicular Night

Bergen – In Bergen, Norway, you can hop on the Floibanen funicular to get up the hill called Mount Fløyen from behind the historic Bryggen area. Even in chillier November, when we were there a number of years ago, the ride up offered great Bergen city and fjord vistas and the opportunities for a hike on Fløyen were numerous and of all levels. Expect to pay about $15 for a roundtrip since it’s a tourist attraction, too. Or buy a one-way ticket and enjoy the 45-minute walk back down.

The trip is longer than many funiculars at 2,800 feet and has several stops along the way.

Where to find it: Vetrlidsallmenningen 23a, on an open square, about ¾ of a mile from the cruise terminal.

Chile

Santiago Chile Funicular San Cristobal Mountain

Santiago – Now a historical monument, Santiago’s funicular railway takes riders up to the summit of San Cristobal where both locals and tourists can hike, go to monuments, take in commanding city views, visit a zoo (the mid-way stop), hop on an aerial tramway at the top for more views, or just take a walk and eat ice cream. The metropolitan park in the middle of this sprawling city is impressive so don’t miss it, however you get to the summit. Buy tickets separately or as part of a package that includes the Santiago funicular, buses, and tramway.

This funicular opened in 1925 and covers nearly 1,600 feet. Although locals also ride it, they do so for adventure and entertainment, so tickets are close to $10 and not part of the metro system.

Where to find it: The lower station is at the end of the street called Pio Nono in the Bellavista neighborhood.

Ukraine

Kyiv Before The War Funicular

Kyiv’s beautiful funicular takes locals — or at last did before the war — up and down a hill into the central city from the Podil neighborhood.

Kyiv – With some sadness with an ongoing war and so much destruction in Ukraine, I recall fondly my visit there in January 2020. Walking along the Volodymyrskyi Descent high above the Dnipro River in Kyiv – as I did — you came across the top station of the Kyiv funicular incline railway. It links the trendy Podil district to the city center at the top of the hill – or it did. I am not sure if it’s running with the ongoing war. The route links you into the upper town area where you can walk to many sights and churches.

The quaint Kyiv funicular, used daily by commuters, was opened in 1905 and takes you on a ride of about 2 ½ minutes along 781 feet with an incline of 36 percent. All public transportation in Kyiv costs pennies and so does this funicular, being part of the metro system.

Where to find it: The upper station is at Mykhailivska Square, with the lower station at Poshtova Square next to the Poshtova metro station in Podil.

Looking to ride some funiculars with a superlative to their name? Put these on your travel list:

Shortest funicular – Many funiculars in different countries claim to be the shortest, but that title seems to land properly with the Fisherman’s Walk Cliff Lift in Bournemouth, England. While not as old as others (it dates back to just 1935), it is a mere 128 feet (39 meters).

Steepest funicular – Leave it to Switzerland to have the steepest funicular in the world – with the high mountain Alps, it does make sense. The Stoosbahn funicular in Switzerland has a maximum slope of 58 percent. It’s on my list!

Longest water-powered funicular – The longest funicular railway powered by water is also in England! That would be the Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway, built in 1888. It is also the steepest water-powered funicular, climbing up a 58-percent grade for 499 feet. It was completed in 1890.

Most unique: wastewater-powered funicular – This title also goes to Switzerland, which makes sense since this country leans toward sustainability. Opened in 1899, the Fribourg funicular, also known as the Neuveville-Saint-Pierre funicular, is the only funicular in the world powered by wastewater. Wastewater from the upper Saint Pierre neighborhood is poured into the cabin, which pushes it down the hill. Then upon arrival at Neuveville, below, the water is dumped into that neighborhood’s sewer system. Yes, really. This historical monument is also a commuter funicular.

Most funiculars in one city – Back to Chile we go for this one: The coastal city of Valparaiso still boasts 22 funiculars to help locals and tourists alike get around the hilly city, with the oldest dating back to 1883. Think that’s a lot? The city used to have 30 of these incline railways.

 

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