Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a train watcher and I’m not particularly interested in public transit systems, but for some reason I can’t walk past a funicular when I see one.
Maybe that’s the story behind them. Maybe it’s their weird mechanics – the counterweight cars at each end of the strong transport cable, rising and falling in synchrony – or the steep slopes and inclines. Or maybe it’s just curiosity to know where this cable car will take me. Anyway, wherever I see a funicular or similarly constructed transport, I’m on it.
Many cities in Europe have funiculars often leading up a hill to a castle or fortification, but you can find others around the world that take you up hills to spectacular views or allow you to connect to a other part of town and save your breath while you’re there. For example, the Funiculaire de Montmartre (or Funiculaire de Montmartre) in Paris, while it didn’t make the cut here, saved me countless steps up the hill to Sacré Coeur.
This collection of my favorite funiculars around the world includes all kinds of rides that I have enjoyed. Not all of them are funiculars in the strict sense of the definition. Still, each mentioned here is worth splurging on, whether it’s for the experience of driving that particular mode of transport or where you’ll be transported.
1. Hong Kong
The Peak Tram in Hong Kong is one of the most spectacular funiculars in the world. The funicular was built in 1888 to take Victoria Peak residents and Peak Hotel guests to the summit of 1,811-foot-tall Mount Austin, known locally as The Peak. The trip by funicular was a more practical method than the previous one: sedan chairs transported on foot.
The now bright red funicular tram, the fifth generation since its inauguration, offers ever-expanding views of Hong Kong Island and the lush greenery that many visitors are surprised to find at such close proximity to the skyscrapers. Passing residences, it finally reaches The Peak, a wooded oasis offering breathtaking views of Hong Kong’s skyline and waterways.
Pro Tip: While you’re up there, be sure to take the Peak Circle Walk, an easy 3.7-mile walk that’s not only great for its plants and wildlife, but also for its great glimpses of this city. surprising.
Budapest is a feast for the eyes of any architecture lover, and it’s no different for its funicular that takes tourist travelers up Buda Castle Hill. Dating from 1870, this funicular is the second oldest in Europe after that of Lyon and one of the most beautiful. The carriage has a three-tier layout, allowing a view of the Danube and its bridges on the other side as you ascend the 164-foot elevation.
Pro Tip: Not far from the upper station is the Labyrinth, a maze of underground tunnels carved into the hillside, where Count Dracula is believed to have once been imprisoned.
From one of the oldest and finest to the shortest in Europe – and the world – the Zagreb Funicular is just 216 feet long. The small funicular dates from the 1890s and was Zagreb’s first mode of public transport, taking a minute to reach the end of the line, but still saving a good number of steep steps. The cabins used to be divided into first class spaces at each end of the carriage and “others” between the two first class areas. Legend has it that the funicular regularly broke down and the “other” passengers had to push.
Pro Tip: On your return from the upper town, pass the daily Dolac market, full of fresh, local produce.
Not the oldest, nor the prettiest, but probably the busiest European funicular is the Funicolare Centrale in Naples. Not one, but four lines carry around 10 million passengers over the steep hills of Naples, with each train carrying up to 450 passengers. Taking 5 minutes to reach their elevated destinations, this is an efficient public transport service much used by locals and visitors alike. Just taking the funicular up to Castel Sant’Elmo saves you hundreds of steep and elongated, albeit very historic, steps from the 16th century. You can always walk down them, which gives better views anyway.
Pro tip: In the nearby castle grounds is the Museo del ‘900, an art museum that focuses on art made by locals in the 1900s.
Not only does Lisbon offer a myriad of lifts, including the elegant Santa Justa Lift, for reaching the higher parts of the city, it also has three funiculars: Lavra, Bica and Gloria. The most famous is Gloria, no doubt partly because of its pretty name, but also because of its destination, Restauradores Square, which is the place to come in the early evening to watch the night fall over Lisbon and s Sit down for a drink or two in one of the many bars and cafes in the square.
Gloria and the other two date back to the late 1800s and have since saved many leg cramps from locals and visitors trying to navigate the steep hills of Lisbon.
Pro tip: Along Gloria’s steep ascent path is a street art haven with graffiti and other artwork displayed on the walls and side streets.
Connecting the lower port of Valparaiso to the upper residential city and vibrantly decorated, more than 20 funiculars were built along the hill between the late 1800s and early 1900s. And, as locals call them elevators, they are really authentic funiculars, despite their names. I’ve tried a few, finding myself in funicular heaven, and they range from quiet to spooky, but all of them give you that thrill of going up or down a steep hill in a fabulous mechanical contraption.
Pro Tip: Don’t skip all the stairs, as some have been turned into true street art like Beethoven’s 302 Piano Staircase.
7. Blue Mountains National Park
New South Wales, Australia
An hour from Sydney is the Blue Mountains National Park, boasting stunning rock formations, such as the Three Sisters at Katoomba. Many hikes take you up the steep sides of the mountains into the valley below, but they can be strenuous, long and best taken with a guide. Why not take the steepest funicular in the world instead? Traveling at an incline of up to 52 degrees, the carriages take you from the top into a lush valley filled with Australia’s magnificent flora and fauna, then back up again. Plus, the seats are adjustable as the driving angle can be somewhat thrilling, if not downright scary.
Pro tip: When you buy your ticket, book the whole experience and include the Scenic Skyway, a cable car, for more thrilling views.
Not exactly a funicular, but unique for sure, is the Wuppertaler Schwebebahn, a public transport tram suspended from the top. Dating back to 1901, it is one of the oldest suspension railways in the world and has been updated several times since. It still carries some 25 million passengers a year. Wuppertal isn’t necessarily one of Germany’s top tourist destinations, but it does have some good museums and a sculpture park. And if you came for a ride on this suspension train, you’ll also want to check out the Mungsten Bridge, which is Germany’s highest railway bridge.
Pro Tip: Google the stunning image of Tuffi the elephant who fell from one of the hanging carts in the 1950s into the river below, suffering only minor injuries.
9.Rio de Janeiro
Top of the list of things to do in Rio is climbing some of its spectacular mountains. You ascend Corcovado Mountain with the Corcovado Train, which looks like a funicular, but continue the next segment of the journey to the Statue of Christ the Redeemer by escalator. It remains one of my all-time favorite travel memories: riding the escalator through thick clouds, with the statue slowly emerging from the mist. Pure magic and in my opinion definitely worth including in this selection of funiculars and such.
Pro tip: Pre-book your ticket and get there as early as possible, trying to find a slot on the first train of the day. Not only are there fewer people, but you might be lucky enough to be there when the morning mist slowly disperses and the statue, along with Rio, emerges before you.
10. Cape Town
Table Mountain is one of the best experiences in Cape Town, and while you can hike, there’s an easy cable car to reach the top in style. No, not a funicular. However, it would be a shame not to include this mode of transport to get to the top of the mountain. The Table Mountain Cable Car deserves a mention not only because of the views of Cape Town and surrounding areas along the route, but also because each gondola rotates 360 degrees while ascending and descending, so each passenger has the ability to watch no matter where you are standing.
Pro Tip: On Table Mountain, you can find some 8,200 species of plants and many interesting wildlife, from lizards to adorable dassies. Bring plenty of time with you and good hiking shoes, as there are a variety of trails of varying difficulty to stroll, walk, or hike.
There are still a few junkies from the heyday of cable cars in the United States, but not many. In Pittsburgh, you can find two. The Duquesne and Monongahela slopes in Pittsburgh both ascend from the river to Mount Washington, with the Monongahela slope being the oldest continuously operating cable car in the United States, dating back to 1870.
Pro Tip: The Duquesne slope featured in the 1983 film lightning dance.
Hidden on the mountainside near Istanbul’s Galata Tower is Tünel, a historic funicular railway linking the two popular districts of Karaköy and Beyoglu. It’s easy to forget, as it’s a tunnel, as the name suggests, but the little funicular is very scenic. It has a pass area for the up car and the down car, and it also saves you a lot of puffs when trying to reach the top of the hill.