These Are the World's Coolest Tram Rides
Among summer’s classic thrills, there’s nothing quite like a top-down, wind-in-your-hair, mountainside cruise in a convertible—unless you’re actually hundreds of feet above the trees.
Meet the Stanserhorn CabriO, the world’s first convertible tram, now gliding over the Lake Lucerne region of Switzerland. Its roofless upper deck is quite possibly the most exciting thing to happen to tram lovers for decades. Acrophobes need not apply.
By tram, we mean cable-suspended cabins that soar through the air (as opposed to the colloquial European term for light-rail and streetcars). Call it a cable car, call it a gondola, call it a ropeway, aerial tramway, or teleférico—we just call it awesome.
Unsurprisingly, some of the world’s coolest trams are tailor-made for sightseeing and stoke every passenger’s sense of adventure. Cape Town’s Table Mountain Aerial Tramway rotates during its flight. In Hong Kong, the Ngong Ping 360 offers glass-floored VIP cabins for the brave. And in Israel’s Western Galilee, the Rosh HaNikra Cable Car heralds its descent as the world’s steepest, a dizzying drop to a station built right into Mediterranean wave-battered cliffs (you’d be excused for thinking you’re about to splash into the sea).
But even trams intended primarily for commuters can be exhilarating. The Roosevelt Island Tram remains a novelty even to many MetroCard-toting New Yorkers, delivering romantic views of Manhattan on its three-minute journey across the East River.
It’s one of only two trams used for urban mass transit in the U.S. However, according to Nicholas Chu, director of research at the Gondola Project (a think tank for cable-propelled transit systems), there are 20 to 50 “urban transport cable cars” in various stages of planning and development worldwide—particularly in South America.
In Rio de Janeiro—already home to the iconic Sugarloaf gondolas—tourists make up approximately 65 percent of weekend ridership on the Complexo do Alemão Teleférico, a six-station, two-mile route built to service 13 favelas in the Zona Norte.
“Trams often give you a perspective of the world unlike any other,” says Chu. On your next trip, why not broaden your horizons with a ride on one of these trams, from the mountains of Japan to the seaside splendor of Croatia.
Dubrovnik Cable Car, Croatia
If a fiery sunset over the Adriatic sounds mesmerizing, imagine the added drama of viewing it 1,329 feet up Srđ Hill, with the outline of Dubrovnik’s orange-roofed walled Old Town twinkling below. Bombed out during the 1991 Balkan conflicts, the original 1969 cable car was reopened in 2010 (you can visit the Homeland War Museum next to the upper platform). Its four-minute run remains one of the best ways to take in the Dalmatian coast whatever the time of day: ancient towns, rugged, vertiginous coast, snaking roads, greenery-topped rocky islands looking like jade jewels in a sapphire-blue sea. Buy a one-way ticket up, and it’s an equally scenic 30-minute walk back down. dubrovnikcablecar.com
Stanserhorn CabriO, Stans, Switzerland
If you’re the least bit afraid of heights, you may want to skip the world’s first double-decker, open-top tram. Everyone else, step right up to experience this engineering marvel, opened in June 2012. The Swiss-engineered CabriO (as in “cabriolet” convertible) zips 3,737 feet to the top of the Stanserhorn. A side-mounted funifor configuration means there are no overhead cables detracting from the wind-in-your-hair thrills or 360-degree views of Lake Lucerne and the Bernese Alps. A spiral staircase connects the wall-to-wall windowed interior cabin and the open sun deck, each level holding 30 people for the six-and-a-half-minute trip. Fun irony: to reach the base station of one of the world’s most advanced trams, you have to ride Stanserhornbahn, one of the oldest functioning funiculars, in all its wood-and-wrought-iron glory. stanserhorn.ch
Langkawi SkyCab, Malaysia
To set foot on one of the world’s most spectacular pedestrian bridges—and take in 360-degree views of the Andaman Sea and dreamlike Langkawi islands off Malaysia’s west coast—there’s only one way to get there, and that’s up. Hop aboard the Langkawi SkyCab for a harrowing 15-minute journey that whisks you from the Oriental Village mall 2,000 feet up and over tropical jungle and low-lying clouds to a tented station at the top of the island’s second-highest peak, Mount Mat Cincang. If that ride isn’t enough adventure, nature lovers can stop off at the midway station for a mini jungle trek along the park’s Skytrail (guides available).
Roosevelt Island Tram, New York City
A classic Gotham experience that remains a novelty even to locals, the Roosevelt Island Tram serves up romantic views of Manhattan as it hugs the Queensboro Bridge on its 230-foot-high sweep across the East River. Created as a stopgap measure in 1976 when the F-train subway was decades delayed, the tram was modernized in 2010. It now serves more than 2 million tourists and commuters a year. (Aside from Oregon’s Portland Aerial Tram, it’s America’s only aerial tramway used for urban mass transit.) Swipe your MetroCard then keep your camera at the ready: the trip lasts just three minutes. rioc.ny.gov
Sandia Peak Tramway, Albuquerque
Ladies and gentlemen, thrill-seekers and shutterbugs, mountain bikers and skiers, step aboard the 2.7-mile-long Sandia Peak Tramway, opened in 1966 and still North America’s longest cableway. When steep, rocky terrain causes a Swiss engineering firm to declare a passenger tramway the most challenging they’ve ever constructed—since 1888—you can be sure it’s worth buying a ticket for. The trip from the suburbs of northeast Albuquerque to the high desert peaks of the Sandia Mountains takes about 15 minutes with an elevation change of 4,000 feet—and a temperature drop of 30 degrees. Each tramcar can hold up to 50 passengers and makes about 10,500 trips a year (check out this video for a preview). sandiapeak.com
Gibraltar Cable Car
Visiting Gibraltar, the tiny British Overseas Territory on the southern tip of Spain, and not summiting its eponymous rock—one of the two Pillars of Hercules—is like going to the Grand Canyon and not looking over the rim. And since 1966, the way to do it is via these boxy white Von Roll–manufactured Swiss cable cars, refurbished in 1986. Included with your ticket for the .41-mile, six-minute trip is a free audio guide that delves into the history of the area and supplements the sweeping views out over the strait, Costa del Sol, and Northern Africa. Once at Top Station (1,352 feet above sea level), snag a photo with—but don’t lose your camera to—the wily (and thieving) Barbary apes that roam freely around the mountain. gibraltarinfo.gi
Emirates Air Line, London
The Emirates Air Line’s post-Olympics use as public transport is up for debate—it’s listed on the Tube map and takes pay-as-you-go Oyster cards, but it doesn’t really take you anywhere, uh, useful (unless you’re going from a trade show at the ExCeL center to a concert at the O2 Arena). But as a lark, there’s no better way to cross the Thames. Named for the Dubai-based airline underwriter, the half-mile-plus gondola cableway connects the Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks in a super-smooth five-minute ride, offering glorious East London and Greenwich views 293 feet in the air. A round trip may be enough up-high thrills to skip the queues and cost of a London Eye or Shard lookout. emiratesairline.co.uk
Telluride Gondola, Colorado
One of America’s best ski towns offers one very cool public transport option: a 13-minute scenic tram ride between Telluride and Mountain Village, all for free—and that’s been the price since it opened in 1996. Hop aboard in either town and kick back while the alpine splendor drifts by at a leisurely 11 mph on your way to the Station San Sophia midway point (elev. 10,500 feet). In winter, grab a free blanket and bring gear for ski trails; in warmer months, get off at San Sophia to hike or bike and keep a lookout for elk, coyote, and bears ranging below. Fall offers especially spectacular leaf-peeping from the eight-person glass bubbles. visittelluride.com
Grenoble-Bastille Cable Car, France
Leave it to the French to transform the typical boxy gondola car into something avant-garde: the Grenoble-Bastille Téléphérique “bubbles,” as the mod six-person plexiglass and steel cabins are affectionately known. Granted, they did have funky parents. When the cable car opened as the world’s first urban route in 1934, 12-sided cabins painted a cool blue were used. Rectangular cabins took over from 1951 to 1976 and were immortalized in many images of the city’s 1968 Winter Olympics. Over the years, more than 14 million passengers have made the four-minute journey from the banks of the Isère River up 853 feet to the ancient Bastille fortifications. On a clear day, the sweeping panoramas of the Alps include iconic Mont Blanc. bastille-grenoble.fr
Skyline Gondola, Queenstown, New Zealand
Think aerial trams are all about passively taking in the views? Queenstown’s Skyline Gondola would like an adrenaline-fueled word with you. To be sure, the views are spectacular—a 220-degree sweep of the aptly named Remarkables Range dipping into crooked alpine Lake Wakatipu, with Queenstown’s rugged town center looking like a little Lego village below. But it’s what you can do with that extra 1,476 feet of altitude that gets a Kiwi’s pulse racing: paragliding, luge racing, and, of course, bungee jumping (invented on the nearby Kawarau Bridge in 1988). At night, stick around the upper Skyline complex for live Kiwi Haka Maori shows and stargazing. skyline.co.nz
Rosh HaNikra Cable Car, Western Galilee, Israel
Kudos to the architects of the Rosh HaNikra Cable Car on the border of Lebanon for knowing when to let Mother Nature have her way. The terminus is built into wave-battered white cliffs directly next to the churning Mediterranean, making for a dizzying descent that feels as if you’re going to splash into the sea. It helps that the skinny red and yellow trams ride the 210 feet over a 60 percent gradient, making this tram the world’s steepest. Once at the bottom, passengers can explore spectacular turquoise-bathed sea caves (Rosh HaNikra means “head of the grottoes”) hewn out of the soft chalk rock, previously accessible only to experienced sea divers. goisrael.com
Hakone Ropeway, Japan
Steaming lunar landscapes, forested mountains ablaze in autumn’s yellows and reds, snowcapped Mount Fuji looking like a ukiyo-e print—these views beckon from 85 minutes outside of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station. No wonder the 55-year-old Hakone Ropeway sees upward of 2 million passengers a year, the Guinness record holder for World’s Busiest Gondola. The 2.5-mile, 30-minute journey leaves from Togendai Station on the shores of crystal-blue Lake Ashi and makes two stops on its way to Sounzan Station in Hakone, an area famed for its onsen (hot spring baths). Explore Owakudani (elev. 3,425 feet) and try to spy the Tokyo Skytree in the distance. Since it smells like eggs, eat one that’s been hard-boiled—and turned jet black—in the mountain’s sulfur-rich water. Local lore says it’ll add seven years to your life. hakoneropeway.co.jp
Table Mountain Aerial Cableway, Cape Town
The circular Rotair cabin slowly rotates a full 360 degrees during the four-to-five-minute ascent to this 2,310-foot-high World Heritage site. (Only two other systems in the world—one in Palm Springs, CA, and the other in central Switzerland—rotate like so.) It was one of Cape Town’s first tourist attractions, unveiled in October 1929, and has been enjoyed since by more than 20 million people, from King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II to modern queen of all media, Oprah Winfrey. Alight for short hikes or a bold rappel down, or simply snap scenes far below. Look out for Signal Hill, the FIFA World Cup stadium, notorious Robben Island in Table Bay, and the easterly Winelands. tablemountain.net
Sugarloaf Cable Cars, Rio de Janeiro
Only the Sugarloaf bondinhos offer breathtaking visions of the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema and the Corcovado Christ statue—plus Guanabara Bay and sister city Niterói. Rio’s most famous sites are on prime display during the cable car’s two-stage journey via Morro da Urca to the 1,300-foot top of Pão de Açúcar. This bucket-list experience even got a Google Doodle on its 100th anniversary in October 2012. For a less touristy ride, seek out the Complexo do Alemão Teleférico in Zona Norte, which opened in 2011 to service six stations along a two-mile route over 13 sprawling favelas. It’s safe and costs only $2. Amid controversy, a second tram is slated for Morro da Providência, Rio’s oldest favela. bondinho.com.br
Ngong Ping 360, Hong Kong
Hong Kong’s cableway isn’t for the faint of heart. To start, the 3.5-mile long bi-cable gondola makes a hard turn on Airport Island before gliding for what seems like forever (almost a mile) over the shimmering Tung Chung Bay and upward into the lush mountains of Lantau Island. The one-way trip takes about 25 minutes, offering bird’s-eye views of the South China Sea and national park. True thrill-seekers will want to splurge on the glass-floored Crystal Cabins. Once safely in touristy Ngong Ping Village, count your blessings at the Po Lin Monastery and giant Tian Tan Buddha statue, then see how your ride measures up at a museum of cable car replicas from around the world. np360.com.hk
Port Vell Aerial Tramway, Barcelona
Barcelona’s Telefèric del Port hasn’t had an easy run of it: planned for the 1929 Expo (World Fair), it was plagued with construction delays and didn’t see its debut till 1931. Rusted disuse and near destruction followed during the Spanish Civil War, in which its two swaggering towers became machine gun outposts (at 351 feet, midway point Torre Jaume I is the second-highest aerial lift pylon in the world). It wasn’t until 1997 that it was revived as a tourist attraction. After ascending an elevator 260 feet up—funnily, the Torre de Sant Sebastià station isn’t at ground level—passengers can take a creaky flight for 10 minutes in vintage red cabins above the beaches of Barceloneta across Port Vell (the old harbor) and up to Montjuïc hill. As a separate ticket, the circa ’70s Montjuïc Cable Car connects the hill’s funicular to the castle with even more splendid city views. telefericodebarcelona.com