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Can we all agree that riding a funicular is a lot more fun than climbing a steep hill? Incline railways let you ascend to the top without breaking a sweat and can give you a new appreciation for ingenious engineering.
Average steel-wheeled trains aren’t able to climb steep hills on steel tracks without slipping backwards. Funiculars also run on tracks but share a single cable with a twin car on the opposite end of the run. One car moves uphill while the other descends. A motor at the top drives the cable and a simple pulley at the bottom completes the loop. The weight of the climbing car serves as a passive brake for the one descending and keeps it from accelerating. At the same time, the gravity of the descending car assists the uphill motion of its mate. Each car balances the other. Funiculars have been around since the late 15th century, but if you haven’t already taken a ride in one, make sure these six railways are at the top of your list!
Los Angeles, United States
This striking, orange-and-black funicular was originally built in 1901 on a hill half a block south of its current location. Bunker Hill, which rises steeply in downtown Los Angeles, was a residential neighborhood until 1969, when it was razed for a development and the original funicular closed. The development project for the area was controversial at first but has ultimately transformed it into a popular destination. Angels Flight, which reopened in 1996, connects the Broad Museum near its top to the Grand Central Market at its base.
Valparaiso, Chile’s busiest port city, offers visitors great food, vibrant graffiti, and ridiculously steep hills. Where 30 trams once climbed the city’s vertiginous heights, only 16 funiculars remain. But now that UNESCO has combined them into one recognized World Heritage Site, it looks like the roughly 135-year-old system will keep chugging for a while.
The government began erecting the funiculars, which were called ascensors, in 1883 to modernize the city, but these practical additions to the urban landscape also serve as some of the most spectacular ways to sightsee. Ascensor Artillería, the most popular of the extant railways, was built to ferry the students and staff of the Naval Academy between the waterfront school and the city center. The steep route proved so busy that a second, separate funicular was built to run alongside Artillería, but only one is still in operation today.
Elevador da Glória
When a city’s nickname refers to altitude, you can expect lots of winding streets, staircases where streets should be, and if you’re lucky, funiculars. Lisbon, the City of Seven Hills, has three funiculars (Bica, Labra, and Glória) and an ornate street elevator called the Santa Justa Lift.
(To confuse things a bit, the funiculars are called elevadors, as is the actual elevator. You’ll know the difference when you see them though — the funiculars are cars set on tracks along steep streets, while the elevator is a tower with one car that carries passengers between an upper and lower platform.)
All of the elevadors (including the actual elevator) were designed by a Portuguese disciple of Gustave Eiffel, Raoul Mesnier de Ponsard. Elevador da Glória, yellow and designed with an uphill slant, carries pedestrians from the elegant Restauradores square up to the thrumming Bairro Alto neighborhood. Near the terminal at the top of the funicular, the Miradouro de San Pedro de Alcántara is a recommended stop. The lovely park has an overlook offering a sweeping panorama of the seven hills, the giddy blend of architecture (the city’s buildings run the gamut from a medieval castle to the space-age, Santiago Calatrava-designed train station), and the blue River Tagus.
Hong Kong tightly packs in 260,000 people per square mile, so it’s hard to imagine there’s room for nature. However, Victoria Peak provides a generous green getaway for city dwellers. The hill, which rises on the western side of Hong Kong Island, offers visitors and residents beautiful views of the city, the harbor, and the surrounding islands, as well as an ever-needed breeze in this subtropical climate. The challenge of getting up the 1,811-foot hill was solved in 1888 with the introduction of the Peak Tram, which blessedly replaced the human-powered sedan chairs that had previously taken people up Victoria Peak.
Two red Swiss-built cars run opposite routes along the single track (there’s a passing loop in the track where they can pass one another) on the .85-mile route. In addition to the six stations along the way, there are four whistle stops where the funicular will stop on request. Peak-bound riders thrill to an illusion created by the steep angle of the climb. At several points in the five-minute journey, it looks like the towers below are tilting.
Monongahela and Duquesne Inclines
Pittsburgh, United States
The city might be known to many for its three rivers, but transportation fans come to Pittsburgh for its two funiculars, or inclines, the Duquesne and the Monongahela. When Pittsburgh’s population boomed in the 1800s, residents were squeezed out of the limited land along the rivers’ edges and began to move up the hills. Although earlier inclined railroads carried coal and cargo, the first passenger funicular opened in 1864, leading the way for an additional 21 inclines in the city. Their numbers dwindled to two by 1964, however, due to the post-war mania for automobiles.
Both of the surviving inclines climb up the steep hills from the river level to the Mount Washington neighborhood, which means you can take one incline to the top and then walk a mile to ride the other back down to the city — all the while comparing views on each. The red cars of the Duquesne Incline climb 400 feet in altitude over the 800-foot run. The Mon Incline, as it's called, has cheerful yellow cars that rise 370 feet up its 635-foot run. Snag a seat on the city-facing side, enjoy the ride, and see how many of Pittsburgh’s 446 bridges you can count on the skyline.
While the other funicular systems included here have been in service for more than 100 years, Switzerland’s Stoosbahn took its first run in 2017, from the town of Schwyz up to the car-free mountaintop village of Stoos. You’d never mistake it for one of its older relatives, as its cars are barrel-shaped and the floors inside them gracefully tilt to remain horizontal during the whole ride up, rather than having seats placed on a grade that matches the slope of the tracks. This remarkable engineering tweak makes the four-minute journey up the Alps more comfortable for its passengers — even those in wheelchairs or with limited mobility. It’s also ideal for those lugging heavy ski equipment — the target audience for the Stoosbahn. The track climbs 328 feet in elevation over .8 miles and at one point includes a 110% grade, making it the steepest funicular in the world.