I have encountered many visitors to SF who have gone to Fisherman’s Wharf at noon on a Sat, on a holiday weekend and have complained that “the city” is disappointing. One, Fisherman’s Wharf is only part of the city and doesn’t tell its whole story and two, if you are going at peak hours, it will be disappointing. If all you see are bodies and t-shirt vendors, it’s pretty bleak.
If I could go back in time, I would give them the following itinerary to see the wharf area because I think it’s a worth while place to visit. Fisherman’s Wharf does not define SF as much as it did 50+ years ago but my belief for most places in SF, even the most touristy parts, there are still charming scenes and history. I will say that my taste is for more historic, if not vintage fun/attractions. I have a noir scale that I rate attractions on and I try to keep to the ones that have solid potential. If you don’t pick wisely when visiting any city you may end up in t-shirtville and broke. I’m no snob though. I do love buying souvenirs and will happily take home a keychain or two.
If you are staying in Union Square, you can do two very touristy things in one day. Take the Powell/Hyde Street cable car line at 8:30 in the morning from the main turnaround at Market and Powell. Ride it to the end of the line to Hyde St. and go across the street to The Buena Vista for a leisurely breakfast. The Buena Vista does not take reservations and you seat yourself at any open table or seat at the food counter. The wooden bar in the front is drinks only. They open at 8 or 9am, depending on the day. so if you get there at 9ish it won’t be much of a scrum to get a seat unless it’s a big holiday. The house drink is the Irish Coffee made fresh. Try one if you need to wake up and warm up. Link to The Buena Vista . If you are coming from other parts of the city, make it to The Buena Vista on your preferred mode of transportation. Parking is expensive and at times not possible in the area for more than 1-2 hours.
Once you’re happily fed, proceed down towards the water. You will be in Aquatic Park. There is the Maritime museum to the left, the Balclutha ship on your right. Link to the Balclutha . Walk along Jefferson street and you’re in Fisherman’s Wharf! You’ll see the grottos (stalls) that sell the fresh crab under the Fisherman’s Grotto No.9 sign. They won’t be in full swing yet, but you’ll probably be too full to think about another meal. Walk past the grottos and go onto the walkways behind the main buildings. You will see the workings of this fishmonger community. You are allowed on the walkways back where the warehouses are, just watch out for forklifts and trucks.
If you are into vintage fun like I am, pop into the Musee Mechanique . A large collection of penny slots awaits you. It is free to enter, and most machines are 25-50 cents. The famous Laughing Sal is there. I hear it laughs for a few minutes for each play.
Some of the machines are made with a mix of leftover materials or whatever someone had on hand. Many of the machines are in beautiful ornate wood cases.
If you like military stuff. We have the Jeremiah O’Brien Liberty ship and the Pampanito sub here for touring. I think each vessel is $20 per person but there is a less expensive family ticket. They are impressive just from the outside. Link to the SS Jeremiah O”Brien . Link to the Pampanito Sub .
Keep walking along the waterside as much as you can and you will quickly be out of the densest parts of Fisherman’s Wharf. Keep going and you will see Pier 39. A shop and restaurant filled outdoor complex full with family fun. And, if the sealions haven’t vacated the floating docks, you will see and smell hundreds of them lounging around. For me, Fisherman’s Wharf ends here and the Embarcadero name takes over. So that really is my itinerary for the true old Fisherman’s Wharf, but there’s much more to see on the waterfront.
If you like to walk:
You can do one of two things from here. Walk onto Stockton St., right outside Pier 39, and go to North Beach and Chinatown. It’s only about 12 blocks before you’re in the thick of Italian cafes and the hustle and bustle of the locals buying their groceries. Stockton St. is the main shopping street for local Chinese. If you want the postcard Chinatown, go left one block once in Chinatown onto Grant Ave. Gift shops galore! If you are hungry already, there are hundreds of choices to choose from. Some of my casual favorites are Tony’s Slice House . Really good pizza slices in North Beach. And Sam Wo’s , a Chinese restaurant that recently got a resurrection from becoming another piece of SF history.
If you want to keep on the waterfront, keep walking along the Embarcadero and you’ll get to the Ferry Plaza in a few piers. This is right at the foot of Market street. Look for the clock tower. If your ready for lunch, the inside of the old Ferry Plaza building is a gourmet heaven. Link to Ferry Plaza marketplace .
This is the itinerary I would suggest to a friend that is visiting SF and is interested in the wharf area. A little history, a little San Francisco uniqueness, some good food and some fresh air and exercise. I hope you’ll enjoy the city as much as I do.