I’ve said it before. San Franciscans look down their noses at Fisherman’s Wharf. And it can be a complete tourist trap. But if you know where to look, a day at Fisherman’s Wharf can be an enriching, rewarding experience. That’s why I’m here to help you do Fisherman’s Wharf right.
The best way to start your day at Fisherman’s Wharf is to leave the mainland and take the ferry to Alcatraz Island, out in the bay. (By the way, I’m covering the “Greater” Fisherman’s Wharf area–stretching from Pier 33, where you catch the ferries to Alcatraz, in the east to San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park in the west.) Alcatraz, one of the U.S.’s most notorious former prisons, has much to offer, starting with its unique history. It was home-away-from-home to hardened criminals like Al Capone. Lesser known about Alcatraz is its 1969-1971 occupation by Native Americans, after the prison had shut down. You can learn all about Alcatraz’s history from the fabulous audio tour that is included in the ticket price. When you’re planning to go to Alcatraz, make sure to make your reservations in advance.
Of course you get great views of San Francisco and San Francisco Bay from both Alcatraz Island and the ferry boat that takes you there and back. Alcatraz also has a well stocked shop to pick up souvenirs and books to learn more about Alcatraz’s history. One thing you can’t get on Alcatraz is food. Food is not allowed on Alcatraz beyond the dock area. So after a few hours exploring Alcatraz, learning about its history, and enjoying the view, you probably want to get lunch when you get back to shore.
The Chowder Hut is my go-to place for fried seafood basics on Fisherman’s Wharf. You can order from the counter on one side or get table service on the other side. Either way, you get outdoor seating with views of all the activity going on at Fisherman’s Wharf. For something a little more substantial, there is no shortage of Italian seafood restaurants along the waterfront. They carry on the long, proud tradition of Italian-Americans catching and serving of the bounty of the sea in San Francisco.
So now you’re well fed and ready to explore the mainland. You don’t have to go very far to get a cultural or historical experience at Fisherman’s Wharf. As a matter of fact, there are plenty of worthwhile sights on Pier 45, the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf. For something truly unique, spend some time at Musée Mécanique, a gallery filled with arcade attractions from throughout the 20th century. Take your pick between World War II era naval ships–SS Jeremiah O’Brien, a cargo ship that took part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, and SS Pampanito, a submarine where no space goes to waste. A real hidden gem on Fisherman’s Wharf is Fishermen’s and Seamen’s Memorial Chapel. If you’re lucky, the small chapel will be open when you visit. You’ll be able to check out the pretty interior.
You can spend a good part of a day at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, just to the west of Pier 45. The Visitor Center and the Maritime Museum hold a treasure trove of nautical exhibits. Hyde Street Pier, which juts out into the bay, is home to a number of historical ships to explore.
East of Pier 45, you do not want to miss the endearing sea lions on Pier 39. Some of them are busy honking away. Most of them laze the day away. Interestingly, the sea lions only started hanging out on Pier 39 in 1989. The commercial section of Pier 39 is best avoided to keep the cultural experience of the day authentic. Similarly, steer clear of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and Madame Tussauds if you want to stayed focused on the real San Francisco.
Speaking of the real San Francisco, the Buena Vista is one place that seems like it ought to be a tourist trap. After all, it’s a restaurant and bar right by Fisherman’s Wharf where Irish coffee was first served in the US. But I found both the food and service to be worth the crowds. It’s really a great way to finish a great day on Fisherman’s Wharf. (Still not ready for the day to be over? Brave more crowds at Ghiradelli Square to indulge in a hot fudge sundae!)