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It's tacky, it's touristy, and no self-respecting native would ever admit to going there, but Fisherman's Wharf continues to draw millions of people every year to the northern end of the San Francisco waterfront. For those who remember the days when the business of the wharf was really fishing rather than tourists, the transformation of the area into a jumble of souvenir shops and tourist destination restaurants is distressing. Fortunately you can find the real San Francisco waterfront with a little effort.
The history of Fisherman's Wharf goes back to the gold rush era, when Chinese immigrants plied the bay in "junks" to get food to feed the bustling town. Italian immigrants followed, setting up stands along the shore to sell crab and other seafood fresh off their fishing boats.
Even though fisherman are now far outnumbered by tourists, the fishing industry is still an important part of the wharf. Pier 45, the heart of the fishing business, had a $14.5 million dollar refurbishment, and if you venture down to Pier 45 at sunrise, you will see the fishing business in full swing. Unfortunately by the time most tourists make it to the wharf, they've missed all the action.
The wharf is also home to three major shopping attractions: Pier 39, the Cannery and Ghirardelli Square. All three offer shops, restaurants, an ever-changing set of street entertainers, and terrific views of the bay. Pier 39 is home to a colony of noisy sea lions whose crowd-pleasing antics have helped to make Pier 39 the most popular tourist attraction in San Francisco and the third most popular attraction in the country (behind Disney World and Disneyland). At Pier 39 you'll find Under Water World which offers a diver's-eye view of the Bay through its underwater, acrylic tunnels. If you want to see lots of sea lions, come in the winter; the sea lion population peaks in January and February and is lowest in July, when they are in their Southern California breeding grounds.
There is a museum in the wharf area that can give you an insight into the history of the Bay Area. Just a few blocks west of the Cannery in a Art Deco building that resembles a ship, the National Maritime Museum at Aquatic Park uses models, miniatures, naval artifacts, and a marvelous collection of photographs to document maritime history. Just outside at Hyde Street Pier you can tour three historic seafaring vessels: the Balclutha, a classic three-masted square-rigged sailing ship built in 1883; the C.A. Thayer, an 1895 schooner; and the Eureka, an 1890 ferry. Each August the Festival of the Sea brings the pier to life, kicking off with a majestic parade of tall ships and continuing with demonstrations of sailmaking, knot-tying, boatmaking, story-telling, music, and dance.
No visit to San Francisco would be complete without a boat ride on the Bay, and most people start their trip at Fisherman's Wharf. You can opt for a bay cruise that takes you out under the Golden Gate, you can visit Angel Island or Alcatraz, or you can take the ferry across to Sausalito and Tiburon. Be sure to bring a sweater or jacket, as it can be quite breezy on the bay.
Fisherman's Wharf Details
The Blue and Gold Fleet is berthed at Pier 39 and 41 and offers scenic bay cruises; trips to Alcatraz, Angel Island, Sausalito, Tiburon and other destinations. Call 415-705-5555 for rates and schedules or see: www.blueandgoldfleet.com.
The National Maritime Museum and Hyde Street Pier are open daily 10 am to 5 pm (until 5:30 pm in the summer). Admission is free at the Museum at 2905 Hyde Street but costs $6.00 at the Pier at 900 Beach Street. 415.561.7100 or see: www.nps.gov/safr
tips for Fisherman's Wharf
If you must drive, try to avoid driving right to the heart of the wharf. You'll just get stuck in traffic, and the open air lots between Pier 41 and Pier 45 are often full at peak times.
The Anchorage Shopping Center, Pier 39 and Ghirardelli Square all have parking garages but they're expensive.
If you don't mind walking a little, you may be able to find street parking a few blocks north of the Wharf. This is a particularly good option on Sundays, when the two-hour limit on unmetered residential parking does not apply. Parking meters, however, operate seven days a week, and the fines for overparking either at meters or in the two-hour zones are expensive.