Fisherman’s Wharf’s best
Yes, it is commercial, and yes, locals stay away. But wandering around here is lots of fun, and the locals are missing out on something because they have trouble seeing beyond the parking restrictions. Feasting on fresh Dungeness crab or on clam chowder in a Boudin sourdough bowl are definitely San Francisco treats.
Location: Jefferson St./The Embarcadero.
Getting here by public transportation: From Union Square area, take either the cable car or a historic street car on the F Line along Market Street.
Fisherman’s Wharf annual event
Fourth of July Waterfront Festival
Continuous entertainment begins in the early afternoon. The celebration culminates after sunset with the West Coast’s largest fireworks display.
Fisherman’s Wharf attractions
The Cannery at Del Monte Square
Bounded by Beach St./Leavenworth St./Hyde St./Jefferson St.
This lovely red brick building, constructed in 1907, was once the world’s largest fruit and vegetable cannery. It is a ghost of its days as a shopping and restaurant hub, but still sometimes offers free entertainment by street performers under century-old olive trees in an inviting courtyard.
Cartoon Art Museum
781 Beach St., Fisherman’s Wharf. Fee.
This museum showcases important developments in cartoon history from the early 18th century to the present, and regularly schedules exhibitions, special events, and educational programs. A reading room is packed with comics and related books. A gift shop provides interesting browsing and is stocked with items that are of interest to artists in general and comic artists in particular. One of only two such museums in the country, its aim is “to preserve this unique art form and to enrich the public’s knowledge of its cultural and aesthetic value.”
Cost Plus World Market
2552 Taylor St./North Point St.
The original store in a chain that now numbers 278, this gigantic importer has long been a favorite shopping stop for visitors. Back in the ‘60s, it was where everyone stocked up on “hippie” supplies: batik bedspreads, incense, candles. Current imports from around the world include inexpensive jewelry, kitchenware, and baskets.
Madame Tussauds San Francisco
145 Jefferson St./Taylor St. Fee.
You can hang out front with Johnnie Depp or the Royal Family for free, but this will likely entice you to pay the entry so you can do more. I was surprised to be told that it was ok to touch and get up close and personal with the iconic celebrity figures inside. Though I had my companion take pictures of me with almost every figure, I did find it creepy to actually touch them. And the only way I could tell for sure they weren’t real was to check that they didn’t blink. One factoid is that hair is inserted by hand—strand by strand—and it can take up to five weeks just for one figure. Celebs are broken into categories, so Janis is in the Spirit of San Francisco section (as are Jerry Garcia and Carlos Santana), Elvis is in the music section, Marilyn is in the film section, and George is in the A-List Party section (you can cozy up to him on a couch). A few tips: make sure your camera battery is charged; and dress nicely so that your friends might actually believe you were hanging with the stars. Many discounted coupons available.
Pier 45, Taylor St./The Embarcadero, Fisherman’s Wharf. Free; games 25¢-50¢.
This “mechanical museum” filled with old arcade games–some date to the 17th century–is the world’s largest collection of antique coin-operated machines. For just a quarter it is possible to operate a miniature steam shovel and collect 90 seconds worth of gumballs or to see naughty Marietta sunbathing in 3-D realism. Highlights include several player pianos, a mechanical horse ride, and jolly Laughing Sal with her original soundtrack (she was rescued from the Fun House at the now torn-down Playland-at-the-Beach, where many of the games were originally). But the roller coaster made of toothpicks and the machines that make pressed-penny souvenirs are also quite special. Beeping modern video games are in the back, where they belong. Don’t miss the Arm Wrestler–the strength-tester beaten by Julie Andrews in the Disney film The Princess Diaries.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not! San Francisco Odditorium
175 Jefferson St./Taylor St., Fisherman’s Wharf. Fee.
Among the 400-plus exhibits from Robert Ripley’s personal collection of oddities are a cable car made from 270,836 matchsticks and an authentic shrunken female torso from Panama once owned by Ernest Hemingway. All this, plus two floors filled with more curiosities—a wedding dress made from toilet paper, the world’s largest hairball (a 167-pounder), and a replica of The Lighthouse Man (a tour guide in Chung King, China, who guided American dignitaries through the streets with a lit candle in an actual hole in the top of his head!). It’s unbelievable!
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park
Fisherman’s Wharf; Visitor Center: 499 Jefferson St. Free.
The collection of historic ships berthed along the San Francisco waterfront is the largest (by weight) in the world, and it is the only floating national park in the U.S. Get oriented to this spread-out park populated with “floating museums” by viewing “The Waterfront” exhibit located in a historic brick warehouse that is the Visitor Center.
900 Beach St./foot of Polk St., across from Ghirardelli Square. Free.
Appropriately resembling a ship, this architecturally interesting art deco-streamline moderne building was built by the Work Project Administration (WPA) in 1939. It was originally a bathhouse and held a restaurant/bar and aquatic activities center. Now, the large lobby features murals of undersea scenes and displays changing exhibits. In 1951 the building held the nation’s first senior center, which still operates in a section on the east side. On either side, steep concrete walkways lead down to Aquatic Park.
Aquatic Park Cove
Foot of Polk St. Free.
Located in the people-congested area across the street from Ghirardelli Square, this is a good spot for children to wade and to rest and enjoy great views of the bay.
●Hyde Street Pier
2905 Hyde St./Jefferson St. Pier free; vessels fee.
The vessels moored on this scenic pier represent the late 19th century–a time of rapid growth for San Francisco begun by the 1849 Gold Rush and an era during which the city was an important shipping center. Visitors can board four:
●Balclutha A Cape Horn sailing ship built in Scotland in 1886, this 301-foot steel-hulled merchant ship carried whiskey, wool, and rice, but mainly coal, to San Francisco. On her return sailing to Europe she carried grain from California. Typical of Victorian British merchant ships, she is described colorfully by the men who sailed her as a “blue water, square-rigged, lime juice windbag.” She is the last of the Cape Horn fleet and ended her sailing career as an Alaskan salmon ship. She opened to the public in 1955.
A fascinating way to experience this ship is at a free chantey sing held in her cozy hold. Participants should dress warmly and bring a cushion to sit on, a mug for hot cider to wet your whistle, and a chantey or two to share.
●C.A. Thayer A fleet of 900 ships once carried lumber from the north coast forests to California ports. This is one of only two that still exist. A three-mast lumber schooner built in Fairhaven (near Eureka) in 1895, she was the very last commercial sailing ship in use on the West Coast and made her last voyage in 1950 as a fishing ship.
●Eureka Originally named the Ukiah, this double-ended, wooden-hulled ferry was built in Tiburon in 1890 to carry railroad cars and passengers across the bay. She was rebuilt in 1922 to carry automobiles and passengers and renamed the Eureka. Later she served as a commuter ferry (the largest in the world) between San Francisco and Sausalito, and yet later as a ferry for train passengers arriving in San Francisco from Oakland. She held 2,300 people plus 120 automobiles. Her 4-story “walking beam” steam engine is the only one still afloat in the U.S. A model demonstrates its operation, and a ranger-guided tour through the engine room is sometimes available. Two decks are open to the public. The lower deck houses a display of antique cars, and the main deck features original benches and a historical photo display.
●Hercules This ocean-going tugboat was built in 1907.
More ships are moored at the pier but are not usually open for boarding.
●Alma, A scow schooner built in 1891 at Hunters Point, this is a specialized cargo carrier and the last of her kind still afloat.
●Eppleton Hall, Built in England in 1914 and used in the canals there to tow coal barges, this is the only vessel in the collection not directly associated with West Coast maritime history.
Non-floating displays at the pier include a late 19th-century ark (houseboat), a restored donkey engine that is sometimes operated for visitors, and the reconstructed sales office of the Tubbs Cordage Company.
Pier 45, foot of Taylor St. Fee.
This 312-foot-long World War II submarine built in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1943 is credited with sinking six Japanese ships and damaging four others. She also rescued a group of British and Australian POWs from the South China Sea. The self-guided tour through her cramped belly and meticulously restored compartments is enhanced with a recorded audio tour that provides narrative by former crew members and helps listeners imagine what it must have been like for men to be cooped up in this small space for months at a time.
S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien
Pier 45, foot of Taylor St. Fee.
This massive 441-foot-long vessel is one of only two Liberty Ship that remain from World War II, and she is the only one that is still unaltered and still in operating condition. She was built in the South Portland, Maine shipyard Between 1941 and 1945, in an all-out effort to replace the cargo ships being sunk in huge numbers by enemy submarines, 2,750 Liberty ships were built to transport troops and supplies. Shipyards operated around the clock. Assembled from pre-fabricated sections, each ship took only between 6 and 8 weeks to build. Shockingly large, the O’Brien was built in South Portland, Maine in 1943. She was in operation for 33 years and sailed from England to Normandy for the D-Day invasion where she was one of 5,000 ships that took part on June 6, 1944. In 1978 she was declared a national monument. Since then, dedicated volunteers–many of whom served on similar ships–have worked to restore her to her original glory. Visitors have access to almost every part of the ship, including the sleeping and captain’s quarters, wheelhouse, and guns, as well as the catwalks in the eerie 3-story engine room. The triple expansion steam engine operates on the third weekend of each month.
An annual fund-raising Seamen’s Memorial Cruise occurs in May, and Fleet Week Cruises occur in October.
Fisherman’s Wharf restaurants
Boudin at the Wharf
160 Jefferson St./Taylor St.
After watching the bakers through a sidewalk window, where they sometimes respond to questions via a two-way speaker, visitors can choose between informal dining downstairs in the Boudin Cafe–both inside and outside on a heated deck—and finer dining upstairs in Bistro Boudin (it is pronounced either “boo-deen” or “bow-deen”)–with a dead-on view of Alcatraz. Among the best items are an ever-popular clam chowder in a sourdough bowl, meaty crab cakes, and pizza.
Upstairs, the Bakery Museum Tour is an homage to sourdough bread-making with some interesting city history mixed in (did you know Boudin is the oldest continuously run business in San Francisco?). After all these years, they are still using the same starter and the same ingredients—flour, water, and salt. The busy first-floor bakery can be observed below from a glass-walled catwalk, and a tasting room visit completes the tour.
The well-stocked gift shop is worth a browse. Take home the perfect souvenir–a loaf of bread in the shape of a darling turtle or alligator.
The Buena Vista Cafe
2765 Hyde St./Beach St.
In 1952 the owner of this legendary bar challenged local travel writer Stanton Delaplane to help him re-create the Irish coffee served at Shannon Airport in Ireland. The biggest problem was getting the cream to float. Once mastered, the result is history, and this cozy bar now dispenses more Irish whiskey than any other spot in the country. A decaf version is available. (The official recipe according to its inventor, the late Joe Sheridan, is: Cream as rich as an Irish brogue; coffee as strong as a friendly hand; sugar sweet as the tongue of a rogue; and whiskey smooth as the wit of the land. See how the Irish make Irish coffee today.) It is de rigueur to stop at this cozy spot and find out what all the fuss is about. Delicious casual meals have been served since the 1890s and currently include hamburgers and sandwiches as well as hot entrees with fresh vegetables. A window seat provides views of the action across the street at the cable car turnaround and of the bay and Golden Gate Bridge.
2330 Taylor St./Chestnut St. (on the Mason-Taylor cable car line).
This modest café features comfortable banquettes along its long, narrow, papaya-colored walls. More color is provided by a sprinkling of Fiesta Ware on the tables, and owner Pat usually greets diners in a bright red fleece vest. American comfort food and an expansive breakfast menu are the claim to fame. Favorites include banana granola pancakes, eggs Benedict, and French toast. And everyone seems to like it here: On a recent visit, a customer at one table wore a Yahoo! hat while a customer at the next table donned a Google visor.
Pier 47, on Al Scoma Way at Jones St./Jefferson St.
Hidden away from the touristy bustle and featuring a prime waterfront location, this old timer is reached via a back alley leading out over the area’s actual wharfs. Built from a modest coffee shop and using the owner’s family recipes, it boasts a pleasant old San Francisco ambiance, big windows with views of weathered boardwalks and fishing boats, and a professional waitstaff. And since it is the only restaurant in San Francisco with a commercial license to buy right off the boats, it’s hard to beat the fresh seafood selection. Meals begin with exceptional sourdough bread made by Boudin especially for the restaurant (they use 175 loaves on an average day). When at capacity, two separate kitchens keep the wait short. Menu items are organic when possible, and an active effort is made to recycle. The menu includes everyone’s favorites, many of which are house specialties–Lazy Man’s cioppino, fried calamari, clam chowder, crab cakes. The chef also prepares perfect scallops and a delicious crab risotto studded with fresh peas, and house-aged Angus beef is available.
Fisherman’s Wharf hotels
495 Jefferson St./Hyde St. 4 stories; 252 rooms. Fitness room. Restaurant; room service. Valet parking.
Located in a 1907 warehouse that once was the largest fruit and vegetable cannery in the world, this well-situated, stylish hotel is leased from the National Park Service. All lease money goes toward preservation of the historic ships at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, which is just across the street and whose visitor center and interactive museum is located on the hotel’s ground floor. In line with its nautical theme, the primary-colored lobby has a fleet of deck chairs to lounge in, and the hotel’s early 20th-century architectural features include natural brick walls and the building’s original massive Douglas fir wood beams that are more than 1-foot square. Nautical room décor includes an oversize porthole-like mirror and captain’s-style swivel desk chair. Some rooms have a view of the Golden Gate Bridge or Alcatraz, and suites are equipped with brass telescopes.
The brick-walled Blue Mermaid Restaurant continues the nautical theme and offers hand-crafted cocktails and a variety of chowders and traditional seafood items, among them excellent deep-fried calamari and fish & chips.
250 Beach St./Powell St; 4 stories; 355 rooms. Heated pool; fitness room. Self-parking.
Covering an entire block, this lodging has some rooms with bay and city views. The pool is located within an enclosed courtyard, and a Johnny Rockets opens adjacent. Guest rooms are decorated attractively with full-wall murals depicting the Golden Gate Bridge, and the sleep number bed underneath the mural lets you determine whether you have a soft or firm mattress. Among the several hotel entrances and exits is one that allows you to exit into the beating heart of Fisherman’s Wharf. A Game Room features a pool table and table tennis, and an outdoor yard has the city’s largest periscope and fire pits made from recycled soda cans.
425 North Point St./Mason St. 4 stories; 221 rooms. Evening wine; restaurant; room service. Valet parking.
This pleasantly appointed small hotel is reputed to be popular with filmmakers. Complimentary hot drinks and biscotti are available each morning.
Appealing Cafe Pescatore has windows that open to the sidewalk in warm weather and features a menu of fresh fish, pizza baked in a wood-burning oven, and pastas.
Hyatt Fisherman’s Wharf
555 North Point St./Jones St. 5 stories; 313 rooms. Heated lap pool; hot tub; sauna; fitness room. Restaurant; room service. No pets. Valet parking.
This attractive hotel recycles the historic façade of a former marble works building that was here and incorporates it into a modern interpretation of the building’s original design. Decor is spare and modern, the color scheme is chocolate brown, and all bathrooms have ceiling-mounted sunflower showerheads. Washers and dryers are available.
RIU Plaza Fisherman’s Wharf
2500 Mason St./Beach St. 4 stories; 529 rooms. Heated pool; fitness room. 2 restaurants; room service. Valet parking.
This huge hotel takes up an entire city block. It has spacious rooms, an “outdoor living room” with firepits, and that rarest of San Francisco amenities–a heated swimming pool.
San Francisco Marriott Fisherman’s Wharf
1250 Columbus Ave./Bay St. 5 stories; 285 rooms. Fitness room; sauna. Restaurant; room service. Valet parking.
Comfortable public spaces include a relaxing lobby lounge equipped with a fireplace.
Suites at Fisherman’s Wharf
2655 Hyde St./North Point St. 4 stories; 24 suites. All kitchens. No pets. Self-parking.
Staying here is like living in an apartment building and makes it possible to feel like a local rather than a visitor. In addition to offering most of the comforts of home, this lodging is located 1 block from Ghirardelli Square and is right on the Hyde Street cable car line. It has a rooftop observation deck with a spectacular view of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, and a newspaper is delivered to the door each morning.
(www.berkeleyandbeyond2.com; copyright Carole Terwilliger Meyers)