I visited Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco for the first time shortly after visiting the Coit Tower. I went down to the water along the quiet residential streets of Telegraph Hill and, as I approached Pier 39, something felt different. Not only did I find a great confusion, but also a lively, salty air, a chaotic and carefree spirit that created a strange contrast with the orderly fashion in which people conduct themselves in the residential areas. It was only afterwards that I understood.
For one reason or another, it is almost impossible to go to San Francisco and not be drawn to the atmosphere of Fisherman’s Wharf, the historic fishing neighborhood (if you can still define it that way) located northeast of the city, that has turned into the eccentric neighborhood with tourist attractions that it is today.
In this article, I want to give you some specific recommendations on what to see at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco during a walking tour.
- Why Visit Fisherman’s Wharf?
- Things to Do at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco
- The final stop of San Francisco’s cable car
- Visit The Cannery and take a break at Ghirardelli Square
- Hyde Street Pier: Visit historic ships
- Jefferson Street: The Real Fisherman’s Wharf!
- Best Places to Eat at Fisherman’s Wharf: Recommended Restaurants
- Pier 45 San Francisco Attractions
- Pier 39: The main tourist destination of Fisherman’s Wharf
- On a cruise to Alcatraz
- Where to Stay in Fisherman’s Wharf
Why Visit Fisherman’s Wharf?
There are so many reasons!
There are those who go to Fisherman’s Wharf because they want to see the famous Pier 39, San Francisco’s ultimate commercial pier, with its flaccid and noisy sea lions on barges, seafood restaurants, bizarre attractions, souvenir shops, and tourist traps (you’ll love it!).
Then there are those who come to this area to board the boat to Alcatraz and take the opportunity to take a stroll along the waterfront where they may be tempted to taste delicacies such as steamed Dungeness crabs and Clam Chowder. Then, for dessert, they might try the famous Ghirardelli chocolate.
There are also those who come here because they are fond of fishing and love to listen to the sound of the waves crashing onto the fishing boats docked at the pier and the sight of a maze of ropes, buckets full of nets and ropes, faded buoys, and tanks full of fish just caught in the bay.
Others are attracted to this place because they grew up reading books by Stevenson and want to see with their own eyes the small fleet of historic ships of Hyde Street Pier that date back to the late nineteenth century and that were active until the first half of the twentieth century. Finally, there are those who are curious to see how you live for long months in an authentic World War II submarine, the famous USS Pampanito.
In short, there’s something here for everyone and there’s more that I haven’t even mentioned yet!
Things to Do at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco
Here is a recommended itinerary for a walking tour within the most entertaining neighborhood of San Francisco. In my opinion, it will give you a better chance to understand what Fisherman’s Wharf is today, and also what it was in the past. You should plan to spend 2 to 4 hours on this walking tour, depending on how many attractions you decide to explore. If you also want to visit Alcatraz, then you’ll need to invest more than half a day here.
The final stop of San Francisco’s cable car
As I said at the beginning of the article, I arrived in this area of San Francisco on foot, but the most fascinating way to reach Fisherman’s Wharf is by cable car. Get on the Powell/Mason line at the end of Powell Street. As you ride on the cable car with the rattling noise in the background, watch the view of San Francisco passing before your eyes until you get to the opposite end of the line, at the intersection of Taylor Street and Bay Street. This is where you have to get off.
Visit The Cannery and take a break at Ghirardelli Square
Once you get off the cable car at the end of the line, walk west on Bay Street to the junction with Columbus Avenue. Take it and continue towards the sea to Beach Street, where you’ll recognize it when you see the red brick buildings of The Cannery, a very unique shopping mall built out of an old factory. This place is definitely worth visiting, regardless of whether or not you decide to shop there.
You can wander around the courtyard, take a picture at Jack’s Bar, or go up to the third floor to see the magnificent Mudejar ceiling that mogul William Randolph Hearst (yes, the one who built Hearst Castle in Big Sur) bought directly from the owners of a palace in Toledo, Spain.
Return to Beach Street and continue walking west, you’ll finally see a panoramic view of the bay, and more specifically the beach of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. To your left, on Larkin Street, you’ll see the entrance of Ghirardelli Square, which occupies an entire block of the neighborhood. It has a clock tower overlooking brick buildings. This place is a paradise for lovers of sweets, especially chocolate, and was once the historic headquarters of one of the most famous Italian chocolate shops in the city, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company. Today there are sensational pastry shops, ice cream parlors, bars, and restaurants with panoramic views. All are great to try.
Hyde Street Pier: Visit historic ships
Once you’ve had your fill of sugar, I recommend that you return to Beach Street and walk back to Hyde Street, the street that leads straight to Hyde Street Pier. Here’s where the atmosphere changes. You’ll be catapulted straight into a Stevenson novel; you’ll feel like you are a child again, an inexperienced cabin boy ready to board a commercial ship setting sail for the New World.
I suggest you visit Hyde Street Pier, because, in my opinion, it is the best section of the museum. You can visit these 5 historic ships docked at the pier: Balclutha, Hercules, Alma, Eppleton Hall, and C.A. Thayer. If you’re a fan of pirate movies, make sure to board the Scottish flagship called Balclutha, a historic vessel that, laden with cargo, sailed the Atlantic Ocean and the cold Alaskan waters for decades.
- Admission to the park is included in the national parks annual pass. If you don’t have one, you will pay the price of the ticket.
- The pier is open every day from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm.
Jefferson Street: The Real Fisherman’s Wharf!
Next, after Hyde Street and Ghirardelli Square, you’re on Jefferson Street… and here comes the best part! You’re in the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf. You’ll have to be good at weaving your way through the shops and tourist attractions and try not to overrun the street artists who have chosen that very sidewalk to show off their singing or painting skills.
As lively as it may be, you may be turned off by the first stretch of Jefferson Street since it is excessively commercial, but don’t stop there. The best part of the neighborhood is right on this street, in the short stretch between Jones Street and Taylor Street. Here at last the sheds converted into restaurants are thinning out and you can start to see the water, the colorful vintage boats docked at the pier, and the wooden docks that the old rusty fishermen’s huts are attached to. Don’t limit yourself to Jefferson Street. Wander along the adjoining piers (Al Scoma Way, Leavenworth Street) to see some other pleasant, slightly less patinated scenery.
East of Taylor Street, Jefferson Street has more surprises in store. There are cafes, souvenir shops, shopping galleries, and some curious museums, including the hypnotic Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium, right in front of the sign indicating the Fisherman’s Wharf area. It is a large collection of bizarre objects, and while some are kind of out there, others are quite incredible. If you like this kind of thing, you can also visit Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, which is just a few yards away. As in other U.S. cities, here too you have the opportunity to take a selfie with the likes of George Clooney, Leonardo Di Caprio, Johnny Depp, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, Alfred Hitchcock, Marilyn Monroe, or ET.
Best Places to Eat at Fisherman’s Wharf: Recommended Restaurants
Walk down Jefferson Street and you’ll see the sign of Alioto‘s, one of the oldest and most famous restaurants in the area that has been run by a Sicilian family for generations over a century. The prominent location on the pier attracts many tourists who are excited to sit at the restaurant’s tables overlooking the sea.
Scoma’s Restaurant, located on the pier of the same name, is also a tourist restaurant (find one that isn’t!). But, it could be because of its history, or perhaps because it’s a bit hidden compared to Jefferson Street, it remains a little secret that those who love to dine out in San Francisco are unlikely to share with you. Try the crab and salmon dishes, especially the famous Cioppino, a fish dish that is typical of this area.
A good alternative to these and other restaurants is the Historic Seafood Stands at Fisherman’s Wharf, which is located along Taylor Street, right next to Alioto’s. This is the ideal place if you want to get take-out lunch to enjoy sitting on the Embarcadero waterfront benches, or on the pier.
Pier 45 San Francisco Attractions
Personally, I much prefer the Musée Mécanique, a splendid collection of music boxes and coin-operated arcade games, some older than others but still perfectly functional, to Ripley’s eccentricities. Admission is free, but bring a few dollars to try a pinball machine or a music box. Access to the museum is on Embarcadero, right at the beginning of Pier 45, opposite Ripley’s Believe it or Not.
Pier 45 also attracts submarine enthusiasts. Right behind the Musée Mécanique, there is the U.S.S. Pampanito, an American submarine used during the Second World War in military operations against Japan. The submarine – which is already impressive to look at from the dock – can be visited inside. You will get a glimpse of how complicated it must have been for Navy soldiers to live together in the narrow spaces of this “beast” as it crossed the Pacific Ocean. I would not recommend it if you easily get claustrophobic! Also on Pier 45, there is the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, a Liberty ship that carried supplies, which can also be visited.
At the end of Embarcadero, to the left of the Musée Mécanique, there is also the Fishermen’s and Seamen’s Memorial Chapel, a chapel that commemorates those who lost their lives at sea belonging to the various religious denominations. The chapel can be visited Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm.
Pier 39: The main tourist destination of Fisherman’s Wharf
The waterfront of Fisherman’s Wharf continues along Embarcadero and leads to Pier 39. This is the commercial symbol of the neighborhood, famous for the Aquarium of the Bay, for the “floating houseboat” of the San Francisco sea lions, and for the stage where there are performances by actors, magicians, musicians, acrobats, and so on… in short, the place with a fake charm but certainly exciting that you’ll want to see with your own eyes before leaving San Francisco. Since a few lines would not be enough to describe what awaits you, I refer you to our article entirely dedicated to Pier 39 in San Francisco, where you’ll find tips on the strangest shops to browse and the most bizarre attractions of the pier.
On a cruise to Alcatraz
In the bay, there are not only fishing boats but also tourist boats bound for Alcatraz, the terrible San Francisco prison that kept Al Capone and other criminals apart from society. To be precise, Pier 33 – where the cruises depart – is not part of Fisherman’s Wharf, whose eastern border is located at Pier 39. Moreover, it’s important to know that unlike other attractions in the area, you can’t buy tickets to Alcatraz when you arrive at the pier, because they are sold out months in advance. If you are interested to learn more about the island and the tours available, read our article about Alcatraz.
Where to Stay in Fisherman’s Wharf
In our article about the best places to stay in San Francisco, there is a small section dedicated to Fisherman’s Wharf where you will also find some specific recommendations. For a classy and certainly unforgettable stay, consider staying at The Argonaut, a historic nautical-themed luxury hotel with a red brick exterior (like The Cannery). It is strategically located right on Jefferson Street and a few minutes from Ghirardelli Square.