A Walk Around Fisherman’s Wharf – what to do and see at Fisherman’s Wharf
Best Way to Visit Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco
Discover the real Fisherman’s Wharf by walking around it
Fisherman’s Wharf is one those places you need to ‘get off the bus’ and walk around to really enjoy it. You need to get up close or go into the most interesting parts in order to see them and have any fun. The good news is that Fisherman’s Wharf is fairly compact area that can be covered easily by most people – even young children (bring a stroller for the toddlers, you will be glad you have it after a while).
For tourists, Fisherman’s Wharf is the most visited part of San Francisco. Most locals visit Fisherman’s Wharf only when escorting out of town friends. It can get crowded, and because of the high percentage of tourists, it is the least like ‘real’ San Francisco. That said, there is a reason it is so popular with tourists, there are a lot of things to do and see at Fisherman’s Wharf.
What most of my friends enjoy; the sea lions that have ‘taken over’ the docks next to Pier 39, besides the sea lions kids like Pier 39 for all the street shows, the two-story carousel, the maze, and the super duper candy stores, also the submarine (and Liberty ship), the antique arcade games you can play, the Boudin bread ‘show’, the walkaway seafood, the spy store, and the Ghirardelli chocolate factory. Plus, every other store will sell you a San Francisco sweatshirt because you forgot how cold San Francisco can get with the summer fog.
You will get all this and more on this walking tour of San Francisco.
The Fisherman’s Wharf Walk
Time/Length – 1 ½ to 2 hours at a leisurely pace (can take longer if spend a lot of time in some of the attractions) – 1.5 miles (2.5 km) walk can easily be broken up with a food break at almost any time
What to do and see in Fisherman’s Wharf – Highlights on this walk.
- Pier 39 – Sea Lions – Aquarium – shops
- Alcatraz Ferries
- Sourdough – Boudin Bakery
- USS Pampanito – submarine – Liberty Ship
- Musee Mecanique -arcade museum
- Sidewalk seafood
- Antique Street Cars
- Cable Car Taylor Street
- Fishing Fleet
- Bushman (World Famous)
- International Spy Shop
- The Cannery
- Maritime Bay Museum
- Hyde Street Pier
- Aquatic Park
- Hyde Street Cable Car turnabout
- Buena Vista
- Ghirardelli Square – chocolate factory
This walk gives you many things to see and do in Fisherman’s Wharf as you stroll through it. It will leave you with lots of ideas of things to do in San Francisco.
How to get to and Where to Park to visit Fisherman’s Wharf
If you are following my suggestion of starting your visit at Pier 39, then there is a large parking garage right across the street. There is a well-marked entrance on The Embarcadero when heading west, or heading east on North Point Street.
If you decide to start at the west end of Fisherman’s Wharf, then there is a lot under Ghirardelli Square.
The lots are not cheap and occasionally there is street parking available at odd hours (very early).
If you have the ability not to bring a car, great. Some people combine a Cable Car ride with a visit to Fisherman’s Wharf and that works great. Both Hyde Street and Taylor Street Cable Car Lines end in Fisherman’s Wharf. The F Line historic streetcars work as well from The Ferry Building. And Uber, Lyft and taxis will not be expensive from downtown San Francisco as it is pretty close.
And if you are in the mood to do lots of walking, it is a 1.5 mile (2.5km) walk from Union Square to Pier 39. And there are no big hills to climb.
Things to do on Pier 39
I like starting my walking tours with friends at Pier 39. It is a total tourist invention, but pretty well done.
I usually start by taking people to the outer west railing of the pier to see the sea lions. The Pier 39 sea lions moved in the Fall of 1989. And when I say moved in, I mean they jumped out of the water and landed on the boat docks. Within a few months, there were 300 and most of the boats that had been using the west-side Pier 39 marina had to moved out. A male California Sea Lion can weigh in at over 800 pounds (360kg) and 7 feet long (2.1m) – females are slimmer at 200 pounds (90kg) and 6 feet (1.8m) long.
The number of sea lions at Pier 39 peaked at 1,700 and sometimes I have been there when there are less than 100. I think one reason people are attracted is that sea lions are very close to the pier so you can see them well. And they are playful and noisy. Even when there are only 100 there will always be one jumping off the dock and another one jumping on. They have mini-fights when they bump into each other on the docks. Most people have not been this close to large wild mammals before.
While you are on the outside of the pier, I recommend you go to the end of the pier. This is the closest spot to Alcatraz in all of San Francisco (1.1 miles, 1.7km). It is a good place for some Instagram selfies with great Bay views – you can see the Golden Gate Bridge in the west and all the way to the Bay Bridge in the east – and right down at water level. This is the only place in San Francisco that you can do that.
Now walk through the center of Pier 39 and take advantage of any shop or attraction that excites you. As mentioned above there is no shortage of snack choices and if you are really hungry there are plenty of restaurants. But be aware there are at least 100 more places to eat along the rest of this walk and if you are looking for seafood or sourdough bread, I would wait.
I have had friends tell me they spent two to three hours on Pier 39 and were not bored – and I have had friends tell me they walked through it in 10 minutes. I think the more kids you have the longer it takes. There are various free shows at the little theater on the pier.
When you exit Pier 39, turn right and head west along the bay. We walk past Pier 41 which is where the Alcatraz ferry and many of the Bay Cruise Boats leave. I try to get all my visiting friends to get out on the bay at least once on the visit.
The next pier is Pier 43 which has the large headhouse built in 1914. This was a railroad-ferry connection point for the Belt Railroad. The headhouse had cranes in it that would lift the rail cars onto the ferries. They would take the cars across the Golden Gateway to Marin County where they connected to track that went to Portland and Seattle.
Sourdough Bread and Boudin Bakery
At this point The Embarcadero heads along the water and Jefferson Street starts slightly inland. Jefferson is the main street through Fisherman’s Wharf. If you are eager to ‘hit the shops’ then cross over to the south side Jefferson Street and stay on it until you reach Boudin Bakery – a very large place for a bakery. It is directly across the street from Madame Trousseau’s Wax Museum.
If you want to skip these first shops, stay along the waterfront and walk until you see Boudin Bakery.
In either case, I recommend you go inside this interesting place. You can view the bakery, get tasting samples, buy takeaway bread or sandwiches, eat in the bistro or upstairs in the full dinning restaurant. I have done all of these to my delight.
The Boudin Bakery was founded in San Francisco by a French baker immigrant, Isadore Boudin, in 1849, just 3 years after Captain Montgomery planted the American flag in Portsmouth Square and declared San Francisco part of the United States. Boudin started making sourdough bread using the standard method with ‘mother yeast’. This means taking some of the yeast each day to make bread and letting the rest grow overnight and then repeating the process. Most bakers switched to the easier to use baker’s yeast, so only Boudin can claim that their yeast is now over 150 years old. More importantly, I know that their sourdough bread is ‘wonderful’.
Leave Boudin Bakery on the Bay side and head to the water. The Franciscan Crab restaurant is on the water. Go to the left of it and you will find Historic Pier 45. This is a very wide long pier with a street running down the middle of it. But you want to stay on the right-hand side next to the water and walk down to two World War II ships that are anchored there.
Visit USS Pampanito submarine and SS Jeremiah O’Brien liberty ship
If you have never been on a submarine, now is the time. It is cramped. You need to go inside to really feel how cramped it is and how dangerous and uncomfortable this experience was. And you begin to appreciate the hardships people dealt with during that world war.
If you have time, I would do the combo. The liberty ships were built by the hundreds in a shipyard in Sausalito, just across the Golden Gate Bridge. Kids love running around the old ship.
The Musee Mecanique is a special place to me as I grew up loving the mechanical arcade games. Entrance to the museum is free, you only have to pay to play the games. Even if you are not a lover of these old machines, I think you will have fun taking five minutes to wander through. If you are like me, you will need to play one or two games so give it fifteen minutes.
When you exit the museum, continue right and you will be looking down an industrial looking street, actually this is the end of the Embarcadero, and the street heading down the pier is named Fisherman’s Wharf, because this really is the wharf the commercial fishermen use. It is the primary place that the fish are processed. If you come when boats are unloading, you might get a glimpse.
I usually skip the industrial part and head right to the famous Fisherman’s Wharf restaurants. The Italian immigrants settled the North Beach area of San Francisco (Fisherman’s Wharf is part of North Beach). In the 1880 and 1890’s they started having their fishing boats use the wharf that was where Fisherman’s Wharf is today.
Who Built Fisherman’s Wharf
A businessman, scoundrel and promoter named Henry Meiggs built Fisherman’s Wharf. He arrived in San Francisco in 1949 and started promoting the idea of building piers at North Beach as it was closer to Golden Gate than the existing piers. Meiggs built a very long pier out into the Bay, almost 2000 feet (600 m) – longer than the Fisherman’s Wharf pier today.
Unfortunately for Meiggs, without a breakwater, there were few boats willing to use his harbor and he was running out of money. But he managed to steal an unissued San Francisco City Bond Book, and began selling forged City Bonds to the tune of $500,000. Just as he was about to get caught, he loaded his family on a yacht, told friends he was heading out for a Sunday picnic on the Bay and then sailed all the way to Chile.
The story gets better. Meiggs landed in Chile, quickly got in the railroad business building the second railroad in Chile and then building more railroads in Peru. He made a fortune and he paid back all the people he swindled in San Francisco. But was denied reentry into California by the Governor and died a very rich man in Peru.
Meiggs’ Fisherman’s Wharf pier remained and North Beach started to prosper. The original Meiggs Pier burned to the waterline on the second day of the 1906 earthquake fire,
Seafood restaurants and walkaway crab cocktails
As you leave the Pier 45 Historic Pier walk on the sidewalk past the line of Italian seafood restaurants. Grotto Number 9, Alioto’s Number 8, Nick’s Seafood, Sabella & La Torre, Crab Station, Guardino’s ad all before you reach the corner. This is where mainly Dungeness Crabs are cooked in huge boiling pots. You can buy whole crabs or small walkaway crab or shrimp cocktails. Or you can decide to eat inside. Alioto’s and Grotto Number 9 both have great views in the back overlooking the fishing boats. But don’t be hasty you still have at least 50 more restaurants to go on this walk.
Fisherman’s Wharf Corner
Across the street from all the crab pots is an ugly parking lot that is always full when I try to use it.
And next to the parking lot, on the corner of Jefferson and Taylor streets, is the famous Fisherman’s Wharf sign. Almost every time I have shown friends Fisherman’s Wharf there is some form of musical street artist doing there show next to the sign. The sidewalks are crowded here and the added noise just adds to the carnival atmosphere.
Taylor Street Cable Cars and F Line Antique Street Cars
If you look up Taylor Street, you will usually see some cable cars a couple of blocks away. This is the Taylor Street line and if you are staying downtown and it is time to leave Fisherman’s Wharf, this can be a fun ride home (it is now priced just for tourists so not cheap.) It will drop you at Union Square or as far as Market Street. If you want a more affordable yet historic ride home, you are in luck. The corner you are on also is where the F Line Historic Streetcars run. The cars come from all over the world and have been fully restored. You can take the F-line back to The Ferry Building at the end of Market Street and California Avenue.
Fishing Boats, Day Boats and World Famous Bushman
If you go up Taylor Street you will find plenty of tourist shops and quick places to eat, so I usually turn right onto Jefferson Street and walk past a couple more boiling crab pots to a good place to see up close a few of the Fisherman’s Wharf fishing boats. Most of the boats in this section are rentable for day fishing trips and a couple of boats just take people out to the Golden Gate Bridge and back. If you don’t have another plan to get out on the Bay, then it is worth doing. Every first visit to San Francisco should include some kind of boat on the bay; sailing boat, ferry, fishing boat even a kayak will do.
This is also the section of Jefferson Street that you need to be on the look out for San Francisco’s Bushman. This may be the most simplistic street artist ‘act’ of all time. It involves tying some green bush branches to a couple of boards. Then the artist ‘hides’ behind the bushes (as you can see from the photo, he is hardly hidden). He waits until a person, couple or group passes by him and then he jumps up and shouts ‘hey’. The unsuspecting people usually have a quick scare response (like a quick jump away from him). At this point the tourists who have been watching him laugh at his ability to not really hide, but still scare people. Then they wait for the next unsuspecting person to come along the sidewalk and the act happens all over again. Before walking away some of the onlookers will give a tip to the Bushman for the laugh he gave them.
If this all seems a little silly… well it is. But before you scoff, David Johnson, who has been doing this act for over 40 years has reported income of around $60,000 a year. A couple of years ago, I was lunching with an out-of-town friend at an outside table on Jefferson Street and the Bushman happened to be ‘working’ across the street. In thirty minutes, we estimated he made well over $100.
Scoma’s seafood restaurant in Fisherman’s Wharf has probably never been a secret. That said, you have to know where it is or you will miss it. As you walk past the nice view of the fishing boats, you will also pass a nice Italian restaurant named Castagnoli’s. After that there is an alley, now named Al Acoma Way. Whether you are hungry or not I recommend you walk down the alley until you get the bridge to the pier on which Scoma’s Restaurant sits. It is on this bridge you will get a nice feel about the boats and some of the fisherman that really still work here.
In 1965, Al Scoma and his brother quit their jobs at the Castagnoli’s on the corner and bought a small coffeeshop on the pier that was exclusively serving the fishermen. They turned it into what was quickly the most popular restaurant on the wharf. For the last 50 years it is rumored to be the busiest restaurant in all of San Francisco with over 1,500 customers daily.
At this point I bring people to Scoma’s because it is just like it was in 1965, so it has a nice family feel, the location makes you feel like you are right in the heart of fresh fish, and the food is great.
Frank’s Fisherman’s Supply
Head back from Scoma’s to Jefferson Street and turn right to continue down the street. More restaurants, some with outdoor seating which can be nice on a sunny day (and watch all the crazy tourist walk by). After a block, you will encounter Frank’s Fisherman’s Supply. I have loved that this store is still here. It was started in 1946 to serve the commercial fishing fleet when no tourists were at the wharf. Over the years they have added some tourist merchandise, but can still be a fun stop.
International Spy Shop
After passing Frank’s you will hit Leavenworth Street and we are going one block inland. I have been asked if it is named Leavenworth because you can see Alcatraz from the street and there is a large prison in Leavenworth Kansas. The answer is no, it was named after San Francisco’s first mayor in 1848, Thaddaeus Leavenworth.
I sometime look at the windows of the Waterfront Bakery on Leavenworth, they can have interesting displays (and good bread if you are still hungry).
When you get to Beach Street turn left if you have an interest in looking all the gadgets and stuff in the International Spy Shop. With kids it is always a hit and they have lots of affordable gadgets for kids. In any case, our walk will head the other way for a short distance to the entrance to the cannery.
The Del Monte Cannery
When you get to a break between the two huge old brick building, you will turn back towards the water and head into the courtyard of the what is now known as The Cannery. All of the original buildings here burned down in 1906 and that is when these now old brick buildings were built to be the world’s largest fruit cannery for Del Monte. Back then, Jefferson Street was the shoreline and boats could dock right at the factory.
The Cannery is now both shops and a hotel. One of the interesting things is that when old buildings are renovated in San Francisco, they need to be reinforced for earthquakes. To do this for the Cannery, they retrofitted hundreds of building-wide steel bars in both directions. You can see the ends with all the metal circle plates on the sides of the brick walls.
When you get back to Jefferson Street turn left and go to the corner. This is a great corner for things to do.
In the Cannery Building is a small but interesting Maritime museum which is part of the National Park Service and is free. There is a nice exhibit which explains how difficult it is for ships to find the pathway into the Golden Gate without running aground. There is also a map of all the shipwrecks as well. The entrance to the Argonaut Hotel next to the museum has a historical pictorial in it, if you are a super history buff.
Hyde Street Pier and Historic Ships
If you head down Hyde Street towards the water, you will quickly come to the entrance to the Historic Ship section of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. The park covers not only the pier but also the Aquatic Park which is the grassy area and beach and bath house buildings next door.
If you have time the ships are very cool, especially for kids to climb all over. The Balclutha sailing ship has the most adventurous history. The Balclutha was built in the 1880s in Scotland. It sailed from Europe around Cape Horn at the tip of South America to San Francisco 17 times. In 1899 it moved to Hawaii and traded coal from Australia for timber from California.
In 1904 it was converted to a fishing and floating cannery for salmon fishing in Alaska. It went from having 26 crew members and a lot of cargo, to crew and canning workers up to 200 at a time.
In 1930 the Balclutha retired from fishing. In 1933, it was used in the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty. In 1954 it was bought by the museum and restored to its 1880s look.
One more interesting part of Hyde Street pier is the US 101 Highway sign just as you get to the pier. The pier was built in 1922 as a ferry dock to take cars back and forth to Marin county as part of the highway. This stopped in 1937 when the Golden Gate Bridge opened and Highway 101 was rerouted to the bridge.
The Dolphin Club and Escape from Alcatraz
As you leave the Hyde Street Pier and get back to the corner with Jefferson Street, there are two building to your right which front Jefferson Street and their backs are built over the Bay. The second one is the Dolphin Club which was started in 1877 and has about 1,500 members. Most of the people you will see swimming laps in what is usually very chilly water are Dolphin Club members. But they are more famous for their annual ‘Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon’ that was started in 1981. It includes a swim section from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park a distance of about 1.5 miles (2.4km) with no wetsuit for almost all swimmers, then a 14-mile (22.5km) bike ride over the Golden Gate Bridge to Mill Valley, and finishing with a run on the Dipsea Trail over Mount Tamalpais to Stinson Beach and back to Mill Valley for a total of 11 miles (17.7km).
The US Federal Government has said for years that no one ever escaped from Alcatraz, mainly because the Bay is too dangerous to make it to the shore. Over 50,000 swimmers have done the now two annual Escape Triathlons, no wetsuits. So, you can decide on your own if any prisoners ever made it across.
Aquatic Cove and Beach
Just past the Dolphin Club is the end of Jefferson Street. You can see a small sandy beach in Aquatic Cove. It has a nice breakwater and thus is very safe even for toddlers. It is one of the few beaches in this section of San Francisco so you often see locals using it, especially on warm sunny days. The bleachers and the changing rooms behind were built in the 1930s as an effort to cause employment during the Great Depression.
You also have a view of the Golden Gate Bridge from here.
Hyde Street Cable Car Turnaround
If you climb the hill from the beach heading left a bit heading toward Hyde Street, you will reach the end of the Hyde Street Cable Car Line and the place the cable cars are turned around. In the old days, they let the passengers help spin the cars around, but too many accidents stopped that practice.
The Hyde Street Line is my favorite as it goes up Russian Hill to the top. You get a great view of the wharf and Alcatraz in one direction. When you get to the top, you are at Lombard Street (‘crooked street in the world’ fame). That gives you a great view of Coit Tower. You can get off the cable car at Lombard Street, next to Chinatown, Union Square or ride all the way to Market Street (which is the same ending as the Taylor Street Line).
Who invented Irish Coffee?
Well if you ask most people in San Francisco, they would say the Buena Vista Café. Which is right across the street from the cable car turnabout. The story is that it happened in 1952 on a dark and stormy night.
The actual story is that a frequent patron of the Buena Vista had tried the drink in Ireland at the place that did invent it in 1947 and they spent the dark and stormy night figuring out how to duplicate it.
But the myth maybe better than the facts, as the Buena Vista makes a great Irish Coffee and sells 2,000 a day, so expect a crowd.
And in case you are feeling both hungry and rich, Gary Danko’s Michelin starred restaurant is one block up the hill at the corner of Hyde and North Point.
But before considering going for a cable car ride, or planning the afternoon at the Buena Vista or the evening at Gary Danko, head west one block on Beach Street to Ghirardelli Square.
What to see at Ghirardelli Square
Ghirardelli Square was built originally to house a Woolen Mill and then used as the factory and headquarters of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company. Ghirardelli was started in San Francisco in 1852, making it the third oldest still existing chocolate company (behind Baker’s and Whitman).
In 1893, Ghirardelli Chocolate was thriving and the company bought the entire city block of what is now Ghirardelli Square. The Ghirardelli Chocolate Company is still the third largest chocolate company in the United States – Hersey and Mars are bigger. In 1960, the company moved their headquarters to San Leandro across the Bay. And in 1964 renovations were completed on the buildings and Ghirardelli Square was opened.
Ghirardelli Square is comprised of several buildings and has a large plaza in the middle with fountains and shops and restaurants around it. A few years ago, the Fairmont Hotel chain leased one of the buildings and put a five-star hotel in the top section of it.
The most fun attraction at Ghirardelli Square is the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory and Ice Cream store. It has a large working demonstration of chocolate production when the factory was here. Great fun for kids of all ages.
I hope you have enjoyed your visit to Fisherman’s Wharf. If you want to discover more of San Francisco, consider our other walks: