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Visitor Guide to Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco
San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf was once home to a fleet of more than 400 fishing boats. The were the tiny, colorful ones that you still see on postcards with names like Lucky Lady and Pico - and Golden Gate, owned by Sal Alioto, whose grandfather had it built in the 1930s. They're all that's left of the old fleet.
Today, when people say Fisherman's Wharf, the first things that come to mind (after that postcard image) are sourdough bread, sidewalk food stands, souvenir shops, and (maybe) chocolate.
Locals turn up their hoity-toity noses about Fisherman's Wharf and complain that it's all fake. I have to agree that this San Francisco icon is getting a bit tired, but most visitors feel they haven't seen San Francisco unless they go.
It's popular with all ages and interests, even if they may decide that it's overrated after they go there. In fact, when more than 1,800 of our readers rated Fisherman's Wharf in a poll 66% said it was good or... awesome, but 21% gave it the lowest rating.
Things to Do at Fisherman's Wharf
Fisherman's Wharf is between Pier 35 and Aquatic Park (where Van Ness Avenue meets the bay near Ghirardelli Square). Normally, that would include Pier 39, but there's a lot to do there, which you can check out in the Guide to Seeing Pier 39.
You have a lot of options for getting discounts for the Fisherman's Wharf attractions, and you should evaluate the options before you buy. You can find out about both of them in the in-depth evaluations of the San Francisco CityPASS and the Go San Francisco Card which offers a lot of attractions all over town at a very reasonable price.
Keep clicking through this slideshow, and you'll see all the things to do at Fisherman's Wharf. Because you're a smart visitor who read all these tips, you'll know where to find the authentic side of Fisherman's Wharf and can surprise your traveling companions with your knowledge.
Where to "Go" at Fisherman's Wharf
Restrooms are hard to find at Fisherman's Wharf but don't start squirming yet. You can find public restrooms across Taylor Street from the sidewalk seafood stands. You can also find them at Pier 39, The Cannery and Anchorage shopping centers, and at Ghirardelli Square.
What You Need to Know About Visiting Fisherman's Wharf
The wharf is open daily, and there is no admission fee. It is along the waterfront on Jefferson Street between Powell and Hyde.
A slow walk through it takes about half an hour. Allow more time for souvenir shopping, seeing attractions or eating in a Fisherman's Wharf restaurant.
How to Get to Fisherman's Wharf
Fisherman's Wharf is about halfway between the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges. The historic "F" waterfront trolley goes there, and the cable car stop at Mason and Bay (about a block away) is less busy than the one at Hyde Street below Ghirardelli Square, but the best way to get here depends on where you're coming from. Check out all the other options.
If you're driving, expect to pay exorbitant rates for parking. Scarce parking meters have a one-hour limit, and non-metered spots require a resident permit.
If you park in this area, you should also know that it's one of the worst places in San Francisco for car break-ins. Don't leave anything tempting-looking in sight - and it's better to just take all your valuables with you.Continue to 2 of 14 below.
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Madame Tussaud's San Francisco
The Wax Museum at Fisherman's Wharf has been a fixture since 1963. Like Ripley's down the street, it's one of the places that people either like or hate. And I guess one person's tourist trap is another person's don't-miss sight. It's at 166 Jefferson Street.
Find out more at the Madame Tussaud's San Francisco websiteContinue to 3 of 14 below.
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Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum
This place holds two floors full of weird stuff, oddities and the truly unbelievable. Like that "genuine" two-headed cow.
Opinions about it are so divided that it could be called "Like It Or Not," with some folks finding it fascinating and others thinking it's "cheesy and touristy."
It's also located on Jefferson Street, across from Boudin Bakery.Continue to 4 of 14 below.
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Sourdough bread has been made in San Francisco since the Gold Rush, but nowadays it's synonymous with Boudin.
Their facility at Fisherman's Wharf sells loaves of the famous bread and has a full-service restaurant upstairs. They also offer daily tours, and you can see the bakers at work through a big window facing Jefferson Street.Continue to 5 of 14 below.
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Bay Cruise Terminal
This rotating sign marks the piers where the Red and White Cruise line leaves for their harbor cruises. Find out more about taking a San Francisco bay cruise.Continue to 6 of 14 below.
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SS Jeremiah O'Brien and USS Pampanito
These two world War II icons are docked at Pier 45, next to the Red and White Fleet dock.
SS Jeremiah O'Brien
The big boat is a World War II Liberty Ship, one of 2,710 built during the war. Of all those, it's one of only two full-functional Liberty Ships left and is the last unaltered one. Tours are given daily, and she goes out for cruises during the annual Fleet Week event in October and at other times.
Find out more at the SS Jeremiah O'Brien website.
SS-383 is a World War II Balao class Fleet submarine which sank six Japanese ships during her career in the Pacific. It's open for tours seven days a week.Continue to 7 of 14 below.
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This museum is so much fun! It's full of old-fashioned arcade games and curiosities, which still seem to charm even the most jaded of kids.
I learned this from my friend Annie when I took her there: Don't just stand there looking at all those funky old machines. Instead, find the nearest change machine and drop a few quarters in the machines for some fun entertainment.
For more information, visit the Musee Mechanique website.Continue to 8 of 14 below.
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At the corner of Jefferson and Taylor, the sidewalk is lined with little takeaway food stands. They sell crab, shirmp and other seafood.
Crab season usually starts in November. You may be able to get a fresh one then if you ask for it. The rest of the year, they've been frozen before cooking.
If you buy a cooked crab on the wharf, the people at the stand will clean it for you; then you can take somewhere nearby for an impromptu picnic, to eat with that loaf of sourdough bread you just bought.Continue to 9 of 14 below.
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Boats at Fisherman's Wharf
Those postcard-perfect boats you've seen at Fisherman's Wharf are just past Taylor Street. You'll also find a few boats docked there that can take you out for a sightseeing tour or a fishing trip.Continue to 10 of 14 below.
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The Real Fisherman's Wharf
After you've seen that tourist part of Fisherman's Wharf, take a couple of minutes to see the more authentic part of it. Look for the walkway next to the restaurants that goes to the piers behind those colorful boats.
This little chapel is one of the things you'll find. It was built in 1981. Inside are bronze plaques with the names of those who have lost their lives at sea. You may also find fishermen working on their boats, and you're almost guaranteed to meet a few seagulls.
Keep going toward the bay, and you'll find the commercial fishing pier. Those contraptions you may see piled up on the dock are crab traps. To see boats bringing in their catch, go EARLY, about 6:00 to 7:00 a.m.
Walk back to Jefferson to continue your visit.Continue to 11 of 14 below.
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Located on Pier 37 at the end of Al Scoma Way, Scoma's restaurant is said to be one of the country's highest-grossing eateries.
You get there by walking down Al Scoma Way from Jefferson. This photo was taken from the back of the wharf, the area you just explored. You can see Scoma's fishing boat in the foreground and the Golden Gate Bridge behind.
More Fisherman's Wharf Restaurants
Scoma's is only one of many places to eat at Fisherman's Wharf. If you're looking for the best in fresh seafood, you may want to go somewhere else. None of the restaurants in this area make the list of the best seafood in San Francisco, but I know that won't keep some of you from wanting to eat there. To help you make the best of what's available, check the guide to eating in a Fisherman's Wharf restaurant.Continue to 12 of 14 below.
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San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park
Sometimes called Hyde Street Pier for its location, the Maritime Historic Park is a collection of historic ships, including a square-rigger "tall ship" called the Balclutha, an 1890 steam-powered ferryboat, a paddle wheeler and other interesting watercraft. In fall, they present an annual sea music concert series, with performers singing chanteys and seafaring ballads aboard the Balclutha.
The ships are on the waterfront near where Hyde Street ends at Jefferson Street. The visitor center is at the corner of Hyde and Jefferson. You can find out more about the museum at the Maritime Park website.Continue to 13 of 14 below.
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Hyde and Beach Streets
The intersection of Hyde and Beach Streets has something to see on almost every corner. To get there, walk up the hill from the Hyde Street Pier to Beach Street.
Cable Car Turnaround
The end of the Hyde Street cable car line is at Hyde and Beach. You can get good photos of the cars there, of people boarding and the drivers turning the cars on a big turntable, but the lines can be maddeningly long. The only reason to wait in them is if you want to ride up Hyde to get off at the top of Lombard Street.
Otherwise, when you're ready to ride a cable car, you'll have a shorter wait if you walk just a few blocks to the end of the Powell line at Taylor and Bay. It goes to the same end point near Union Square. Here's what you need about know about how to ride a cable car.
You'll usually find street vendors along Beach Street. They sell jewelry, souvenirs, and small decorative items, their prices are reasonable, and quality is good.
Buena Vista Cafe
The hot coffee and... whiskey drink called Irish coffee made its U.S. debut at the Buena Vista Cafe, and they still sell them by the hundreds. It's at the corner of Hyde and Beach, just above the cable car stop. Find out how that concoction got to San Francisco and what all the fuss is about.
Just below Ghirardelli Square, this protected cove is a good place for kids to play. If they get sand all over themselves, there's a convenient outdoor shower nearby to clean them up.
Members of the Dolphin Club and Southend Rowing Club swim at Aquatic Park nearly every day, but sfwater.org reports that water quality sometimes fails to meet state standards.
The grassy area above the water is a good place for a rest, a romp or a photo op. Fourth of July fireworks go off from the end of the pier.Continue to 14 of 14 below.
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Your friends and relatives — and even those random strangers you asked online — may tell you that you just have to go to Ghirardelli Square. They'll rave about how delicious the chocolate is, and what a big mistake you'll make if you skip it. Here's the naked truth about that, in this woman's opinion:
Ghirardelli is definitely famous. It may have seemed extraordinary in 1950 or even 1980. Today, it's far from the best place for chocolate in San Francisco. If you're a serious chocoholic, try these Best Places for Chocolate Lovers to Get a Sugar Rush in San Francisco instead.
Fundamentally, Ghirardelli Square is just another place to shop for souvenirs and decorative items, and you can buy their chocolates almost anywhere in town. Or even at your local grocery store.
I'm not the only one who thinks the place is overrated. In a poll of 670 of our readers, 54 percent of them rated Ghirardelli Square great or awesome, and 24 percent gave it the lowest possible... rating. That puts it among the lowest-rated San Francisco attractions.
Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop
Domingo Ghirardelli came to San Francisco during the 1849 Gold Rush, making his fortune not by mining gold but by selling chocolate. Today's Ghirardelli Square was originally built as a factory making wool fabric in 1864. The Ghirardelli Company moved there from Jackson Square in the late 1890s.
The chocolate factory is elsewhere these days, but you can shop in the gift shop, which sells chocolate in San Francisco souvenir packs.
For a chocolate fix on the spot, you can stop by the dessert and coffee cafe. My Gal Pal says their specialty sundaes are "large, indulgent scoops of heaven." On the other hand, I think they're gooey and too sweet.
Ghirardelli Square is at 900 North Point Street, San Francisco, CA. It's open daily, although some shops may have limited hours. Get more information about it at the Ghirardelli Square Website.