An Insider's Guide to the Embarcadero Neighborhood

Historic tramway on the Embarcadero along San Francisco waterfront in California

Didier Marti/Getty Images

The Embarcadero stretches along San Francisco's eastern bayside shoreline, a 3-mile-long seawall and walkway lined with piers hosting everything from East Bay ferries to bars, restaurants, and cruise ships. It stretches from Fisherman's Wharf south to China Basin, with the more-than-century-old Ferry Building at its center.

San Francisco Ferry Building
Hal Bergman Photography/Getty Images 

History

California's Gold Rush brought hundreds of ships to San Francisco, carrying hopeful prospectors who then abandoned them hoping to strike it rich. This created an impromptu landfill, which then became the Embarcadero. For years, the bulk of visitors to San Francisco came through the Ferry Building by sea — something that changed with the opening of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in 1936, and the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937. In fact, the neighborhood became something of an eyesore for decades, as the Ferry Building fell into decline and much of SF's shipping moved across the bay to Oakland. With the construction of the Embarcadero Freeway in the 1960s, the area seemed all but forgotten.

But after sustaining damage during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the freeway closed and was soon torn down, opening up the waterfront to redevelopment—including a palm-lined boulevard, and public sculptures that have helped transform the Embarcadero into one of San Francisco's most scenic spots. Today the renovated Ferry Building is once again the neighborhood's crown jewel; reopening as a gourmet food hall in 2003.

Cupid's Span.
 Pankaj Upadhyay / EyeEm

Things to See & Do

Whether it's an afternoon stroll along the waterfront, or an evening visit to soak in views of the Bay Lights — the world's “largest light installation” — the Embarcadero offers plenty to see and do. It's expansive walkway has become an exercise hub, with joggers forging paths between the wandering tourists and cyclists utilizing the neighboring bike lane. Along the way there are benches offering scenic views and various public art installations such as Cupid's Span, a 60-foot-tall outdoor sculpture rising up from the waterfront's Rincon Park. There's also the Promenade Ribbon, a 2.5-mile linear sculpture that lines the Embarcadero walkway — its glass blocks and fiber optic lighting commemorating the city's historic seawall — and numerous plaques featuring stories, photos, and artifacts highlighting the neighborhood's history. Each winter, there's a holiday ice skating rink set up at Embarcadero Plaza (formerly Justin Herman Plaza) just west of the Ferry Building, which is home to one of the city's top gourmet food halls as well as an illustrious farmers market that takes place Saturdays (there's also a smaller market on Tuesdays and Thursdays). You can literally spend hours browsing the selection of fresh vegetables, herbs, fruits, and flowers, sampling artisan jams and breads, and enjoying breakfast while overlooking the bay.

There are ample shopping opportunities inside the Ferry Building as well, at places like Beekind, a purveyor of delicious local honeys, Heath Ceramics — known for their beautifully handcrafted ceramic dishware — and Book Passage, a local gathering spot filled with literary wonders. Taste local olive oils, sip cups of artisan Dandelion Chocolate, and peruse a vast selection of mouthwatering cheeses. In fact, the Ferry Building has so much to explore, it's worth allotting a large chunk of time here, even on a non-farmers market day.

Since 2013, the Embarcadero waterfront has also been home to one of the city's most beloved museums: the Exploratorium, an interactive space highlighting science and art with an array of hands-on exhibits, many that involve playing with gravity, motion, light, sound, and everything in between. It's for kids and adults alike, and really takes advantage of its bayside space with outdoor exhibits that capture wind sounds, examine the different colors and water, and determines which way the tide is flowing. Don't miss the Tactile Dome, a pitch black maze that you navigate through touch.

AT&T Ballpark, home of the World Series-Winning San Francisco Giants
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From April through October, AT&T Park (located in China Basin, on the Embarcadero's southern end) roars to life as the home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team, three-time World Champions since 2010. Even if you're not a fan of “America's favorite pastime,” a visit to the park is worth it for its incredible bay views. Tours of the ballpark are available throughout the year, when the Giants are out of town, and include access to the dugouts, batting cage, and visitors' clubhouse. AT&T Park occasionally hosts concerts too, from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band to Guns & Roses.

There are both bicycle rental stations and Ford GoBike stations at strategic spots along the Embarcadero, and City Kayak, just north of the ballpark, offers options for exploring the bay by canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard (SUP).

Where to Eat & Drink

There is no shortage of dining and imbibing options along the Embarcadero Waterfront, though the less expensive places like legendary dive Red's Java House and spots inside the Ferry Building tend to close early. Begin your day with avocado toast from Frog Hollow Market, a generous helping of ripe avocado sprinkled with pepper and salt and served on Acme bread. Or brave the line at Blue Bottle Coffee for their signature pour-over. A longtime Ferry Building occupant, Gott's Roadside puts a fresh take on roadside stands with its California-inspired eats and local ingredients. Place an order for burgers, fries, and a must-have shake (the menu also features seafood tacos and kale salads), then snag a seat at one of the outdoor communal tables for prime people-watching while you eat.

Also in the Ferry Building is the Slanted Door, an SF institution. Chef Charles Phan creates modern Vietnamese dishes that incorporate such ingredients as gulf shrimp, pork shoulder, and vermicelli noodles, and the restaurant's stunning bayside location — with windows overlooking the ferry ports — couldn't be better. Just north of the Ferry Building on Pier 3 is Hard Water, a New Orleans-inspired eatery with vaulted ceilings, a marble U-shaped bar, and nearly every whiskey varietal you can imagine. Places like the Ferry's Building's MarketBar and Hi Dive — a watering hole closer to AT&T Park — are perfect stops for pre- and post-game drinks, though if you're looking for a party, nothing beats the Pier 23 Cafe. Lounge on its sprawling deck by day sipping wine while watching the sailboats float past, or enjoy the warm sounds of jazz by night. Food is served throughout the day.

Where to Stay

The boutique European-style Hotel Griffon, luxury Hotel Vitale — with its outdoor rooftop terrace and onsite spa — and the sci-fi looking Hyatt Regency are all located along the Embarcadero.

How to Get There

Most all MUNI metro lines (minus the Third Street line) run through Embarcadero, as well as all BART Trains coming from the East and South bays. Ferries to and from Oakland, Vallejo, and Alameda run year-round. 

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