The Embarcadero: Planning Your Trip

Historic tramway on the Embarcadero along San Francisco waterfront in California

Didier Marti / Getty Images

Of all the scenic areas to visit in San Francisco, the Embarcadero is a contender for the most picturesque spot in the city. The bayside neighborhood stretches for 3 miles from Fisherman's Wharf at the northern end all the way down to Oracle Park where the Giants play, perfect for a leisurely waterfront stroll or a ride on one of the city's iconic cable cars. Apart from numerous eateries, bars, and things to see along the way, the Embarcadero is home to some of the city's most important attractions, such as Pier 39 and the Ferry Building.

A Bit of 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.

Getting Around

The entire Embarcadero is 3 miles long and you can walk the entire length in about an hour, not including time to stop for photos, snacks, or sightseeing. Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39 are at the northern tip of the Embarcadero and Oracle Park is at the southern end, with the Ferry Building more or less the midpoint between them.

To get from the Ferry Building to Fisherman's Wharf via public transit, hop aboard the F bus. This isn't one of the red cable cars, but it is one of the traditional wired trams that's still fun to ride—and way less touristy. If you want to get from the Ferry Building to Oracle park or down south, take the N line of the MUNI.

Since San Francisco is the techie capital of the world, it's no surprise that there are plenty of e-bikes and scooters that you can rent with a phone app and use to zip around the Embarcadero, such as Bay Wheels by Lyft.

Things to Do

A trip to San Francisco isn't complete without stopping at the Embarcadero, if not just to get the views of the Bay Bridge crossing over to Yerba Buena Island as sailboats cruise by. When the sun comes out, this popular thoroughfare quickly fills up with tourists, joggers, cyclists, dog walkers, and everyone else who wants to enjoy the crisp sea air. Make sure to stop by once the sun goes down to get a view of Bay Lights, the light show that dazzles along the Bay Bridge every single evening.

  • Pier 39: Of the many piers along the Embarcadero, none is more famous than Pier 39. This shopping center is one of the most visited attractions in San Francisco and even though it's very touristy, the quirky shops, street buskers, and timeless carousel keep people coming. You can pay to enter the aquarium at the pier or just walk to the end to get a glimpse of the resident sea lions who call Pier 39 home.
  • Fisherman's Wharf: Pier 39 is right at the edge of the neighborhood known as Fisherman's Wharf. It's another one of San Francisco's most touristy areas with attractions like a Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, but if it's your first time in the city there are some worthwhile reasons to visit. You can ride one of the legendary cable cars from Fisherman's Wharf right to downtown, an extra fun way to move around. Fisherman's Wharf is also home to Ghiradelli Square, the world-famous chocolate brand that originated right in San Francisco.
  • Exploratorium: The Exploratorium is meant to be for kids, but visitors of all ages are left in awe of this interactive museum. Founded by the renowned physicist Frank Oppenheimer, this science museum located on Pier 15 includes all types of educational exhibits that visitors can touch and play with. If you don't have kids, look for the weekly After Dark event that's just for adults with a bar and DJs.

What to Eat and Drink

Many of San Francisco's most quintessential dishes can trace their roots directly to the Embarcadero. San Francisco-style sourdough bread is as important to locals as the Golden Gate Bridge and the original maker is Boudin Bakery, which you can find on Fisherman's Wharf (they use the same sourdough starter that was used when the company was founded during the California gold rush in 1849). Clam chowder may be an East Coast staple, but clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl is 100 percent San Francisco and you can find it at seafood restaurants up and down the Embarcadero.

Another Embarcadero icon is the Irish coffee, which was actually born at the Buena Vista Cafe in Fisherman's Wharf and not in Ireland. You can find this boozy coffee drink at bars all along the Embarcadero and around the city, but the Buena Vista Cafe is still the best place to try this local libation.

If you're looking for somewhere to grab a bite with many options, the Ferry Building is just what you need. Today, the historic building houses a number of gourmet food stalls ranging from coffee shops, artisan cheesemongers, oyster shacks, burger joints, vegan restaurants, and much more. On Saturdays, you'll find a huge farmer's market right in front selling local produce and foods.

Where to Stay

The best neighborhood to stay in depends on what part of the Embarcadero you want to be near. To be close to the Ferry Building—and also public transit for easy access to the rest of the city—look for hotels around Union Square, which is also close to downtown BART and MUNI stations. If you prefer to be near Pier 39, you should find accommodations in the Fisherman's Wharf neighborhood or nearby North Beach. If you're coming for a Giants game, your best options are around SOMA or Mission Bay neighborhoods.

Getting There

Parking around the Embarcadero is almost impossible, so take public transit when you can. If you're coming from the East Bay or South San Francisco, you can take the BART train directly to the Embarcadero station, which exits right at the Ferry Building. If you're already in the city, almost all of the MUNI lines pass by the Embarcadero.

Not the fastest way but perhaps the most fun, there are also ferries that arrive at the piers along the Embarcadero coming from Oakland, Alameda, Sausalito, Vallejo, and other cities along the San Francisco Bay.

Money Saving Tips

  • The Embarcadero is one of San Francisco's greatest free attractions. You can enjoy the views, the people watching, and the public art displays without spending a dime if you pack your own food and get around on foot.
  • The restaurants at Pier 39 and near the water of Fisherman's Wharf tend to be the most expensive, so venture a few blocks into the city and away from the water for more affordable options.
  • Depending on how much you'll be moving around, consider purchasing a transit pass. You can buy a ticket for unlimited trips on all city buses and MUNI trains for one day, three days, or seven days.
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