Visitor Guide to Pier 39, San Francisco

Pier 39 in San Francisco

TripSavvy / Melissa Zink

Pier 39 is one of the most popular places to go in San Francisco. There are plenty of reviews, hashtags, and social media posts to prove that. Some people may think of it as the famous pier in San Francisco, especially if they can't remember its number.

In simple terms, Pier 39 is a tourist attraction. You can find lots of things to do there (which are listed in detail below), along with plenty of places to shop and eat.

Is Pier 39 part of Fisherman's Wharf? The pier is in the wharf area but is just one of many attractions you'll find there. It is not the same as the place where you can see those impossibly cute boats docked and get a snack from a sidewalk seafood stand.

Most of the people who go to Pier 39 are shoppers and souvenir-seekers — or folks who are just walking around taking in the scene. Pier 39 is also famous for the barking sea lions next door, which never lose their appeal. And the view of Alcatraz from the end of the pier is one of the best you can get from dry land.

However, tourism has moved on from the days when Pier 39 was first built, and some people say the experience seems less exciting than it once was.

Seals at Pier 39
TripSavvy / Melissa Zink

Things to Do at Pier 39

In general, what you'll find at Pier 39 are restaurants, souvenir shops and places selling those gee-gaws you buy on vacation and wonder later what you were thinking of. Best shopping bets: the chocolate shop and clothing items.

Sea Lions: The Pier 39 sea lions took over "K" dock next to the pier in 1990, becoming an immediate tourist favorite. You can see them from Pier 39, or try Pier 41 for a better view. In summer, don't be surprised to find the docks almost empty. Even sea lions have to take care of business, and they migrate south for the summer breeding season, coming back in August. You can also visit the Sea Lion Center where you can touch a sea lion pelt and size yourself up next to a real sea lion skeleton.

Musical Stairs: For a great selfie or vacation photo, don't miss the musical stairs, an interactive art exhibit by artist Remo Saraceni, who created the floor piano in the Tom Hank’s movie "Big." You'll find them going up to the second level in the middle of the pier.

San Francisco Carousel: Carved and painted in Italy, it's the only carousel in the U. S. that's decorated with paintings of its home city.

Street Performers: Some of San Francisco's best street performers appear in several shows daily. To find them, walk toward the Alcatraz viewing area and look for the stage.

Pier 39 Marina: On the quiet east side of the pier, walk behind the stores to enjoy views of the marina, Treasure Island, Bay Bridge, and Berkeley.

Theater 39: This small theater stages a variety of shows. Find out what's running now.

Aquarium of the Bay: A "diver's-eye" view of San Francisco Bay marine life. Visitors travel through clear, acrylic tunnels on a moving walkway through 707,000 gallons of bay water, coming nose-to-gill with myriad marine creatures. Admission charged.

DarkRide: It's a so-called 7-D experience that's like riding a rollercoaster and shooting away in a laser-blasting game all at once.

Magowan's Infinite Mirror Maze: It's an updated version of a classic carnival funhouse mirror mazes, where you can enjoy getting lost for a while.

Pier 39, San Francisco
TripSavvy / Melissa Zink

Pier 39 Tips

  • To see the sea lions without fighting crowds, don't go to the pier viewing area. Instead, walk along the east side of Pier 41 next door. You can't get quite as close to them from there, but it will be far less crowded.
  • Navigating Pier 39 with a stroller is challenging on busy days. Go early or late to avoid the crowds, or do without it if you can.
  • Pier 39 restrooms are free, and you may not find another one again soon. The ones upstairs are less crowded and cleaner.
  • Don't ignore the upper level. Half the shops are up there, it's quieter, and the views are great.
  • Use the upper level to get from front to back faster on a busy day, or try the outer walkways behind the stores.
  • If stairs are a problem, look for the elevators tucked away in the side corridors.
  • Fourth of July fireworks go off near Pier 39. One of the best places to watch them is from the top floor of the parking garage across the street.
Carousel at Pier 39 in San Francisco
TripSavvy / Melissa Zink

What You Need to Know About Pier 39

Pier 39 is open daily, but shop hours vary. You can walk around for free, but some of the pier attractions like the aquarium charge admission. Get more details about shops, restaurants, attractions and hours on the Pier 39 website.

Pier 39 is on Embarcadero Street on the waterfront between the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges. If you are already in town, take the historic "F" trolley from Market Street and the Ferry Building. From Union Square and Chinatown, use the Powell-Mason cable car.

If you're driving to Pier 39, your GPS can get you there. You'll also find plenty of signs in the tourist areas that direct you toward it (or to Fisherman's Wharf which is next door). If the San Francisco Giants are playing at home, avoid taking Interstate Highway 280 and Townsend Street, which will be jammed with people going to see the game.

There's a multi-story parking lot across the street from Pier 39. It's expensive but offers validation discounts as long as you buy something.