Pier 39 claims to be the United States' third-most-popular tourist attraction, after the Disney theme parks. A former commercial pier, it appeals mostly to shoppers and souvenir-seekers, but everyone enjoys the sea lions who lounge in the former marina next door.
Pier 39 shops and restaurants change too fast to keep up with, so we won't try to give you a list of them. In general, you'll find 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.
Scenes from Pier 39
Enjoy some of our best shots in this Pier 39 Photo Tour
Pier 39 Sights
- 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.
- Venetian Carousel: Carved and painted in Italy, it's the only carousel in the U. S. that's decorated with paintings of its home city.
- Crystal Geyser Center Stage: Some of San Francisco's best street performers appear here in several shows daily.
- Pier 39 Marina: On the quiet east side you can 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.
- Forbes Island: This man-made "island" was originally built to be a floating home. Now it's a restaurant docked next to Pier 39, open for dining Wednesday through Sunday. To avoid disappointment, you can make reservations through their website.
Pier 39 Tips
- See the sea lions without fighting crowds by walking along the west side of the marina (nearest the Golden Gate Bridge).
- Navigating 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 busy and cleaner.
- Don't ignore the upper level. Half the shops are up there, it's quieter and views are great.
- Use the upper level to get from front to back faster on a busy day, or try the outer walkway on the marina side.
- 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 is the top floor of the parking garage across the street.
Pier 39 Review
Pier 39 gets 3 stars out of 5 from me. It was innovative and exciting when first built, but these days, it's a little tired. The barking sea lions next door never lose their appeal and the view of Alatraz from the end of the pier is one of the best you can get from dry land.
In a poll, more than 750 of our readers rated Pier 39. 65% of them rated it great or awesome. 19% gave it the lowest possible rating.
- Hours: Open daily, shop hours vary
- Cost: No admission fee
- Location: San Francisco waterfront off The Embarcadero between Grant and Stockton, driving directions below
- How Long: A few minutes to a few hours, depending on how much shopping you do, and whether you hang around for a free show
- Best Time to Visit: Any time
Getting to Pier 39
San Francisco, CA
Pier 39 Website
Pier 39 in is the waterfront between the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges. Take any main city street north toward the water, then take Embarcadero Street. You'll also find plenty of signs directing you toward Fisherman's Wharf, which is next door.
You can get to Pier 39 on the historic "F" trolley from Market Street, or on the Powell-Mason cable car, but the best way to get here depends on where you're coming from. Check out all the other options.
If you're driving to Pier 39 from the south, use I-280. Resist all urges to exit until you get to Townsend Street. Follow it around the waterfront as its name changes to Embarcadero and you'll be there in no time. If the San Francisco Giants are playing at home, crowds make this route undesirable. Instead, take US 101 north and follow the signs toward Fisherman's Wharf. The multi-story parking lot across the street from Pier 39 offers validation discounts, which may be enough to cover the cost of a meal.