Visit San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf
As an epicenter of activity in San Francisco, Fisherman’s Wharf offers a plethora of sights, smells, tastes, history and fun. In addition to all of the activities you can enjoy at the wharf, there are also a lot of notable landmarks and sites located nearby. With so much to see and do, it can be difficult to experience everything without some kind of itinerary. Bearing this in mind, we’ve done our best to create a handy guide that you can use to find entertaining attractions in the area.
Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the busiest tourist attractions in the western United States, so you should probably expect large crowds. It is recommended to set aside at least 1-2 days to explore the region. Although some of the locations you will visit are free to enjoy, others can be somewhat expensive. Make sure to set aside some spending money for delicious food and souvenirs that you’ll find along the way.
History of Fisherman’s Wharf
San Francisco is always very practical when it comes to naming landmarks and neighborhoods. We’ve got Ocean Beach, the Great Highway, the Cliff House, the Embarcadero, and North Beach, none of which are very creative but all of which tell you just what you need to know. The Pacific Ocean hits the sand at Ocean Beach. The Great Highway is a great highway. The Cliff House stands on –
surprise, surprise – the cliffs. The Spanish translation for embarcadero is wharf, and the Embarcadero is one long wharf along the Bay. And North Beach is the beach on the north shore of town. So, when it came to naming Fisherman’s Wharf, the most practical name was once again chosen.
The area of Fisherman’s Wharf has been used and inhabited by fishermen since the Costanoan tribe first used it prior to European settlement. With the rush of settlers in the late 1840s and beyond, the native populations were pushed out and the land was claimed by Italian fishermen. The Italians inhabited Fisherman’s Wharf and the nearby North Beach neighborhood for a long period of time, but as city leaders realized the area’s tourist appeal, it became more commercialized and eventually morphed into what it is today, one of the city’s main tourist attractions.
Although this area has become more of a tourist attraction over the years, there are still several local businesses in the area. Ghirardelli Square is an excellent example of how the Fisherman’s Wharf of years past has transformed in modern times; although this shopping center now includes a variety of different businesses, you will still find Ghirardelli chocolate stores in the former location of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory and see how their confections are created.
As you walk around the wharf, you’ll notice a plethora of different architectural styles from throughout the history of San Francisco. At the Maritime Museum, you’ll find a wonderful example of art deco architecture which houses several murals depicting a modern art world surrounded by wild and untamed marine life. No matter where you look, Fisherman’s Wharf has an incredible tale to tell both visually and historically.
How to Get to Fisherman’s Wharf
Fisherman’s Wharf is located in the heart of San Francisco at North Beach. It is easily accessible via Highway 101, but many visitors choose to use either the streetcar or cable car to reach this destination. Although you can drive there, it’s often difficult to find parking in the area. With that in mind, we recommend using one of the alternatives listed below.
The Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District provides in depth public transportation information on their website. In a nutshell, the F-Line streetcar is the way to go. To read their driving directions, click here. Parking can be reserved in advance through Parking Panda.
Check out our Cable Car blog post for further information on how to ride San Francisco’s oldest moving national landmark.
You can easily take a San Francisco Cable Car to Fisherman’s Wharf. Both the Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines will take you within walking distance of the Wharf. From the end of the Powell-Hyde line at Hyde and Beach Streets, you’ll be near Ghirardelli Square and Aquatic Park, both on the western edge of Fisherman’s Wharf. Click here for complete schedule information for the Powell-Hyde line. The Powell-Mason line ends on Taylor and Bay Streets and is closer to Fisherman’s Wharf. Just walk a few blocks to get to the water. To view the complete schedule for the Powell-Mason line, click here.
Hotels Near Fisherman’s Wharf
There are many hotels in the neighborhood. TripAdvisor lists the Top 10 best rated hotels.
For those hostel-goers wanting to stay near the Wharf, Hostelling International USA’s Fisherman’s Wharf Hostel is not only the first youth hostel to have gone up in the city but is also located in Fort Mason, one of the most scenic spots in San Francisco, only a short walk from Fisherman’s Wharf. Be sure to check out our guide on choosing the best hostel in San Francisco.
Some of the closest and most popular hotels include the following:
- Hotel Zephyr – This 4 star hotel is only a short walk from Pier 39. Rooms are nautically themed and you will find entertainment such as dart boards and other fun games downstairs.
- The Wharf Inn – Although this hotel only boasts a 3 ½ star rating, they do offer some of the most affordable rooms in the area. Most guests appreciate the free parking and the location, right down the street from the Boudin Bakery.
- Pier 2620 – Located right in the middle of the Fisherman’s Wharf area, this 4 star hotel is a little bit further from the water than some of their competitors. That being said, their location makes it fairly easy to visit almost every popular site in the neighborhood.
- The Argonaut Hotel – If you’re looking for a spot close to the water, this might be your best bet. The Argonaut is a 4 ½ star hotel right down the street from Hyde Pier and right across the street from The Buena Vista.
As you might have surmised, it will be important to select a hotel closest to the attractions that you want to visit the most.
Map of Fisherman’s Wharf
Reference this map for an easy guide to the Fisherman’s Wharf area, including parking lots.
Attractions at Fisherman’s Wharf
In addition to several historic sites, there are also quite a few fun and interesting locations in and around Fisherman’s Wharf. Depending on how you decide to reach the wharf, your starting point will most likely vary. Taking this into account, we recommend using this as more of a general guideline rather than a step-by-step self-guided tour. That being said, our list of attractions will start on the west side and move toward the east, allowing you to easily travel downhill and see several sites along the way. We’ll include directions for each spot, giving you a better idea of where they are located.
1) Shop at Ghirardelli Square:
What was once a Ghirardelli chocolate factory has since been transformed into a bustling shopping center. You will of course find various Ghirardelli confections for sale, but you’ll also find stores devoted to jewelry, clothing and various souvenirs.
Whether you want treatment for your sweet tooth or you just want to do some shopping while walking around Fisherman’s Wharf, this is a great place to start. Alternatively, you can get a taste of the history behind this landmark and learn more about it at the Ghirardelli Square website.
You’ll find Ghirardelli Square just one block west of the cable cars on Hyde Street.
2) Visit the Maritime Museum:
Whether you’re a history buff or you want to see some beautiful artwork while at Fisherman’s Wharf, head to the intersection of Beach Street and Polk Street to find the Maritime Museum. Admission to this museum is always free, so you don’t have to worry about this activity cutting into your budget. Inspired by art deco architecture, the building itself was designed to look like a ship getting ready to embark on an epic journey. Murals throughout the museum depict a combination of wild aquatic themes and strict modern design, creating an excellent mixture of two different artistic styles.
The Maritime Museum is open daily from 10 AM to 4 PM. You’ll find the museum one block away from Ghirardelli Square and two blocks west from the cable cars on Hyde Street. Click here to learn more about the history of this location.
3) See The Cartoon Art Museum:
Opening its doors once again in Fall of 2017, San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum has a new home right across the street from Ghirardelli Square. This building promises to be much better suited for the purposes of this museum, allowing them room to expand. With artwork spanning from the beginning of cartoon history to modern animation, there’s plenty to experience and learn about at this location. Although tickets probably won’t be free, they were fairly affordable before the move, so chances are that they won’t be too much more expensive once they officially re-open.
This is a perfect activity for families, as children are sure to love all of the amazing animation on display. As if that weren’t interesting enough, the museum is located right next to the site of an old chocolate factory! Located on the corner of Beach Street and Larkin Street, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find the new home of San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum. The building is located less than a block from the cable cars on Hyde Street.
Although it’s entirely free to visit Hyde Street Pier, you might want to pay for tickets to check out the historic ships on display. Access to each of these boats is made possible thanks to the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. Although admission is $10 for Adults, supervised children under 15 are invited to board for free. You can also enjoy these ships for free on special holidays such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Veterans Day. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn more about nautical history while you’re in the area.
5) Pier 45: Pier 45 is part of Fisherman’s Wharf and has many attractions of its own, including the Museé Mécanique, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, the USS Pampanito, and the wafting smell of fresh crab and fish. This is a perfect place for history buffs to start their journey, providing views of notable WWII era ships and a museum filled with antique coin-operated games.
This pier is located at the end of the Embarcadero, just north of the Boudin Bakery and east of the Hyde Street Pier. Although it’s easiest to reach this site with the F-Line streetcar, you can also use the cable cars to get within a few blocks of the pier.
6) Museé Mécanique: As mentioned in our post about 10 Fun Places for Kids in San Francisco, the Museé Mécanique not only allows you to take a step back into a piece of San Francisco history, but it also allows you to experience history firsthand. Most of the arcade pieces in the museum were introduced at the Cliff House in Ocean Beach, but when the restaurant was renovated, the pieces were sold and brought to Pier 45.
Bring change, as the historic games and spectacles still work for a few quarters apiece. That being said, it is entirely free to enter the museum and see these machines on display. Located right at the bottom of Pier 45, this will likely be one of the first sites you see at the end of the Embarcadero.
7) SS Jeremiah O’Brien: When you’ve finished in the arcade, make your way out the back door of the Musée Mécanique and check out the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, one of two surviving Liberty ships of the 2,710 built during World War II. You can take a tour onboard, getting an accurate idea of what life was like on the ship and how it was operated.
This ship is located on the eastern side of Pier 45, right behind the USS Pampanito. You’ll see a big sign pointing out both ships, making them fairly simple to find. Click here for the SS Jeremiah O’Brien’s full website and information.
Fun Fact: Film director James Cameron used the SS Jeremiah O’Brien’s engine room and bow in the film Titanic.
8) USS Pampanito: A World War II submarine, the USS Pampanito rests alongside the SS Jeremiah O’Brien at Pier 45. This sub has been turned into a museum/memorial, providing visitors with a plethora of information about how the ship was used. As with the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, tours are available on this ship. Although admission isn’t free, most visitors appreciate the opportunity to get a closer look at our military history. For more information, follow this link to their website.
9) Pier 39: Just east of Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39 offers many unique attractions and experiences. From their 365 Days of Live Music at the Pier to the famous lounging sea lions*, there’s never a dull moment at this San Francisco hot spot.
This location is also home to sites such as Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze, the 7D Experience and Houdini’s Magic Shop. In addition to all of the attractions, you’ll also find a lot of wonderful food to eat in this area. To get a complete guide to Pier 39, click here for their website.
Pier 39 is located right off the Embarcadero between Grant Avenue and Stockton Street. The F-Line makes a stop right in front of the pier, making the streetcar one of the easiest ways to visit this landmark.
*Check out the sea lions on the official Sea Lion Webcam.
10) Aquarium of the Bay:
If the sea lions aren’t enough marine life for you, make sure to check out the Aquarium of the Bay. Located on the right hand side of Pier 39, this aquarium is easily accessible for most audiences.
Admission isn’t free, but they do provide a lot of fun family activities for visitors. This aquarium also includes a glass tunnel which allows you to walk through an area teeming with beautiful aquatic life forms of all kinds.
The F-Line will take you right to Pier 39, and you’ll probably even see this location from this streetcar. With several signs pointing you in the direction of the Aquarium of the Bay, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find.
11) Take a boat or ferry from Fisherman’s Wharf:
While strolling around Fisherman’s Wharf, you’ll notice many boats docked in the small harbor. While quite a few of these are fishing boats, this does not mean they are only for fishermen. Many of the boats operate small private Bay tours and will even take you under the Golden Gate Bridge. The swells in the Bay can be large so, if you are uncomfortable on the water, we’d recommend taking a larger commercial ferry ride such as the Blue and Gold Fleet or Red and White Fleet. In addition to the standard boat tours, you’ll also find speedboats providing fun and exciting rides.
12) Visit Alcatraz:
It is very easy to visit Alcatraz from the general area of Fisherman’s Wharf. You can easily see The Rock from the Wharf and, by strolling down the Embarcadero, you’ll be at Pier 33 in no time for a ferry ride to Alcatraz. That being said, you’ll need to book tickets for Alcatraz in advance (recommended 90 days prior to desired date of visit), especially whjen the summer season is fast approaching. To learn more about the history of Alcatraz and how to get there, check out our blog posts Things to do in San Francisco: Learn about Alcatraz.
If you can’t manage to book a ride to Alcatraz, chances are you’ll at least be lucky enough to find a cruise around the island. Although only one tour company is allowed to visit Alcatraz island, several boat tour companies offer trips which will take you even closer to the infamous site. Check out our post on Alcatraz Cruises for more information.
13) Street Performers and Artists at Fisherman’s Wharf:
There are many street performers and artists at Fisherman’s Wharf. From a silver man who never moves to spray paint art, you never know who or what you will find. Street artists are typically drawn to popular tourist sites, so their presence is to be expected. Although they may not always be professionals, their brand of entertainment is entirely free to enjoy.
**Don’t read on if you like fun surprises**
One example of these street performers is an icon of Fisherman’s Wharf, The Bushman. Stationed across the street from the Rainforest Café, the Bushman makes his living scaring tourists from behind an improvised bush. Though there have been copycats, people still line up across the street to watch the original at work. His “oogga booga”s make unsuspecting visitors jump as they stroll by what they think is an innocent bush.
Click on the names of other attractions at and around Fisherman’s Wharf to learn more:
- Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum
- Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and San Francisco Dungeon
- Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze (also at Pier 39)
What to eat at Fisherman’s Wharf
Needless to say, you can expect a lot of fresh fish for sale, but you might be surprised to find a variety of other cuisine in this area as well. Whether you’re looking for seafood or delicious treats, there is plenty to eat around this part of town. Heck, you might even find yourself visiting a bakery for some fresh sourdough bread! To be honest, there are so many different eateries that it can be difficult to pick just one. With that in mind, we’ve made a list of the most popular restaurants near the piers. Check out this post on our favorite seafood restaurants in Fisherman’s Wharf for more information on excellent seafood spots.
Crab is king at Fisherman’s Wharf, with the winter crab season being one of the best times to eat the crustacean. Eat it whole or in a delicious Crab Louis salad. There are many sidewalk stands offering seafood delicacies, but you can also go to one of the many restaurants in the area for a sit-down meal.
One popular location is the Franciscan Crab Restaurant located near Pier 45. This diner offers both incredible views and delicious meals in a nautical themed building. As their name implies, this company specializes in cooking up delicious crabs for their patrons, and one of their specialties just so happens to be the Dungeness Crab.
Although you can find this popular dish all over Fisherman’s Wharf, the Franciscan Crab Restaurant is located at Pier 43 ½, right off the Embarcadero between Pier 43 and Pier 45. The F-Line will take you within one block of this location.
Just as Fortune Cookies do not originate in China, neither does Cioppino (pronounced “cho-pee-no”) trace its origins to the Mediterranean shores of Italy. Developed in the Wharf neighborhood, the dish consists of whatever seafood Italian families had on hand, as well as a healthy dose of tomato sauce and garlic.
- Cioppino’s on Jefferson St.
- Scoma’s, located on Pier 47.
- Alioto’s also prepares this meal near Pier 45.
- Fog Harbor Fish House at Pier 39.
- The Crab House at Pier 39.
Get away from the Wharf and try it at San Francisco’s oldest restaurant, the Tadich Grill, located on California St. If you’re in North Beach, you can taste cioppino at Sotto Mare Oysteria and Seafood Restaurant.
San Francisco Sourdough Bread:
Dating back to 1849, Boudin’s Bakery is the oldest running bread company in the city and known for San Francisco’s most famous bread: sourdough. According to their website, “the Boudin family’s initial recipe lives on in the hands and hearts of [their] expert bakers, with a portion of the original mother dough still starting each and every sourdough loaf [they] make.”
Yes, somehow a portion of the original mother dough is still being kneaded into each and every loaf of bread, enabling you to eat a piece of San Francisco’s history and heritage. You can find Boudin’s next to the iconic Fisherman’s Wharf sign. Look through their street viewing window to watch as the dough is made and check out some of the bread animal creations they have made!
Tip: For a real San Francisco treat, try a clam chowder bread bowl either at Boudin’s or at one of the outdoor vendors along the Wharf.
*Though Boudin’s is a sourdough bread icon, San Francisco’s off the charts food scene means that many bakers have tried their hand at creating the best sourdough bread in the city. SeriousEats did a taste test of twelve San Francisco bakeries: these are the results. You’ll find Boudin Bakery near Pier 39.
For dessert, climb a small hill or stairs to get to Ghirardelli Square. As we mentioned before, this location includes a variety of shops and restaurants. The square blockage was originally bought in 1893 by Domingo Ghirardelli for his Ghirardelli Chocolate Company. For a decadent chocolate experience, check out the Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop. One of the highlights of the shop is watching the chocolate as it is mixed and melted in large machines in the back – you could be in Wonkaland!
The Buena Vista:
Located near the Hyde-Powell cable car turntable, The Buena Vista is the birthplace of San Francisco’s famous Irish Coffee. The recipe, said to have originated in the Shannon Airport in Ireland, came to San Francisco through the original owners of The Buena Vista. A mixture of Irish whiskey, coffee, and cream, this treat is a San Francisco staple.
Fun Fact: In the 1968 film Yours, Mine and Ours, Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball sip Irish Coffees in the Buena Vista. The film, based on the true story of the North and Beardsley families, shows some of San Francisco’s most beautiful sights, including Fisherman’s Wharf. Check out a scene from the film on TCM’s website here.
In addition to the wonderful local restaurants, you’ll also find popular eateries from around the country. Here is a list of the most notable names around Fisherman’s Wharf:
- Hard Rock Cafe – Located on Pier 39 across from the Aquarium of the Bay.
- The Rainforest Cafe – Located on the corner of Jefferson St. and Mason St., one block from Pier 43 ½.
- In-N-Out Burgers – Located on Jefferson Street approximately one block from Pier 47.
Reviews of Fisherman’s Wharf
Ratings for this historic landmark are generally favorable, but numbers don’t exactly tell the whole story. With so many activities to enjoy, it’s hard to know exactly what a 4 star rating actually means. With that in mind, we’re breaking down reviews for some of the most popular attractions at Fisherman’s Wharf to give you a better sense of why visitors may or may not be drawn to this beautiful neighborhood.
Needless to say, the Sea Lions at Pier 39 are a pretty popular attraction. Sadly, although a lot of people love coming to see these interesting creatures, many reviewers complain that this area is often too crowded with tourists. When travelers do get a chance to see them, they report that these animals are funny and easy to watch for hours on end. Despite the large crowds, a majority of visitors are very happy with this experience.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that one of the most historic bakeries in the country is also a pretty popular site for tourists. Regardless of their thoughts about the crowds, most reviewers indicate that visiting Boudin Bakery is an absolute must. Many guests enjoy the fact that they make bread on the spot, while others simply enjoy the animal shapes they create for the crowds. Several patrons suggest that their sourdough bread is a delicious treat that is easy to eat on the go.
As with most locations by the ocean, fresh seafood is fairly easy to find at Fisherman’s Wharf. Several reviewers are very impressed with the quality of seafood available in this area. Most visitors are happy with all of the different options, indicating that it’s easy to get a great meal despite the large crowds. Other guests appreciate that most of the restaurants here are family owned, allowing them to support local businesses.
Although some people don’t like street performers, others appreciate all of the effort they put into their act. As a matter of fact, a majority of visitors at Fisherman’s Wharf report that the performers in this area are very entertaining and add to the atmosphere. Several reviewers value the fact that these performances are essentially pay-what-you-want, which means you don’t have to spend much (if anything) to enjoy them.
Who would have figured that a former chocolate factory could be so popular? Okay, so that was probably a foregone conclusion. Regardless, it’s worth noting that a lot of people come to Fisherman’s Wharf to see this wonderful shopping center. Most guests rightly recommend this spot if you need a chocolate fix. Some visitors indicate that the crowds aren’t as big at Ghirardelli Square, making it much less difficult to visit this location and have a good time.
Whether you visit for the views or you intend to actually take a ferry to Alcatraz (click here for more information), Fisherman’s Wharf is the place to be. Several visitors were impressed with all of the wonderful photo opportunities for Alcatraz. Other guests had a lot of fun visiting the island from Pier 33, indicating that they also spent a lot of time at the wharf and had fun while waiting for the trip. Although a lot of people dislike the size of crowds drawn to this area, most locals and tourists alike agree that the views of Alcatraz are spectacular.
The Golden Gate Bridge:
This incredible landmark is incredibly close to Fisherman’s Wharf, which makes this spot an excellent location for views of the bridge. Alternatively, several reviewers suggest that boat rides underneath the bridge can also be a lot of fun, giving you the chance to see the site up close and take wonderful photos. Although these cruises are very popular among some visitors, others are happy just to see the Golden Gate from the wharf.
If there is one thing that most people don’t like about Fisherman’s Wharf, it is all of the tourism. Several reviewers refer to this location as a tourist trap, indicating that the crowds can make it difficult to experience some of the most enjoyable activities. That being said, some guests actually appreciate this aspect of the wharf, pointing out that this actually draws a lot of wonderful businesses to the area. The wharf can get crowded, but most visitors still feel that it’s worth the trip.
Visitors from all over note that the cable cars are probably one of the best ways to access Fisherman’s Wharf. Although they won’t take you throughout the entire area, they are far more convenient and less expensive than parking nearby. A majority of reviewers recommend the cable cars and streetcar simply because it is easy and affordable to use, but they also note that these vehicles can get pretty busy. Keep that in mind and prepare for a short wait when hopping on and off.
Even though a lot of visitors complain about the crowds of tourists at Fisherman’s Wharf, most people still enjoy their trip to this historic neighborhood. Whether you come for the wonderful views or the fantastic food, chances are you’re going to have a good time. Even those who referred to this location as a tourist trap were typically still impressed with the with the various sights and sounds on display. It’s fair to say that this San Francisco hot spot is most popular among families and couples.
And with that, we wish you a most enjoyable time discovering San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf!
Be sure to check our website for upcoming tours of Fisherman’s Wharf.