by Katie Calvert
San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the most-visited neighborhoods of the City. It is a prime tourist destination, so expect crowds, souvenir shops, and over-priced food.
Still, the views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz are terrific, and there are historical buildings and ships to see.
A day or afternoon spent on Fisherman’s Wharf can be as enjoyable as you want it to be—and a bowl of clam chowder or Dungeness crab can ward off the fog’s chill.
For a true San Francisco experience, take a cable car to the wharf.
The Powell-Mason line ends at Bay Street and the Powell-Hyde line ends at Aquatic Park; either spot is a fine starting place for your excursion.
While it is a little hard to define where Fisherman’s Wharf begins and ends, Pier 45 is generally agreed to be at the center.
A few generations back, it was mostly Italian immigrants that cast off in lateen-rigged sailboats (feluccas) in search of fish and crab. The fishing fleet of today (some captained and crewed by the grandchildren or great grandchildren of those original mariners) looks a little less romantic; their boats are now equipped with powerful motors, mechanical winches, and radar to find and catch the sea’s bounty.
The annual Madonna del Lume observance, the blessing of the fishing fleet, takes place the first weekend in October. This religious celebration (the Madonna of the Light is the patroness of fishermen) usually begins with a Mass at the Fishermen’s and Seamen’s Memorial Chapel.
This wood-framed building located on the lagoon across from Pier 45 was completed in 1981 and was designed to be a multi denominational place of worship. (The chapel offers a quiet sanctuary to those who might need a break in their sight-seeing schedule.)
Seafood at the Wharf
Some of the Wharf’s more high-priced restaurants were once less fancy establishments that began as fish markets and walk-up food stands. Today, the often boisterous cooks and street-side vendors with their ever-boiling crab pots provide a hint of those bygone days.
Sourdough bread bowls filled with steaming clam chowder are the top tourist lunch choice at Boudin Bakery at the wharf. Pick up a loaf to go while you are there. Sourdough is a San Francisco taste tradition though the many shaped loaves from crabs and turtles to the Thanksgiving holiday favorite turkey are a more recent innovation.
San Francisco Bay Cruises and Tours
Boats—more importantly boats on the Bay—are important Fisherman’s Wharf attractions as it is the jumping off point for a number of San Francisco Bay cruises.
The Blue & Gold Fleet of Pier 39—which some might label the Wharf’s eastern end—offers many tours and ferry rides.
Pier 39’s “RocketBoats” offer a 30-minute Bay Cruise that is high on speed as well as scenery.
The Red and White Fleet, which docks at Pier 43 ½, also provides Bay cruises; its two-hour California Sunset Cruise includes an appetizer buffet.
For those that want land and water views, San Francisco’s Ride the Duck amphibious vehicles are just thing. Taylor at Jefferson is their office location. Sport fishing trips may also be booked with various charter boat providers.
Fisherman's Wharf Attractions
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Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum (175 Jefferson Street) and the Wax Museum (145 Jefferson Street) are two of the Wharf’s long-time attractions.
Two floors of the strange and unusual fill Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum.
The Wax Museum at Fisherman's Wharf, which is open 365 days a year, includes a Chamber of Horrors and a Gallery of Stars. Both attractions charge an entrance fee but careful use of one or more of several available attraction passes can reduce the sting.
The free Musée Mécanique at Pier 45 houses one of the world's largest private collections of coin-operated mechanical art. For those who remember San Francisco’s Playland at the Beach, the museum’s “Laffing Sal” (a gap-toothed automated character) greets—or annoys—visitors with her raucous laugh.
Fleet Week brings huge crowds to the Wharf—one of the best places to view the parade of ships, Blue Angels acrobatics, air races and other events held during the annual celebration.
Historic Ships and Buildings
The Pacific Coast’s rich maritime history can be experienced at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Located at the Hyde Street Pier in Aquatic Park, the National Park has six ships in its care. Young students throughout the Bay Area participate in the Park’s many ranger-led programs and history-focused field trips.
Two other ships are associated with the Park. The USS Pampanito, a submarine that saw action in the Pacific, and the SS Jeremiah O'Brien, the only historically accurate Liberty ship still afloat in the United States, attest to San Francisco and the Bay Area’s important role in World War II.
Both ships are berthed at Pier 45. The Pampanito was restored and is maintained and operated by the San Francisco Maritime National Park Association. The Jeremiah O'Brien is the only surviving Liberty ship from Operation Overlord.
In 1994, an all-volunteer crew sailed the Jeremiah O'Brien from San Francisco on an 18,000-mile journey to participate in the 50th anniversary of D-Day. She was the only original ship from the D-Day armada to return to Normandy. The ship is operated as the National Liberty Ship Memorial.
At the western end of Fisherman’s Wharf stand Ghirardelli Square and The Cannery. The chocolate factory established by Domenico “Domingo” Ghirardelli in the mid-1800s and the 1907 fruit and vegetable canning plant for the company that would become Del Monte are a testament to historical preservation.
“Adaptive re-use” projects saved both of these beautiful red brick buildings from demolition. Restaurants, stores, and shops fill both locations. Be sure to see sculptor Ruth Asawa’s mermaid fountain in the Ghirardelli Square plaza and enjoy the chocolate.
Although The Ghirardelli Chocolate Company is now based in the East Bay city of San Leandro, you can view the original chocolate manufacturing equipment. And in case you’re wondering, it is pronounced “Gear-ar-delly.”
On March 4, 2000 the Municipal Railway (MUNI) began regular service on the F-historic streetcar line from Market and Castro, through the Downtown and along the Northern Waterfront all the way to Fisherman's Wharf at Jones and Beach Streets.
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