by Katie Calvert
San Francisco’s Pier 39 is one of the premier sightseeing destinations in the Bay Area.
Home to the Blue & Gold Fleet that provides ferry service and “rocketboat” tours of the Bay, more than 100 shops, many restaurants (with GREAT views), and lots of free entertainment, Pier 39 packs a lot of fun into a small space.
By the 1970s, the Port of Oakland had modernized to accommodate the large container ships that carry cargo around the world. San Francisco’s once busy waterfront was no longer the Bay Area port of call for many ships.
While some people saw an empty pier, developer and entrepreneur Warren L. Simmons saw gold. After five years of planning and dealing with city permitting and building codes, Simmons opened his Pier 39 in 1978.
Surprising News—December 26, 2009: San Francisco's famous sea lions at Pier 39 have left as unexpectedly as they arrived 20 years ago. No one knows why or if they will return. Update: At least a few of the sea lions are returning.
AsThe loud barking that is commonly heard at Pier 39 comes from the many pinnipeds—California sea lions for those of us without a marine biology degree—that rest and sun themselves on the many small docks next to the pier.
Many of the sea lions appear to enjoy their celebrity status and almost seem to pose for pictures. Since 1990, hundreds of sea lions have called Pier 39 home.
When efforts to “evict” these dockside squatters proved unsuccessful, Pier operators teamed with the Marine Mammal Center (a nonprofit hospital whose volunteers have rescued and treated ill and injured marine creatures for more than 30 years). The Pier 39 Marine Mammal Interpretive Center and Store has educational programs and exhibits that teach visitors about these mammals and their habitat.
It is hard to believe that there are over 100 stores on Pier 39, but it's easy to see how you could spend a day or more shopping for everything from gifts and collectables to apparel, accessories, art and stained glass, books, wine, shoes, sports memorabilia and more.
More than a dozen full service restaurants and many additional snack, and specialty food outlets will satisfy your hunger for anything ranging from pretzels, ice cream and cookies, donuts or fudge, sandwiches, fresh fruit or pizza to seafood. Seafood in all its forms, fish, shrimp and crab, is available at a variety of restaurants including Buba Gump Shrimp Co. Crab House, Fog Harbor Fish House and others including Forbes Island which requires a quick five minute ferry past Pier 39's sea lions to a man-made floating island restaurant.
Rides, Entertainment and Attractions
Save money on SF Bay cruises, Aquarium of the Bay and other attractions at Pier 39 and Fisherman's Wharf.
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Attractions at Pier 39 include the San Francisco Carousel, hand-painted in Italy with famous San Francisco landmarks, featuring 32 animals, chariots and spinning tubs. Other attractions range from the SpongeBob SquarePants 4D Ride to the Players Arcade/Sportsbar/Deli and J'LaChicTheatre 39 with theatrical productions, musicals, concerts, comedy and special events.
Blue & Gold Fleet, RocketBoat
Today, Pier 39 draws tourists and locals alike. Some come to take the Blue & Gold ferry boats to Angel Island.
The Fleet’s Bay cruises or, for those with the need for speed, its RocketBoat tours, are quite popular. Blue & Gold also provides ferry service to Sausalito, Tiburon, Vallejo, Alameda, and Oakland.
Aquarium of the Bay
The Aquarium of the Bay (admission is charged) lets visitors view sharks, rays, jelly fish, and other aquatic—and some land-dwelling—species.
The Giant Pacific Octopus exhibit lets children “pop up” inside the tank via an observation bubble. If you go be sure to check the times for animal feedings and special presentations when you first arrive. A behind-the-scenes tour is available for an extra charge.
Pier 39’s “family-friendly” atmosphere is fostered by the daily free performances on its Center Stage. Magicians, jugglers, and other performers entertain throughout the day (weather permitting). A variety of musical styles can be heard from the singers and instrumentalists that perform many afternoons at the Pier Entrance Plaza.
Pier 39 also sponsors many special events and seasonal celebrations throughout the year. These include Pumpkin Pandemonium, Viva Las Americas (a celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month in September), and Tulipmania.
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Website and all photos copyright © 2001–2013 Lee W. Nelson