I’m kicking off my San Francisco posts with one of the most cheesy, touristy, kitschy parts of the city: Fisherman’s Wharf!
I feel like Fisherman’s Wharf is the equivalent of visiting Leicester Square in London (in that I suspect most locals would avoid it like the plague!), but it’s bright and brash and fun, and a definite must-see if it’s your first time in San Francisco.
I spent a lovely afternoon there on my first full day in the city: taking the Big Bus sightseeing tour all the way from our apartment in Hayes Valley, round Haight Ashbury, through the Golden Gate Park, over the Golden Gate Bridge (which was magical!), and jumping off at the Pier just in time for a late lunch in the sunshine.
WHERE IS FISHERMAN’S WHARF?
Fisherman’s Wharf is the northern-most point of San Francisco. It’s (as the name would suggest) the place where, in the olden days, fishermen used to launch their boats and sell their catch.
Now it’s mainly a tourist hotspot, filled with seafood restaurants, arcades, attractions, souvenir shops, and sightseeing ferries.
Yes it’s touristy, but it’s also very fun and I think it’s definitely one not to miss. Plus it’s the best place to hunt down fresh crab on a street stall, or try the famous chowder in a bread bowl!
It’s about a 35-40 minute (very hilly) walk from Union Square in the city centre, but it also has pretty good transport links available. There are several buses, trams and even an old-school cable car that will get you to Fisherman’s Wharf easily enough, and if all else fails, an Uber Pool will cost you about $4 (plus tip).
SEE THE SEA LIONS
These guys are the unofficial mascots of Fisherman’s Wharf!
They arrived on Pier 39 in the early nineties, seeking shelter after a huge earthquake hit the area. Marine experts decided that they should stay where they were, and so now the sea lions have a permanent home on K-dock.
They’re not enclosed, and they’re completely free animals. Their numbers rise and fall depending on the seasons, but you can guarantee that whatever time of year you go, there will always be at least a couple of these guys hanging out on the dock.
It was a bit busy on the day I visited, but people tend to move on after a few minutes so it’s not too crowded. They’re so fun to watch though, that it’s worth waiting for a spot at the front.
There was one big guy (sea lion, not human!) who just kept shoving all the other sea lions off his platform. So he had the whole thing to himself, and all the others had to just flop on top of each other!
WHAT DO DO IN FISHERMAN’S WHARF
Well it depends what you’re into!
Madam Tussauds and the San Francisco Dungeons are both on the main boulevard of Fisherman’s Wharf. I did neither of these (I’ve already done MT twice in London before, and Dungeons scare me!), but Milly says it was fun. It only lasts an hour so it’s a good quick one to do, maybe on a rainy day or something.
Pier 39 is home to a couple of small arcades, as well as some shops and restaurants. It’s a fun place to look around, but it’s more of wander-around kind of place than a proper attraction. There are some great views of Alcatraz from the end of the pier though, so it’s worth walking down for that.
The San Francisco Aquarium is also on Pier 39, but again, I didn’t really fancy it on my own, especially not when it was such nice weather.
My favourite stop was the Musée Mécanique just down the road from Pier 39. It’s an old warehouse that houses a load of vintage arcade games, including one some of you may recognise: the actual arm-wrestling game from the first Princess Diaries film! Most of the games only cost a quarter, and it’s a fun way to spend a quick half an hour.
And if you get tired of Fisherman’s Wharf, why not look into taking a ferry trip across or around the bay? You’ll have to book well in advance if you want to visit Alcatraz Island (give yourself at least a fortnight, as the tickets sell out fast*), but you’ll also find boats going to Angel Island, Tiburon and Oakland if you want to explore a bit further afield.
*I’m writing a full post on planning a trip to Alcatraz and will link back when it’s live!
WHERE TO EAT IN FISHERMAN’S WHARF
There are tons of cafe, bars and restaurants around Fisherman’s Wharf. A lot of them are pretty touristy (ie: expensive and average), so it’s worth doing some research in advance to figure out the best places to go.
Here’s where I ate:
Boudin Bakery. Famous for creating the San Francisco sourdough, there are branches of Boudin all over the city. However, the Fisherman’s Wharf flagship building is the one to visit, as you can actually watch the bakers pummelling the rolls into fantastical shapes through the window. They also offer a Museum and Bakery Tour. Avoid the chowder, as it really isn’t great, but the bread is absolutely fantastic. I tried a small turtle-shaped roll, and also bought a massive loaf of chocolate sourdough to take back to the flat. And OH GOD THAT CHOCOLATE BREAD. It was one of my favourite foods of the whole trip!
Blue Mermaid Restaurant. I was determined to eat at least one portion of chowder out of a bread bowl, and the internet sent me to Blue Mermaid, a nautical-themed restaurant inside the stylish Argonaut hotel. Clam chowder is available, but I’d seen fresh crab being sold along the street on my way to the restaurant, so I went with my gut and ordered the crab and corn chowder. It was creamy, savoury, and full of vegetables, sweetcorn and fresh crab. Delicious, great service, and they have a lovely outdoor seating area too.
The Baked Bear. Make sure you save room for dessert, because you’re gonna want to try one of the Baked Bear’s giant ice cream sandwiches! Choose your flavour, choose your cookies, choose your topping, and the guy in the van will make you up a crazy ice cream sandwich the likes of which you’ve never tried before. I recommend the house Bear Batter flavour (ie: the blue one that tastes like cake batter) with chocolate chip cookies for Cookie Monster-worthy indulgence.
In-n-Out. OK so let the record state that I’m not personally endorsing this one. Partly because the queues were INSANE (even at 4pm), and partly because I thought the food was incredibly average. My medium burger was dry and overdone, the Animal fries were crispy but lacked enough cheese, and overall I was just super disappointed. However. It’s such a cult chain on the West Coast that I felt I had to mention it. Do a bit of research beforehand and explore their Not-So-Secret menu, as you’ll probably want to order something a bit fancier than the plain burger and fries on the main menu, but honestly, it’s not somewhere I’d be in a hurry to go back to again.