Inside SF - The San Francisco Scoop
Fisherman’s Wharf SF: Cafe’s To Carousels
Almost everybody visiting San Francisco is going to make a trip to Fisherman’s Wharf at some point, it’s our Times Square or Hollywood Walk of Fame. However, like those other attractions, it can be a little underwhelming for the visitor – a few too many tourist traps and well… tourists! Nevertheless, again like the aforementioned icons, a little knowledge goes a long way and you can have a stellar experience at Fisherman’s Wharf IF you know what to look for – and where to find it. There are some great activities and attractions in the area, as well as quite a bit of history, and I’ll tell you all about it here.
In this article I’ll give you a brief(ish) history of Fisherman’s Wharf, and then make some recommendations for things to do, historic sites to visit and some places to eat and drink there.
Early History of Fisherman’s Wharf
As the period of California’s Mexican era was closing, in 1840, there was no San Francisco as such. Amid the vast expanse of barren, windswept, sand dunes on the peninsula, a couple of hundred predominantly Spanish and Mexican residents were sprinkled in three locations. First, a Spanish Mission named for St Francis of Assisi, a small, ill-equipped military garrison guarding the narrow entrance to the Bay at the Southern end of today’s Golden Gate Bridge, and finally, a tiny village on the shore of Yerba Buena Cove, on the leeward, wind-less, east side of the peninsula. Today that would be Montgomery Street, just below Portsmouth Square, in the heart of Chinatown.
Almost all of the peninsula’s natural environment which we see today was imported, planted and cultivated by human effort. The discovery of gold in 1848 grew the village from a few hundred to 25,000 residents in just one year. Within two years the population stood at nearly 35,000 inhabitants. Almost everything that made the peninsula humanly habitable in those kinds of numbers arrived by boat or ship. From its beginning, water – river water, bay water and seawater – was San Francisco’s great blessing.
Although 25% smaller than in Mexican times due to development, the Bay is still the largest estuary on the west coast. It is the outlet of a 60,000 square mile watershed, which is 40% of California’s water, and it drains mountains from the Oregon border to just north of Los Angeles. California’s two longest rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, receive water from hundreds of streams and smaller rivers and transport it to the Bay and out to the sea.
On the west side of the peninsula roils the Pacific Ocean. Through the narrow Golden Gate, swift tidal currents pull the freshwater out and push the seawater in, churning up rich nutrients in the process. The river delta, the bay and the ocean beyond are abundant with sea life, so it’s a no-brainer that San Francisco would have a fishing fleet and a Fisherman’s Wharf.
Into a New Century
In 1900 California established a stretch of bayside for commercial fishing boats in the Bay. At that time most fishermen sold most of their catch right off the boat (and a few still do), while others erected market stalls on the piers to cater to a larger market, and some found additional profit in selling clam and crab chowder, shrimp and crab cocktails and prepared fish to carry away.
The next evolution was ‘pier to plate’. Boat owners gave up selling to individuals and instead they constructed restaurants, to which they backed up their own boats. Essentially, selling their catch to themselves, to be resold to hungry diners.
In the 1950’s, some gave up fishing altogether. Mike Girardi opened Fisherman’s Grotto which, sadly, closed during the recent pandemic. Others followed: Aliotos, Lazios, Scomas, Sabellas, Castagnolas, and DiMaggios (forbears to the great baseball legend Joe DiMaggio). Yep, Italian families from Italian North Beach.
With the growth and de-industrialization of the city, and necessary environmental limitations, the fishing fleet of several hundred has shrunk to a couple of hundred vessels. Still, a fair bit of the old Fisherman’s Wharf exists behind its contemporary patina, if you take the time to look around.
Fisherman’s Wharf Today
San Francisco’s modern Fisherman’s Wharf can be a ‘like it, or not so much’ experience. Unless they have out-of-town guests, locals mostly avoid the area. Yet, it’s on the ‘must-see’ lists of around 15-20 million tourists a year. That number calculates to about twenty-five to thirty thousand people PER DAY, making it the most visited attraction in the city.
Fisherman’s Wharf stretches along the Bayfront from Alcatraz Landing, at Pier 33, to the eastern end of San Francisco’s Maritime Museum, at Pier 45. Piers 39 to 41 are the destination for most visitors. Between and around them is a medium-grade amusement park, wax museums, 3-D adventures, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, franchise fast food, souvenir shops and other assorted tourist-traps. A few are interesting, many are not.
Every day, a regiment of street performers commandeer chunks of sidewalk real estate. Their acts range from quality to quirky, although it’s worth noting that before ascending to comedic and film stardom Robin Williams developed his strange, manic, physical style performing for tips here.
Street vendors annex much of the remaining space to hawk t-shirts, souvenirs, cold water and soda and hot dogs. Permanent food stands, descendants of the Italian ones, sell mostly fresh carry-away seafood baskets and clam or crab chowder. And, yes, there are still a handful or so of more elegant sit-down restaurants, a few of which date back to the ‘pier to plate’ beginnings of San Francisco’s historic Fisherman’s Wharf.
In short, today’s Fisherman’s Wharf is a family-friendly bustling, crowded, cacophonous insanity that one might describe as ‘Crazy Town!’ Enjoyable, for sure, the amusements of today’s Fisherman’s Wharf can be, as is often said, ‘a mile wide and an inch deep’. History and quality may be elusive.
Beneath its facade, a fair bit of historic Fisherman’s Wharf is there, if one knows where to look. Some operators still fish from single-operator boats like in the old days. Some vessels still wear the blue and white colors of La Madonna del Lume, the fishermen’s patron saint. Now and again, one may attend a traditional pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Mass with Gregorian Chant. Hidden nooks, non-touristy docks and piers offer extraordinary photographic opportunities. One may even find a quiet place, away from the crowds, to watch sea-lions swim and sun and bark and fight.
So, what are some worthwhile things to do and see at Fisherman’s Wharf? Which activities would enable you to spend an enjoyable day here? Here are our suggestions.
1. VISIT THE MARITIME MUSEUM OR A HISTORIC SHIP – OR BOTH
The Maritime Museum, based at the old streamline moderne bathhouse building, is undoubtedly one of SF’s gems. A large part of its collection is a veritable fleet of vessels, from old paddle steamers to a large square-rigged sailing ship. There are two other historic ships on Pier 45, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, an unmodified World War II Liberty Ship, and a still seaworthy combat submarine that survived four deployments in World War II, the USS Pampanito.
After spending the best part of the day at the museum and looking over the ships, why not visit this historic site for hot chocolate? You can see the whole process in the café downstairs as you sip on your decadently rich beverage.
3. MUSÉE MÉCANIQUE
This warehouse of antique coin-operated amusement and early video games has been operating since 1933. The kids can even ride a stunning double-decker carousel. For $5-10 you can easily spend an hour trying to Whack a Mole, driving cars around the Streets of San Francisco or trying to kill Aliens.
4. FIOR D’ITALIA
A short distance from the Wharf is this historic restaurant, with some of the best Italian food in San Francisco. Tell them we sent you!
5. BUENA VISTA CAFÉ
Another option for dinner is this famous restaurant, which is right by the Powell-Hyde cable car stop. The Buena Vista Cafe is particularly well-known for its Irish Coffee, which it lays claim to being the first place in the US to serve. Their lobster roll isn’t bad either.
If you’re taking the cable car back to the Financial District, try taking the Powell-Mason line from Bay Street, which is a few blocks from the Wharf and therefore less busy (the Powell-Hyde Line, from Aquatic Park near Ghirardelli’s, usually has a VERY long line). Also, by taking this line, you can look up at Lombard Street when you’re passing it (instead of down, if you take the Powell-Hyde line), which is a better view of the San Francisco landmark.
7. STREETCAR / TRAM
You can take the historic F Market & Wharves Line streetcar to Ferry Terminal, and onto Castro, from the terminus at Fisherman’s Wharf. Or you can arrive on the tram. Either way it’s a great way to experience San Francisco’s waterfront.
8. LOMBARD STREET
Only a few blocks up Columbus Street from the waterfront, or you can take Jones Street to get a bit closer, is the aforementioned SF icon – the crookedest street in the world. The best views of Lombard Street are probably from Columbus, because you get a great view of the whole set-up, hill and all, but either way you can easily see it as a side-trip from Fisherman’s Wharf in less than an hour.
It requires some effort, but amid the craziness and on its periphery, Fisherman’s Wharf can offer history, quality and secrets revealed. All in all, Fisherman’s Wharf is a magnificent San Francisco experience!
Our Real San Francisco Bike Tour includes a tour of the neighborhood, and the opportunity to get lunch.
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If you have any feedback on Fisherman’s Wharf SF: Cafe’s to Carousels, please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.
– By Christofer Erin and Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)