What to do at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco

Sparkling waters, lazy sea lions, the smell of fried fish and garlic wafting through the air. Laughter, pigeons, wooden planks, and fresh sea breezes. A two-story carousel, and world-famous sour dough. Welcome to Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco!

Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco is a hub of activity for tourists, shoppers, diners, and sight-seers. It offers a variety of fun adventures for visitors, ranging from eating fresh seafood, to shopping for fun and tacky gifts to bring home, to catching a boat for a bay or Alcatraz tour, to delighting in the talents of street performers and musicians. During my week-long trip to San Francisco in late September, I and my intrepid gang of ladies managed to spend a portion of two days on the wharf to see what there was to see.

A view of the marina just off Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf

Before I go into too much detail, you might want to have a mental picture of the size and location of Fisherman's Wharf. The wharf is a large area, encompassing several piers and their attractions. Visually, the wharf begins at Pier 41 and follows the marina all the way to Pier 35. (The wharf technically begins a bit further west, up the street at Ghirardelli Square, but the main signpost for Fisherman's Wharf can be found on Pier 41, so that's where we began our journey on foot. It also can be said to end a little further east than Pier 35, because the Alcatraz tour boats board on Pier 33 where there are also activities to do.)

However, the busiest and most exciting area of Fisherman's Wharf can be found between Pier 41 and Pier 39. That is the area with all of the restaurants, cute shops, a naval museum, and the aquarium, among other things.

The famous sign for Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco

Be prepared, though! The wharf can be crowded and touristy. The prices in the shops are not that cheap. Later in the day, we discovered that despite the lovely ocean breeze, the wharf can be very hot in the afternoon sun. Pigeons abound, and swoop at your head, especially if you are holding food. (They also walk right in front of you, and more than once I almost squished one as I strolled the boardwalk.) If you are expecting these things, then you can alleviate any shock and/or annoyance you may have, and can then enjoy the experience. Don't say I didn't warn you!

Despite these very few negative points, all of which can be handled easily, Fisherman's Wharf is a great place to spend a day (or two, as we did). My top 8 activities and sights include:

1. Eating fresh seafood

I love to eat. This is no secret to anyone who knows me. But I REALLY love to eat fresh seafood. So tasty. And a great place to do this is on Fisherman's Wharf. From fresh calamari, to lobster sandwiches (not cheap at $22 per sandwich, but it looked incredible), to delicious clam chowder in a freshly baked sour dough bread bowl, the wharf has it all.

Both the clam chowder AND the sour dough bread are world famous on the wharf!

We ate in a variety of different restaurants. Some served us fried fish and coconut shrimp in cardboard containers, and gave us tartar sauce in little to-go packets. Some were more mid-grade restaurants. We made sure to eat at least one meal in a higher end restaurant where I had an amazing seafood linguine riddled with giant morsels of shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari, and scallops. It was amazing.

Row upon row of mouth-watering seafood restaurants on Pier 41

Also, be sure to taste some of Boudin's famous sour dough. There are a few places you can purchase it between Pier 41 and Pier 39.

2. The Aquarium of the Bay

The Aquarium of the Bay is located on Pier 39, and is incredible. It isn't a large aquarium by any means, but it does have two underwater tunnels that put you right in the action. As I have a full post here on the aquarium I won't go into more detail, but I highly recommend you take a gander at my article to see what it is all about!

The Aquarium of the Bay is located on Pier 39

3. Watching the sea lions lounge

One of the coolest things on Pier 39 is the colony of sea lions that lounge on the wooden docks just beyond the main boardwalk. Dozens of them pile onto the small docks, packing themselves in like sardines. They sun themselves most of the day, ignoring the throngs of tourists snapping photos and 'oohing' and 'aahing'.

Lazy and large sea lions sunning themselves on the docks at Pier 39

When we visited, the majority of the sea lions were sleeping on the docks furthest away from the viewing deck. But a few big guys had found themselves on 'private' docks closer to us, so we were able to see them up close.

4. The two-level carousel

At the end of Pier 39, close to the water at the last set of shops, stands a pretty, glowing carousel. This wouldn't be an unusual sight in a busy tourist area, as they seem to be a dime a dozen on piers, in shopping malls, and in parks. But this particular carousel struck me because it was a two-story carousel: double the levels, double the fun.

The two-tier carousel at Pier 39

I didn't ride it, nor did I even check the price to ride it, because something even better was happening in the plaza next to the carousel. BUT if I happened to be at Pier 39 again, I would definitely take a spin!

5. Enjoying the talented street performers

We were lucky the day we first visited Fisherman's Wharf. Just past the two-tiered carousel, a huge crowd was assembled, and I could hear them laughing and cheering as I approached. Rounding the corner, I saw a small stage set up in the centre of the plaza, and on that stage, a muscular (and how!!!) man was balanced on a platform, which was supported by four cups, which were placed on another platform, which was balanced on a circular tube, which was balanced on a four-foot high table. It was insane, like something from "America's Got Talent".

This takes some core strength! I can't even handle ladders....

The performer was joking and bantering with the crowd, having people from the audience come up and toss him cups so he could build himself another level to balance on. He crept upwards, high above the crowd, balanced precariously on a cylinder that rolled dangerously from side to side. In the end, he was able to wow us with a handstand, balanced on four levels of platforms.

Moments before I helped myself to his abdominals... Yes, I am a creepy old woman

After the show, I went up to hand him some money - he sure earned it! - and my admiration for his, er, talent, must have been obvious because he posed for a picture with me and a friend (and I snuck in a little feel of his solid abdominal muscles). I think my husband needs to take up acrobatics!

6. Climbing the musical stairs

I walked down these stairs without even knowing it. You can really only tell that they are there when you walk UP the stairs. This little pathway has steps painted like piano keys, but only on the front portion of the planks. They play musical notes as you step on the 'keys', but the sound of the music is somewhat drowned out by the general melee of the wharf itself.

The nifty musical stairs at Pier 39

A couple of the ladies I traveled with went back and explored the steps a little more, but I never did have the chance to go back and play with them properly.

7. The Alcatraz boat tour

As I stated before, if you are planning on going to visit the island of Alcatraz, you must board the tour boat from Pier 33. Once again, I have a separate blog post here for this adventure, so I won't talk about it too much. I will tell you that you should get to Pier 33 early, as there is more to do there than just wait in line for your boat.

The model of Alcatraz at Pier 33, as it was during its use as a prison

There is also a big model of the island as it appeared in its hey-day, a gift shop, and a cafe, and if you want to see any of those, it is best to arrive early as the line-up for your cruise to the island begins early!

8. Shopping for souvenirs

The LAST thing I like doing when I travel is to go shopping. I can shop just fine at home, and I have a lovely online store where I get most of my clothes, so wasting precious exploration time in a foreign mall holds little to no appeal for me. I do, however, always grab souvenirs for my family and myself. I always collect a magnet from each place I travel for our bar fridge downstairs, and now that I have children, there are tons of cutie-pie baubles and clothes to purchase.

Pier 39 security making sure we aren't getting into trouble!

I did all of my shopping down at Fisherman's Wharf, simply because I didn't want to waste time doing it anywhere else. The prices were not super cheap, but as we walked around other districts in San Francisco, I noticed the prices down at the wharf weren't way off the mark either. So if you are looking to shop in a locale with a great atmosphere and view, Fisherman's Wharf is your place!

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