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What to Do and Where to Eat in San Francisco - the Waterfront

san Francisco Ferry Building with Bay Bridge
The Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco with the Bay Bridge and Yerba Buena Island in the background.

Sightseeing

San Francisco is one of the world’s great cities, and it’s also a city I know well. I grew up in neighboring Oakland. And I lived in San Francisco for six years before moving to Hong Kong.

A Hong Kong friend told me  she was going to San Francisco on holiday and asked for some tips on what to do and where to eat,

Several suggestions immediately came to mind, but I’ve been away for a long time and wanted up-to-date information. So I got in touch with a couple of friends and asked for their advice: P.M. of San Francisco, H.F. of Palo Alto, and L.E. of Oakland.

I’m putting together some itineraries with some input from my friends. The first one focuses on the waterfront with transportation by The City's world famous Historic Streetcars and Cable Cars.

San Francisco is a city of cafes so I suggest you start by having breakfast at a café closest to where you will be staying.

Then I would head to Market Street and catch a streetcar to the Ferry Building – especially if it a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday.

Historic Streetcars

Streetcars are not to be confused with cable cars. Streetcars, a.k.a. trams, travel on level ground.

They run up and down Market Street, The City's main drag, connecting the commercial and financial districts with its residential  zones to the South and East.

They run along tracks. They are powered by overhead electrical wires.

Many of the streetcars plying the F line were donated by other cities around the world. They serve as a sort of rolling museum.

Cable cars climb up and down The City's steepest hills. They are pulled by cables running continuously beneath the street.

Like streetcars, cable cars also run along tracks. But unlike streetcars, they are all San Francisco originals.

San Francisco Ferry Building Photo Credit DXR
An antique street car on the Embarcadero in front of the Ferry Buildling in downtown San Francisco. Photo Credit: DXR.

 

Board a Historic Streetcar on the F line on Market Street in the direction of Fisherman’s Wharf.

If you're not familiar with San Francisco, Market Street is The City's main drag.

If you want to do the entire stretch of Market Street, you can board a streetcar at Castro Street, the historic home of The City’s LGBT community.

This might also be a good spot for a yummy breakfast.

Otherwise, you can board a streetcar anywhere along Market. Key intersections include  Van Ness Avenue, a crosstown thoroughfare, and Powell Street, which is where most of the toniest department stores and high-end boutiques are clustered.

Get off the streetcar at the foot of Market Street at Ferry Plaza.

The Ferry Building

Once upon a time, the Ferry Building was the world’s busiest terminal.  More people passed through the building every day than New York City’s Grand Central Station.

Now the Ferry Building is Ground Zero of food-obsessed Northern California, home of the farm to fork movement.

There’s a Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market in front of the building on Tuesdays and Thursday from 10 am to 2 pm and Saturdays from 8 am to 2 pm.

Ferry_Building_Marketplace,_San_Francisco_Credit_Caroline_Culler
Photo Credit: Caroline Culler.



This is where dozens of farmers from nearby farms sell their produce from the backs of trucks. Prepared foods are also on sale.

Inside the building, you will find the Ferry Building Marketplace, where more than 50 mostly independently owned businesses vend their edible and food-related wares.

Cheese? Chocolate? Chicken? Cutlery? You will surely find it here.

What you won’t find in the Ferry Building are any fast-food joints.

Where to Eat

There is plenty of prepared food for sale at the Farmer’s Market. You can munch while you browse.

You can also lunch at one of the several food and beverage outlets inside the Ferry Building.

Some of them have spectacular views of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and Yerba Buena Island.

If you want to hang out with the locals, however, head on over to The Ramp Restaurant in nearby Mission Bay.

  • The Ramp Restaurant - 855 Terry Francois Street, San Francisco, California. Telephone: (621-2378).

Special thanks to P.M. of San Francisco for the recommendation.

Cable Cars

After lunch, head back up Market Street in the opposite direction from which you came. California Street  is just a short walk from the Ferry Building on the right side of Market Street. It veers off to the right.

The terminus of the California Street cable car line is at the foot of California Street. It travels through the Financial District to Chinatown, Nob Hill, and points East.

You can hop off at Grant Avenue to explore Chinatown or remain on board until you reach Nob Hill. I would suggest saving Chinatown for another day.

Get off at Powell Street and transfer to the Powell – Mason or Powell - Hyde lines.

Make sure that you board a car heading to the right of the direction in which you have been traveling.

San Francisco Cable Car and Alcatraz photo credit Christian Mehlführer
San Francisco cable car climbing Powell Street with Alcatraz Island in the background. Photo Credit: Christian Mehlführer



The Hyde Street line will take you to within a few blocks of Fisherman’s Wharf, but I would suggest the Mason Street line, which will take you to Aquatic Park, near Ghirardelli Square.

Ghirardelli Square (900 Point Street at the corner of Beach and Larkin streets) was a chocolate factory that was converted into a dining and shopping mecca in decades past.

I’m talking something like 50 years ago!

Ghirardelli Square is a forerunner of the numerous factory to foodie havens that have sprung up around the world in recent years.

This place has pedigree

Where to Indulge

Have a hot fudge sundae topped with homemade hot fudge at the Original Ghirardelli Chocolate Manufactory before continuing on your way.

  • Original Ghirardelli Chocolate - 900 North Point Street, San Francisco, California. Telephone: (415) 474-3938.

Maritime National Historical Park

From Ghirardelli Square, head across Beach Street to the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park for great views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay.

Six National Historic Landmark vessels from the 19th and early 20th centuries are also moored along the waterfront.

The winds off San Francisco Bay can be pretty chilly. Head back across Beach Street, and turn left.

Where to Warm Up

At the corner of Beach and Hyde streets, you will find the Buena Vista, which has been serving the best Irish Coffee this side of the Emerald Isle since the recipe was perfected (following numerous false starts) way back in 1952.

Believe me, it’s not as simple as it sounds. Getting the cream to float atop the coffee means heating the whisky to just the right temperature!

  • Buena Vista - 2765 Hyde Street, San Francisco, California. Telephone: (415) 474-5044.

Fisherman’s Wharf

Continue along Beach Street in the same direction, and you’ll find yourself in the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf.

There are tacky shops selling T-shirts that say, “My Parents Went to San Francisco and All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt”.

There is a Ripley’s Believe or Not! museum (we have one of those in Hong Kong) and a Madame Tussauds wax museum (we have one of those, too).

As you might have guessed, Fisherman’s Wharf has “tourist trap” written all over it!

Alcatraz Island views from Pier 39 in San Francisco.
Alcatraz Island as viewed from Pier 39 in San Francisco.

But it DOES draw upwards of 15 million tourists a year. It is considered to be one of the top tourist attractions in the United States. There has GOT to be a reason.

Here are my top three picks:

  • Musee Mecanique – a.k.a. Mechanical Museum, this fascinating museum has one of the largest privately owned collections of penny arcade games and similar artifacts in the world. Trust me! This stuff is cool!
  • Alcatraz Cruises -  this cruise company offers early bird, am, pm, and night tours of the legendary rock. The Behind the Scene Tour last four to five hours and is only suitable for the physically fit. Think Bird Man of Alcatraz!
  • Red and White Fleet – in operation since 1892, the Red and White Fleet offers 17 sightseeing cruises through San Francisco Bay per day.  You will sail past the Golden Gate Bridge and around Alcatraz Island before returning to port.

Where (not) to Eat

While there are numerous Italian and seafood restaurants at Fisherman’s Wharf, I usually advise out-of-town visitors not to eat at them.

Invariably they do, and then I have to listen to them bitch and moan the next day about how the food was “nothing special”, and how the prices were “very high”.

“That’s why I refused to go with you,” I reply.

San Francisco has better restaurants in other neighborhoods – without the “tourist tax”.

By tourist tax I mean the elevated price you pay for dining at a restaurant located at a world-famous tourist attraction.

So please do me a favour and either 1.) take my advice and don’t eat there or 2.) don’t take my advice and PLEASE don't tell me how disappointed you were later.

Because if you do, I will feel obliged to say, “I told you so!”

Pier 39

Continue in the same direction along the Embarcadero to Pier 39, which can surely claim genuine “Only in San Francisco” status.

It has been 39 years since Pier 39 was converted from an abandoned pier into a shopping, dining, and amusement mecca.

Even snobby San Franciscans, who have long turned their noses up at Fisherman’s Wharf, seem to like the place.

But it’s not the rides or the shows or the food that make Pier 39 special.

San Francisco Sea Lions Pier 39 Photo Credit Cookaa
Sea lions basking in the sun at Pier 39 in San Francisco. Photo Credit: Cookaa



Twenty-seven years ago, a colony of sea lions occupied a neighboring upscale marina, where leisure craft were moored.

They were noisy. They were smelly. And they made it difficult for boat owners to get to and from their craft – and to sail their craft in and out of the marina.

Owners of the 11 boats docked at the marina complained, but the sea lions had captured the city’s heart.

In the end, it was the boat owners – not the sea lions – that had to evacuate the space. The sea lions have been there ever since.

Would something like this have happened in Hong Kong? If it had been Li Ka-shing or some sea lions, I think Li Ka-shing's yacht would still be moored there.

Exploratorium

Jump on the F line of a Historic Streetcar heading in the direction of Castro Street and get off at Pier 15 (Green Street and the Embarcadero).

Located at the abandoned pier is the Exploratorum, which bills itself as “the world’s foremost interactive science museum”.

There are more than 600 indoor and outdoor exhibits at the museum, whose collection was expanded considerably following its move from the Palace of Fine Arts in 2013.

There are also 1.5 acres of outdoor space overlooking San Francisco Bay, with a plaza, a promenade, and outdoor installations.

The views of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and Yerba Buena Island are spectacular.

Special thanks to H.F. and P.M. for the recommendation.

Where to Eat Dinner

Time for dinner yet?

Not sure if you‘re ready for dinner. It will really depend on how quickly or slowly you have made your way through this itinerary so far.

If you are feeling peckish, there is a bayside restaurant, a café next to the plaza, and numerous food carts at the Exploratorium.

Mission Bay

If not, continue along the Embarcadero – either on foot by the F line – to the Ferry Building.

You can grab a bite inside or at one of the numerous food and beverage outlets at nearby Mission Bay.

Landmarks  Icons-A18915x09A.tif
The marina at Mission Bay with AT and T Park in the background. The neighborhood is full of food and beverage outlets catering to sports fans.

 

AT and T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants of Major League Baseball, is located in Mission Bay. 

Numerous food and beverage outlets have opened in the neighborhood since the park opened. Many of them are located on the waterfront, affording beautiful views of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

  • The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen - 1 South Park Avenue, San Francisco, California. Telephone: (415) 243-0107.
  • Tres Tequila Lounge and Mexican Kitchen - 130 Townsend Street (at 2nd), San Francisco, California. Telephone: (415) 227-0500).

Tourist's Map of San Francisco

San-francisco-map18

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