The best things to do in Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco, including fun activities, the best restaurants, and more.
Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the most popular tourist destinations in San Francisco.
Nestled between landmarks such as the Fort Point, the Ferry Building, Coit Tower, and Lombard street, Fisherman’s Wharf is packed with activities, restaurants, and uniquely San Francisco attractions.
Although locals generally avoid this tourist hotspot, many have fond memories of visits to the arcade, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, or fantastic seafood dinners in this neighborhood.
Despite its reputation as a tourist area, you won’t find many chain restaurants or stores here. Most places are family-owned, some for generations.
In fact, the whole area, which encompasses the waterfront between Ghirardelli Square to Pier 35, has a delightfully old-fashioned feel.
There’s enough to do here for a whole day, whether you’re interested in nautical history, natural history, or pop culture.
Don’t miss some of the quirkier attractions, too, like the collection of antique arcade machines you can actually play with or the colony of sea lions that hang out at Pier 39.
So, grab your camera and walking shoes and create your own magical San Francisco memories at Fisherman’s Wharf with help from this guide.
Note: this post contains affiliate links, which help run this site at no extra cost to you so I can keep providing free travel advice and tips.
Table of Contents
Fisherman’s Wharf Attractions Map
Visit the San Francisco Maritime Museum
Learn about San Francisco’s maritime history at a museum shaped like a boat.
The Bathhouse, an Art Deco-style building in the shape of a graceful ocean liner, houses the San Francisco Maritime Museum.
Built in 1939, troops commandeered the building during World War II. Eventually, the building was returned to the public and now showcases exhibitions about the life and times of sailors who worked in the San Francisco Bay Area.
There are also some cool Art Deco murals in the museum that make excellent selfie backgrounds.
Admire the Historic Ships at Hyde Street Pier
While exploring the San Francisco Maritime Historic Park, head to the historic ships at Hyde Street Pier.
San Francisco has a collection of beautiful 1890s-era ships, including huge three-masted schooners and paddlewheel tug boats that dock amongst the fishing boats.
Ranger-led tours of the Hyde Street Pier ships are available most days. You can check the Fisherman’s Wharf San Francisco Visitor Center for specific times.
A self-guided audio tour of a historic vessel is also available by dialing a number and listening on your phone.
Families can also pick up a Junior Ranger activity book for their kids, available at the visitor’s center. These free programs are amazingly effective at getting children engaged with history.
Relax at Aquatic Park
Another thing to do at the San Francisco Maritime Park is to swim at Aquatic Park, a small scooped-out bay on the Pacific Ocean that’s safe enough for swimming (if you can brave the cold).
If ocean swimming isn’t your thing, there’s a lovely sandy beach perfect for sandcastle building, plus a lawn where you can enjoy a picnic. There’s also Aquatic Park Pier to stroll, with lovely city views.
Stroll Around the Pier 39 Attractions
Pier 39 has shops, restaurants, and sea lions, which get their own section below. The pier has two levels, with plenty of fun activities.
Check out the colorful San Francisco Carousel, also known as the Fisherman’s Wharf Carousel, where you can take a spin on some San Francisco history.
Or get lost in Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze, a mind-bending labyrinth of endless reflections.
There are also a couple of fun fairground-type rides, like the Bay Plunge, which takes riders forty feet in the air before plunging back down in a stomach-dropping rush.
I like the Musical Stairs, a piano you play with your feet, connecting the lower level to the upper floors.
When you’re ready to take a break from the souvenir shops and rides, go for a drink and a bite at Players Sports Grill & Arcade, located at the Bay End of Pier 39.
This Fisherman’s Wharf arcade has a ton of games, plenty of screens to watch a game, beers on tap, and a good bar menu.
Visit the Pier 39 Sea Lions
Saying hello to the sea lions at Pier 39 is an unmissable and unique thing to do in San Francisco.
These adorable, noisy creatures love to hang out on floating wooden barges among the tourists at Fisherman’s Wharf, sunbathing and occasionally squabbling.
The sea lions simply turned up one day, right after the Loma Prieta earthquake, and decided to stay.
The best time to see these cuties is during the winter, as most head out to the Channel Islands for the summer mating season.
A few sea lions stay year-round, so it’s still worth checking them out if you’re visiting in the warmer months. You’ll find the sea lions on Dock K at Pier 39.
If you want to learn more about the sea lions, visit the Sea Lion Center at Pier 39, Building J, Level 2, where you can touch a pelt and see a skeleton.
Hop on a Historic Cable Car
San Francisco is one of the only places in the world where you can ride a national historic landmark–the iconic cable cars.
The air is full of the cheery ding-ding of the cable cars’ bells on Jefferson Street, where the Powell-Hyde line terminates.
Two cable car lines end near Fisherman’s Wharf, so you could travel on one route to get there and return by another.
Hop on a Powell Mason line cable car at the Market Street/Powell Street turnaround near Union Square. Hang on as you pass through downtown, Chinatown, Nob Hill, and North Beach.
The cable cars’ last stop is at Taylor and Bay Streets, about three blocks south of Fisherman’s Wharf.
Once you’re ready to return, head to the turnaround on Bay Street or the Beach Street/Hyde Street stop by Ghirardelli Square. Then, take the Powell-Hyde cable car line back downtown to Market Street and Union Square.
You can use exact change to buy a cable car ticket onboard or use the city’s Clipper Card, which works on all public transport.
Indulge in a Sundae in Ghirardelli Square
Italian chocolatier Domingo Ghirardelli emigrated to San Francisco in 1850, lured, like so many, by the promise of gold.
Making a very sensible decision, he opened a chocolate factory and sold his high-quality chocolate to hungry prospectors rather than join the hunt himself, and a San Francisco legend was born.
Ghirardelli set up his base of operations in the north of San Francisco, taking over a beautiful brick factory.
When production moved away, a local consortium was keen to keep the historic building and transform it into a buzzing retail space which today is Ghirardelli Square.
With cool boutique shops, a pretty outdoor courtyard, and a great spot overlooking the city, Ghirardelli Square is ideal for a lunch break or some souvenir shopping at Fisherman’s Wharf.
If you have a sweet tooth, don’t skip the fantastic Hot Fudge Sundae from the Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Store.
Too cold for ice cream? Order the Sea Salt Caramel Hot Chocolate instead and a handful of pick ‘n mix for later.
Take a Bay Cruise
San Francisco looks its best glittering from the water. Board a cruise from Fisherman’s Wharf to see the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, Angel Island, and Alcatraz Island while sailing in the San Francisco Bay.
You’ll likely see wildlife as well as all the iconic landmarks on one of these boat tours. Keep an eye out for sea lions, seals, dolphins, whales, and pelicans as you cruise.
Red and White Fleet offers one-hour bay cruises that glide under the Golden Gate Bridge, which will get you some amazing postcard-perfect shots of the historic structure.
Or, for a romantic ride, set sail on The Privateer at sunset. This two-hour cruise is ideal for couples and includes two alcoholic drinks, so you can toast the city as the sun dips below the horizon.
Go to the Aquarium of the Bay
Aquarium of the Bay, located on Pier 39, is home to more than 20,000 marine animals, including sharks, octopus, jellyfish, and cuddly river otters.
Ideal for families, the Aquarium of the Bay features walk-through tunnels and touch pools.
It’s also an excellent spot for anyone keen to learn about California’s incredible marine life hidden below the waves.
The aquarium is a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, so if you’re a member of another zoo, show your membership card for a discount.
Consider buying a CityPass if you’re visiting a few museums in San Francisco to save money.
Check out the Quirky Musée Mécanique
The Musée Mécanique at Pier 45 in Fisherman’s Wharf is the most extensive privately-owned collection of mechanically operated musical instruments and penny arcade games.
But the Musée Mécanique isn’t simply a museum–you can pay to play the antique games.
Admission to the Musée Mécanique is free, so stop by and enjoy nostalgic fun with these interactive exhibits from the pre-video game age.
Explore the Sights and People Watch Along Jefferson St
Jefferson Street is Fisherman’s Wharf’s main strip, running between Aquatic Park in the west and merging into The Embarcadero at Pier 39.
Here, you’ll find many attractions and restaurants that draw around 60,000 people a day on a summer weekend.
Street performers and artists turn out to entertain the tourists along the waterfront, adding to the lively carnival atmosphere. Below are a few sights not to miss along Jefferson Street.
Ripley’s Believe it or Not
Ripley’s Believe it or Not is a museum dedicated to the weird, the wonderful, and the downright bizarre. It’s a lot of fun for kids and kids at heart.
You can’t miss the giant sign on the corner of Jefferson Street and Taylor Street.
Museum of 3D Illusions
Step into the Museum of 3D Illusions for a mind-bending trip through clever illusions designed to make you question reality, or at least take a fun photo for Instagram.
Full of colorful art and imaginative murals, this is a totally unique attraction on Fisherman’s Wharf.
Boudin Museum & Bakery Tour
Sourdough, the bread that requires a fermented starter dough rather than yeast to rise, gained fans during the pandemic.
But sourdough has always been hip in San Francisco, where the 166-year-old starter–the mother dough–is still used for every loaf of bread baked by the legendary San Francisco bakery, Boudin.
Stop by the flagship bakery on Jefferson Street and join the crowd watching bakers twist the dough into incredible shapes through the vast glass windows.
On the first floor of the building is Baker’s Market, where you can pick up a loaf or a bowl of their famous clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl.
Head to Madame Tussaud’s for a selfie with a celebrity.
The wax museum has a section dedicated to San Francisco, with appearances from Jimi Hendrix, Stephen Curry, and Janis Joplin. There’s also a mini Golden Gate Bridge you can stroll across.
Madame Tussauds San Francisco is two blocks from Pier 39 and a few steps away from the Fisherman’s Wharf sign.
The Cannery San Francisco is a historic brick building in Fisherman’s Wharf, about three blocks west of Pier 39.
At one time the largest canning operation for the US, the 1907 building is now home to shops and restaurants.
There are often performers in the summer, entertaining the visitors sitting in the courtyard.
Note: Although the San Francisco Dungeon used to be another popular tourist attraction on Jefferson Street, it’s now permanently closed.
Visit the Buena Vista Cafe
Is it too late for coffee but too early for booze? No problem, combine them both with cream and consider this tricky problem solved.
The famous Irish Coffee at Buena Vista Cafe is the perfect Fisherman’s Wharf treat on a foggy San Francisco day.
Legend has it that the owner of Buena Vista Cafe wanted to recreate the drink served at Shannon International Airport but struggled to get the recipe right.
It took an interview with San Francisco’s cream-expert mayor, a flight to Ireland, and many, many (many) attempts to find the perfect Irish whiskey, but Jack Koeppler eventually nailed it.
The recipe remains exactly the same today as it was in 1952 and continues to draw fans worldwide.
Enjoy Italian Seafood
The name “Fisherman’s Wharf” originated in the mid-1800s when Italian immigrants arrived to take advantage of the gold rush population boom.
It’s still a neighborhood offering seafood to both locals and visitors alike, with many dishes influenced by traditional Italian cuisine.
Check out Cioppino’s for the namesake Italian seafood stew and the Dungeness Crab Cakes when they’re in season.
Scoma’s, a family-owned restaurant on the pier at the end of Jones Street, is another excellent place to get fresh seafood in Fisherman’s Wharf. The restaurant has its own fishing boats, which go out to catch fresh fish.
Clam chowder–especially in a sourdough bread bowl–is a popular San Francisco dish.
Find a warming bowl at Scoma’s, Bistro Boudin, or Fog Harbor Fish House, which has incredible bay views.
Tour the USS Pampanito Submarine
Explore a historic submarine, which sank six Imperial Japanese ships and damaged four others during the Second World War.
The Maritime Park Association has restored the USS Pampanito to its 1945 prime, and it’s a great place to take kids to learn about history.
It’s incredible to see how tiny the space is. For example, there were only two beds for every three sailors, as someone was always on duty.
The floating museum is open daily, starting at 9 am. Don’t miss the maps room, where you can see all the routes the submarine took on its patrols.
Right next door to the USS Pampanito is Pier 45, where you’ll find the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, a World War II liberty ship.
Rent a Bike to Cycle the Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco’s Embarcadero and Fisherman’s Wharf areas are very bicycle-friendly, and two wheels are the best way to explore this flat area of San Francisco.
If you rent a bike, you’ll get a map, helmet, rear rack, and bike lock, so you have everything you need to explore San Francisco.
My favorite San Francisco bike rental road trip starts from Fisherman’s Wharf, goes across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, then down the hill to the beautiful seaside town of Sausalito in Marin County.
After enjoying the views and refueling with ice cream, you can cycle back or take the ferry across to the city.
Looking to grab lunch while in Sausalito? Read our guide to the best restaurants in Sausalito.
Explore Fort Mason
Fort Mason is an impressive three-story brick fortress on San Francisco’s waterfront at the end of Van Ness Avenue, not far from Fisherman’s Wharf.
The military installation was built during the Civil War in 1861 and has been bolstered over the years to defend the West Coast.
The army has long since departed, but the building remains one of San Francisco’s most important landmarks, now serving as the National Park Service Headquarters.
Tours are available, although you’re free to wander around on your own personal walking tour.
There are lots of art galleries and a few cafes in the complex. You can also enjoy the stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge beyond.
Sail to Alcatraz Island
A trip to Alcatraz Island should be on everybody’s list of things to do in San Francisco, and the ferries over to the infamous prison island depart from Pier 33 or Pier 39.
Take a cruise out to the island and make your way through the abandoned prison cell blocks, yards, workshops, and dining halls of Alcatraz, which once held some of America’s most notorious prisoners.
An audio tour answers all your questions about life on the island and the famous escape attempts.
If you’re short on time, combine a bay cruise with an Alcatraz trip for the city’s best views.
Brighten up your Instagram with a Mural Selfie
The Fisherman’s Wharf area has some great public art to admire and photograph.
From the famous Fisherman’s Wharf sign to the museum shaped like a boat and the many murals dotted around, the area is like an artist’s treasure hunt.
The best place to take a fantastic postcard picture of your San Francisco trip is Umbrella Alley at 757 Beach Street.
There are seven colorful murals, including a giant “Greetings from San Francisco” slogan, a multi-colored Monarch butterfly, and heart balloons. It’s all free, although you can donate to the artists if you like.
Is Fisherman’s Wharf Worth Visiting?
There are a lot of landmarks to check out when you explore San Francisco.
Tourists flock to Golden Gate Park, the Japanese Tea Garden, Union Square, Chinatown and the Golden Gate Bridge. But what about Fisherman’s Wharf? Does it live up to the hype?
This area of San Francisco is worth visiting for its museums, food, and quirky tourist attractions. It’s also the only place in the city where you can get an In ‘n Out Burger, which is worth the trip alone.
I love that there are plenty of free things to do in Fisherman’s Wharf, like listening to the performers, visiting the sea lions, or checking out the the famous restaurants.
On the downside, it does get busy with tourists, especially in the summer season.
Similar to when you visit the Union Square area, the parking situation is less than ideal. Be prepared to take public transit, a taxi, or walk when visiting Fisherman’s Wharf.
If you’d rather drive, there’s a parking garage on Beach Street with one hour free when validated by a local business.
I recommend visiting Fisherman’s Wharf in the daytime when you can visit the museums.
Most of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf souvenir shops are open from around 9 am to 8 pm in the summer, but the museums generally close at 4 pm.
If you do visit Fisherman’s Wharf at night, the Fisherman’s Wharf restaurants are open until around 10 pm.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah McDonald is a travel writer based in the Bay Area. She writes for the national parenting website Red Tricycle and on her own family travel blog, Tiny Trailblazers. She loves exploring California’s outdoors and has a weakness for a national park gift shop.
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