Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco is one of the most-visited neighborhoods in one of the most visited cities in America. Tourists flock there, but locals tend to actively avoid it as a bit of a tourist trap. While it has plenty of attractions designed to help visitors part with their cash, Fisherman’s Wharf is a can’t-miss destination with lots of enjoyable places to explore for tourists and locals alike. If you know what to do and where to look, you’ll surely find some authentic San Francisco experiences in the mix.
As a Bay Area local myself for the better part of two decades, I never regret spending a couple of hours returning to Fisherman’s Wharf to see the sights, shop, explore, and eat some food. During my pre-kid days, my husband and I lived just up the hill from the Wharf and would pass through fairly regularly on our errands and outings. We have returned often with our kids at different ages and stages whenever we want to play tourist in our hometown.
Whether you are visiting San Francisco with kids or exploring the city on an adults-only getaway, here are a local’s best tips and recommendations for what to do and see in Fisherman’s Wharf.
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Introduction to San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf
San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf is located on the north waterfront of the city. The neighborhood is roughly bordered on its southern edges by Russian Hill, North Beach, and the Embarcadero area. It stretches approximately from Pier 39 in the east to Ghirardelli Square in the west.
The neighborhood was originally where Italian-American fisherman docked their boats and brought in fresh catch. Seafood still plays an important role in the local food offerings, and a number of the attractions in the neighborhood are maritime-related.
How to Get to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco
Because of its central location, getting to Fisherman’s Wharf is pretty convenient for most travelers to the city. A lot of visitors stay in hotels in the Fisherman’s Wharf area already. There are many lodging options in the neighborhood, so getting to the sights of the Wharf may be as easy as walking.
For travelers staying in and around Union Square, the other major locus of hotels in the city, Fisherman’s Wharf is accessible via several modes of public transportation in San Francisco – including cable cars (more on that later) and Muni buses. The F-Market street car line also comes right into the neighborhood from the Financial District.
It’s also incredibly easy and cheap to hop in an Uber or Lyft rideshare from a number of home bases in the city. Parking is quite expensive and hard-to-find in Fisherman’s Wharf so unless you are coming from a day trip drive market and have no other real choice, I usually recommend leaving your car behind.
Fishermans Wharf vs. Pier 39: What’s the Difference?
A lot of tourists and even locals confuse Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 and sometimes use the terms interchangeably. What’s the difference? Pier 39 is a single pier of shops, restaurants and attractions within the larger neighborhood. Pier 39 is a destination in its own right, with plenty to do and see in a single spot. But most visitors rightly explore beyond just the Pier when visiting the area.
How to Save Money at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco
Because it is a popular tourist destination, a visit to Fisherman’s Wharf can get expensive if you plan to do a lot of the paid attractions. But the area can be done on the cheap too, as there is a lot to explore and take in visually without paying a dime.
If you do plan to do several paid attractions in the neighborhood (or all over the city of San Francisco), you can likely save money by purchasing a combination pass of some sort. My favorites are the two options from City Pass San Francisco (CityPass San Francisco and (San Francisco C3)) and and either the All-Inclusive pass or the Explorer pass. from Go City.
Top 9 Things to Do in Fisherman’s Wharf San Francisco
1. Aquarium of the Bay
If you only have time to do a very few things in and around Fisherman’s Wharf, the Aquarium of the Bay is probably my top pick for families, especially those with younger kids. The Aquarium focuses on the species found in the Bay Area and was truly educational – even for me! It’s small and can be done in an hour or two leaving you plenty of time to do other activities on the Wharf. The highlight is definitely the underwater tunnels where you can see sharks and scuba divers. My kids didn’t want to leave these spaces the last time we visited.
Admission pre-purchased in advance online is $31.75 for adults and $21.75 for kids 4-12 (kids 3 & under are free). If you live in one of the 9 San Francisco Bay Area counties, make sure to take advantage of the local’s discount ($26.99 adults, $18.49 kids 4-12), available only in person. Aquarium of the Bay is an attraction included on all the products sold by CityPass or Go City, so it’s a good buy as part of a combination ticket too.
2. Watch the Sea Lions on Pier 39
The world’s most famous sea lions arrived in San Francisco in 1989 around the time of the big earthquake and have now made the floating docks around Pier 39 their permanent home. Make a little time to watch them hanging out, swimming, and occasionally – battling for territory.
Known for housing some of the country’s most infamous criminals before it closed in 1963, Alcatraz is a fascinating and iconic San Francisco stop. Getting there requires some pre-planning, as there are limited boats that make the trip. Spots do sell out during the summer tourist season and on busy weekends, so buy in advance.
One mistake that visitors always make is not dressing appropriately. The Rock is cold and windy almost all year round. Bring layers and even fleeces or coats on chillier days.
Day tour tickets are $42.15 for adults ages 12+ and $25.80 for kids 5-11 at AlcatrazCruises.com and include a free audio tour. Plan for about a half day to make the trip at a leisurely pace.
4. Cruise the Bay
Although hopping the boat to Alcatraz is a blast for older kids, it isn’t exactly a destination that most toddlers will enjoy. If you have younger kids with shorter attention spans who might still need to be back in time for a nap, I’d still recommend getting out on the water to see the amazing bay views.
An alternative to Alcatraz for the younger set (or anyone with mobility issues that might make touring Alcatraz difficult) is a short bay cruise. There are several providers in the neighborhood running different tourist. Blue & Gold Fleet run a one hour cruise that takes you near Alcatraz and under the Golden Gate Bridge. Tickets are pricey at $37 for adults and $26 for kids 5-11, but can be a good deal when purchased as part of a combination pass.
Competitor Red & White Fleet also offers similar cruises at a similar price point. So be sure to check both companies to find a cruise time that works with your overall plans.
5. Eat Your Way Across the Wharf
One of the best things about a San Francisco vacation is the food! Fisherman’s Wharf has plenty of chain restaurants that you should probably avoid, but there are lots of memorable food choices there too.
Make time for anything sourdough at Boudin Bakery. Clam chowder in a bread bowl is the traditional dish, but you can also purchase loaves in the shape of animals and more to take home as a souvenir or gift.
Fisherman’s Wharf is also home to a large number of seafood restaurants well-known especially for dungeness crab. Many also feature Italian ingredients and flavors as a result of the neighborhoods Italian immigrant history. If you have time for a sit down meal, I highly recommend giving one a try. Famed restaurants include Fog Harbor Fish House, Scoma’s, Cioppino’s, Pier Market Seafood, and several others.
6. Ship Watch at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park
Learn all about San Francisco’s seafaring history at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. One of several national park sites in San Francisco run by the National Park Service, it is home to several historic ships moored on the Hyde Street Pier. It also includes the nearby Maritime Museum and Aquatic Park cove, as well as the World War II submarine USS Pampanito.
Tickets to enter the pier are $15 for adults and kids 15 and under are free to tour the historic ships with adults. (Submarine tours are a separate fee, operated by the San Francisco Maritime National Park Association.) Start at the visitor’s center then head out to the ships. Don’t forget to pick up Junior Ranger booklets for any little ones along for the trip. On warm days, families will enjoy the beach in the park too.
7. Pier 39 Carousel
If you have young kids, walk to the end of Pier 39 for a ride aboard a gorgeous two story historic carousel. The top level fills first, so make a dash up there quickly if you want the horses with views. Rides have gotten a little pricey in recent years at $7 per person, so plan accordingly!
8. Ride a Cable Car
A trip to the city by the bay wouldn’t be complete without hopping aboard a cable car, right? Two of San Francisco’s three cable car lines come into the Fisherman’s Wharf area: the Powell-Hyde and the Powell-Mason lines (both originate in Union Square). Be sure to make time for a ride and plan for lines. At $8 one way, cable car rides are expensive, so if you plan to use other San Francisco public transit, purchase a Muni passport that provides unlimited access.
9. Ghirardelli Square
A lot of visitors to Fisherman’s Wharf get so overwhelmed by the scene in and around Pier 39 that they don’t make it down to the other end of their neighborhood. But for those that do, the payoff is pretty sweet!
At that end of the Wharf is Ghirardelli Square, where the famed chocolate brand was founded. While the chocolate is made elsewhere now, there is still plenty of chocolate to eat and buy. Make time for a signature hot fudge sundae. See my complete guide to Ghirardelli Square for all the offerings.
Need more San Francisco travel advice and tips from a local?
- 21 Very Best Things to Do in San Francisco with Kids
- 25 Free Things to Do in San Francisco
- Flying to San Francisco: Bay Area Airport Guide
- 24 Hours in San Francisco: One Day Itinerary
Disclosure: The Aquarium of the Bay provided my family with complimentary media passes on one visit many years ago for review purposes. We have done all other activities in the area at our own expense. As always, all opinions are my own.