This article was written by Bridget Veltri and originally published on The Bold Italic.
They’re coming, and you know where they’ll want to go: Fisherman’s Wharf.Just like the famous Dungeness crabs they crave, tourists are baited to the wharf and willingly get caught in the same old traps — souvenir shops, fast-food spots and chain restaurants.
During the Gold Rush era in the mid-1800s, Italian immigrants came to the northern waterfront area with intentions of feeding the city’s growing population. These same immigrants settled near the wharf in North Beach(cioppino anyone?). While these days the wharf hauls in more tourists than it does fish, it’s still a working wharf with active fishermen. And while today’s fishermen may not sing in the fog to make their location known, many of them are descendants of the original fleets that fished these waters.
Here are some wharf spots that, as a local, you won’t loathe and that your out-of-town guests are sure to love.
Where to Eat
Fisherman’s Wharf is home to several restaurants that have been family owned for generations. Sabella & La Torre is my favorite. The restaurant has been in business since 1927, and the San Francisco natives in my family swear by it (and if you’re also Italian American, then you’ll understand that there are certain times you don’t go against family). Their petrale sole special with lemon and capers speaks to my soul.
If you’re in a hurry, check out one of the kiosk-like seafood/soup stations outside the larger restaurants on the wharf — “a seafood row on the go,” if you will.
In particular, the Codmother, a no-frills fish-and-chips spot, does not disappoint. The employee’s shirts read, “In Cod We Trust,” and after eating here, you’ll leave a believer too.
Fog Harbor Fish House prides itself on being a “local” Pier 39 restaurant, and it a-piers to be true. It’s expensive but delicious, and if you can score a table with a view, it pays for itself.
The Baked Bear offers custom sweet treats that won’t break the bank. With homemade ice cream and cookies, along with countless topping options, customizing your ice cream sandwich is no simple feat. This franchise opened up at the wharf in February 2016, and a second location opened in North Beach on July 2.
Scoma’s started out in 1965 as a casual restaurant for fishermen working on the wharf. Eventually, they started serving up their patrons’ daily catches. Scoma’s “pier to plate” practice continues today. Though pricy, the food is worth every penny.
Your best bets for breakfast at the wharf are Eight AM and Joanie’s Happy Days Diner. Located a few steps away from one another, both are good options for breakfast or brunch. Think avocado toast at Eight AM and perfect pancakes at Joanie’s.
I’ll take one lavender latte with a view, please. Black Point Cafe, a small cafe across from Ghirardelli Square, offers tasty food and creative coffee drinks. If you’re in need of a little more than just coffee, then it’s off to theBuena Vista Cafe with you, whose Irish coffee is the stuff of legends.
Still thirsty? Jack’s Cannery Bar in the Cannery Shopping Center has been pouring beers since 1932. With 110 beers on tap, you’re sure to find something.
Where to Take the Tourists
If you’re playing tour guide or have some time to kill, the cable cars and theF Market streetcar are sure to lift your San Francisco spirits. The F is part of the city’s lines of heritage streetcars and runs from the wharf to the Castro for a standard Muni fare (with transfers). The streetcars are refugees from dismantled systems all over the world, and the original home of each car is listed on the inside.
As for our famous cable car, both the Powell-Hyde line (near Ghirardelli Square) and the Powell-Mason line (Bay Street) head to and from the wharf. At $7, a single-ride fare is as steep as the hills the cars climb, but it’s also iconic and way better than an Uber. If you’re just after a photo op, you can usually take a quick pic on the cable cars while they’re waiting at the turnstile.
Aquatic Park: Missed the boat on getting tickets to Alcatraz (bummer, it’s worth it) or just looking for a little history? Check out the Aquatic Park area, home to the Maritime Museum and the Hyde Street Pier. See historic ships firsthand. Pay your respects at the chapel dedicated to the memory of San Francisco and Northern California’s “lost fishermen.” Or take a walk along the Municipal Pier for stunning views of the skyline.
Street Performers: The wharf area has no shortage of musicians and spray-painted street performers — don’t hate, appreciate. And if you can, give them your spare change.
If you have kids, you can’t avoid it. Here are the must-sees for this family-friendly favorite.
The Musical Stairs: A couple of now-seven-year-olds I used to hang with clued me into this art installation by Remo Saraceni. Embrace your inner child by creating tunes with your toes on these steps — for free.
The Carousel, a classic favorite, is tucked away toward the back of the pier.
The Sea Lions are relatively new to the neighborhood — they arrived on the docks in the fall of 1989. Nowadays, the flabby marine mammals at Pier 39 are the unofficial pier publicists. They are what drew me in as a kid, and their antics continue to charm crowds today.
The Aquarium of the Bay is a small but special aquarium that does a good job of both showcasing wildlife and educating about the oceans and the bay. Tip: try to hit the river-otter exhibit just before closing time, when the otters are active and headed out of their enclosure to their sleeping quarters. If you’re a local, show proof of address when purchasing tickets to receive a discount.