Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco
During a recent trip to San Francisco, due to a tight work schedule where I really couldn’t take any time off, my wife and I had no real option but to fly in Saturday morning and fly back Sunday evening. Not the preferred option, of course, since that meant an equally tight schedule to do sightseeing. In this case, we’d have from around noon on Saturday to 2 P.M. on Sunday, when we’d have to make the hike back to the airport. A delay in our return flight gave us about 2 more hours, for a total of just under 30 hours (28 to be precise) in the city. And so, as we landed, our whirlwind tour began, as our goal was to cram in as much as possible in slightly more than a day.
Our primary destination was the Fisherman’s Wharf area, so we picked out the lovely Kimpton Argonaut Hotel at the west end of the Wharf. If you’re flying in to SFO, it can be a little bit of a chore to get to Fisherman’s Wharf. BART will get you to Market Street, but you’ll need to transfer there to a bus or the “F” line streetcar. The streetcar was absolutely packed – we had to wait for a second one – and thanks to a very large volume of weekend visitors, it was nearly 2:00 by the time we reached the hotel. Our room wasn’t ready, but we were starving, so we headed to lunch first. As you can see, the area was absolutely PACKED.
No doubt the unusually warm and sunny weather (mid-70s both days we were in town, with no fog) had something to do with it, along with it being Valentine’s Day weekend. After lunch, and a brief stop back at the room to freshen up, we had a couple of hours before sunset to see as much as we could around the immediate area. First stop – Ghirardelli Square, home to the famous chocolate shop of the same name.
Our original intent was to buy a box or two of chocolates, but the crowded conditions, combined with one of the shops being closed due to construction, meant nearly an hour wait at the store. No time for that, so we decided to take our chances at the airport the next day (SFO does have a candy shop in Terminal 2 where you can purchase both Ghirardelli and See’s Candies). There are in fact lots of other things to shop for in Ghirardelli Square, notably craft shops and boutiques.
Our next destination was the famously crooked Lombard Street, which we decided to walk up instead of down to help burn off our heavy lunch. Also known locally as “Crooked Street”, the section between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets in the Russian Hill neighborhood boasts eight switchbacks over the span of one city block. Why all the switchbacks? Without them, the steep grade actually posts a safety hazard to both drivers and pedestrians, as vehicles could easily roll down out of control. While a tourist trap primarily for the scenic photographs one can take, the street also boasts some of San Francisco’s most expensive real estate, and several historically significant properties including “Scotty’s Apartment” used in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Vertigo.
Looking east, up the hill
Downhill view from about halfway up, with Coit Tower in the background
Interestingly, Lombard Street, although often billed as the “crookedest street in the world”, isn’t even the most crooked street in San Fran. That would be Vermont Street between 20th and 22nd Streets in the Portrero Hill neighborhood; however, as it isn’t nearly as scenic, it isn’t nearly as famous as Lombard. If you plan to walk the street, DON’T attempt to walk on the street itself. There isn’t room for both pedestrians and cars. Use the staircases on both sides of the street. It’s a tough climb if walking up, but worth it if you ask me. If you want to drive the street, remember that Lombard is one-way eastbound (downhill) only. You can reach it by going north on US 101 (Van Ness Avenue), then turning right on Lombard.
Since we walked up Lombard Street, we turned around to go east back to Fisherman’s Wharf and perhaps the city’s most famous attraction, Pier 39. Originally constructed in 1978, Pier 39 is today home to 14 restaurants, more than 90 shops – and a colony of more than a thousand California sea lions. Just like the area around the hotel, the Pier was packed with hordes of tourists.
There are plenty of great views of the city, Alcatraz, and San Francisco Bay, of course, but what we really wanted to see were the sea lions. First appearing in 1990, the colony’s population varies based on the season and weather patterns, but has been as high as 1,701 animals. There weren’t that many when we visited, but there was still a lot of them lounging around, and making a big racket in the process.
With the sun setting, that was it for Saturday. We woke up Sunday morning with a message that our return flight would be delayed about an hour due to weather on the East Coast. GRRRR, but on the bright side, that meant a little more time to look around. We started our day with a short walk west to Fort Mason. Now part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Fort Mason was founded in 1851 as a defensive outpost (called Point San Jose) to protect ships carrying gold out of California during the Gold Rush. The fort was decomissioned in the late 1960s, and the National Recreation Area as opened in 1972. Today, several historical structures remain, along with many hiking trails that provide excellent views of the city and San Francisco Bay. One of the more interesting aspects of the fort’s history – a house on the site of the fort was the site of a duel in 1859, when abolitionist U.S. Senator David Broderick was challenged to one by pro-slavery California Supreme Court Chief Justice David Terry. Broderick lost. You can see the house when walking around the fort’s grounds, but it is not open for tours.
The commanding general’s quarters
Old Fort Mason headquarters building
At the fort’s highest point, Black Point, you get a good vantage point of Alcatraz Island, and to a lesser extent, the Golden Gate Bridge. The view of the bridge is partially obstructed by trees and the fort’s old docks, however.
Fort Mason connects to the San Francisco Bay Trail system, which we followed to Aquatic Park Pier. Here, excellent views of downtown San Francisco can be had, along with a much better view of the Golden Gate Bridge. For a better shot of the bridge, go to one of the small fishing areas located throughout the pier, where the view towards the bay is open. Otherwise, your view will be partially blocked by the fence.
A seagull watches over the city
Everyone’s favorite photo – a sailboat in front of the Golden Gate Briddge
Now it was time for the mandatory experience for every tourist visiting San Francisco, a ride on one of the city’s famous cable cars. As mentioned in my review of the Argonaut Hotel, the hotel is located across the street from the Hyde-Powell cable car turntable, so after a quick break in the room to freshen up and leave our bags with the concierge, we walked over to grab a ride on the cable car. The plan was to ride to the financial district, then walk to Chinatown to pig out on Chinese food for lunch. The turntables at the ends of each route are generally the easiest places to board cable cars, as the cars tend to fill up very quickly and it may be impossible to board mid-route. You might end up having to stand on the siderail like the passengers in this photo.
Even at 10:30 in the morning on a Sunday, there was already a fairly long line at the Hyde turntable, and we waited about half an hour for our turn. I’m glad I experienced the cable car, but to be honest, it’s one of those things you do once and probably won’t care to do again.
Interior of the cable car
The manually operated turntable, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background
Looking north out the back of the cable car while going up Russian Hill
The cost to ride is $6 each way. Visit SFMTA’s cable car information page for more information on routes and how to ride. NOTE: it’s not clear on SFMTA’s website, but credit cards are accepted at the turntable ticket booths. Also, while the official timetable suggests that cable cars run every 8 minutes, the reality is they pretty much go whenever the conductors feel like it. In other words, this is a tourist attraction, and if you need to be somewhere on a specific schedule, use the bus or Muni.
The ride to the end of the line near the intersection of Powell and Market Streets takes approximately 20 minutes, and drops you very close to Union Square in downtown SF. One of two public squares laid out in San Francisco’s original 1847 city plan, Union Square today is in the center of a high rent district, even by San Francisco standards, home to many high-end hotels and retailers (the famous Sir Francis Drake Hotel is on the north side of the square). A public park encompasses most of the square, and this is a relaxing place to sit and linger for a few minutes after a long day of walking up and down San Francisco’s hilly streets. On the day we visited, there was also an art sale of some kind going on – all beyond our price range needless to say.
And now, my favorite time of day – lunch time! I was really in the mood for Chinese food for some reason, and we’d decided on the Hang Ah Tea Room in Chinatown for lunch. The Hang Ah claims to be the first dim sum restaurant in the United States; we did enjoy our meal, and I’ll have a review up in the next couple of weeks. After a hearty lunch, we walked north through Chinatown, which was bustling with open air stalls and people as the Chinese New Year Flower Market Fair was in full swing that weekend. I’ve never been to China, but the entire crowded, open market atmosphere reminded me a lot of walking down a busy street in India on a Sunday afternoon.
A Chinese pagoda
Open-air stall selling knick-knacks
Typical Chinatown dry goods store
The overarching theme of the weekend – too many people!
A small parade of some sort
NOTE: if you want to walk to Chinatown from Market Street, the easiest way is via Stockton Street, which ascends a gentle grade via tunnel between Bush and California Streets. Otherwise, you’ll have to walk up a steeper grade via a parallel street.
We had time for one more thing to see, and since it was close by, we decided on Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill. On the way, we passed through the old Italian North Beach neighborhood, at the center of which is the imposing Saints Peter and Paul Church across from Washington Square Park. The church was constructed in 1924, and its beautiful white spires have been local landmarks for decades, and is one of the few churches in SF where you can hear Mass in Italian (it is also conducted in Chinese and English).
Historical sidenote: Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe had their wedding photos taken at the church in 1954, and it was featured prominently in the movie Dirty Harry.
From Washington Square, the “easiest” way to reach Coit Tower on foot is via the Greenwich Street staircase. “Easy” is a relative term here, as the climb still requires a rather steep walk up Greenwich Street. The tower was built in 1933, and an observation deck at the top provides sweeping views of downtown San Francisco, San Francisco Bay, and the Golden Gate Bridge. The base of the tower contains several frescoes, painted in 1934, that reflect life in California during the Great Depression. The waiting time for an elevator ride to the observation deck was nearly 45 minutes, and unfortunately we didn’t have the time. We had to make do with the small observation area at the tower’s base, which still provides a good albeit slightly obstructed view of the San Francisco skyline, including the iconic Transamerica Pyramid.
It is a 15-20 minute walk from Telegraph Hill back to the Argonaut, and with the clock already approaching 2:00, we reluctantly starting heading west back that way. We did, however, have just enough time to get chocolate milkshakes at Norman’s Ice Cream and Freezes at The Cannery, next door to the Argonaut Hotel. It was a warm day, and the milkshakes, made with Ghirardelli chocolate ice cream, were delicious. A perfect ending to an enjoyable, if exhausting, weekend. The star of the show, though, is supposed to be the Belgian chocolate hot fudge. Maybe next time.
So what did I think of our short weekend? The City By the Bay remains one of my favorite places to visit, though it was a lot more crowded than I remember it being on previous visits. In fact, as you can see in some of the photos, it was approaching New York-level crowded, especially around Fisherman’s Wharf. I grew up in the country, and I have to admit, I really don’t enjoy having THAT many people around. When I come back, I’ll be sure to make it a weekday.
NOTE: This is part 4 of a multi-part series about our short Valentine’s Day weekend in San Francisco. Other parts of this series:
- Flight Review – Virgin America Main Cabin, DAL-SFO-DAL
- Sightseeing at 35,000 Feet – Dallas to San Francisco
- Hotel Review – The Kimpton Argonaut Hotel, San Francisco
- A Delightfully Exhausting 30 Hours in the City by the Bay (this post)
- Restaurant Reviews – San Francisco Crab Food Fight – The Franciscan Crab and the Blue Mermaid
- Restaurant Review – Hang Ah Tea Room, San Francisco