Few cities in America are as adept at wholesaling their historical sites as San Francisco, which has converted Fisherman's Wharf into one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world. Unless you come early in the morning to watch the few remaining fishing boats depart, you won't find many traces of the traditional waterfront life that once existed here -- the only trolling going on at Fisherman's Wharf these days is for tourist dollars. Nonetheless, everyone always seems to be enjoying themselves as they stroll down Pier 39 on a sunny day, especially the kids.
Originally called Meiggs' Wharf, this bustling strip of waterfront got its present moniker from generations of fishermen who used to dock their boats here. A small fleet of fewer than 30 fishing boats still set out from here, but mostly it's one long shopping and entertainment mall that stretches from Ghirardelli Square at the west end to Pier 39 at the east.
Accommodating a total of 300 boats, two marinas flank Pier 39 and house the sightseeing ferry fleets, including departures to Alcatraz Island. Twenty years ago, hundreds of California sea lions took up residence on the floating docks, attracted by herring (and free lodging). They can be seen most days sunbathing, barking, and belching in the marina -- some nights you can hear them all the way from Washington Square. Weather permitting, the Marine Mammal Center (tel. 415/289-SEAL ) offers an educational talk at Pier 39 on weekends from 11am to 5pm that teaches visitors about the range, habitat, and adaptability of the California sea lion. Note: After their population ballooned to more than 1,700 in the fall of 2009 the sea lions abruptly abandoned the docks, disappointing some onlookers. They returned in 2010, though in weaker numbers.
Some people love Fisherman's Wharf; others can't get far enough away from it. Most agree that, for better or for worse, it has to be seen at least once in your lifetime. There are still some traces of old-school San Francisco character here that I will always enjoy, particularly the convivial seafood street vendors who dish out piles of fresh Dungeness crab and clam chowder from their steaming stainless steel carts. Also worth a look-see is the wonderful Musée Mécanique at Pier 45, an antique arcade featuring dozens of old-fashioned coin operated amusements, including fortune tellers, an enormous mechanical carnival, and "Laffing Sal," the guffawing bust that once terrified children outside Playland at the Beach. A walk-through aquarium, a real World War II submarine, a blues bar, and the Rainforest Cafe offer enough entertainment to amuse everyone here, even us snobby locals.
Funky Favorites at Fisherman's Wharf
The following attractions clustered on or near Fisherman's Wharf are great fun for kids, adults, and kitsch-lovers of all ages. My favorite is the ominous-looking World War II submarine USS Pampanito, Pier 45, Fisherman's Wharf (tel. 415/775-1943; www.maritime.org), which saw plenty of action in the Pacific. It has been completely restored, and visitors are free to crawl around inside and play Das Boot. Admission is $10 for ages 13 and older, $6 for seniors 62 and older, $4 for children 6 to 12, and free for children 5 and under; the family pass (two adults, up to four kids) costs $20. The Pampanito is open daily at 9am.
Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum, 175 Jefferson St. (tel. 415/771-6188; www.ripleysf.com), has drawn curious spectators through its doors for over 30 years. Inside, you'll experience a world of improbabilities: a 1/3-scale matchstick cable car, a shrunken human torso once owned by Ernest Hemingway, a dinosaur made from car bumpers, a walk through a kaleidoscope tunnel, and video displays and illusions. Robert LeRoy Ripley's infamous arsenal may lead you to ponder whether truth is, in fact, stranger than fiction. What it won't do is blow your mind or feel truly worth the money. That said, with the right attitude, it's easy to enjoy an hour here playing amid the goofy and interactive displays with lots of laughs included in the admission price, which is $15 for adults, $9 for children 5 to 12, and free for children 4 and under. The museum will open with new exhibits in May 2011; hours are Sunday through Thursday 9am to 11pm, and 9am until midnight on Friday and Saturday (open 10am in winter months).
Conceived and executed in the Madame Tussaud mold, San Francisco's Wax Museum, 145 Jefferson St. (tel. 800/439-4305 or 415/202-0402; www.waxmuseum.com), has long been a kitschy-fun tourist trap. The museum has more than 270 lifelike figures, including Oprah Winfrey, Johnny Depp, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, former president George W. Bush, former Giants baseball star Barry Bonds, rap artist Eminem, and "Feared Leaders" such as Fidel Castro. The Chamber of Horrors features Dracula, Frankenstein, and a werewolf, along with bloody victims hanging from meat hooks. Other galleries include King Tut's Tomb, the Palace of Living Art, and for all you geeks out there, Nobel Prize-Winning Scientists. Admission is $14 for adults, $10 for juniors 12 to 17 and seniors 55 and older, $7 for children 6 to 11, and free for children 5 and under. The complex is open from 10am to 9pm every day of the year.