Past the throngs of tourists, past the street performers and repetition of souvenir stands, past the ferries that go to Alcatraz – there are the working fishing boats and fisherman that give the wharf its name. There are also businesses both renowned and unrecognized, worthy of the trek to this stretch of waterfront. Although the tourist attractions aren’t fully avoidable, once in the midst of the activities you may just find yourself having a good time. It is easy to get caught up in the sea lions charm, the Barbary Coast history and the warmth of an Irish coffee on a foggy day.
Fishermen's & Seamen's Memorial Chapel (Pier 45)
The small wooden chapel and bell tower sits hidden amongst the fishing boats at fishing boat basin on Pier 45. The chapel is a landmark dedicated to San Franciscans that have devoted their life to the sea. The walls inside are lined with plaques commemorating fishermen and donors and flags of many denominations. A campanile houses a bell that was crafted in 1860 and a carillon that can ring 1,200 different melodies. The carillon can be heard on the hour every hour and on special occasions. Check the website for open hours. On Sundays St. John’s Oratory offers a fully traditional Roman Catholic Latin Mass at the chapel.
Musée Mécanique (Pier 45 Shed A)
Wooden dolls come to life to the sound of piano tunes, fortunes are told and children and adults alike are captivated by the moving curiosities at this antique arcade. The giant Laffing Sal greets entrants at the Musée Mécanique with a cackle of laughter and quarters clink into any variety of mechanical machines new and old. The arcade is the largest privately owned, and publicly displayed, collection of coin-operated art in the world. The arcade was once housed at the Cliff House at Ocean Beach and in 2002 was moved to Pier 45. Hours: Mon -Fri from 10am. to 7pm., Sat and Sun from 10am. to 8pm. Free.
Aquatic Park Cove (499 Jefferson St.)
A grassy knoll known as Victorian Park slopes down past concrete steps to a sand beach and the cold water of Aquatic Park Cove. A horseshoe shaped Municipal Pier surrounds this part of the Bay and is home to the swimming group called the Dolphin Club, founded in 1897. The club hosts Bay swimming training classes and requires at least 6 months in good standing to participate in the club’s swim program, featuring a swim to Alcatraz or the Golden Gate. Temperatures in the water range from 50 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter to 61 degrees Fahrenheit in the early fall. Bring a picnic and watch the swimmers paddle by.
Maritime National Historic Park Visitor Center (499 Jefferson St.)
This interactive experience immerses visitors in San Francisco’s waterfront history. Hear voices of Yelamu natives, sailors at a Barbary Coast bar or watch a video that transforms 1800’s maps of the Bay into the maps of today. The center goes beyond the flat walls of a museum to bring the past to life. Hours: Open every day from 9:30am to 5pm. Free.
Forbes Island (39 and 41 Piers)
A chandelier sways gently overhead in the below water dining room at this floating island restaurant. The man-made island, once a residence, is home to a lighthouse, waterfall, a tiki shack and living palm trees. French American cuisine is served in an intimate nautical setting and the restaurant is accessible by boat ride from Pier 39.
In 1980 the 700-ton island was launched in Marin, built by Forbes Kiddoo. The island was his home for 23 years and featured on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, it soon became a Sausalito landmark. By the early 90’s the island went into exile due to restrictions of moored vessels, but eventually found a permanent home in Fisherman’s Wharf in 1999. A year later the restaurant opened and became a dining destination.
Food Trucks (Jones St. btwn Beach and Jefferson)
In this area laden with tourist traps, these three permanent food trucks offer a break from the hustle and bustle, and an inexpensive meal. Tanguito serves Argentinian food, Carmel Pizza Company offers wood fired pizza and Cod Mother Fish and Chips goes beyond the British favorite offering fish tacos. All have outdoor seating at heated patios.
Gold Dust Lounge (165 Jefferson St.)
The owners of the Gold Dust did not give up after an eviction forced them from their long time Union Square location. Instead the lounge relocated to its new home on the wharf and brought with it the iconic marquee, fixtures, paintings, Herb Caen’s barstool and its charm. A new mural fills the ceiling with cherubs and naked ladies and happy hour has the best deal around for an Irish coffee or margarita.
Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.