Today Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the busiest and well-known tourist destinations in the United States, packed with seafood restaurants, shops, sidewalk entertainment and dockside attractions. But this element has only defined Fisherman’s Wharf for a few decades. Also here is an active fishing fleet that has been the lifeblood of San Francisco’s northern shore for the better part of a century-and-a-half.
Immigrants from Genoa and Sicily pioneered the San Francisco fishing industry in small, sail-powered craft called feluccas. The bay was stuffed with these traditional Italian fishing vessels until the end of the 1800s when they began to be replaced with hardier, more modern fishing boats with motors that permitted year-round fishing. When they brought their catch to the docks often they would drop fresh seafood directly into boiling cauldrons for diners. Later came fish stands and then it-down restaurants. Some of the fleets operating out of Fisherman’s Wharf are manned by third- and fourth-generation family fishermen.
The prize quarry for Fisherman’s Wharf fishermen is the Dungeness crab that takes its name from the port of Dungeness, Washington and is the West Coast’s most commercially important crustacean. A century ago the Dungeness crab, which can grow 8-10 inches across, was gathered in abundance on the sandy shores around San Francisco Bay but over the years as its natural food, clams, disappeared from the Bay and the crab has migrated into deeper ocean waters. Today crab season does not open until November with an eagerly anticipated celebration along Fisherman’s Wharf.
But there is plenty to see on Fisherman’s Wharf any time of year. Our walking tour will begin at the eastern end of the wharf district and work our way west, towards the Golden Gate, hugging the historic waterfront as we go...
Aquarium of the Bay
The Embarcadero and Beach streets
The marine life of the San Francisco Bay is showcased here in three exhibition areas: Discover the Bay, Touch the Bay, and Under the Bay. Under the Bay includes 300 feet of tunnels and features 20,000 sea creatures in a recreation of the San Francisco Bay. The Aquarium has over 50 sharks from species such as Sevengill sharks, leopard sharks, soupfins, spiny dogfish, brown smoothhounds and angel sharks.
WITH YOUR BACK TO THE AQUARIUM, TO YOUR RIGHT IS...
The Embarcadero at Beach Street
With views of Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge, Pier 39 was first developed as an eating and entertainment complex by entrepreneur Warren Simmons and opened October 4, 1978. It features the floating Forbes Island restaurant and a two-story carousel near the end of the pier. Always busy with street performers, the biggest attraction may be the sea lions that have been massing on Pier 39 docks in ever increasing numbers since 1989.
CONTINUE WALKING ALONG THE WATERFRONT TO THE WEST (THE BAY IS ON YOUR RIGHT).
Pier 43, The Embarcadero opposite Powell Street
This Beaux Arts arch is all that remains of the ferry terminal on Pier 43 where lumber from giant redwoods, livestock, grain, wine and dairy products would be off-loaded from coastal schooners onto boxcars for distribution by rail around the Bay Area. The Arch building housed weights and pulleys that could raise and lower a 100-foot hinged ramp by as much as eight feet, depending on the tides.
CONTINUE WALKING WEST ON THE EMBARCADERO.
The Franciscan Crab Restaurant
Pier 43 1/2
The Franciscan has been dishing seafood nearly as long as Fisherman’s Wharf has been turned over to tourists. The nautically-themed Art Deco restaurant was constructed in the 1950s.
Boudin at the Wharf
southeast corner of The Embarcadero and Taylor Street
In 1849 Isidore Boudin, from a family of master bakers from Burgundy, France began blending the sourdough favored by Gold Rush miners with the techniques of his French heritage. The mother dough used in 1849 gets its unique flavor from a wild yeast that is found only in San Francisco’s foggy climate. During the 1906 Earthquake Isidore’s wife Louise, who helmed the business for 23 years, rescued the mother dough in the midst of the devastation by transporting it in a bucket. Those same recipes that fed the California Gold Rush are still used by the bakery, although the Boudin family bowed out of the business in 1941. This combination store, bistro and demonstration bakery opened in 1975.
ACROSS TAYLOR STREET TO YOUR LEFT IS...
8 Fisherman’s Wharf
Nunzio Alioto, a Sicilian immigrant, opened a fresh fish stall in 1925 at a time when the wharf area was a jumble of train tracks and wholesale fisheries and a massive lumberyard. From his Stall #8 Alioto sold enough lunches to Italian laborers that he was able to construct the first building on Fisherman’s Wharf by adding a seafood bar to his fish stand by 1932. Nunzio died the following year and his wife Rose shepherded and expanded the business, opening Alioto’s Restaurant in 1938 with an on-site kitchen.
AND NEXT TO IT, ACROSS TAYLOR STREET ON THE CORNER IS...
2847 Taylor Street, 9 Fisherman’s Wharf
This was the first sit-down restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf, started in 1935 by a Sicilian fisherman named Mike Geraldi. Geraldi began his business career as a boy slogging baskets of fish up and down the hills of San Francisco. He saved enough to buy his own fishing boat and sold his catch from a small corner stand. He built the first seafood restaurant at stall Number 9 on the Wharf and named it Fishermen’s Grotto in honor of the fishermen themselves. The building was festively decorated in a Venetian motif and subsequent Geraldi generations have added and embellished the restaurant in an Italian Renaissance style.
CONTINUE ON THE EMBARCADERO. TO YOUR RIGHT IS...
Pier 45 at Taylor Street and the Embarcadero, Shed A at southern end of pier
This warehouse now protects the private collection of over 300 mechanically operated musical instruments and antique arcade machines of Edward Galland Zelinsky. For decades San Franciscans dropped coins in these works of art in places like Playland at the Beach, the Sutro Baths and the Cliff House. Many of the animated figures can still be operated, including a gap-toothed Laughing Sal, whose cackle echoed throughout Playland from her hiding place in the park’s Fun House. The climactic scene in Orson Welle’s The Lady from Shanghai in 1948 was filmed outside the Fun House. Playland was torn down in 1972 and oceanfront condominiums rose above the ghosts of roller coasters and carousels.
Pier 45 at Taylor Street and the Embarcadero, east side
The USS Pampanito, the only United States Navy submarine named for a variety of the pompano fish, earned six battle stars for service in World War II and remained an active warship until 1971. She was turned into a memorial and museum in 1975. In 1986, the Pampanito was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and declared to be a National Historic Landmark. In 1995, she played the fictional USS Stingray in the movie Down Periscope with Kelsey Grammer as the ship’s captain. Filming is actually of the Pampanito sailing under tow in San Francisco Bay and under the bridge for the first time in fifty years.
SS Jeremiah O’Brien
Pier 45 at Taylor Street and the Embarcadero, east side
The SS Jeremiah O’Brien is the sole survivor of the armada of Allied ships which was involved in D-Day, and one of only two WWII Liberty Ships remaining from the 2,710 built during the war. Assembled in just 56 days in Maine in 1943, she is named for American Revolutionary War ship captain Jeremiah O’Brien. The Jeremiah O’Brien took a star turn in Titanic in 1997 - that was her engine room you saw in the moments after the luxury liner clipped the iceberg. All the mechanical grinding and slamming won an Academy Award for Best Sound Effects Editing. You can tour the SS Jeremiah O’Brien but don’t expect to see her Oscar statuette.
CONTINUE A FEW MORE STEPS TO THE END OF THE EMBARCADERO AT THE WATER.
Fishermen’s and Seamen’s Chapel
Pier 45, northwest tip of Inner Lagoon, opposite corner of Jefferson and Jones streets
This tiny gabled, wooden chapel is a memorial to “those that have lost their lives on the seas.” Every year a special service is conducted to commemorate these “Lost Fishermen” whose names are listed on bronze plaques in the foyer. The bell that tolls every fifteen minutes was cast in bronze in 1860. Pier 45 is San Francisco’s longest wharf.
TURN LEFT AT THE CHAPEL AND WALK AROUND THE INNER LAGOON OUT TO JEFFERSON STREET. TURN RIGHT ON JEFFERSON.
Dom DiMaggio Building
245 Jefferson Street
There have been scores of famous San Franciscans through the decades but no name has ever been bigger than DiMaggio. Joe DiMaggio and his eight brothers and sisters grew up in a flat at 2150 Taylor Street, about eight blocks from Fisherman’s Wharf. Their Sicilian immigrant father, Guiseppe, fished out of a 1924 Monterey Clipper fishing boat. After just his first year with the New York Yankees, DiMaggio invested part of his $15,000 salary in a family restaurant here known as the Grotto. There were three DiMaggio brothers who played major league baseball - Joe, Vince and Dominic. All were centerfielders. The Grotto closed years ago; Joe’s Crab Shack has no connection to the DiMaggios, save for the building.
TURN LEFT ON AL SCOMA WAY AND TURN LEFT AT THE WATERFRONT.
This is a chance to see the fish shacks and working commercial fishing boats that have been the historical staple of Fisherman’s Wharf since the days of the California Gold Rush in the 1850s. Shrimp and crab and fish and chowder are cooked on-site by sidewalk vendors. In those days the average fisherman made about $2 or $3 a week.
TURN LEFT ON LEAVENWORTH STREET TO RETURN TO JEFFERSON STREET AGAIN. TURN RIGHT AT JEFFERSON STREET.
2801 Leavenworth Street, at southwest corner of Jefferson Street
When this was Del Monte Plant No. 1 in 1907 it was the largest peach cannery in the world. The cannery shut down in the 1930s and the brick warehouse was converted by Leonard Martin in 1963 into three levels of European-flavored winding walkways, balconies and bridges surrounding a courtyard shaded by 100-year old olive trees.
Maritime Historic Park/Argonaut Hotel
495 Jefferson Street at southeast corner of Hyde Street
This block-filling brick structure was built between 1907 and 1909 as part of the world’s largest fruit and vegetable cannery for the California Fruit Cannery Association, late to be named Del Monte. The 198,000 square-foot Haslett Warehouse served until 1939 when the canning operations closed. The warehouse dodged the scheduled wrecking ball and is now owned by the National Park Service as headquarters for its Maritime National Historic Park. Part of the building is leased to the Argonaut Hotel whose guestrooms include the original exposed brick walls, large timbers and warehouse steel doors of the old cannery.
Hyde Street Pier
foot of Hyde Street at Jefferson Street
Before the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, this was the main automobile ferry terminal on the south side of San Francisco Bay. In 1913 the Lincoln Highway, the first road across the United States was conceived and mapped with its western terminus in Lincoln Park on the northwestern corner of the San Francisco Peninsula. In 1928 the Highway crossed the San Francisco Bay from Berkeley Pier to Hyde Pier by ferry and on to its completion in Lincoln Park. Today, the pier is part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park where its fleet of historic sailing craft are moored. Included are the Balclutha, an 1886 built square rigged sailing ship; C.A. Thayer, an 1895 built schooner; Eureka, an 1890 built steam ferryboat; Alma, an 1891-built scow schooner; Hercules, a 1907 built steam tug and Eppleton Hall, a 1914 built paddlewheel tug.
WHEN JEFFERSON STREET ENDS CONTINUE WALKING WEST ALONG THE BEACH.
Aquatic Park/Municipal Pier
western end of Fisherman’s Wharf
This area was once part of Fort Mason but is now a complex for museums and artisans. There is a small beach at the foot of the park where you’ll see kayakers, kite fliers, swimmers from the nearby Polar Bear Club, and even rock sculptors at work. The Aquatic Park Center is housed in a 1939 Bathhouse that was built in the nautically inspired Streamline Moderne style. Look for porthole windows and curved prows that suggest a beached ocean liner. The nautical theme is carried on inside with spectacular murals commissioned with Depression-era artists. At the end of the park is Municipal Pier ― the closest you can get to Alcatraz on foot or bike.
San Francisco Bay
Alcatraz Island is most famous at the home of America’s first maximum-security, minimum-privilege penitentiary where the country’s most notorious criminals were housed from 1934 until 1963. Before that it was a military fortress and the site of the first lighthouse on the West Coast in 1854. Since the last convict was shipped off the island Alcatraz has been a movie set and one of San Francisco’s biggest tourist attractions.
WALK UP TO THE INTERSECTION OF POLK STREET AND BEACH STREET IN FRONT OF THE AQUATIC PARK CENTER. TURN LEFT TO WALK EAST ON BEACH STREET.
Beach Street between Polk Street and Larkin Street
Domenico “Domingo” Ghirardelli was born in Rapallo, Italy, the son and apprentice of a chocolatier. He left Italy at the age of 20 in 1837 and sailed to Uruguay and then Peru and finally to San Francisco in 1852, making candy along the way. In 1893, a year before he died, Ghirardelli purchased this entire city block in order to make it into the headquarters of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company. In 1900, the company built the Cocoa Building and sold its coffee and spice business to concentrate on chocolate and mustard. All these buildings survived the 1906 Earthquake and Fire with so little damage the business was shut down only a few days. The Clock Tower, inspired by Chateau de Blois in France, came along after the devastation. The landmark 15-foot “Ghirardelli” sign was installed in 1923 when two stories were added to the Cocoa Building, visible to all those plying San Francisco Bay. The confectioner left the factory in the 1960s and its historic brick structures to an integrated restaurant and retail complex, the first major adaptive re-use project in the United States.
Buena Vista Cafe
2675 Hyde Street at southwest corner of Beach Street
The Buena Vista is known for being the birth place of Irish Coffee in the United States. The first Irish Coffee was mixed at the Buena Vista in 1952 based on a recipe from Shannon Airport in Ireland. The eatery is located at the last stop for the Powell-Hyde cable car.
Cable Car Turnaround
Hyde and Beach streets
The first cable cars were put into use on San Francisco streets in 1873 by Andrew Hallidie, a Scottish engineer and wire rope manufacturer. Hallidie had first employed cables to transport ore cars in the mountainous mining fields before tackling the hills of San Francisco. In 1964 the cable car was designated a national landmark by the National Park Service. The Powell-Hyde line begins at the Powell-Market turntable and runs over Nob and Russian hills before ending at Aquatic Park near Ghiradelli Square. Or it begins here and ends at Market Street. Since the cable cars only travel in one direction when the cars reach the end of the line here the gripman manually rotates the car on the turntable.
CONTINUE ON BEACH STREET SIX BLOCKS THROUGH THE SHOPPING AND HOTEL DISTRICT BACK TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT. OR IF YOU PREFER, WALK OVER TO JEFFERSON STREET AND RETURN THAT WAY.