Bay Area

On foot: So your visitors want to go to Fisherman’s Wharf

Tuesday March 1, 2011

Sometimes, more refined guests comes to visit (parents), and they are unamused with the possibility of walking five miles or feigning a bohemian lifestyle that includes things like picnicking on the beach.  Perhaps they saw a video of those darling sea lions on the tv in their hotel room and have heard a thing or two about the wonderful cuisine and wine available in San Francisco.

Scraping our more adventurous Day 2: San Francisco’s Neighborhoods tour, we cobbled together a day filled with local attractions and finer dining, a key feature of which is how to see Fisherman’s Wharf without feeling like you’ve wasted your day on kitschy plastic junk and flammable t-shirts.

We begin with breakfast at the Ferry Building’s MarketBar Restaurant, then take the ferry to Sausalito in Marin County.  After an afternoon of shopping, we take the ferry to Fisherman’s Wharf where we grab lunch at Franciscan Crab.  Then, it is off to see the Sea Lions and take an antique street car back to the hotel for some R&R.  Dinner is at Foreign Cinema in the Mission District.

Day Trip to Sausalito and Fisherman’s Wharf (12 hours, walk 3 miles (or less))

Recommended Itinerary:

  1. (9:00am to 10:20am) Breakfast in the Ferry Building’s MarketBar Restaurant
  2. (10:40am to 11:10am) Take the Golden Gate Ferry to Sausalito
  3. (11:10am to 1:25pm) Stroll Around Sausalito
  4. (1:25pm to 1:50pm) Take the Blue and Gold Ferry to Fisherman’s Wharf
  5. (1:50pm to 2:30pm) Late Lunch at Fisherman’s Wharf Franciscan Crab Restaurant
  6. (2:30pm to 4:00pm) See the Sea Lions
  7. (4:00pm to 4:30pm) Take a street car back to the hotel
  8. (7:30pm) Dinner at Foreign Cinema in the Mission District


What you’ll need:

  1. Sturdy, comfortable shoes
  2. Fleece pullover or windbreaker
  3. Dinner reservation at Foreign Cinema



1.       Breakfast in the Ferry Building’s MarketBar Restaurant

Ferry Building, San Francisco

The Ferry Building is a wondrous place.  I pretty much want the contents of every stall packaged and shipped to my home.  You can find everything from cured pork products and California wines to beautifully crafted cutting boards and local handmade pottery.

I note that this isn’t your typical local farmer’s market level of quality; it is the chicest of Northern California’s goods.  The gold standard for me is Heath Ceramics, which produces the most beautiful place settings and mugs and vases and serving dishes.  The dishware is impeccably made and feels solid and heavy in your hands.

On the weekends, a more traditional farmer’s market takes over the grounds surrounding the Ferry Building, and food trucks serve rotisserie chicken and other delicious foods on the South end.

[As far as restrooms go, be warned that the Ferry Building’s facilities are comically inadequate.  Three or four stalls for the entire building?  With a line of around 20 women on a typical Saturday.  We sent our mother-in-law across the street to the Hyatt.  There are much better facilities within the ferry waiting area behind the Ferry Building, off to the right as you wait for your ferry to arrive.]

I recommend that your group convene at 9 am for brunch, as this will give you plenty of time to take the 10:40 am ferry to Sausalito.

If your group is up for it, you could create an extraordinary meal out of all the foods on offer and sit at one of the large wooden tables next to Peet’s Coffee in the center of the Ferry Building.  If your group prefers a relaxing breakfast, though, head to MarketBar.





MarketBar is a restaurant on the far southern end of the Ferry Building.  The interior is wood paneled, large, and glittery, like a French bistro on supplements.  It’s comfortable but fancy with a side of down to earth and a touch of something special.

The food was outstanding on our visit.  The gastronomical joy started with the bread plate, and frankly ended there post meal as my in-laws continued to request additional rounds of it all through breakfast.  I’m pretty sure it was Acme bread.  My husband, a fresh squeezed orange juice enthusiast, could not believe how sweet and fresh his orange juice was and made sure the whole table had sampled from his glass.  My pancakes were thick and fluffy; the Dungeness Crab Deviled Eggs were deliciously spicy and unfortunately come only as a side rather than a meal.  I could have eaten a few orders of those.

The service was also top notch, efficient and willing to work around dietary restrictions.  (I mean, they may have sighed when our table asked for dressing on the side, or bacon on a separate dish, or eggs well done, but they brought out everything precisely how we asked for it.)  It was overall a perfect start to our day.




2.       Take the ferry to Sausalito

After breakfast, head to the Golden Gate Ferry ticket windows behind the Ferry Building to purchase your tickets to Sausalito ($8.25 for adult one way fare, $4.10 for seniors and children, free for children under 5).  The window doesn’t open until 10:30am, and there is no need to pre-order your tickets.

The ferry departs roughly every hour and a half (click for current schedule), with fewer ferries running on the weekend.  If you are planning on doing the whole day trip, I highly recommend getting on the 10:40am ferry.

As you can see from my photos, we took the ferry in extremely overcast conditions.  (Heavy.  Sigh.)  The ferry has upholstered seats inside, akin to seats on a commuter train.  The views from the deck, though, are stunning, and I recommend planting yourself out there even if the weather is awful.

First, the view is of the receding San Francisco skyline and the Bay Bridge.  Soon, the ferry swings past Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge beyond (and hopefully not shrouded in fog.)  As you reach Sausalito, you’ll see impressive, glass-walled homes stacked on the hills of Marin County, with what I imagine are ridiculous views of the bay.

Once the ferry has arrived, you’ll be right off the Sausalito Town Square.




3.       Stroll around Sausalito

Let’s make no bones about it, Sausalito is a tourist destination.  You will not run into locals picking up dry cleaning or heading into their hardware store for replacement light bulbs.  You will find charming coffee shops and artisan shops, in addition to typical souvenir shops selling I (heart) San Francisco t-shirts and onesies.

The heart of Sausalito is Bridgeway Street.  One side of the street is lined with the aforementioned cute shops and the other is lined with boulders that drop into the bay a few feet away.  Sail boats sway in the bay and San Francisco looms beyond.  In its perfection, Sausalito actually looks a bit fake, but I actually know people who live here, and this is what their lives honestly look like.  It gets even more precious off Bridgeway, as if that is even possible.

My favorite shop has to be EyeItalia, catering to people who like Italian pottery and linens.  To reach the store, take a right on Princess Street (no really, that’s what it’s called) and it’ll be the bright yellow house perched on a little hill, with twinkly lights covering its wrap around porch.  I’m not making this up.  Take a peek down Princess Lane for some additional artisan shops.




Princess Lane, Sausalito, CA

Also a hit on our trip was Mark Reuben’s Sports and History Photo Gallery, a photography art shop also on Princess Street.  The store is covered from floor to ceiling in historic photographs, categorized by politicians, sports players, celebrities, cities, and nature.  I recommend checking out the historic photos of San Francisco, showing Market Street littered with street cars and horses.  This would probably make for a much better souvenir than a snow globe, don’t you think?

You’ll see many coffee shops where you can stop and rest for a moment.  There used to be a fantastic coffeeshop at the end of Bridgeway, the Northpoint Coffee Company, which offered a comfortable, loungy cabin with a deck overlooking the waterfront.  It unfortunately closed a couple years ago, so I’m keeping an eye out for who takes over the space.

Enjoy your morning poking into shops and be prepared to get on the 2pm ferry to Fisherman’s Wharf.  The ferry leaves from the same dock where you arrived.




4.       Take the Ferry to Fisherman’s Wharf

Blue and Gold Fleet Ferry in the Fog

You will be taking the Blue and Gold Fleet ferry to Fisherman’s Wharf.  The ferry leaves roughly every hour and a half, and I strongly recommend taking the 1:25pm or 2:50pm ferry back into the city.  Tickets are $10 for an adult one way ticket, and $5.75 for seniors and children.

First, a bit of background info to make your trip a bit less stressful.  You will have to buy your tickets on the ferry.  You will notice that a rope splits the pier leading to the ferry, and this is because the Blue and Gold company directs pedestrians to line up on one side and bicyclists on the other.  The ferry will let bicyclists board first (more on that later) followed by pedestrians.  Once you get to Fisherman’s Wharf, pedestrians are let off first.

You’ll immediately notice that this ferry is not nearly as attractive as the commuter ferry you traveled in on.  The ground floor is a wide open, navy blue carpeted galley with bench seating around the edge of the boat, and aluminum/vinyl chairs that are reminiscent of pancake breakfasts in church basements.  People can and will move the chairs into social groupings.

Numerous bicycle rental agencies exist around the city, and one of the self-guided tours take bicyclists from San Francisco, over the Golden Gate Bridge, and down into Sausalito.  From the looks of the bicyclists’ faces, this may not be a fun thing to do.  Far from it.  It may be only 9 miles, but the hills and the bay wind would make this an arduous trip.  Bicyclists are allowed to return to the city by ferry, which explains all those folks you’ll see.

This is all to explain why half of our group ended up sitting on the floor.  Bicyclists had taken up most of the available seating and chairs.  So, be warned that you may need to sit on the carpeted floor, or ask someone for a seat if anyone in your group is unable to sit cross legged for long stretches of time.

As you can see from my photos…it was a downpour on the way back into the city.  How deflating.  You just want the weather to behave itself sometimes.  Out east, weather patterns make a lot of sense, since you see the storm front approaching, hear news reports of flooding or blizzards in Chicago days before it hits your front door.  On the pacific coast, weather patterns have a butterfly-flapped-its-wings-in-tokyo type mysticism.  Who ever knows what’s going to happen in this city.




5.       Late Lunch in Fisherman’s Wharf

The Franciscan Crab in San Francisco

You’ll arrive into Fisherman’s Wharf, directly between Pier 39 (the amusements) and…the food options.  Fisherman’s Wharf is known for its outdoor stalls serving sourdough soup bowls with crab or clam chowder.

I’ve tried to find out more about Fisherman’s Wharf, but I haven’t found any interesting stories or anecdotes about it other than it was (and still is) a fishing wharf.  There are train tracks leading straight into the water, where…trains would meet incoming fishing boats to take the daily catch to the city’s markets.  See, pretty straightforward.

Lord knows that when we first moved here, I begged *begged* for a trip to Fisherman’s Wharf to have a sourdough soup bowl.  Oh, “how San Francisco!” I thought at the time.  Two minutes in to that adventure, I understood why you’d never find a local down here.  It will likely be cold when you visit (the waterfront is the first part of the city to feel the chill of the bay air), and there will be nowhere to sit but on a street curb or the treasured real estate of the cement base of the Fisherman’s Wharf sign (where folks can lean up or hop up and sit for a moment to enjoy their soup.)  If you cannot find a free curb, you will be forced to eat standing, balancing a soup bowl and spoon and beverage precariously.

This is why I recommend bypassing all of it and eating indoors.  It seems less fun, but it is actually the best way to go.

Our preferred spot is the Franciscan Crab Restaurant.  The décor is a disco ball of glam and red velvet, with retro photos of the rat pack lining every open surface.  The two story windows open to the bay, and the tiered booth seating ensures incredible views of sailboats and Alcatraz.  The food is straightforward and perhaps beside the point.  We all ordered sourdough soup bowls with crab chowder, and there was a stunning amount of crab loaded into each bowl.  It was exactly what we needed as the rain fell outside and the sun tried several times to make a break for it.

(If you are a bit more adventurous, and it is an odd, warm day, there is a way to get a sourdough bowl and eat it outside in comfort.  After buying soup from one of the stalls (is there a difference between them?), walk all the way down Jefferson Street (the main street of Fisherman’s Wharf) towards the Golden Gate Bridge, about a third of a mile.  There is a lovely beach with cement tiers where you can sit and enjoy your soup while watching people in wetsuits try to swim in the polar bay.)




6.       See the Sea Lions

Sea Lions at Fisherman's Wharf

As you exit the restaurant, you can either turn right to take a gander at the food stalls or head left to see the sea lions.  I would recommend making a bee line for the sea lions, but most people will feel compelled to walk towards the food stalls, to see what’s there.

The food stalls last for only a block and are fun to walk through (with a full stomach!)  You’ll see stacks of crab getting expertly broken apart into vats of creamy soup.  The shops across the way offer t-shirts and souvenirs.  Pier 39, where the sea lions live, has nicer shops with a bit more variety than the stores on Jefferson Street, so keep that in mind as you walk around.

(When I first toured Fisherman’s Wharf, I visited every single store on the hunt for matching t-shirts for my nieces.  So, I can tell you from personal experience that if you’ve been to one, you’ve been to all of them.  I promise.  No, the next one won’t actually have the perfect beach towel or more varieties of that fleece hoodie you just saw.  Don’t be me.)

After a few blocks, the shops thin out and it is time to reverse course.  Walk towards Pier 39, at the opposite end of Fisherman’s Wharf.

The sea lions live on barges off the north side of Pier 39.  You’ll most likely be able to tell where they are by the large crowds of people at the far end of the Pier as you approach it.  (You’ll see a sign for restrooms as you walk down the edge of the pier.)

In November 2009, the thousand sea lions that usually occupy the barges vanished.  At the time, scientists were puzzled as to why it happened and guess that perhaps there had been a change in the sea lions’ food supply.  It is still a mystery, but they have slowly come back.  Very slowly.  On our visit, there were less than a hundred sea lions, but their antics were just as much fun to watch – one sea lion tried to lunge itself onto multiple platforms, only to be repeatedly given the cold shoulder, or a younger sea lion feeling antsy and swimming in circles around its resting elders.

The Marine Mammal Center has an information booth close by if you have any questions.  They are a great source of information and run a marine mammal hospital in the Marin Headlands (which is the topic of my next day trip!)

The rest of Pier 39 is a pleasant, two story boardwalk.  Many shops sell local crafts and jewelry.  You’ll also find chocolate shops and glass art galleries.  (I’m not sure what it is about visiting a tourist attraction that makes people want to purchase glass art.  Is this a thing?)




7.       Take a street car back to the hotel

Street Car at Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco

At this point in our day, our visitors were ready to be somewhere warm and comfortable.  The most enjoyable way to get back to downtown San Francisco is to take a street car, which you can pick up on Beach Street, a block up from Jefferson Street.  (It is otherwise about a 1.5 mile walk to Union Square.)  See here for how to take a MUNI street car.

The city has imported antique street cars from all around the world to run on its tracks, and we were delighted to find ours – all deep wood paneling and shiny brass fixtures — was from Milan.  We spent our ride learning Italian.  The door instructed “Uscita Qui” = exit here.  “Fumare Qui” = smoke here.  My comedian of a father-in-law then suggested, “Yup, and spit there.  They had it all figured out!”  I laughed.  But, no, sometimes life is funnier, and there indeed was a sign instructing “Sputo Qui” on the window behind me.  Oh my.  Well, that’s perfectly disgusting.

The street car snakes its way along the Embarcadero waterfront, past massive piers that are slowly being made into night clubs and hip restaurants.  It will eventually get to Market Street, where you can ride it through to the Financial District and Union Square in downtown San Francisco, hopping off wherever your hotel may be.

After a few naps and warmed up toes, we met for dinner.




8.       Dinner at Foreign Cinema in the Mission

Foreign Cinema has become our go-to restaurant for a grown up spot with excellent food that’s also a bit interesting.  Or hip.  Or at least in the currently hip part of town.  Reservations are necessary.

Our family chose to take a cab to the restaurant.  However, the restaurant is a few blocks from the 24th Street BART stop, so that is a very good choice if your visitors are in the mood to ride the city’s subway.

As you enter the restaurant, you walk down a long, maroon carpeted corridor reminiscent of old classic movie theaters.  This opens into two rooms separated by wall-to-wall French doors.  One room, the internal room, is marked by a massive fireplace.  The other room is a courtyard covered with a tent ceiling two to three stories up – think the Tabard Inn in DC, if you’ve been there.  (And go there if you haven’t, just to have a hot toddy in one of their endless, fireplaced drawing rooms.  It’s so DC!)  Heaters placed throughout keep the space warm while permitting fresh breezes to rush through.  A silent movie plays on a large wall at the end of the courtyard.

It is a perfect place to spend a warm and cozy evening.

The food is also terrific and consistently so; this is why we take so many guests here.  Perhaps needless to say at this point, all the vegetables, meats, and ingredients are locally sourced, including the cheese.  I can no longer tell if everything comes from Northern California because we’re trying to be environmentally conscious, or if this region of the country just produces a lot of very fine ingredients.  It may be a bit of both.  Lord knows we aren’t outfitting our apartments with locally produced Swedish furniture.

I didn’t want my sardine/glazed onion/potato appetizer to end.  The gorgonzola and mushroom pasta dish was somehow even better.  Mid-meal, I started discussing whether I could possibly get the recipes from the kitchen.  My father in law’s fried chicken was the hit of the table.  Dessert is equally delicious, although I wish pecans were in season or local rather than walnuts – my caramel walnut pie would have been unbelievable as a pecan pie.

After dinner, if your group would like to wander around the neighborhood, walk a block westward to Valencia Street, which is where most of the nightlife congregates in the neighborhood.  This is also a good spot to find a cab for the ride back home.

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