With the roar of the Blue Angels over the city, we know Fleet Week San Francisco is here!
Every year around Columbus Day in October, San Francisco hosts a series of events that celebrate our naval forces.
Here are some tips from a local on what to see and how to enjoy it with the least stress!
San Francisco's Fleet Week is enormously popular and draws huge crowds to the city's waterfront.
Friday, Saturday and Sunday, from 12:00 to 4:00 p.m., an air show takes place on San Francisco Bay, visible all along the waterfront from the Ferry Building to the Golden Gate Bridge.
A series of stunt planes swoop and loop above the water, warming the crowd up for the main event, the Blue Angels.
Visitors for 2016 are in for an extra treat! Two highly acclaimed teams of jet pilots will be doing amazing aerobatics over the heads of the crowd: the Patriots Jet Team and the Breitling Jet Team will both be performing at SF's Fleet Week for the first time this year.
The Patriots are a locally-based group of pilots who do extreme maneuvers as a group of six jets, in the L-39C Albatross, a light-attack fighter jet often used to train fighter pilots. Most of these guys are former fighter pilots, and one is a former Blue Angels pilot. They perform all over the country, but have a home airfield in Byron, California, about an hour and a half from SF.
Here's a brief promo video which gives a taste of what they do in their shows:
Another group of pilots will be performing at the Fleet Week air show. The Breitling pilots are French, most of them former fighter pilots with the French Air Force. They've performed their aerobatic stunts all over Europe and the U.S.
This is a cool promo video of the Breitling jets performing, and flying over iconic American landmarks, like the Grand Canyon and Mount Rushmore, as well as various American cities:
From 12:00 to 3:00 pm each day, there are performances by other aircraft. For 2016, we have the following participants:
The F-22 Raptor is another new addition to the air show this year. This plane is a highly maneuverable, tactical fighter jet with stealth capabilities (worth over $400 million each!). It can fly at twice the speed of sound.
The first time I saw the United Airlines plane circling around the city and bridges, I was a bit nervous; normally, this area is off limits to commercial jetliners, but it's always part of the show.
At 3:00 p.m. each day, the Blue Angels roar in over the Golden Gate Bridge; such a cool sight!
Six navy fighter planes perform frighteningly daring stunts over San Francisco Bay. Precision flying at its most breathtaking. Don't miss this! This is what most of the crowds have come to see.
The Blue Angels fly from 3-4 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and usually on Thursday as well (a practice day). For lots more information on the Blue Angels, including the best places to watch the show, see the Blue Angels in San Francisco.
Friday, October 7, 2016, from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
A variety of U. S. Navy (and one Canadian Navy) ships sail under the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco Bay, usually including destroyers, missile cruisers and amphibious assault transports.
The "parade" lasts for about two hours; you can watch it from anywhere along the waterfront, though try to be where you can see them come under the bridge. It's such a great setting to watch the ships come in.
Some of the big Navy vessels are open to the public, on the Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday (October 4, 6, 8, 9, & 10) of Fleet Week in San Francisco.
All the ship tours are free.
This year they include an amphibious assault ship, a guided-missile cruiser, a Coast Guard cutter, and a Canadian Navy frigate.
If you've ever been curious about what it's like to be on a war ship, this is your chance to explore some of them. They are moored at some of the piers along the San Francisco waterfront (Pier 35 and Piers 15/17 are walking distance from Fisherman's Wharf, Piers 30/32 are not.).
Tip: get there early. The lines can be long, hours long at times. Also, there's no shade while waiting, so plan accordingly.
To see photos of this year's ships (2016), read a little about each one, and see a map showing where they will be on the piers, see Fleet Week ships. Info on the parade of ships schedule as well.
It's really cool to see the actual pilots up close. If you're willing to hang around Fisherman's Wharf until evening on Saturday, the pilots will be there signing autographs at the entrance to Pier 39, from 6:15 to 6:45 p.m.. Have an early dinner at the wharf, then see them in person. In the past, the wait hasn't been very long.
The Red and White Fleet offers a bay cruise to watch the Blue Angels show from the water. The view from the ship is excellent and the scenery is spectacular. They keep the boat in one spot for the show, a little ways offshore and directly across from Alcatraz so you can see the planes easily with no obstructions.
View from the Red and White Ferry
This is a two and a half hour cruise that leaves from Pier 43 1/2 at Fisherman's Wharf at 1:30 pm, on October 7, 8 and 9, 2016.
The tickets are a bit expensive at $75 (kids 5-17 $52), but you can sometimes get them half price through www.goldstar.com. Your ticket includes a nice buffet of salads, sandwiches and fruit, as well as a free drink (including beer or wine). See my photos of the ship buffet. There is a bar on board for purchasing beer, wine and soft drinks.
Front Row Seats for the Blue Angels
There were a lot of people on board, but it didn't feel crowded. Highly recommended!
I got 50% off my tickets from goldstar.com when I went. Check with them first, at Goldstar. It's free to sign up, then see what they've got.
To book tickets directly with the Red and White Fleet, see Fleet Week Cruise.
The Blue and Gold Fleet also has a two hour Blue Angels cruise on October 8 and 9, 2016, for $90, including buffet lunch and open bar. 2-4 pm.
The San Francisco Sailing Company has some special cruises set up for the Thursday through Sunday air shows on their sailboats. Check out their availability at SF Sailing Co. I recently went on one of their 90-minute bay cruises and had a great time. For what their regular sailboat cruise is like, and pictures of the boat, see my page on it.
Another way to get out on the water to see the Blue Angels, a bit more expensive at $96.50, but rather elegant, is the Air Show Lunch Cruise on the San Francisco Belle, one of ships in the Hornblower fleet.
The Belle is a charming recreation of an old-time, Mississippi riverboat, complete with paddle wheel and three levels of decks.
The champagne flows freely and you are treated to a more extensive buffet with salads, entrees and desserts, during the two hour voyage.
This cruise goes out at 2:30 p.m. on Friday of Fleet Week, October 7, 2016, from Pier 3 (Hornblower Landing) close to the Ferry Building, for the Friday "practice" air show including the Blue Angels (which is just like the regular shows on Saturday and Sunday, but without the two new jet teams). Price is $93.00. The Saturday and Sunday Blue Angels lunch cruises are $96.50 (and Saturday's cruise is already sold out).
They also have a 3 hour Premier Fleet Week Cruise with buffet lunch, free booze (uh oh) and live jazz for $127.50, leaving at 2:00 pm Sunday, October 9, 2016.
Hornblower also has a variety of other cruises available, weekly and seasonal. See their site for the selection of Hornblower cruises.
If you're up for a longer cruise on a historic war ship, you might consider the USS Jeremiah O'Brien, one of the few remaining liberty ships used to transport troops during WW2. They have Fleet Week cruises on Saturday ($165) and Sunday ($140) from 10 to 5 that sail around the bay and give you a great view of the air show. See Jeremiah O'Brien for details. Food, drinks and music included.
During Fleet Week there are Marine and Navy Band concerts at various locations around the city, plus lots of other things (see a complete list of events at Fleet Week schedule).
A long-time, San Francisco tradition, the Italian Heritage Parade, formerly known as the Columbus Day Parade, starts at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, October 9, goes along Jefferson Street in Fisherman's Wharf, then down Columbus Avenue to Washington Square in North Beach (see parade).
Golden Gate Park: on Monday, October 10, from 10 to 2, the U.S. Marine Corps Band gives a performance of patriotic songs, followed by a competition among local high school bands. It's being held at the Band Shell, on the Music Concourse in front of the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.
There is also a festival at the Marina Green, with food, information booths, etc, from 10 to 5, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, including exhibits about disaster preparedness.
Around 1 million people come to watch the Blue Angels. The sheer size of the crowds for Fleet Week San Francisco is pretty scary, so a hefty dose of patience is required for taking Bart or Muni.
Coming into the City on Bart, or taking Muni:
Get off Bart (or Muni) at Embarcadero station, then go upstairs to Market Street where you can catch the F-line trolley in the direction of the Ferry Building. Or walk to Fisherman's Wharf, about 35 minutes along the Embarcadero.
The F-Line Trolley runs along the Embarcadero (the street along the waterfront where all the piers are) to Pier 39 and Fisherman's Wharf. You can use your Muni (but not BART) transfer for the trolley. Muni buses and streetcars are now $2.25 for adults, exact change required.
If you're going to the Navy ship open houses, get off at the pier(s) listed on the ship tours schedule (see info on ship tours and map). Piers 30/32 are not on the F-line; they are about six blocks south of the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero. For the Blue Angels show, get off at Fisherman's Wharf (the end of the F-line). See Blue Angels for suggestions on the best places to view the show (and the least crowded).
Driving to Fleet Week San Francisco sounds like something only an insane person would do, but it's surprisingly easy! At least where parking is concerned.
There are a number of parking areas among the piers along the Embarcadero, within walking distance to Fisherman's Wharf; see my page on Embarcadero parking for maps and details.
The catch is that it can be double the usual price for special events like Fleet Week. Pier 23 is about a 15 minute walk to Fisherman's Wharf.
Something you may want to consider is reserving a parking space using Parking Panda. You can compare the parking garages in the area and book one that works for you ahead of time.
I've done it both ways during Fleet Week, and driving and parking at the piers was vastly less stressful and frustrating than waiting in the long lines for the trains and trolleys, and being packed in with the crowds. I live in the city, but if you're coming over the Bay Bridge, the traffic might be as bad as the crowds on Bart!
If you hit the evening rush hour on Bart or Muni, or a Giants game, or both like I did, you have my sympathy! It's a trade-off: expense vs. inconvenience. But it's all worth it to see the Blue Angels come roaring in over the Golden Gate Bridge!
For detailed maps and info about parking along the Embarcadero, see Embarcadero parking.
For more information on the Parade of Ships and all about the ships having open houses, see Ship tours.