Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco is a very popular attraction located at Fisherman's Wharf: the go-to spot for chocolate lovers and the best place for ice cream sundaes at the waterfront.
Is it touristy? Definitely. But the location is authentic and their chocolates are great. Plus they serve tasty and very large ice cream sundaes to go with their chocolate sauces. It's a pretty location as well.
The Ghirardelli Chocolate Company began in 1849 when Italian immigrant Domenico Ghirardelli opened a shop in a tent in Stockton, California, selling candy and other goods to the Gold Rush miners; the same year he also opened a second shop in San Francisco.
He was originally from Italy, where he learned the chocolate business in Genoa as a teenaged apprentice.
At the age of 20, he sailed to Uruguay with his wife to work in a business there. Only a year later, in 1838, he started a confectionery business in Lima, Peru, and when he heard about the Gold Rush in California, he decided to try his luck there.
In 1856, Ghirardelli opened a general store for the miners in the Gold Rush town of Hornitos, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and sold his chocolates there. The town of Hornitos is a ghost town now, looking much like it did in the 1800's.
At its peak, it was notorious for its lawlessness, full of saloons, outlaws and gamblers. The shop operated until 1859, and the ruins of the Ghirardelli building are still there today. See Hornitos for more info.
The Ghirardelli Chocolate Company was incorporated in San Francisco in 1852, and is the oldest, continuously-operating chocolate producer in the U.S.
Domenico Ghirardelli is buried in the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California.
Ghirardelli Square is a full city block of 19th century brick buildings, formerly factories of various kinds, repurposed in the 1960's into a charming collection of restaurants and shops.
The buildings are arranged around a "square", with a mermaid fountain and places to sit.
The old-time ice cream parlor is on the lower floor of the Clock Tower Building (above).
The location is great, too. The restaurants that face the bay have pretty views of Alcatraz, Angel Island and part of Fisherman's Wharf.
The star attraction, of course, is the Ghirardelli Company's chocolate shops and ice cream parlors, where visitors have been coming for decades to enjoy their generous ice cream sundaes, and more.
To get a glimpse of how the chocolate was made, head to the lower level of the building with the clock tower; follow the chocolate smell to the back where they have the vat of liquid chocolate.
The giant "Ghirardelli" sign was erected in 1922 and has become a San Francisco landmark. The white lights make a pretty display after dark and can be easily seen by all the ships coming and going on SF Bay.
Ghirardelli Square was placed on the National Historic Register in 1982, preserving it for the future. Ghirardelli Chocolate is currently owned by the Lindt chocolate company.
How do the locals pronounce Ghirardelli? It sounds like "gear uh deli".
Fun fact: the big sign used to say "Ghirardelli" on both sides, written in white light bulbs, but the neighbors complained (they're super bright), so they took them off the side facing the residential area.
The main attraction in Ghirardelli Square is, of course, enjoying the Ghirardelli Company's chocolates and ice cream sundaes in their ice cream salons (4 of them at the square).
There are also a number of restaurants, wine-tasting outlets and shops in the square as well. Even miniature golf, a new addition.
The original ice cream salon in the Clock Tower Building has expanded over the years to 4 ice cream salons at Ghirardelli Square, so if one is crowded, you can try another. The original salon tends to be the busiest.
The upper level of the Clock Tower Building has an ice cream salon that is open during the busy season, and a new salon was installed a few years ago in the old Woolen Mill building (where the factory was located). Plus a mini salon and chocolate shop faces the bay on the street level on Beach Street.
The chocolate sauce on their sundaes is hand-made from Ghirardelli chocolate.
Ghirardelli chocolates are sold in all the ice cream salons and in the little chocolate shop at the entrance to the original salon. There's no way to avoid them, so go for it!
Shopping for souvenirs? They sell some chocolates with special packaging that are only sold at Ghirardelli Square.
Good to know: if you wander into the little chocolate shops, you'll probably get a free sample.
The whole complex of buildings used to have lots of shops on all the levels, but the largest building has now been taken over by the Fairmont Hotel chain. There are luxury hotel rooms in there now ($899 and up per night!) which also are offered for sale in sort of a time-share arrangement.
The shops are primarily on the main level now, mostly upscale boutiques, and are fun to browse.
There are two places to do wine tasting on the square.
There are a number of places to eat at the square.
Palette Tea House is new, but they are associated with two well-known and very popular dim sum restaurants in San Francisco and Daly City, Dragon Beaux and Koi Palace. Open daily from 11 am. See my page on the best SF dim sum places for info on the other two.
Tip: at the Palette Tea House, you can try Dragon Beaux's signature dish: the xiao long bao sampler (soup dumplings in 5 colors) Very nice!
A recent addition to Ghirardelli Square is a cute, San-Francisco-themed, miniature golf course, located in the lower level of the Woolen Mill.
Culinary Artistas has cooking classes for kids from age 3 to teens.
It's drop-the-kids-off, so it's a two-for-one: kids learn cooking and parents get a break. Visitors to SF are welcome. See Culinary Artistas for info.
Ghirardelli Square is the original location of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory; the factory was set up in 1893, in the building labeled the Woolen Mill.
Are there tours of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory? Alas, no. But there is a chocolate factory in SF that does tours. See Dandelion below.
Where's the Ghirardelli Factory now? The Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory moved across the bay to the town of San Leandro in 1967. They don't do tours at the factory. However, Ghirardelli has an outlet store at the factory location.
Ghirardelli Factory Outlet. This is kind of a local secret; not only is there a big selection of chocolates to choose from, they offer really good discounts. Their outlet store is a popular place for locals to do some Christmas shopping; the prices are really good and they have been giving out free hot chocolate to shoppers...a festive experience.
The factory and outlet store are at 1111 139th Avenue, San Leandro, CA.
I'm not aware of any tours that focus just on Ghirardelli Square, but there are tours that include it.
Segway Tour of Ghirardelli & North Beach. If you're up for a Segway ride, this highly-rated tour takes you to Ghirardelli Square and also explores the charming North Beach neighborhood. 2 hours. $60. See Ghirardelli & North Beach Segway Tour for more info and booking.
Free walking tour. SF City Guides, a non-profit organization, gives high-quality walking tours all over the city. Their Fisherman's Wharf tour is excellent (I went on it) and starts at Ghirardelli Square. The guide begins with information on Ghirardelli, then moves on the other areas of Fisherman's Wharf. No reservations necessary, no charge, just show up at the scheduled time. See SF City Guides for more info.
Hop On Hop Off bus tours. The double decker buses stop at Fisherman's Wharf, and of course Ghirardelli Square is one of the attractions covered in the tour. See HOHO bus tours for more info and booking.
SF Trolley City Tour. Popular 3-hour tour of the city on a motorized cable car. $64 ($12 off right now). See city tour for info and booking.
Popular annual events at Ghirardelli Square:
The Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival. This is a very popular event featuring chefs demonstrating their chocolate prowess, dessert tastings and local wines to sample. It usually takes place the second weekend of September. 2020 dates to be announced.
Ghirardelli Christmas Tree Lighting. Every year in late November they put up a big tree in the square and have a festive tree-lighting ceremony with Santa and music.
Ghirardelli Square is open 11 am to 9 pm daily. Restaurants may have different hours.
Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shops. Sun-Thurs: 9 am to 11 pm. Fri & Sat: 9 am to midnight.
GPS and official address: 900 North Point Street.
Ghirardelli Square is located at the western end of Fisherman's Wharf (hard to miss with their huge sign once you're at the waterfront).
The complex of buildings is bordered by Beach, Larkin, North Point and Polk Streets, and it sits overlooking the water at Aquatic Park.
Cable Cars: Ghirardelli is one block from the end of the Powell-Hyde cable car route. Catch it at Market & Powell or Union Square. See cable car tips for info on taking a cable car.
Buses: catch the #30-Stockton near Union Square, at Stockton St. & Geary. Or take the #47-Van Ness that runs from Van Ness & Market, all along Van Ness, out to Fisherman's Wharf. Both buses stop at Polk & North Point, right at Ghirardelli. The #19-Polk runs along Polk St. from 9th & Market out to the wharf, stopping in front of Ghirardelli on Beach St. near Aquatic Park.
F-Line Street Cars. The antique street cars run from downtown, along Market Street, all along the Embarcadero waterfront, to Fisherman's Wharf. Get off at the last stop, Jones St., and walk west (towards the Golden Gate) 3 blocks.
See Muni map for bus and cable car routes.
Parking garages in this area tend to be very expensive. Forget street parking...quite a challenge.
Also, the Maritime Museum is just across the street, on the water. This is a cool art deco building built to look like an ocean liner.
Originally it was intended to be a bath house for people swimming at Aquatic Park. Now it houses exhibits related to San Francisco's maritime history. Check out the beautiful, WPA murals on the walls. Admission is free.
Ghirardelli isn't the only chocolate factory in the area.
See's Candies has a big factory in South San Francisco (a separate town) not far away. All their truffles and cream-filled chocolates are made at this factory. The South San Francisco factory also has a room where they do handmade chocolate for special orders.
See's has a second factory in Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, the See's factory doesn't do tours, either. But they have a nice shop where you can buy their candies.
Location: 210 El Camino Real, South San Francisco.
Hours: open daily, 10-7 (Sunday 10-6).
There is one chocolate factory in San Francisco, Dandelion Chocolate, and they do have tours.
Dandelion is a relatively new chocolate company and specializes in handcrafted, gourmet chocolates, made at their facility. They've moved from the Mission District to a new location at 16th Street & Alabama.
Tours of the factory are $15, plus there's a walkway where you can inspect the factory on your own for free. (Not running at the moment, to resume later in 2022.)
They have a number of classes as well where you can do tastings, learn about the process, or actually make your own chocolate from the cacao beans. See Dandelion Chocolate for more info and tour bookings.
You can also enjoy a Chocolate Tea (or an Ice Cream Tea) in their recently opened Bloom Chocolate Salon: sample four dainty chocolate-inspired creations, washed down with tea or hot chocolate. We tried both teas; they're a bit pricey ($45 and $40), but fun and very pretty.
Location: 2600 16th Street, San Francisco, at Alabama Street.
Hours: Mon-Thurs, Sun: 10-10. Fri & Sat: 10-11.
Tip: Dandelion has an outlet in the Ferry Building where you can buy their chocolates and get free samples.
Many people rave about their rich European Hot Chocolate.
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There are some highly-rated, San Francisco chocolate tours available, as well.
San Francisco is a great place to sample hand-made chocolates from local chocolatiers, and knowledgeable tour guides will take you around to sample a variety of chocolate delicacies and fill you in on the making of chocolate.
(The tours below stopped running during Covid, so keep checking to see if they've resumed.)
The Original San Francisco Gourmet Chocolate Tour.
Spend 3 hours tasting some of the best chocolate in SF while learning about the different types of chocolate, chocolate-making and chocolate history. This is a walking tour that takes you to six tasting spots for chocolate goodies. $70.
See SF Chocolate Tour for more info and booking.
San Francisco Ultra Chocolate Tour.
Go all-out on a 3-hour, chocolate walking tour that visits seven local chocolatiers and includes cocktail and wine pairings with tasting the chocolates. Age 21+, $108.
See Ultra Chocolate Tour for info and booking.
The San Francisco area has even more candy factories and sweets-related museums.
The Jelly Belly Factory is in the town of Fairfield, about 60 minutes north of San Francisco. They sell their jelly beans there, of course, and give tours of the factory.
The Jelly Belly Factory has two tours available:
Location: 1 Jelly Belly Lane, Fairfield, CA.
Hours: open daily, 9-5. Free samples on the tours.
See jellybelly.com for booking and more info on the tours.
Still closed at the moment.
San Francisco is the permanent home of this "museum" that has also been exhibited in several other U.S. cities.
They've created a fantasy land of colorful, ice-cream-related scenes to enjoy and photograph. This is one of those Super Instagram spots.
One of the highlights: sliding into a pool of giant sprinkles.
The exhibits, such as the cookie carousel and unicorn ring toss, change from time to time.
Key: this is mainly a place to take photos of cute, sweet-related, pastel creations and enjoy the free treats. It's not really a museum.
Visitors have given it mixed reviews. If you're OK with paying $38 for some fanciful selfies and tasty ice cream treats, it can be a fun experience.
Tip: you have to make reservations online; no ticket sales at the door. See Museum of Ice Cream for more info.
Location: 1 Grant Avenue, at Market Street.
Hours: open 6 days, closed Tuesdays.
Note: it appears the cool Pez Museum in Burlingame has closed.