Pier 39 in San Francisco is one of our most popular tourist attractions. Is it fun? Worth a visit? Or just a tourist trap.
As a long time resident of San Francisco, I can tell you that the locals shun Pier 39. It's gotten a bad rap because it was created specifically for the tourists; but is it fair? Here's what I found.
I put on my safari gear and headed down to Pier 39 to do some research, expecting to be drained by the commercialism and tackiness, but instead...I had a great time!
Yes, it's commercial, and it's not the real San Francisco, but there are lots of fun things to do and see, and some pretty cool shops as well. And the views are spectacular!
San Francisco's Pier 39 is essentially a two-story, outdoor shopping mall, with gorgeous views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, and its own colony of sea lions.
There are directories posted at intervals with all of Pier 39's tenants, so you don't really need a map once you're there.
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The sea lions started moving to the Pier 39 Marina after the earthquake in 1989. Eventually so many moved in, the boats had to move out, and now they loll on the floating wooden docks all day.
Most of the sea lions are sound asleep, but there are always several malcontents in the group that bellow and groan at each other, arguing over a favorite spot on the planks.
Where are they? Go all the way to the end of Pier 39, and turn left. The sounds and smells will tell you where they are!
The setting of Pier 39 on the wharf in San Francisco couldn't be more entrancing. Head out to the end of the pier and there's Alcatraz straight ahead, and to the left, the Golden Gate Bridge.
You can watch all the maritime activity, with sailboats and ferries coming and going, and the huge container ships lumbering into the harbor.
A fascinating aquarium showcasing the sea life of San Francisco Bay.
Check out who's living in the water just off the dock, and watch sharks being fed!
$2 off if booked online. For more info, and booking, see: Aquarium tickets.
This really is a pier, so it's not surprising that a number of boats leave for their bay cruises from this spot.
This is one of the most fun things to do at Pier 39, I think.
The Blue and Gold Ferry sails out under the Golden Gate Bridge, then around Alcatraz, and past the San Francisco waterfront. One hour cruise, very enjoyable. See Bay Cruise for more info and booking.
The Rocket Boat is another fun ride, 30 minutes of speed and rock and roll. You can read about my experience on the boat. The Rocket Boat operates May through October.
Or sail out under the Golden Gate and around Alcatraz on a catamaran. 90 minute cruise, with drinks and snacks on board. See Adventure Cat Cruise for info and booking.
One of my very favorite cruises is the 90 minute trip on the classic Privateer yacht, leaving from Pier 39 (right side). Glide all around the Bay and past Alcatraz, with two free glasses of wine or beer. See Sailboat Cruise for info and booking, or read about my experience out on the water with the mellow crew, here.
Whale-watching cruises. San Francisco's whale-watching tours leave from Pier 39 as well. From May through October, you can take the 2.5 hour tour that sails across the bay and out through the Golden Gate to the open ocean. In addition to the migrating whales, you'll likely see dolphins and seals, and sometimes Great Whites. $45 per person. See whale-watching tours for more info and booking.
The Kitty Kat is a smooth-riding catamaran (with bathrooms on board). You can bring your own snacks, plus beer and wine, if you like.
If you've got a cast-iron stomach, there's an all-day trip out to the Farallon Islands. In addition to the whales and dolphins, you'll see the craggy nesting areas for thousands of seabirds, including puffins, and the breeding grounds for the elephant seals. This is where the Great White Sharks hang out. $99, 6 hours; runs year-round. See Farallones whale-watching tour for more info and booking.
For a list and description of the many San Francisco bay cruises available, with photos, see my page on the San Francisco Bay Cruises.
The Zombie Apocalypse! Have a virtual adventure with 3D glasses, moving chairs and laser guns to shoot at the bad guys. Even gusts of wind!
There are six scenarios to choose from:
Tip: they only display four rides, but the other two (Gigamon and Forbidden Mine) are available if you ask.
Or do all six (each "ride" is only about 5 minutes).
The zombie one is really scary. I recently tried the Werewolves ride, and it was fairly scary, too. The others are exciting, but not as frightening (better for younger kids). The Los Banditos ride is probably the best one for the youngest kids. They post your score with your photo on the screen at the end, so stay alert!
You can also disconnect the moving feature of the chairs if you like (folks with back or neck problems).
Kids love this and even more mature folks (like me) have a great time. A group of teenage boys coming out pronounced it "awesome!"
First ride is $11.99 ($2 less with the Fun Pack), rest of the day rides are $6. Ground level, at the back on the right.
They also have a laser adventure, a dark room where you can dodge laser beams. Do both the adventure ride and the laser challenge for $12.99: get $2 off the combination if you book online, see here.
To get discounted tickets through Groupon for the 7D Ride (when available), click here.
Dare to enter the Magowan's Infinite Mirror Maze! Appropriately for San Francisco, this is a very cool, almost psychedelic, experience: lights flashing to the music, beautiful, shifting colors, and endless vistas that are not what they seem. Takes about 20 minutes to get out. Lots of fun. Still only $5 ($1 less, with Fun Pack). Second level, on the right.
Goldstar.com often has half-price tickets for Magowan's Maze. It's free to sign up with them, then check to see what they've got (lots of other half-price tickets as well). See goldstar.com
Also, Groupon sometimes has 50% off tickets: see groupon.com.
This pretty, double-decker carousel was made in Italy and decorated with scenes of San Francisco. Ride some beautifully painted, and rather odd, creatures like sea lions, water dragons and mer-horses.
The stage behind the carousel hosts almost non-stop, free entertainment in the form of magic shows, jugglers, comedians, etc.
Tons of shops, too many to name, but covering just about everything you could imagine, including left-handers' goods, doggie boutiques, handbags, magic tricks, scarves, pearls, charms, candy, fairies, crystals, bamboo textiles, ceramics, etc.
The clerk in the Magic Shop was performing some amazing sleight-of-hand tricks for customers when I was there.
New shop. Edible cookie dough has arrived at Pier 39! This is their only outlet, though they do sell it online as well. No eggs or raw flour to worry about. DOUGHP (pronounced "dope") sells cookie dough by the scoop, like an ice cream parlor. Choose yummy sprinkles for them in a cup, or get them in an ice cream cone. Leftovers? Take them home and bake cookies. I tested them out; very tasty!
The food here is OK, not great by San Francisco standards, but convenient and lots of variety. Some of the restaurants have great views: Fog Harbor Fish House, Hana Zen Japanese Grill, Luigi's Pizzeria and Louis's Swiss Italian and Seafood Restaurant.
Fog Harbor specializes in seafood, as you would guess, and has a great view of the west side of Pier 39. You can see the Blue and Gold Ferry coming and going, and the Rocket Boat as well. The sea lions are on this side, too, and Alcatraz is visible in the distance. Nice spot for lunch. They've been winning Best Scenic View from Open Table diners every year.
You can get passes that include some of the more expensive attractions, like the Aquarium, bay cruises, or city tours.
One option, if you're planning to do the Hop On Hop Off Bus tour, is to get a City Sightseeing Mega Pass, which gives you four city bus tours, plus a choice of several attractions from a laundry list of 25 things to do in SF. A good deal if you plan to do several attractions plus a city tour.
Also, the bus tour is now one of the options you can choose from the list, so you can substitute something else for it if you want.
The list includes a number of Pier 39 and Fisherman's Wharf attractions, like the Bay Cruise, Aquarium of the Bay, Rocket Boat, 7D Experience, San Francisco Dungeon, bike rentals, Go Cars, Escape from the Rock Cruise and the Sausalito Ferry.
For more info and booking, see SF Mega Pass. $5 off if booked online.
More passes that include some Pier 39 activities. Lots to choose from! Can be a bit overwhelming:
Pier 39 is one of the stops on the Hop On, Hop Off Bus City Tours, that take you all over the city, while a guide fills you in on the sights you're passing. This is a great way to get an overview of San Francisco's most interesting attractions, plus easy transportation around the city. You can get 1, 2 or 3 day bus passes, and they all include a tour to Sausalito now. See Hop On Hop Off Bus for info and booking. $5 off if booked online.
Go up to the California Visitors Center on the second floor, left side, and get a Fun Pack. It's a free, 55-page booklet of coupons, just for Pier 39 stuff (including 1 hour free parking at the garage across the street). Good deals...free desserts, free appetizers, discounts on attractions and shopping, etc.
To qualify, either bring your AAA card if you're a member, or go to www.pier39.com and download the Fun Pack coupon before you go.
Also, the free Fisherman's Wharf Map and free San Francisco Map available in the Visitor's Center at Pier 39 have lots of coupons for the nearby attractions. They're great maps, too, with attractions, hotels and other places of interest marked on them.
Tip for locals: Pier 39 has special discounts for Bay Area residents. Check their website for the Pier 39 coupons.
Practical Tip: the Visitors Center provides some other useful services as well. They have luggage storage for $5 a bag, so you can avoid dragging heavy bags around while you explore. They also have free wifi, sell discount event tickets, and rent strollers and wheelchairs.
Pier 39 is located at the far right end of Fisherman's Wharf on the Embarcadero, which turns into Jefferson Street, the main street of Fisherman's Wharf.
Cable Cars: The two cable car lines leaving from Powell and Market will bring you within a couple of blocks of Pier 39.
The F-Line Trolley: The antique street cars of the F-Line also stop at Pier 39. The F-line runs all the way down Market Street, and then all along the Embarcadero to Fisherman's Wharf.
And of course, there's always Lyft and Uber. Download their apps to see the cars available nearby.
Note: San Francisco is having a serious problem with car break-ins. Please don't leave anything visible in your car when you park.
If you are driving, know that parking in this area is gruesome. I have been lucky on occasion with street parking, but the meters run 24 hours a day, even on Sundays and holidays (unique to this part of town) and they are only good for a half hour or an hour.
The parking garages are very expensive, but if you're not staying long, one solution is the Pier 39 parking garage, because of coupons and restaurant validations.
This is a large garage just across the street from Pier 39; very convenient, but pricey at $10 per hour weekdays (max $50) and $12 per hour weekends and holidays (max $60).
Two ways to save money at the garage:
Get a free hour with a validation stamp if you eat at one of the full-serve restaurants at Pier 39 (listed on the back of the parking ticket).
Or get your parking ticket stamped at the California Visitors Center at Pier 39, for one hour of free parking, as part of the Fun Pack described above.
There are numerous parking lots and garages in the general area of Pier 39, if you don't mind walking a few blocks. See my list and map of the best places to park along the Embarcadero.
The easiest way: check out the prices and availability for the garages nearby and book a space ahead of time using parking apps like Parking Panda. I've been doing this more and more; this way you can usually get a good deal and don't have to worry about The Hunt ;-)