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A walk along the Embarcadero, San Francisco, being a tourist

Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory, views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz: these are typical tourist destinations in San Francisco.

In the foreground, a seagull stands on a piling. In the background, the Golden Gate Bridge in the dim distance. Seen on my walk along the Embarcadero.
The Golden Gate Bridge as seen from the Hyde Street Pier

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Those of us who travel a lot like to see ourselves as something other than tourists. Some use the term “traveler,” or “visitor,” for example. We avoid like the plague any destination that is purposely set up to earn money from tourists, especially if there are crowds of them.

Nevertheless, I spent a day recently taking a walk along the Embarcadero, just being a tourist and doing some of typical tourist things and, surprisingly, enjoyed myself tremendously.

My walk along the Embarcadero

It was a beautiful day, so I decided to take a slow walk along the Embarcadero piers, the waterfront on my right, from the Embarcadero BART station all the way to Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory, where I had an appointment. (More on Ghirardelli here.) It’s a longish but easy walk, mostly because it’s entirely flat.

The Ferry Building

Various cheeses on display in the foreground. Behind, two people in white shirts speak to a customer.
a cheese shop in the Ferry building

I started at the Ferry Building: the least touristy sight of the day. It has been turned into a very upscale foodie mecca, and looked to be frequented by locals as well as tourists. I’ve never seen so much chic food in one place, though the line for coffee was longer than for any of the other shops. It must be very good coffee!

I strolled along the palm tree-lined Embarcadero past a series of pier buildings: some being used for parking lots, some converted to other purposes, such as the Exploratorium (which I’d certainly recommend if you have kids).

Click here for skip-the-line tickets to the Exploratorium!

I passed the terminal for the ferry to Alcatraz. While it’s very much a tourist destination, I highly recommend a trip to Alcatraz. The prison has a fascinating history, and the views from the boat and the island are wonderful.

Across blue water, the island of Alcatraz looks like it's topped by a castle. Beyond that, further across the water, a small mountain, and a plume of smoke even further in the distance.
a view of Alcatraz (and it looks like a fire over there in the background)

This tour combines a waterfront tour – including much of what is mentioned in this post – and a ticket to Alcatraz.

Speaking of Alcatraz, it was visible between the buildings, as was the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island. Looking inland, I could admire a stunning view of Telegraph Hill with its clusters of houses, topped by Coit Tower. Further along, the Golden Gate Bridge became visible as well. You can read about what to see and do in this neighborhood, called North Beach, in this article.

a view of Telegraph Hill with Coit Tower on top. A cluster of multi-storey houses cluster below the tower. The Tower is cylindrical concrete with a few windows near the top.
Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill

Pier 39

Pier 39 is a standard tourist destination. It has been converted to a shopping center, with a host of specialty stores and restaurants, often related to San Francisco in some way. There are souvenirs galore, of course, and restaurants, and attractions such as a small aquarium (Click for tickets for the Aquarium of the Bay) and a “7D Experience” (Click for tickets.)

I would normally never go there. It’s for tourists, it’s overpriced, and it has no real relationship to San Francisco as the locals see it. I prefer to explore “the real San Francisco,” whatever that means.

Yet I enjoyed wandering the length of the pier. It was clean and bright and the couples and families around me (the “real” tourists) were enjoying themselves. What’s not to like? There was no one forcing me to spend money, and soaking in the generally happy atmosphere was free.

The Embarcadero ends at Pier 39, but I kept walking along the waterfront.

Fisherman’s Wharf

I soon reached Fishermen’s Wharf, a few blocks crammed with restaurants and shops vying for the tourists’ attention. Judging by the Dungeness crabs and other seafood on display, as well as the generally fishy smell of the place, there’s plenty of fresh seafood available, even if few fishermen sail from here anymore (There is charter fishing available, though.). I didn’t stop to eat, but I suspect you can get perfectly good, if overpriced, meals there.

The San Francisco Maritime Park

Just past Fisherman’s Wharf is the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, where you can walk along the old Hyde Street pier for free and admire the restored boats on display. For a small fee ($5), you can board some of them to have a closer look. I particularly loved exploring the square-rigger Balclutha, and the views from up on its deck were breathtaking: the city skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Alcatraz.

In the foreground right, a beam of the ship extends forward, various ropes extending from it. Beyond that, the city skyline, including the triangular Transamerica pyramid. Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill is visible on the left too.
The San Francisco city skyline as seen from the foredeck of the Balclutha

I didn’t have time that day, but there are other maritime history sights to see: a Maritime Museum (free admission!) was built as a bathhouse in 1939 and is decorated with WPA murals. It’s part of the same National Park Service site as the Hyde Street pier ships.

I went back another day to Pier 45 to see two vessels from World War II: a liberty ship and a submarine.

Also at Pier 45 is the Musée Mécanique, a penny arcade (now quarters mostly) packed with vintage and antique games ranging from ones I remember – things like Pac-Man and Space Invaders – to far older machines.

Sometimes I think I spend too much time trying to differentiate myself from the tourist hordes. After all, there’s nothing wrong with being a tourist, is there?

Tourist destinations become tourist destinations for a reason: there’s something there that’s interesting or entertaining. Why avoid them? Join the tourist crowds and enjoy!

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