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Yes, it can be touristy, if you do not know the best places to go. But, Fisherman's Wharf is San Francisco's most popular attraction for a reason, so here are some fun and unique ways to enjoy the Wharf:
Getting there: Take public transportation to the Wharf. Nothing is a fun as a ride down scenic Russian Hill on a clanking old cable car, arriving at the bay's edge to enjoy the day. Avoid driving altogether -- parking can be REALLY expensive.
Musee Mecanique -- a free-entry, huge collection of vintage penny arcade machines that have been retrofitted to accept quarters and will entertain for hours. Some are games, some are hand-crank flip-card movies, and lots of fascinating animated displays. There are also some less vintage video and pinball games in the back. It's at Pier 43 1/2 -- in the heart of Fisherman's Wharf, just past the big Fisherman's Wharf sign. For many years, Musee Mecanique was a hidden gem in the lower level of the Cliff House, (next to the Camera Oscura, which is still there) . Musee Mecanique's arcade machines were collected over decades by Edward Galland Zelinsky. Some of the mechanical artifacts, such as "Laffing Sal" are beloved icons from the once mighty Playland at the Beach on the city's western end, which entertained generations of San Franciscans from 1928-1972.
Behind the Musee Mecanique is the USS Pampanito, a World War II submarine available for touring. You can buy the self-guided audio tour to listen to -- it is worth it! Interesting for all ages.
A fun place to eat is Boudin, the Sourdough bakery. There is a little shop right in front of Musee Mechanique, but they have a limited menu. Go instead into the big restaurant, which has a great selection, delicious soups and sandwiches, and a fun gift shop. Their service is fast and efficient, and there are plenty of tables.
After your lunch at Boudin, go upstairs and take a tour of the sourdough factory and museum ($3 adults, kids are free). There is a lot of San Francisco history (including what the Gold Rush had to do with sourdough bread), and information on the science of sourdough. You get to watch them make the bread, too. After the tour there's a tasting area.
The ships at the Hyde Street Pier, at the end of the Wharf (on your way to Ghirardelli Square) are fun to explore, and rarely crowded. Further down is the Maritime Museum (the big white building), but there is also a smaller Maritime Museum that is before you get to the Pier, right next to the Argonaut Hotel. It's a hidden treasure -- free, uncrowded, and full of interesting displays, even a small movie theatre in the back. Though closed for refurbishment until late 2008, the building's unique facade is interesting enough to warrant a look and a few photos for your journal.
The Bush Man is a harmless but potentially startling street performer, the latest incarnation of creative buskers who have made their living at Fisherman's Wharf. Earlier generations may remember Grimes Poznikov, aka "The Automatic Human Jukebox," a musician who once played on the Mike Douglas Show, and was mentioned by Charles Kuralt as one of the most popular entertainment attractions in SF. Mr. Poznikov died at age 59 in November 2005.
Pier 39 has its fans and detractors. Kids tend to enjoy it. But cynical adults can, too. Yes, it was built solely as a tourist attraction ... on the site of an existing pier that harks back to San Francisco's glory days as a working waterfront. But then something interesting happened, a fluke of nature. Juvenile sea lions following a good herring run discovered the adjacent boat dock (K-dock) in January 1990 and hauled out there... in large numbers. What seemed to be a loud, smelly and temporary annoyance turned into a major tourist attraction, as people (including locals) flocked to Pier 39 to see them. The sea lions were credited with rescuing the tourist business after the Oct. 17, 1989 earthquake, and a grateful (and enterprising) Pier 39 quickly capitalized nature's gift, even fashioning a sea lion topiary at the entrance. Sure, it's a crowded collection of shops and arcades, but if you look, you can find some real SF things amid the crowds. Enjoy the sea lions, check out the views, throw some coins in the buskers' hats, and go all the way down to the end for the carousel.The arcade/sport's bar at the end of the pier has killer views of the bay and Alcatraz. Get the homemade chowder and relax while the kids play.
No trip to San Francisco is complete without a visit to Alcatraz. Buy Alcatraz tickets online through the official website long before you plan to visit, or it's likely to be sold out. It's a fascinating tour, starting with a fun boat ride and ending with spectacular views. If you have kids, have them read "Al Capone Does My Shirts" before they go -- it's a great juvenile fiction (grade 5 or so?) about a boy who lives on Alcatraz (his dad works there) when Al Capone is imprisoned there. They also have a night tour of "The Rock," which is both creepy and a real blast. AlcatrazCruises.com is the official website for tickets.
For a solid reference on activities, restaurants, maps and shopping at FIsherman's Wharf visit the Fisherman's Wharf Community Benefit District website or the Fisherman's Wharf Merchants Assn Website.
Hope you enjoy your visit!!