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Yes, it is over-the-top touristy, although it has one or two high points. Yet, for some reason, Fisherman's Wharf is San Francisco's most popular attraction. So here are the fun places at 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 in the heart of Fisherman's Wharf, just past the big Fisherman's Wharf sign. 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.
The ships at the Hyde Street Pier, part of the National Parks, at the west end of the Wharf (on your way to Ghirardelli Square) are fun to explore, and rarely crowded. These include the old sailing ship Balclutha and the WWII sub Pampinito. 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. The outside of the building even looks like a ship.
Many people enjoy Boudin. Keep in mind, however, that the Wharf is not known for being a culinary experience. Many tourists enjoy claim chowder in a bread bowl here, but it is not a "signature dish" of San Francisco. For that, head up to North Beach and try some cioppino! There is a small fish and chips stand on Jones between Beach & Jefferson called "Codmother's Fish and Chips" that is a nice spot if the weather is nice; all seating is outdoors. The Buena Vista is another possibiity ... especially if you'd care to have an Irish Coffee with lunch!
Pier 39 has its fans and detractors. Kids tend to enjoy it. Keep in mind it was built solely as a tourist attraction. 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.
If you are interested in visiitng Alcatraz, buy tickets online through the official website in advance. Tickets go on sale 90 days in advance. 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 Districtt website or the Fisherman's Wharf Merchants Assn Website.
Overall Fisherman's Wharf and the surrounding area (Ghirardelli Square and Pier 39) deserve an hour or two. Then move on to see the real San Francisco.