The Northern Waterfront Walk
Fisherman’s Wharf and more
On the city’s northern waterfront, Fisherman’s Wharf is the only area of San Francisco designed with tourists in mind. A declining fishing trade caused many of the piers and wharves here to fall into disrepair and they were swiftly transformed into the rows of souvenir shops and amusement centres seen today. Crowded night and day, Fisherman’s Wharf is nonetheless where we’ve begun this walk, partly because it is very easy to reach on public transportation and also because it does have redeeming qualities.
The walk moves west to visit filtered ships and the excellent small museums of the Fort Mason Centre, continuing to the strangest sight in the city – the Palace of Fine Arts. The distance covered is about two miles, but walkers with stamina can press ahead for another two, reaching the Golden Gate Bridge.
Start: Pier 39, opposite Beach Street’s junction with the Embarcadero Centre. Holding scores of souvenir shops but much less tacky than might be expected, the split-level Pier 39 was built of recycled timber in the late 1970s above an abandoned 1905 cargo pier. Views of the city from the pier’s upper level are impressive, and the Eagle Café (www.eaglecafe.com) has been serving the cheapest meal in Fisherman’s Wharf for years. Aquarium of the Bay (www.aquariumofthebay.org), near the pier’s entrance, allows visitors to walk along a 300-foot-long acrylic tunnel as some 10,000 creatures of the deep swim above and around them. At the end of the pier, Turbo Ride straps passengers into their seats for white-knuckle, computer-simulated adventures. Lining Jefferson Street are out-and-out tourist attractions such as the Wax Museum (www.waxmuseum.com), number 145, Ripley’s Believe It or Not (www.ripleys.com/sanfrancisco), and the Guinness Museum of World Records, at 235. All do a roaring trade, as does the Boudin Bakery (www.boudinbakery.com), number 156, which has bona fide local roots, being a descendant of Isadore Boudin’s original sourdough bread factory which opened in 1849 and produced the crusty, no-yeast loaves which became linked with the city.
Between Jefferson and Beach streets, a variety of brow sable shops and galleries fill the Cannery, 2801 Leavenworth Street, once a fruit-canning centre. Another major conversion created Ghirardelli Square, 9800 N. Point Street, where interesting speciality are secreted through the red-rick buildings of a chocolate factory that operated here from 1893. On the bay side of Jefferson Street on Pier 45, the USS Pampanito, (www.maritime.org/pamphome.htm) a submarine which saw action in the Pacific during the Second World War, can be boarded and explored, and was the first of the Maritime National Historic Park System’s collection of historical vessels. Others include the resplendent Balclutha, a Scottish-built three-masted square-rigged sailing ship launched in 1886, which rounded Cape Horn regularly before ending its days transporting Alaskan salmon along the American west coast; and the paddle-wheeled Eureka, dating from 1890, which had a less arduous life moving cars and people across the bay to Sausalito – a large collection of periodautos fills its car decks. More memories of San Franciscan seafaring are stored at the National Maritime Museum (www.maritime.org), facing the north end of Polk Street, although the Streamline Moderne style of the 1939 building – imitating an ocean liner – is more striking than the exhibits.
From the Maritime Museum, follow the waterfront path that winds around the foot of a tall bluff beneath Fort Mason, part of a Civil War-era military complex, and past the Jeremiah O’Brien, a 1940s “Liberty Ship” and a tour able monument to the efforts of the U.S. Merchant Marine Corp who carried supplies to needy nations during the Second World War. Just beyond lie the museums, arts centers and environmental offices that fill the former warehouses of Fort Mason Centre. Highlights include the Museo Italio Americano (www.museoitaloamericano.org) (Building B), focusing on the works of San Franciscan artists of Italian descent, and the outstanding Mexican Museum (www.mexicanmuseum.org) (Building D). The Friends of San Francisco Public Library (www.friendssfpl.org) (Building A) fills a room filled with discarded library stock and is a great spot to find bargain books.
Back at the waterfront are the city’s major yacht clubs and, half-a-mile east, close to the junction of Marina Boulevard and Baker Street, the remarkable Palace of Fine Arts (www.palaceoffinearts.org). Never a completed building, the Palace of Fine Arts was constructed as a series of Beaux Arts classical ruins for the Panama Pacific Exposition, held in San Francisco in 1915. With demolition prevented by public demand and by private money, the palace retains a slightly spooky presence, the pained expressions of its sculptured figures intended to suggest the melancholy of life without art. Beside the palace, the Exploratorium is more upbeat: an immense gathering of hands-on scientific exhibits that will inform and amuse minds of all ages for hours on end.
If a blustery 2-mile hike along the coast appeals, continue west following the Golden Gate Promenade, along a stretch of barely-developed coastline that concludes beneath the Golden Gate Bridge at Fort Point, a 19thC military installation that never fired a shot in anger. A few rooms within the fortress’s 15-ft-thick walls serve as a museum and guides clad as Civil War soldiers lead guided tours. Listen out for the fort’s canons: they are fired twice daily.
Golden Gate Bridge
Completed in 1937 and named for the bay it crosses rather than its colour (which is rust-red, designed for maximum visibility in fog), the Golden Gate Bridge links the city to Marin County and – until the opening of the Transamerica Pyramid – was San Francisco’s most familiar landmark.
Just over a mile across, the bridge can be traversed on foot and by bike (expect high winds) as well as by car. The bridge is a fabulous feat of engineering – but don’t expect great things from the Visitor Centre near the entrance, which is packed with dismal souvenirs.
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