San Francisco Cruise Port
Port of San Francisco: An Overview
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Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala discovered the inlet in 1775, but it wasn't until 1847 that San Francisco got its name -- just before gold was discovered in "them thar" Sierra Nevada hills to the east. In 1850, California became the 31st state in the union, and, by 1854, more than 500 saloons and 20 theaters graced the booming Gold Rush town. But the real "gold" to be found was in its seas. The area known as Fisherman's Wharf, on the San Francisco Bay, is still the center of Northern California's commercial and sport fishing industry.
Indeed, the City by the Bay reflects its roots: a morning stroll down Fish Alley -- Jefferson between Hyde and Jones -- offers a chance to view fishermen at work. The Saloon, (1232 Grant Ave.) established in 1861, still stands in the city's North Beach neighborhood with cracked barstools and a dusty wooden floor. (It's one of the three oldest taverns in San Francisco, which somehow survived demolition by man and earthquakes, including the major one in 1906 that resulted in fire and widespread destruction.)
But above all, today's San Francisco is playfully sophisticated, with a mix of distinct contemporary neighborhoods like the tie-dye-wearing, peace-loving Haight; the super-trendy Mission; swank Pacific Heights; and fabulously gay Castro, home to many of the city's LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) businesses and households.
If your voyage begins or ends in this colorful California port, consider a pre- or post-cruise stay. The treats of San Francisco command more than a few hours: mah-jongg parlors in Chinatown (with yummy samples from the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on Ross Alley), cable car rides over Nob Hill, the staircase down the very steep and crooked Lombard Street, the ferry ride to enchanting Sausalito across San Francisco Bay, and, of course, an escape to Alcatraz. less
Hanging AroundMany of the city's major tourist attractions are located within steps of the port, including touristy Fisherman's Wharf. Hyde Street Pier, a historic ferry pier near Fisherman's Wharf, is part of the National Park Service's Maritime Museum; there, maritime buffs can board historic vessels, such as the 1886 square-rigger Balclutha and 1914 paddlewheel tug Eppleton Hall.
Nearby Pier 39 is a bustling marketplace boasting more than 110 stores, 14 bay-view restaurants, street performers and live daily entertainment.
The Embarcadero is great for strolling, with kiosks explaining the city's history and quotes or snippets of poetry embedded in the sidewalk.
Don't MissPier 39 is a collection of shops and dining places, which is also home to an aquarium and -- its most popular attraction -- sea lions, who've been taking over a number of boat piers. They're best viewed from the left-hand side of Pier 39. Younger kids will love the hand-painted two-tiered Venetian carousel topped with almost 2,000 twinkling lights. You can book whale-watching trips there and rent bicycles, too.
You can't visit San Francisco and not spend time at Fisherman's Wharf; check out all the crab stands near Jefferson Street. Look out across the Bay, and you'll see Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Ghirardelli Square started out as a factory in 1864, making Civil War uniforms, but it's famous for being a chocolate and spice factory from 1893 until the mid-1960's. These days, the factory is elsewhere and this place, though on the National Historic Register, is a multilevel mall filled to the brim with shops and restaurants. Look for the original 1860 cast-iron chocolate grinder from France on the lower level, and make sure you stop at the old-fashioned soda fountain down there, too. (900 North Point St.)
Heralded as one of the world's most beautiful bridges, San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge attracts about nine million visitors each year. It's free to drive out of San Francisco over the bridge -- but to come back, it'll cost you $6 per vehicle. Pedestrians (including wheelchair-users) and bicyclists may access the sidewalks during daylight hours. Or, view it from afar on a Bay cruise or a ferry ride across to Sausalito. San Francisco's Cable Cars go "halfway to the stars," according to that famous song -- and it's just about true! There are only three lines of these mobile national landmarks remaining, but they take you over some huge hills, with stunning views of the bay. Add in the "tune" that each bellman plays, and it makes for great entertainment. The two lines that run from Powell and Market Streets are nearly always packed because they head down to the Fisherman's Wharf area. For a less-crowded ride, with nary a wait, hop aboard the California Street line at California and Drumm streets. Get on the north side of the car for the best views, and stand on the outside, if you dare! If you're interested in seeing how the whole system works, visit the fascinating Cable Car Museum. (1201 Mason St., a stop on the Powell Street line)
Run by the National Park Service, Alcatraz (a.k.a. the Rock) is where some of the most notorious felons were sent from 1934 until 1963; alums include Al Capone, "Machine Gun" Kelly and, of course, Robert Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz." It's essential to book tours in advance, especially during the busy summer months. The official operator is Hornblower, and tours leave from Pier 33. (If you've visited before, note that this has changed in the past few years.) Tours take place most days from 9:30 a.m., running every half hour or so. The island closes at 6:30 p.m. in the summer months and at 4:30 p.m. at all other times. There are some evening (read: spookier) tours, but check the schedule if you're interested in these more in-depth adventures. Notes: There is a bit of an elevated walk from the boat to the cell house, so wear comfortable shoes. If you think it might be a difficult trek for you, consider taking SEAT, an electric shuttle that runs about every hour between the dock and the cell house. Bring a heavy sweater or a windbreaker; it gets chilly out there. You can also purchase a combined visit to neighboring Angel Island, known as the "Ellis Island of the West," where immigrants once entered the U.S. from Asia. These days, it's best for hiking and enjoying bay views.
Where prices are subject to discussion, Chinatown is beyond the great big red and green gate on Grant Avenue. Inside you'll find a 24-block maze of restaurants, shops, an ornate temple and cheap dim sum joints galore. Grant Street is more touristy, while Stockton Street caters more to local shoppers, with shops overflowing with dried fish and other exotic-smelling items. Photo ops abound not far from North Beach at Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill. Built as a memorial to the city's volunteer firemen -- with funding provided by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a genuine San Francisco character -- it was finished in 1933. The Diego Rivera-inspired murals at its base are wonderful to see. They were done by 25 artists under the WPA during the New Deal. For panoramic views of the city and the bay, ride the elevator to the top of the tower. Afterward, take the Filbert St. steps to descend the east side of the hill, through a hidden world of gardens and houses that can only be accessed on foot. (1 Telegraph Hill Blvd.; 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily)
The Exploratorium is the city's hands-on science museum and "learning laboratory." With exhibits on everything from skateboard science to Polynesian navigation, it's a fascinating place for young and old. In 2013, it moved from the Palace of Fine Arts complex to Pier 15 to allow for eight times the exhibit space, stellar views of the bay and a restaurant by local Chef Loretta Keller. Plus it's an easy walk from the cruise terminal. (Pier 15, The Embarcadero; open Tuesday and Thursday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and also Thursday from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. for ages 18+; closed Mondays)
It might not be Manhattan's Central Park, but Golden Gate Park sure comes close. At 75,398 acres, it's one of the largest inner-city national parks on the planet, where you can rent bikes (rental shops on Stanyan St.), horseback ride or simply gaze out on the Pacific. A must-see site in the park is the Japanese Tea Garden, a beautiful collection of waterfalls, bonsai trees and Japanese-style architecture; you can even have tea there. The park is home to the de Young Museum of art (ride to the top of the tower and catch the great views for free) and the California Academy of Sciences, home to a four-story rainforest (nice for warming up from the San Francisco fog), an aquarium and a planetarium.
All at once trendy, nostalgic, funky and touristy: That's The legendary intersection Haight-Ashbury. Made famous by the psychedelic 60's, it's a bit more gentrified these days, with swank shops and hip restaurants. You'll still spot a few aging hippies here and there along Haight Street -- and a lot of strangely colored hair atop kids' heads. If you want to see where the Grateful Dead lived in the mid-60's, head for 710 Ashbury Street. Bibliophiles should check out the Bound Together bookstore at 1369 Haight Street. You won't find any Danielle Steel on the shelves, but you will find the works of Noam Chomsky and Mumia Abu-Jamal. Amoeba Music, at 1855 Haight St., is the haunt of used CD- and vinyl-lovers. And Mickey's Monkey at 214 Pierce Street is a must if you're looking for a lava lamp and other kitschy collectibles. Hungry? Stop by Cha Cha Cha at 1801 Haight St. for tasty Caribbean tapas.
For people-watchers, the best coffeehouses are found in the Italian enclave of North Beach, where baseball great Joe DiMaggio grew up. Don't look for a beach. There isn't one, but there was before a landfill gobbled it up. There's plenty of history in this part of town, though. Grant Avenue is the city's oldest street, and legend has it that as fires swept through the city after the 1906 earthquake, locals cracked open barrels upon barrels of red wine and soaked blankets that were then draped over their houses. While you're there, check out the historic St. Francis of Assisi Church on Vallejo Street. Established in 1849, it remains famous for its Schoenstein pipe organ and spectacular murals that grace the interior walls. The old-style Italian restaurants (with the obligatory red-and-white checked tablecloths) are classic, and there's plenty of nightlife along Columbus and Grant Avenues. You'll also find boutiques selling handmade goods, and City Lights at 261 Columbus Ave. is one of the city's best bookstores, founded by Beat Generation legend Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Union Square is the center of the city; many hotels, department stores, restaurants and tony boutiques frame the small park (mostly along Post, Stockton, Geary, Powell and Sutter Streets). The Theater District is just three blocks away. There is also a handful of decent art galleries in the area -- in particular, the Xanadu Gallery< at 140 Maiden Lane, which is inside the only Frank Lloyd Wright building in San Francisco -- a miniature riff on his Guggenheim Museum in New York. Around the perimeter of the Union Square park, you'll find the sidewalks dotted with colorful flower stalls and jewelry vendors. Just across Market Street at Powell is the Westfield Center, a vertical mall with Nordstrom, Bloomingdales and a number of restaurants.
Head over to SoMa (South of Market) for galleries, museums, shopping and plenty of entertainment in what was once a neighborhood filled with old factories and warehouses. You'll find plenty of nightlife there, too.
For a view beyond all views, head to the top of Market Street to Twin Peaks. If you want to reach it without too much of a hike, find the Pemberton Stairs near Clayton Street. They won't get you all the way to the top, but the views are still awesome. The #37 bus will get you near the top, as well.A visit to the GLBT History Museum is an opportunity to visit world-class exhibits related to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender history and culture. (4127 18th St.) For a guided tour, try Cruisin' the Castro, a two-hour walk through the gay community of Castro covering historic events and must-see sights. (10 a.m. Monday to Saturday)
An excellent culture stop is the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. Inside you'll find one of the best collections of American art with more than 1,000 works from colonial times through today, as well as frequent blockbuster exhibitions. (open 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday)
Contemporary art lovers should spend time at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. You can't imagine the breadth of works there from artists such as Jackson Pollock, Paul Klee and Henri Matisse. And because the museum places tremendous focus on photography, you will have the opportunity to see work from Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Alfred Stieglitz. (151 Third St.; open Friday to Tuesday 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m., Thursday until 8:45 p.m., closed Wednesday)
City Guides provide free tours of interesting San Francisco neighborhoods, led by knowledgeable, enthusiastic volunteers. (A donation is nice, though, because this is a nonprofit.) Tours might take you to see Pacific Heights' grand mansions or beyond the tourist traps at Fisherman's Wharf to discover the real history. They might explain the Coit Tower murals or the 1906 earthquake and fire, or take you into the "Bawdy & Naughty" life of Gold Rush-era San Francisco's Barbary Coast. Be sure to check the online schedule, since not all tours are offered every day.
San Francisco is foodie heaven, and a great way to discover its many delicious offerings is on a culinary walking tour. Edible Excursions offers several tours in the city and the East Bay. They typically give you hefty tastes of six to seven items, along with the story behind a particular food, dining establishment and neighborhood. Even if you've stretched your stomach on a cruise, a tour will take the place of a meal.
Jay Gifford, a Victorian aficionado, offers a 2.5-hour walking and bus tour around the hills of Pacific Heights, pointing out architecture inside and outside some 200 restored Victorian homes while imparting some fairly good local gossip. For Hollywood fans, this tour gives you a chance to see the house used in "Mrs. Doubtfire," as well as the one featured on "Party of Five."
Head out about 12 miles beyond the Golden Gate for a walk in Muir Woods, located in Mill Valley. (It will probably seem familiar because scenes from "Return of the Jedi" were filmed there.) The ancient redwoods are jaw-droppingly gorgeous as you walk along trails marked for 30-, 60- and 90-minute hikes.
Take a 30-minute year-round ferry ride to Sausalito, a seaside village on the Bay. Visit the art galleries, shops and restaurants, or take a stroll through a park guarded by large concrete elephants -- erected for the 1915 San Francisco Panama Pacific International Exposition. If you're planning for an overnight stay, consider Casa Madrona's cluster of cottages.
Even if you don't rent a car, California's Wine Country is accessible: Take an eight-hour luxury bus tour with the Blue & Gold Fleet through Sonoma and Napa that allows for three wine-tasting stops, tours and time for lunch. Buses depart daily at 9:15 a.m. from Pier 41. For smaller group or custom tours, Napa Valley Wine Country Tours has legions of fans. Many other companies offer trips to the Wine Country, from bare-bones to limos.
Getting AroundGetting to the Port: The San Francisco Airport is located 14 miles outside the city, and the Oakland Airport is 21 miles outside the city. Public transportation is available from both airports, but there's no direct route from the airport to the pier. You'll need to switch lines (the local F trolley runs up the Embarcadero) or catch a cab once in San Francisco, so you might prefer to book your cruise line's transfer or take a taxi or door-to-door shuttle to minimize hassles.
At SFO, the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station is located on the Departures/Ticketing Level of the International Terminal. BART is also easily accessed from any terminal by riding the free air train. Trains leave the station every few minutes throughout the day. Travel time from the airport to the Embarcadero and other stops in the city is about 35 minutes. From OAK, take the AirBART shuttle between the airport and the Coliseum/Oakland Airport BART station. Travel time to the Embarcadero station is about 10 minutes.
By far, the cheapest way to reach the city from SFO is by getting on the SamTrans' (San Mateo County Transit District) No. 292 bus, running from about 5:30 a.m. until about midnight. It's inexpensive and takes about an hour. You can bring as much luggage as you want -- you just have to deal with it yourself. You'll find the buses at the north end of the lower levels. The route terminates at the Transbay Terminal, currently located in an area bounded by Folsom, Beale, Howard and Main Streets.
Door-to-door shared-ride vans are available at both airports and depart every 15 to 30 minutes around the clock. Try American Airporter or Super Shuttle.
Taxis are readily available at the airports at designated taxi zones located outside Baggage Claim at all terminals. From SFO, fares are metered, plus a $2 surcharge. The fare to the cruise terminal will run from $45. There is a surcharge of 150 percent (that's not a typo) for destinations 15 miles beyond city limits or the boundaries of the airport. From OAK, taxis cost around $70. Taxis can be shared and the price divided. A 15 percent tip is customary. Most taxis accept credit cards, but ask to be sure before boarding.
Amtrak does not offer rail service to San Francisco, but it does stop in Emeryville, just over the Bay Bridge. A shuttle will take you to the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero. There is no baggage handling for the bus portion, so consider if your luggage is too much to manage.
If you're driving, cruise parking is available at ACE Parking (55 Francisco St., 415-398-0208) and City Park (80 Francisco St., 415-398-4162). Both garages are a short walk from Pier 35. For other lots and to compare rates, visit www.BestParking.com.
By Car: All the major rental companies operate in the city and have desks at the airports. They include Avis, Alamo and Enterprise. Car-rental rates vary with daily rates, starting from about $50. Note: Parking is horrendous in the city, but if you're spending several days, you might want to rent a car to visit more far-flung sites, including Muir Woods and Wine Country. If you're lucky enough to find street parking, use the hand brake, and curb your wheels when facing downward on a hill and away from the curb when uphill. You'll get a pricey ticket if you don't. All parking meters operate Sundays, and some along the Embarcadero operate later than the usual 6 p.m. cutoff.
On Foot: There are distinct neighborhoods (e.g. Fisherman's Wharf, Chinatown, Nob Hill, North Beach, Pacific Heights, Russian Hill, Union Square, SoMa, the Haight, Castro, Mission, Marina, Tenderloin, Avenues). The city's main thoroughfare is Market Street, leading into the city from the Ferry Building; downtown is east, and the Golden Gate Bridge is north. San Francisco is a city perfect for walking, and it's fun to wander the hilly streets and even over the Golden Gate. Fact is, you can walk from Union Square to Fisherman's Wharf, passing Chinatown and North Beach on the way, and it will take you about an hour. Walking is the best way to travel for those not in a rush, and it's the only way to really see the neighborhoods.
By Rail: The San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni) runs the cable cars, buses and streetcars. You'll need exact change to ride. Service typically begins around 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. and ends around midnight or 1 a.m., depending on the route, but some routes do offer "Owl" service. You might want to consider a Passport, which gives you unlimited rides on all services for one, three or seven days. You can purchase the pass at the SFMTA Customer Service Center (Van Ness at Market), information booths at SFO baggage claim, the Powell/Market cable car booth, the Sutter and Hyde Streets booth, the Bay and Taylor Streets booth, and the Geary at Presidio booth. BART is mainly used for reaching the outlying areas like Berkeley, Oakland and the airport. Machines inside the stations dispense tickets. The trains run every 15 minutes or so, Monday to Friday from 4 a.m. to midnight, Saturday from 6 a.m. to midnight, and Sunday from 8 a.m. to midnight.
Editor's note: A $69 CityPass ($39 for kids) gets visitors admission to several popular cultural and entertainment attractions without waiting on line: a Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise, California Academy of Sciences, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Aquarium of the Bay and either Exploratorium or the deYoung Museum and Legion of Honor (on the same day), plus seven days of unlimited transportation on the buses, cable cars and street cars. You can purchase it at any of the included attractions or online.
LunchingDungeness crab, King (Chinook) salmon and Pacific herring are some of the leading local catches, particularly at Fisherman's Wharf, where most of the restaurants are aimed at the casual day-tripper or tourist. But San Francisco also offers cuisines from all corners of the world -- in Chinatown, Japantown, the Mission and North Beach -- for both those watching their budgets and those looking to splurge.
The concept of "California Cuisine," letting fresh, local ingredients inspire the menu, originated in the Bay Area. And some of the city's best restaurants adhere to that philosophy. A trip to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market will show you where all that delicious inspiration comes from.
Best by the Wharf: Head to the Ferry Building Marketplace, home to restaurants and food purveyors that give you a variety of the best the Bay Area has to offer. Try upscale Vietnamese at the Slanted Door, slurp oysters at Hog Island Oyster Company, tuck into a taco at Mijita, enjoy tea service and light Chinese fare at Imperial Garden Tea House, grab a luscious burger at Gott's, and graze chocolate shops, ice cream stands or bakery Miette for dessert. There's also a dazzling farmers market there Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. In general, shops are open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday -- but many restaurants and some shops have longer hours.
The Locals Recommend: Yank Sing gives you the opportunity to try Chinese dim sum (little plates of dumplings and other delicacies, wheeled around on carts) in a pleasant environment, not far from the bay. Don't miss the soup dumplings (little bundles of rich broth and minced pork), even if you have to ask for them. Explore the old post office that houses the restaurant to find displays of artifacts uncovered during the building's renovation, many from sailing ships abandoned during the gold rush. (101 Spear St.; open weekdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., weekends 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) Feeling a bit adventurous? Head for the Mission District, a culinary hotbed. Stand in line for a taco at authentic La Taqueria (2889 Mission St.; open daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.), or try more upscale Tacolicious(741 Valencia St.; open daily 11:30 a.m. to 12 a.m.). Taste New Korean food at trendy Namu Ganji (499 Dolores St.; open Tuesday to Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.). Then swing by Tartine (600 Guerrero St.), Bi-Rite Creamery (3692 18th St.), Dandelion Chocolates (740 Valencia St.) and Craftsman & Wolves (746 Valencia St.) for sweet treats. Or, for a really wild ending to your food adventure, check out some of the weirdest (but most awesome) ice cream flavors you'll ever taste at Humphry Slocombe (2790 Harrison St.)
Gourmet Options: Boulevard, located in one of the downtown area's oldest buildings (a rare survivor of the 1906 quake), has been serving innovative California fare for years in a stunning environment. Be sure to book ahead, and ask for a table with a view of the Bay Bridge. Sister restaurants Epic Roasthouse for carnivores (369 The Embarcadero; open for lunch Wednesday to Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., weekend brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner from 5:30 p.m. nightly) and Waterbar for fresh-seafood fans (399 The Embarcadero; open for lunch Monday to Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., weekend brunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. and dinner from 5:30 nightly) are located south of the terminal along the Embarcadero. Though pricey, both offer well-prepared fare and amazing views of the Bay Bridge. They're a good choice for happy hour, too.
In Town for Dinner: Delfina offers unfussy Italian (but not the red-checked tablecloth variety) in the trendy, edgy Mission District. You might even spot a celeb or two dining there. If on the menu, the Chianti-braised short ribs with polenta are divine. (3621 18th St.; open Monday to Thursday 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday to Saturday until 11 p.m., Sunday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.) Want something lighter? Visit their pizzeria next door. Gary Danko is consistently rated one of San Francisco's top restaurants, for spectacular California cuisine along with excellent service in a lovely setting. Chef Danko personally shops the farmers markets for the fresh ingredients that inspire him. (800 N. Point St., near Fisherman's Wharf; open daily 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., bar open until midnight.) Benu, a Michelin 2-star restaurant, serves refined, innovative Asian-influenced California cuisine from chef-owner Corey Lee, who cooked for many years at the famed French Laundry in Napa. (22 Hawthorne St.; open Tuesday to Saturday, seatings from 5:30 p.m.)
Where You're Docked
San Francisco Cruise Port Address:
Pier 35 The Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA 94133
Ships dock at Pier 35, located along the Embarcadero, the city's bustling downtown waterfront on San Francisco Bay; nearby are the restaurants and tourist attractions of Pier 39, the Ferry Building and Fisherman's Wharf.
A new cruise terminal -- the James R. Herman Terminal -- was completed on Pier 27. The structure will first be used as the hospitality center for the 2013 America's Cup yacht races. The complex will also include a 2.5-acre park.
Watch Out ForBe prepared for rough seas when you sail out into the Pacific Ocean. Also, San Francisco is the hilliest city in the United States, and its steep streets are best traversed by cable car; the views can be enjoyed standing on one of the outside platforms, but travelers should hold on tight (and keep extremities tucked away from oncoming traffic).
Currency & Best Way to Get MoneyBecause San Francisco is part of the U.S., the currency is the U.S. dollar. International visitors will find it easy to access cash at numerous ATM's. Exchange bureaus, so common in Europe, are not in the U.S., but major banks also provide exchange services. Most banks are open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Some are also open Saturday mornings.
LanguageEnglish is the primary language spoken.
Best SouvenirSourdough bread and Ghirardelli chocolate make great, inexpensive gifts.
For More InformationOn the Web: San Francisco Travel Association
Cruise Critic Message Boards: West Coast Departures
IndependentTraveler.com: California Travel Guide
--by Lauren Price, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Gayle Keck, Cruise Critic contributor
Photos appear courtesy of the San Francisco Tourist Board.