Whether you make your home in the City by the Bay or you are just looking for things to do for the day in San Francisco, PIER 39 is an iconic San Francisco spot that definitely deserves a visit. Located on The Embarcadero in Fisherman’s Wharf, PIER 39 offers dozens of places to eat, an aquarium, a double decker carousel and the rowdiest sea lions you have ever seen. Run down our list of must-visit spots on your next visit to PIER 39.
What to Do
There’s no shortage of fun to fill a full day (or longer) at PIER 39. It’s location offers stunning views of both the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Bridge as well as Alcatraz. Book a ride on the Blue and Gold Fleet for an on-the-water experience. View the skyline on a bay cruise or opt for the Escape from the Rock cruise where you’ll circle Alcatraz and learn about the island’s history. Thrill seekers can opt for a ride on the RocketBoat for 30 minutes of high-speed adventure on the Bay. All of these options leave from PIER 39 and are available throughout the day.
When you arrive at PIER 39, follow your ears to the West Marina to visit the sea lions that took up residence there shortly after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. These raucous creatures can be seen sunning themselves and jockeying for prime spots on the dock. Each winter the population increases to around 900 sea lions and a many are there year round.
Learn more about the sea lions by visiting the Sea Lion Center on the second floor above the West Marina. Here you can check out the interactive displays and watch educational videos. Through the end of the summer, the Sea Lion Center will be showing the documentary film STRAWS every weekend at 1:30 p.m., followed by a discussion with an Aquarium of the Bay Educator. Support PIER 39’s Skip the Straw initiative by opting to go straw-less to keep the waterways free from plastic debris.
If you walk all the way to the end of PIER 39 you will find the double decker San Francisco carousel. This masterpiece was hand painted in Italy and features famous San Francisco landmarks like Coit Tower, Lombard Street and the Golden Gate Bridge. In addition to the traditional carousel horses, kids can even ride a PIER 39 sea lion!
This end of the pier is also home to the 7D Experience where you can enjoy the thrill of a roller coaster with 3D interaction on DarkRide. Then put your agility to the test in the Laser Maze Challenge where you navigate through a web of laser beams to beat the clock.
Kids (and grown-ups, too!) will be mesmerized by a visit to Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze. Try to find your way through the maze that’s filled with dead ends, endless circles and optical illusions. The maze costs $5 and kids 5 and under are free!
Don’t miss a few runs up and down the musical staircase, located around the corner from the Mirror Maze, near Mango’s Mexican restaurant. This interactive art exhibit was designed by Artist Remo Saraceni, creator of the floor piano in the Tom Hank’s movie Big.
The Aquarium of the Bay is a definite must-visit spot at PIER 39. This aquarium features the aquatic creatures of the San Francisco Bay including anchovies, jellyfish, sting rays and sevengill sharts. Kids will love the two touch pools where they can meet bat rays, skates, leopard sharks and tidepool animals such as sea stars and sea cucumbers. The newly-added river otters exhibit teaches kids about the importance of protecting our waterways for creatures big and small.
Perhaps the most mesmerizing exhibit is the Under the Bay tunnels where you can walk through 300 feet of acrylic tunnels filled with schooling anchovies, skates, bay rays and sharks. Take a look at the daily schedule before you visit so that you know when there will be special animal encounters and feedings.
Good to know: get your hand stamped at the aquarium and you can take a lunch break and return later in the day for more aquatic adventures!
Where to Eat
PIER 39’s location right on the water makes it the ideal spot to grab a bowl of clam chowder in a sour dough bread bowl. There are dozens of eateries along the pier that offer this local favorite. Head to Boudin at the Wharf to check out this local sour dough bakery that offers self-guided tours throughout the day.
Looking for a sit-down spot with a view? The end of the pier by the carousel is home to The Chart House where you can grab some lobster bisque or the California burger on a pretzel roll.
If you are at PIER 39 during the morning hours, a stop at Trish’s Mini Donuts is a must-do. Kids will love seeing the donut-making machine in action. Grab a bucket of donuts to take with you on your PIER 39 adventures.
Where to Shop
Swing by Solve It! on the second floor by the musical stairs to check out all of the wooden puzzles, brain teasers and games that will keep the kids busy for hours (with no WiFi needed!). The Shell Cellar is a fun spot to find abalone shells of all sizes and colorful clam shells made into works of art.
Got a lefty in your crew? Don’t miss a stop at the shop that’s all for south paws—Lefty’s San Francisco. If you want some vintage flair to bring back home with you, swing by The Stone Flower where you can find handmade headbands, retro viewfinders and even a bucket of Army men at the bargain price of three for a dollar.
Make It a Staycation
There’s so much to do at PIER 39 that you might want to include an overnight in your trip planning. Hotel Zephyr is a great spot just two blocks from PIER 39. You can take advantage of its convenient location right in the Fisherman’s Wharf action and then take a break from the crowds in the hotel’s massive courtyard that includes a giant Connect Four game, ping pong in a tube, fire pits and tons of comfy seating options. In addition to the outdoor games, kids will love the pool table, shuffleboard and ping pong options in the inside game room.
Relax in the courtyard and order a pizza and a beer from The Camper, the hotel’s customized vintage Shasta camper turned food truck. Breakfast options include croissants, yogurt parfaits, breakfast burritos and piping-hot coffee. On Wednesday nights, guests can listen to a live DJ while they enjoy the sunset and a glass of wine.
Check out the PIER 39 events page for info on their outdoor movie night, July 4th fireworks celebration and more. Savings and discounts can be found on their offers page (where they often have specials just for locals). Visit the California Welcome Center at the pier to grab your fun pack that includes discounts and coupons to many restaurants and attractions on PIER 39.
Hotel Zephyr offers deals like a fourth night free and special summer savings. Visit their hotel specials page for all the details.
250 Beach Street
San Francisco, CA
—photos and story by Kate Loweth
Note: This trip was hosted by PIER 39, Hotel Zephyr and the Aquarium of the Bay but all opinions expressed here belong to the writer.