San Francisco Ferry Building

San Francisco Ferry Building (©Angela Decenzo)

Why You Should Explore San Francisco's Buzzing Waterfront

By Renee Brincks on 04/21/17
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Long before visitors were cruising from San Francisco to Sausalito via scenic ferry rides, cargo ships carried commodities to the growing coastal city. Before crews constructed the famous Ferry Building and piers that welcomed those ships, entrepreneurs filled in shoreline and collected berthing fees from fishing boats. And in 1848, back before San Francisco’s population was big enough to keep many fishing fleets in business, the seaside village recorded just eight vessel calls.

Take the ferry from San Francisco to Sausalito

Then, a carpenter discovered gold in California. In the following months, San Francisco welcomed 600 vessels, and the waterfront became central to the community’s development.

“The city’s first jail, first insane asylum and first hotel were on ships. A lot are still there–when they do construction projects, they often find pieces of these Gold Rush ships,” said San Francisco Chronicle reporter and historian Carl Nolte. “Dozens and dozens of ships are under San Francisco, in the Financial District, mostly.”

Since those Gold Rush days, San Francisco has become a world-class destination that remains strongly connected to its maritime roots. The state established the Port of San Francisco in 1863; today, 154 years later, the Port oversees 7.5 miles of wharves, piers and seawall that establish the city’s modern shoreline. Many downtown structures are built on land created by the seawall’s construction. Between Fisherman’s Wharf and AT&T Park, the seawall doubles as a public promenade popular with walkers, runners and bicyclists.

Some of the city’s most exciting visitor destinations, like the Exploratorium science museum, a cruise ship terminal and an under-construction sports arena, have popped up along or near that promenade, but the central waterfront didn’t always draw visitors. In the late 1800s, it was a hub of trade and transportation. Ships on San Francisco Bay carried everything from gold to mail to sugar, and the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street first welcomed passengers in 1898.

Exploratorium in San Francisco

Less than a decade later, the 1906 earthquake and fire devastated the city. Because San Francisco was so important to the sugar industry, Hawaiian shipping companies supported reconstruction efforts—and some downtown buildings still feature the pineapples carved into their cornices by builders. The Ferry Building survived the disaster, however, and soon served as many as 50,000 commuters per day.

“Before the great bridges were built in the 1930s, the Ferry Building was the busiest terminal in the whole country—busier than Grand Central Station or Penn Station. It was the second-busiest terminal in the whole world,” said Nolte.

Demand for ferry transport dropped after the Golden Gate and Bay bridges paved the way for automobiles. Construction of the two-tiered Embarcadero Freeway followed, cutting the Ferry Building off from the city. As cargo shipping moved south, the central waterfront became quiet.

Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market in San Francisco

The Embarcadero Freeway came down after the 1989 earthquake and its removal triggered a shoreline renaissance.

A successful one-time harvest festival near the Ferry Building inspired a weekly farmers market, complete with cooking demonstrations and educational programs. That market’s popularity caught the attention of the developers who restored the Ferry Building and filled the stalls with local food purveyors. Today, up to 30,000 people sample seasonal produce at the Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, and thousands more shop at offshoots there each Tuesday and Thursday.

“The market contributed to the realization that the waterfront could be vital again,” said Dave Stockdale, formerly of the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), the organization that coordinates the market. “This demonstrated that, yes, people would come out here, and they would hang out and have a good time.”

San Francisco historical F-line streetcar

Twenty-eight years later, San Francisco’s shoreline again buzzes with activity.

On weekends, the E-Embarcadero, the city’s newest historic streetcar line, takes riders along the waterfront to destinations including Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, the Exploratorium and AT&T Park. Construction made the western side of Fisherman’s Wharf friendlier for pedestrians and cyclists. Wharf visitors enjoy unmatched photo opportunities, fresh clam chowder and access to the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park; guests out before 9 am might even catch some fishing industry action on Pier 45, home to the West Coast's largest concentration of commercial fish processors and distributors. Pier 39’s shops, museums, street performers and sea lions captivate guests, too, and many sport fishing and sightseeing tours depart from the area.

Preparations for the America’s Cup sailing race, which took place on the San Francisco Bay in 2013, produced many waterfront developments, including dining and entertainment venues on Pier 29 and the new James R. Herman Cruise Terminal at Pier 27. The terminal has become the city’s new gateway for cruise ship guests who are treated to views of Coit Tower, Alcatraz Island, the Golden Gate Bridge and other iconic Bay Area sites.

AT&T Park home of the San Francisco Giants

The Exploratorium moved to Pier 15 in 2013, and the museum capitalizes on its prime location with a second-floor observatory and a 27-foot outdoor harp that sings as bay breezes blow. South of the Ferry Building, the Golden State Warriors have broken ground on the new waterfront Chase Center in Mission Bay. With its plaza, restaurant and retail space and adjacent 5.5 acre bayfront park, the Mission Bay development will revitalize the neighborhood south of AT&T Park, home of the 2010, 2012 and 2014 World Series-winning San Francisco Giants.

Complementing these attractions are more than 60 waterfront restaurants—including several popular breakfast spots and cafes with outdoor seating—plus countless recreational activities along the promenade that parallels the Embarcadero. Visitors can walk, jog, bike, skate or catch a pedicab, enjoying spectacular bay views along the way.

Stroll along the watefront in San Francisco

“With each development on our piers, we extend that promenade around the pier so that people can walk along the water’s edge,” said Monique Moyer, former executive director of the Port of San Francisco. “You can see the sights, be outdoors and get your exercise, and you can do it all without ever getting in a car.”

With buses, underground trains, cable cars, streetcars and ferries operating within blocks of the waterfront, public transportation is the mode of choice for many. And, like it was at the turn of the century, the Ferry Building is the shoreline’s shining star.

“It looks like it did 100 years ago…it’s really a transformation,” said Nolte. “It’s a gorgeous building, and it’s full of life.”

The Where® Travel Guide to San Francisco