Downtown San Francisco Tour Guide
Touring downtown San Francisco is just like touring any other major city — you need to keep your wits about you, keep your cash hidden, and keep your family together. There’s no need for alarm. This city is safe enough to remain popular with tourists year-round, but keep in mind that tourists tend to draw pickpockets and unscrupulous sellers of everything from $5 ice cream cones to bus tours that don’t go anywhere. Work with reputable operators, and use common sense to avoid becoming a victim.
Downtown San Francisco has many sections, including a Financial District and a Civic Center. Most tourists aren’t interested in trading stocks or talking with government representatives, though, so the rest of this section will focus on four areas that you may want to check out: Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, Union Square, and the Alamo Square Historic District in the Western Addition section.
Many tourists go straight from the airport to the Fisherman’s Wharf section of downtown, where you can get fresh Dungeness crab with a side of clam chowder served in a sourdough bread bowl. In fact, Fisherman’s Wharf is well known for its food, but there’s a lot more to the area that you can enjoy if you take some time to look around.
The wharf area extends from Pier 39 to Aquatic Park, which abuts the National Maritime Museum of San Francisco and the grounds of Fort Mason. The wharf also includes Pier 41, which is the base for ferries to Angel Island and Alcatraz, and the Cannery Shopping Center and Ghirardelli Square, which are filled with store owners ready to help you lighten the load of souvenir money in your pocketbook.
There’s no longer a thriving working waterfront here, as most of the landscape has been overrun by shops, amusement areas, and quirky establishments like the Wax Museum at Fisherman’s Wharf and the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum. Pier 39 is a shopping extravaganza, with local enterprises mixing in among the national chains such as the Disney Store and the NFL Shop. Places to spend a little less coin on Pier 39 include the San Francisco Carousel, which is just $2 per ride, and the docks overlooking nearby rocks, where you and the kids can watch sea lions play for free. If you decide on the latter, consider going after you eat. The smell of sea lion poop just may ruin your appetite.
Fisherman’s Wharf is always bustling with tourists and locals alike, but if you want to see the area at its most impressive, visit during the Fourth of July holiday for fireworks or during Fleet Week in October, when you can catch some of the best overhead views of fighter pilots speeding across the sky in fantastic formations.
National Maritime Museum
Right next to the Aquatic Park section of Fisherman’s Wharf, you’ll find the National Maritime Museum of San Francisco and the Hyde Street Pier Historic Ships, where you can climb aboard an 1886 schooner, an old passenger ferry, a 1915 steam schooner, and more.
The ships are often called a floating national park because they’re so impressive. The 301-foot Balclutha, for instance, is a three-masted vessel built to carry goods all over the world. She entered service in 1886 after being built near Glasgow, Scotland, and was found to be so reliable on the ocean’s waters that she ended up carrying freight around South America’s Cape Horn seventeen times. She even appeared in the 1962 movie Mutiny on the Bounty.
RAINY DAY FUN
Aquarium of the Bay is right next to Pier 39 and has a 300-foot see-through tube that you can walk through while watching sharks and other animals swim all around you. There’s also a program called “Aqua Tots” specially designed for 2- to 5-year-old kids who want to learn in interactive style about the animals that live in San Francisco Bay.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is so big it has its own Web site: www.sanfranciscochinatown.com. Unlike the Chinatowns in some other major metropolitan cities, this one is much more than a row of Chinese restaurants. The area boasts the largest number of Chinese residents outside of China today, and it is marked by a spectacular Asian gate that was bestowed on San Francisco in 1969 by the Republic of China itself.
Cultural sites are the big deal here, including the Chinese Historical Society of America and the Pacific Heritage Museum. They may not appeal as much to the kids as the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum at Fisherman’s Wharf, but they’re treasures of multiculturalism. On the lighter side, you can also enjoy the sights of local life, including shop owners bustling at daybreak and games of checkers in Portsmouth Square every afternoon.
No matter what you do, don’t settle for imitation Chinese food. There are some fabulous, authentic restaurants in this section of San Francisco, and there are stores dedicated to helping you take authentic cuisine back home; everything from souvenir woks to specialty teas are on sale.
If you want to get the most bang for your buck, consider buying a Fisherman’s Wharf Pass. It’s $61 for adults and $38 for children ages five to eleven, and it gets you into multiple area attractions plus a city tour and a one-hour cruise around San Francisco Bay. You can review the details at www.wharfpass.com.
Interestingly, if you’re standing on Union Square, you’re standing on the roof of the world’s first underground parking structure. That may be hard to believe when you see all the street performers atop pedestals and the sculptures made of light, but it’s true. One of San Francisco’s main cultural and shopping centers is a lid on a parking garage.
Union Square Park underwent a $25 million renovation and restoration in 2002, when it became a site fit to host the Macy’s Christmas tree each year. The streets that run adjacent to the square are brimming with fine antiques shops, theaters featuring traveling Broadway and off-Broadway shows, and a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
There’s shopping galore all around Union Square, including high-end outlets such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany and Co. Boutique-style stores feature designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, and Armani. Also worthy of note is the Williams-Sonoma flagship store, boasting some 19,000 square feet of merchandise for your home — plus cooking classes if you can’t figure out why you might need a deviled egg tray or a crepe-making machine.
RAINY DAY FUN
The Xanadu Gallery is inside San Francisco’s only Frank Lloyd Wright building. The folk art it showcases is interesting, to be sure, but so is the building, which has a Guggenheim-style two-story spiral staircase. The interior is worth a look, even if folk art isn’t your thing.
Alamo Square Historic District
Alamo Square is a residential neighborhood inside the Western Addition section of the city. This place is about as opposite as you can get from the tourist-friendly hustle and bustle of Fisherman’s Wharf or Union Square. It’s filled with Victorian homes and mansions that are among the city’s most photographed icons.
If you watched the television sitcom Full House, you’ll recognize Alamo Square from the show’s opening credits. Alamo Square Park is the place where the Olsen twins romped with their three “fathers,” and you can do the same with your children — and even your dog, too, if you’ve brought her along on your San Francisco adventure.