There’s a place in San Francisco where you can experience a grand sampler of the city’s best activities: Pier 39. From this spectacular waterfront location, you can sail the bay, indulge in world-famous cuisine, get up close and personal with sea life, visit Alcatraz, shop for art and souvenirs, delight in a San Francisco Bay sunset, and much, much more.
Pier 39 is a must-see destination whether you have an afternoon or a week in the “City by the Bay.” The two-level, 45-acre bayfront complex is home to California Sea Lions hangout on K-Dock, a marina, a 5-acre waterfront park, an aquarium, a sea lion center, 13 full-service eateries, 90 shops, and S.F. Bay tour boats. You can enjoy wine tasting, a cocktail, a spa, or one of several attractions for adventure and learning. There are loads more to do.
I was a guest for a day at Pier 39. That’s why I suggest these experiences.
Spending The Day On Pier 39
1. Morning Walk On The Docks
Before the crowds arrive, take a walk around the outside of Pier 39, Level 1. Early morning will be quiet. It’s a good time to take your camera and save some memories of San Francisco Bay.
2. Breakfast On Pier 39
Eagle Café has served breakfast to locals since 1928. The eatery’s history is filled with stories of sailors, longshoremen, and waterfront locals. Inside the café on Level 2, you’ll find photos and memorabilia of the almost 100 years of feeding the Embarcadero.
Traditional American breakfast favorites are on hand, but Eagle Café is known for its pancakes, French toast, and Benedicts. The crab Benedict is my favorite unforgettable San Francisco breakfast. The Eagle has a full bar and features mimosas and Bloody Marys on the breakfast menu.
3. Sea Lions
After breakfast, head down to Level 1 and walk to K-Dock on the northwest side of Pier 39. This is the famous hangout for California Sea Lions. They arrived here shortly after the October 17, 1989, Loma Preta earthquake. Have your camera handy; these beautiful creatures are delightful to watch as they jockey for position and socialize.
4. Beverage Break
Time to take a break at Biscoff Coffee Corner. Relax with a hot or iced coffee or tea. Lattes, espressos, smoothies, and baked goods make this a perfect R & R before you must “escape from Alcatraz.”
5. Escape The Rock
Escape The Rock is an Alcatraz-themed escape room. In this family-friendly adventure, you may be playing with strangers or just your group, depending on size. Everyone works together, figuring out the clues that will allow you to escape your cell and secret rooms by solving clues. This adventure is not physically demanding and last about 30 minutes.
Head to Wipeout Bar & Grill for lunch. With surf music rocking, this casual, family-friendly restaurant’s surfing theme is the perfect backdrop for seafood, pizzas, salads, and bowls. The full bar has it all — spirits, wine, and beer. Indoor seating has a grand bay view. Outside seating by the fireplace is ideal for people-watching.
Pro Tip: During my last visit, there were some budget-friendly prices for California wine by the bottle.
Aquarium of the Bay has 20,000 sea-dwelling creatures to greet you. The Smithsonian Affiliate is also accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. Living San Francisco Bay habitats house sharks, rays, octopuses, jellyfish, schooling fish, otters, shellfish, and many others. You can immerse yourself in the aquarium by walking through 300 feet of acrylic tunnels surrounded by sharks, bay rays, anchovies, and skates.
Walking through the aquarium at the average pace will take around 90 minutes. Tickets are available in advance, with special bundles for families and groups.
Pro Tip: To save 40 percent on your tickets, get a San Francisco CityPASS. It includes Aquarium of the Bay admission.
8. Quick Snack
It’s time to boost your energy level with a stop at Mrs. Fields. The Cookies and Cream Chillers are just what you need for a lift. Any two of Mrs. Fields’ cookies are added to a shake. I believe the mocha shake with peanut butter and triple chocolate cookies is ideal for your shopping venture.
9. Find The Perfect Hoodie
S.F. City Wear is on Level 1. If you are from a warm climate, by now, you may be looking for another layer of clothing. S.F. City Wear is a treasure-house of sweatshirts, T-shirts, jackets, and hats that will proudly show your love of San Francisco.
If you are looking for a San Francisco Giants (or other pro sports team) hoodie or hat, try LIDS on Levels 1 and 2. They are purveyors of licensed NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and college clothing and accessories.
10. Have A Pier 39 Happy Hour
Luau Lounge is your spot for R & R after a shopping expedition. And what better drink to have than the San Francisco classic, the Mai Tai?
11. Sunset Cruise
Adventure Cat is headquartered at Pier 39. Take one of the bay cruises on a catamaran. I love the sunset cruise. It’s incredibly photogenic during winter when sunsets are inclined to have more red and gold colors.
Adventure Cat has a spotless safety record. Their captains and crew are well-trained and experienced. In addition, they are familiar with the bay and point out the best sights and photo ops, as well as talk about S.F. Bay wildlife and history.
The catamarans have comfortable inside seating or outside standing. A weather-proof jacket is supplied. Your ticket includes about 90 minutes of sailing time and a “welcome aboard” drink.
12. Progressive Dinner On Pier 39
With 13 full-service restaurants, choosing just one for dinner can be challenging. So don’t — instead, have a progressive dinner. What is that, you ask? You move on to a new eatery for each course as you progress through your meal. With 13 restaurants nearby, Pier 39 is made for this culinary adventure. Here is my favorite progressive dinner itinerary and menu.
Cocktails And Appetizer
Start your dinner at the Crab House. The World-Famous Dungeness Killer Crab®, roasted in the Crab House secret garlic sauce, is a delicious way to begin your San Francisco progressive dinner. You can order a whole crab, then crack and pick your sumptuous crabmeat. Another great appetizer is one of the Sizzling Iron Skillets. They come with mussels, shrimp, crab, veggies, or various combos of each.
With crab, I like sparkling wine — prosecco or champagne is perfect. However, if you prefer a still wine or even beer, your server can guide you for a tasty pairing.
The Main Event
Swiss Louis Italian and Seafood Restaurant have been serving Italian delights to San Franciscans since 1936. Located in North Beach for 42 years, the restaurant moved to Pier 39 in 1978. Swiss Louis’ menu serves fresh seafood with Italian classics.
For a California treat, I suggest baked salmon. It is cooked in a chile sauce and served with sauteed veggies. If you’d like to add a salad, I recommend a Caesar as the perfect companion. A California pinot noir will be the perfect note for your salmon and Ceasar. Swiss Louis has several on their wine list available by glass or bottle.
Dessert And Nightcap
Our last stop for the day is Hard Rock Café for dessert and a nightcap. This iconic American restaurant pays tribute to rock-n-roll with rock memorabilia décor everywhere. San Francisco has been home to some of America’s legendary rock-n-roll bands. SF rockers such as The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Journey, and Metallica are well-represented. The recorded and live performance of rock music is bound to play one of your favorites from a SF group.
Enjoy a hot fudge brownie paired with an espresso martini perfectly tops off your progressive dinner. After your dessert, take a stroll through the gift shop for San Francisco rock memorabilia to take home.
Where To Sleep
13. If You Enjoy A Small Hotel
For a small European-style boutique hotel, I highly recommend the Cornell Hotel de France. Built in 1910, the hotel has been owned and operated by the Lambert family for 50 years. The 3-star hotel is a hidden gem in San Francisco and one I personally adore.
Arriving at Hotel de France is like stepping through a portal into the French countryside. Calm, quiet surroundings erase the noise and bustle of the city. Each room features unique but traditional décor. Each hallway is adorned with fine art prints of one artist. As a Chagall fan, I was happy to see his work on the way to my two-room suite.
Located at Bush and Powel Streets, you are steps from the Powel Street Cable Car line and two blocks from Union Square. Breakfast is served for guests, and the gift shop has a delightful selection of champagne and chocolate.
14. If You Enjoy A Large Hotel
For a larger city hotel stay, I suggest the Omni San Francisco Hotel. In the heart of the financial district, the Omni has much to recommend as your base camp when exploring San Francisco. Number one is location. On the corner of California and Montgomery, you are no more than 2 miles from San Francisco’s most popular destinations. Pier 39 is 1.5-miles from the hotel.
The hotel is “understated modern” and beautifully appointed. Guest rooms are spacious, comfortable, and spotless. A restaurant and bar serve California cuisine and libations. In addition, the hotel has a business center where you can work when needed.
Omni has amenities you’ll love, but their best assets are the staff. We were treated like family from our first visit. There were always friendly faces and warm greetings. We had lots of help getting the right bus for our day’s adventures. The cocktail server went out of her way to help us celebrate Kevin’s birthday. The crew is the best.
Why Pier 39?
Because you can immerse yourself in some of San Francisco’s most popular experiences in one place and in one day.