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San Franciscans are quick to write off Fisherman’s Wharf as a ridiculously crowded tourist trap further defiled by corny “museums,” mediocre chain restaurants, and cheap T-shirt and souvenir shops. While there’s some truth in this, there are also some legitimate gems hidden here that even locals will love—if they know where to look. From fresh seafood stands and sourdough bread bowls to sunset cruises and even a secret tiki bar, there’s a reason Fisherman’s Wharf is San Francisco’s top tourist attraction, drawing millions of visitors each year. If you take the time to look beyond the obvious, you’ll see there’s so much more to this waterfront attraction than meets the eye.

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Photo courtesy of Mai Pham

The food

There are tourist-trap restaurants in Fisherman’s Wharf, to be sure. But look beyond the Applebee’s and Bubba Gump, and you’ll find plenty of local treasures to savor: Think that classic mug of Irish coffee at The Buena Vista, or the bowl of knock-your-socks off clam chowder from the tiny stall outside of Tarantino’s. Scoma’s still reigns when it comes to fresh seafood with a view, especially thanks to its fish receiving station, which allows patrons to witness fresh fish and seafood being unloaded as it comes in from the docks. And 18 years after the James Beard Foundation anointed it as America’s Best New Restaurant, Gary Danko’s eponymous one-star Michelin tasting menu in Fisherman’s Wharf still ranks among San Francisco’s finest.

Photo courtesy of Mai Pham

The museums

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA) and de Young museum are definitely world class, but what the less high-brow museums in Fisherman’s Wharf offer are insights into local history. No where else in the world will you find as comprehensive a collection of mechanical games as at the Musée Mécanique. This coin-operated arcade with free entry offers more than 300 games dating back to the early 1900s; walking through it is akin to taking a time machine back to another era. Meanwhile, just beyond the Musée at Pier 45, another must-see is the SS Jeremiah O’Brien World War II Liberty, a living museum that provides a fascinating look into the lives of World War II sailors. You can also pay respects to the lives lost in battle by taking the self-guided audio tour of the USS Pampanito World War II submarine, another World War II vessel that serves both as a museum and a silent memorial. A mere $15 will also get you aboard the three historic vessels moored at Hyde Park Pier.

The views and the sea lions

While the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge might be from Fort Point or Crissy Field, Fisherman’s Wharf boasts unobstructed panoramas of all the bay-side sites: Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Angel Island and the Bay Bridge. Sightings of the lovable sea lion colonies off of Pier 39 k-dock, not to mention the whiff of salty tang that kisses your skin along the waterfront, are among some of the simpler pleasures of life in the city.

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Photo courtesy of Mai Pham

The bay cruises

While a trip to Alcatraz might be something you do just once or twice, the thrill of a bay cruise is something to enjoy repeatedly. Whether you choose a morning cruise, Golden Gate cruise or sunset cruise (arguably the best), seeing the city from the Bay is something to remember. The San Francisco Sailing Company’s sunset cruise, which comes with choice of refreshment and takes you underneath the Golden Gate Bridge (weather permitting) and around Alcatraz, is a particularly noteworthy experience. The 30-minute ride on the Sausalito Ferry, ringing in at $12.50 per person, is also an incredible bargain.

Quirky local finds

Even among the throngs of selfie-stick wielding tourists at Pier 39, hidden gems like the Musical Stairs—a stairwell painted like a piano keyboard—make Fisherman’s Wharf a fun spot to visit. Did you know that the Wharf is also home to a tiki bar with spectacular bay-side views? It might take a little bit of off-the-path navigation, but look for it and you will find one of San Francisco’s best kept secrets: The Luau Lounge, where colorful leis, frozen piña coladas, and umbrella-topped rum cocktails easily transport you to a tropical island paradise. Then there’s the attraction known as The San Francisco Dungeon. Part theater, part haunted house, part carnival ride, part history lesson, it’s one of those things that every San Franciscan should experience at least once.

Photo courtesy of Argonaut Hotel

The hotels

Perched atop Nob Hill, The Fairmont might be the grand dame of San Francisco hotels, but for the quintessential San Franciscan stay-cation, the pleasures of Fisherman’s Wharf should not be overlooked. Located at the corner of Jefferson and Hyde just across from one of the city’s main cable car stops, The Argonaut Hotel’s location and amenities make it an ideal pied-a-terre for a quick getaway in The Golden City. Everything—restaurants, shops, grocery stores, bars, sights and attractions—are within walking distance from the hotel, so no need for a car. To venture further afield, the hotel offers a limited number of complimentary bike rentals in conjunction with Blazing Saddles bike shop for biking the bridge or visiting the Mission Building. The hotel’s newly renovated Blue Mermaid Restaurant also boasts a cool patio, as well as one of the best chowder bowls and fish and chips in the city. Last but not least is the nautically themed decor that runs throughout the hotel—providing photo ops aplenty for that perfect Instagram moment.

Tagged: California, San Francisco

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