Do you have to see San Francisco when visiting Northern California? Do you need to see the Golden Gate Bridge when in San Francisco? In our opinion, you probably should. We are no great fans of the city itself, but a trip to northern California is not complete without saying hi to the sea lions at Pier 39.
Arriving at Embarcadero
Talking the bus from Livermore to Pleasanton BART station took a bit longer than we first had anticipated. Luckily we didn’t have to wait long before the train left to bring us to San Francisco. We had decided to get off at the stop Embarcadero. Our reason? Well, we looked at the map and it seemed like a good spot with easy access to the waterfront.
Embarcadero is the eastern waterfront in San Francisco along the San Francisco Bay. The area of Embarcadero actually covers the famous tourist attractions of Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf.
We had not really planned anything for our visit. We had already decided that we would not be visiting Alcatraz. As we had limited time we still wanted to enjoy both the views and the sunshine in the city. So, after a short lunch stop, we began our walk along the many piers.
Sea Lions at Pier 39
To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect of Pier 39 before our visit. More than anything, I thought it’d be a giant tourist trap. Well, this turned out to be mostly true. But at the same time, it still had some charm.
Filled with shops and restaurants, Pier 39 looks more like a small Tivoli. It is first when the smell of fish hits you that you remember that there is a bigger attraction than the man juggling at center stage. Follow the smell and you will soon see them – the many sea lions that call Pier 39 their home.
The sea lions started to haul out on the docs at Pier 39 in September of 1989. This was prior to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that has been suggested as the reason for the sea lions to move to the docks. The sea lions had previously mostly been seen at Seal Rock, a group of rock formations in western San Francisco in the Pacific Ocean.
The animal itself is quite spectacular to see, especially when in the water. Seeing them pile up on the docks was, let say it, less so. The best description is a pile of meat smelling like fish. Sea lions really are the animals that go from gracious in the water to clumsy on land. For us, this was our first encounter with the famous inhabitants of San Francisco, but far from the last.
Our walk from Embarcadero BART station did not only take us by Pier 39. It also took us to Fisherman’s Wharf. This neighborhood is one of the more famous tourist attractions in the city and engulfs Pier 39 together with several other sites. The World War II ships, submarine USS Pampanito and the Liberty class SS Jeremiah O’Brien, can be found at Pier 45 and that is just a few of the historical ships. Except for that, the streets are filled with restaurants and souvenir shops.
Including Pier 39, this is probably the most touristy area we came across during our two weeks in North America. It was pleasant to walk through, but we were also happy to feel the wind catching up when leaving Fisherman’s Wharf and walking over the hill at the Great Meadow Park and Fort Mason.
Marina District and Crissy Fields
At this point, we had probably only reached halfway on our walk. We were entering the Marina District and the view of the Golden Gate bridge was getting clearer by the minute. Large yachts were berthed in the protected harbors, large cargo ships passed by Alcatraz Island and the wind kept getting stronger. That is one thing about San Francisco, it is windy.
During the walk towards the Golden Gate Bridge, the built-up areas of San Francisco are replaced by the fields of Crissy Field. Crissy Field is a former U.S. Army airfield that is nowadays a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The airfield was closed in 1974 and is now a park with long sandy beaches and a promenade leading towards the Golden Gate Bridge. This is the promenade that we were following, with a stop from time to time to go out on the beach and enjoy the view.
The Golden Gate Bridge
The walk from Embarcadero station to the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center is at least 9 kilometers. That is without the required detours. Estimated to take about two hours, it will take much longer than that once you get going, at least if it is your first time.
The main attraction is, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge. Golden Gate is the strait that connects the San Francisco Bay with the Pacific Ocean. So, logically, the Golden Gate Bridge is the bridge spanning over the strait. The bridge was built between 1933 and 1937. It is 2.7 kilometers long and the daily traffic is estimated to be around 110.000 vehicles.
In our opinion, this really is the main sight of San Francisco. It is an engineering marvel that is stunning to see. The nature around it and the bridge create a scenery that few places can match.
Dinner at Pier 39
After walking around the San Francisco side of the bridge to enjoy the view as well as to get a first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean we were soon on a bus back towards Fisherman’s Wharf. At that time we were more than happy that we did not need to walk back.
Our one and only day in San Francisco was finalized with a dinner at Pier 39. Despite being a tourist trap, it was a nice dinner experience with some seafood pasta, a bit of wine, and a great view out over the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the sea lions grunting in the background.
We will continue our trip, read more about our adventure in North America here >>