SAN FRANCISCO—The official “number” of this city seems to be 49: from their football team, the 49’rs, to residents claiming the city is “49 square miles, surrounded by reality”, and, of course, the famous Gold Rush that happened here in 1849.

It’s the Rush that put this city on the map, but it has continued to grow and flourish as one of America’s most popular tourist attractions.

San Francisco is known worldwide for great seafood, unbeatable shopping and terrific seaside views. For visitors looking to maximize their time, all three of these attractions culminate on Pier 39.

I travelled to San Francisco with my two daughters, aged 19 and 12, and found to my relief and surprise that Pier 39 offers up something for all ages.

We started our visit where perhaps some wouldn’t: with the RocketBoat. Billed as a “roller coaster ride on water,” complete with a heavy-metal soundtrack, this rock-’em-soak-’em ride started our tour with a bang — if not a need for a towel. It combines amazing views of the city with a thrill ride.

Heading for more sedate waters, we grabbed a warm, soft, salted pretzel from a street vendor and walked down the pier to the boutique-like Aquarium on the Bay.

There are 20,000 sea creatures in the aquarium, and a petting pool that lets visitors pat a shark, rays and sea stars. Floating iridescent jellyfish were beautiful and mesmerizing in their long tubular tanks. A walk through the 90 metres of tunnels, with fish swimming all around, the crystal clear walls punctuated by the seemingly suctioned-on starfish, is both calming and exciting.

Across the bay, Alcatraz Prison sits as a reminder of the days it housed many of America’s most infamous criminals: Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and, of course, Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz.”

The Alcatraz Gift Shop on Pier 39 features clothing, household items and souvenirs in a classic black-and-white striped motif — even a baby’s sleeper. The “Alcatraz Swimming Team” t-shirts were a big hit.

The 110 shops on the Pier are full of colour. We found a fun way to pick out our next stop by riding on the beautiful and imposing two-storey-tall San Francisco Carousel. Hand-crafted in Italy, 32 animals carry passengers past depictions of famous scenes and settings in San Francisco, lit by 1,800 LED lights, while listening to traditional roundabout organ music.

Stepping down from our lofty horses, we continued our shopping tour, including stops at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company Gift Shop, Lefty’s (a shop featuring products for our left-handed friends), the surprisingly packed San Francisco Sock Market (yes, all socks!), Puppets on the Pier, and The Perfect Purse.

There’s no admission fee to the Pier, and eating at one of the restaurants will entitle you to some free parking. It is also easily accessible by public transit, including the historic F-Line street car, or bus numbers 8x, 39 or 47. The Blue & Gold Fleet Ferry Service goes to and from Alameda/Oakland, Vallejo, Sausalito and Tiburon, and the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) also travels to Pier 39.

As we left the Pier, loaded with shopping bags and substantially fuller stomachs and clearer minds, we stopped to watch a street performer entertain a highly appreciative audience.

“Well, this is a cool place,” said my 12-year-old, as her older sister combed through her bag, admiring the day’s purchases.


Kathy Buckworth is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

This article first appeared in Toronto Star and can be found at this link: usa_travel_take_a_long_walk_on_pier_39_in_san_francisco.html

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