Scintillating scents of hot popcorn, salt-water taffy, ice cream, and pretzels combine with the reek of pitch. An organ grinds mechanically in the background while seal performers bark. Jugglers and acrobats defy gravity and Houdini's magic deceives your eyes, while a mysterious mustached man beckons you into a mirrored maze.
Is it Coney Island in the 1890s?
No, it's Pier 39 in San Francisco, today. Here, something unusual occurs, the door between now and then magically disappears, and visitors step into a place where the past and the present are inextricably entwined.
"Hurry, hurry, hurry! Step right up and find your way through Magowan's Infinite Mirror Maze" are the first sounds that send you back in time. But look carefully: the mirror maze, with an entrance fee as refreshing as its throwback to simpler days, puts a modern twist on the old time amusement. Fluorescent lights, Gothic architecture and a special design bring the classic thrill into the 21st century. Other attractions that put a new spin on old amusements include the high-speed Rocket Boat bay tour and a bungee harness ride called Frequent Flyer that turns anyone into a trapeze artist. Oh, yes, and the past-evoking organ music? That's from a genuine Victorian-era carousel, repainted in contemporary splendor.
The pier is also the launch point for cruises to Alcatraz, Angel Island, Marin County, and tours of the bay. Should you be looking to arrive in San Francisco the old, old fashioned way, there is a marina for private docking. Charters for everything from fishing boats to catamarans can be arranged here too. And should you decide to traverse the Golden Gate Bridge in the favorite vehicle of the Victorians, you can rent a bicycle. Just remember that both the Bay and the bridge get crowded in the summer and can be shrouded with fog on any day, whatever the season. If you do go touring without a guide by sea or by bicycle, check weather conditions and have the proper equipment.
The pier's main attraction, however, is the California sea lions who, of their own accord, have made the pier their home since 1989. While they may sound like something from an old fashioned circus, Pier 39's sea lions perform a show devised solely by nature. Watching the untethered sea lions bask, bark and cavort in what they have made their natural habitat is a rare sight anywhere. The performances of jugglers, fire-eaters and musicians on the pier may not be as flavorful, but are equally free, and add to the past- meets-present ambiance.
Houdini, meanwhile, roams the pier in spirit. One of a number of distinctive shops which might alone merit a trip to Pier 39, Houdini's magic shop keeps the magician king's magic alive with its professional magicians that perform tricks, and reveal those tricks to aspiring magicians (who purchase the tricks). Other one-of-a-kind stores include Paper Palace, which renders images in the lost art of intricate Victorian paper cutting, Alpaca Fashion Trends that offers sweaters for all ages from the llama-like creature's fur, and antiquities specializing in rare rock music paraphernalia. Should you want to pick up your San Francisco souvenir here, plenty of stores abound, offering their take on the proper San Francisco mug, t-shirt, or key chain.
When you get hungry, no need to harpoon a seal (which is illegal anyway), because plenty of restaurants and eateries are ready to oblige. Ice cream, candy, pretzels, doughnuts, sandwiches and pizza offer great taste escapes, and a variety of restaurants stand at attention. In fact, one-hour parking is free at the pier with daytime-restaurant validation, and two hours for evening dining. While some restaurants such as Forbes, the world's only floating restaurant, do serve truly fine food, a number of restaurants on the pier are over-priced with mediocre food and offer only the view out the window as a recommendation. So, unless you are determined to watch the sea lions while you dine, you may do better saving your appetite for a place like Grotto Number 9, or any one of San Francisco's fresh crab markets near the pier. Further, you can park for cheaper or free elsewhere (see parking tips below) without validation.
Two ATMs are conveniently located on the pier for all that the sea lions and view don't offer.
- Open year round, the pier can be visited around the clock. Shop, restaurant, and attraction hours, however, vary. Most run together on the same schedule, changed yearly each season.
- Spring and summer are the only seasons for certain attractions and are usually the best time to go, in general. Early spring evenings are the least crowded.
- Free. Boat rides and other attractions each have separate prices. See the website below for more information.
- Location: Beach Street & The Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA
- Mailing address: PIER 39, P.O. Box 193730 San Francisco, CA 94119-3730
- Phone: 415-981-PIER
- Website: www.pier39.com
- Metro and Parking:
- Pier 39 Garage offers 24-hour parking to vehicles shorter than six foot eight. One hour is free with validation from a restaurant at lunch, and two hours with validation from a restaurant at night. Fisherman's Warf parking lot is less than one block away. Both charge heavily for their services. Metered street parking is available above Hyde Park, but is very difficult to find and can be dangerous to maneuver into.
- Secret Parking tips: Parking is usually cheaper by the Musee Mechanique behind the wharf if you are willing to walk six blocks. Church goers visiting the Mariner's Church on Sunday for mass may be able to park in the free spaces by the church. Avoid using those spaces if you are not a church visitor, or your car will be towed. Free parking is occasionally available on Van Ness where it crosses Beach Street, approximately 10 blocks from the pier.
- Public Transportation: If you don't want to walk 10 blocks or pay parking fees (usually starting around $6 an hour up to $30 maximum) the Powell/Mason line streetcar (Trolley, Cable Car)lets off on Bay street at Fisherman's Wharf, approximately four blocks from Pier 39. The BART drops riders off several blocks from the Pier at the Embarcadero. Take Muni F, 10 to BART Embarcadero.
- For more information, see: www.pier39.com/LocateUs/publictransportation