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Fisherman’s Wharf: Sightseeing among the crab pots

Learn about the history and attractions you’ll find at one of San Francisco’s most distinctive neighborhoods.

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At Fisherman’s Wharf, the crab pots are out in force most times of year, but especially during Dungeness crab season (mid November through mid-June), when tasty, fresh crab are available in abundance.

First-time visitors see the preponderance of shops, crowds, street performers and crab stands along Jefferson St. and wonder where are the fishing boats? Does the fishing industry still exist in San Francisco?

Yes, indeed, says Alessandro Baccari, Fisherman’s Wharf historian. Although modern day fishermen don’t remain in one port but cruise up and down the coast following the best catches, it’s estimated that approximately 1,000 fishermen work out of Fisherman’s Wharf within the course of a year. More than 350 boats are moored in the inner and outer harbors.

"The fishing industry and the tourism industry co-exist very well together," says Baccari. "You have professional fishermen, sports fishermen, wholesalers, marine suppliers, and boat repair companies working on the same wharves and streets as 11.7 million visitors who come for the food, shopping and the attractions. I give talks on this subject all over the world."

Because of the way the piers and buildings are laid out, fishing boats are not readily visible to pedestrians except for a small stretch of water along Jefferson St. Only when you walk through an alley near Jones St. to the lagoon by Scoma’s Restaurant do you see boats with names like Carrie, Checha, Linda Noelle, and Pavo Grande, bobbing in the water. There, fishermen unload the crab pots full of delicious Dungeness. Fat seagulls perch on railings, looking for handouts. And at night, the piers glow with the turn-of-the-century-style lamps.

There is no "best time" to watch the fishing operations. The boats leave for the open ocean at all hours, depending on the type of fish they are catching. Many leave before sunrise and return before noon in order to deliver their fresh catch to restaurants in time for lunch. Squid, sand dabs, sole, sea bass, cod, mackerel and halibut are caught year round. Crab, salmon, shrimp, abalone and ocean perch are seasonal.

In the early years of the 20th century, the fishermen were predominantly Italian immigrants, sailing their narrow feluccas with triangular sails, into the open ocean. Today, the fishermen are of many races and nationalities and their Fishermen’s & Seamen’s Chapel, located at the end of one pier, holds services in different faiths. Nevertheless, the Italian language and customs prevail. A Catholic mass is held at the chapel every Sunday at 10 a.m. On the first weekend of October, the Blessing of the Fishing Fleet, or, La Madonna del Lume, takes place. Two hundred families, some of who have lost family members at sea, participate in the procession in honor of the patroness of fishermen. Then there is the loud and joyful Italian language heard on the street, spoken by crab stand chefs, waiters, and passers-by.

A number of restaurants on Fisherman’s Wharf trace their history to the 1920s when fish stalls were opened to provide lunchtime provisions to laborers working on the docks.

Nunzio Alioto, an immigrant from Sicily, was one such entrepreneur. After seeing the demand grow for his steamed crab, shrimp and crab cocktails, he built a combination fish stand and seafood bar in 1932, the first on Fisherman’s Wharf. Six years later, he opened a restaurant. Today, Alioto’s is run by grandsons Nunzio and Joe Alioto with the help of many members of the family. It combines the traditional look of a historic restaurant with modern amenities, including an open pantry displaying the fresh catch of the day. The menu lists traditional dishes for which the restaurant is famous, as well as Sicilian specialties made from family recipes. On the stairwell are old photos from their early years.

Other historic restaurants which are still operated by family members include Fishermen’s Grotto and Pompei’s Grotto. The "new" restaurants, which opened in the 50s and 60s, have also impacted the dining scene. Scoma’s, next to the fishing boats, has a loyal San Francisco following. More than 100 restaurants of all sizes serve diners in this area.

Besides Fisherman’s Wharf’s famous fresh cracked crab, available during the Dungeness crab season from the Saturday preceding the second Tuesday in the month of November until June 30 (then imported from other areas), sourdough bread is also prevalent. Louis Boudin and his son, Isidore, created the original recipe when they arrived in San Francisco during the Gold Rush.

Having worked as an apprentice baker in France, Isidore discovered how to combine French baking techniques with the sourdough tradition brought north from Mexico. Their sourdough French bread was an instant hit. When cake yeast was developed in 1868, the father and son decided not to tinker with success. They continued using the mother dough from a previous baking to rise and "sour" the dough at its own pace. The practice continues to this day. You can watch bread bake from start to finish or visit the sourdough museum at Bistro Boudin at 160 Jefferson St., or order sandwiches, soups, chili and salads served with the sourdough bread at the cafe.

Fisherman’s Wharf is actually a mile in length, starting at Aquatic Park and ending at Pier 39. Along with its variety of restaurants, the central part appeals to families because of its Wax Museum, Guinness Museum of World Records, and Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum. Hornblower runs tour boats around Alcatraz from Pier 33, while Red and White runs tours to the Golden Gate Bridge, both popular family tours.

Two shopping areas, The Anchorage and The Cannery, are located in the central area. Each is filled with unique stores, selling boutique items not available elsewhere.

Few visitors realize that the area known as Fisherman’s Wharf extends to Aquatic Park, a popular place where residents have always loved to picnic, promenade, or play bocce ball. The Maritime Museum, once the park’s palatial bathhouse, exhibits memorabilia from the West Coast’s seafaring days and includes giant masts, painted figureheads, and detailed ship models. The building itself resembles a cruise ship, and you might take a break from your explorations by sitting on the outside deck, listening to the waves break on shore.

Rising on a hill across the street are the brick buildings of Ghirardelli Square, once a chocolate factory. Historical plaques tell the history of Domingo Ghirardelli who came to California to prospect gold but ended up becoming the king of chocolate. The Chocolate Manufactory & Soda Fountain still makes chocolate with the original old fashioned machines, and few people can resist ordering a luscious ice cream sundae with chocolate on top or a cup of hot chocolate.

Ghirardelli Square is also filled with shops, selling everything from apparel to folk art. With their hilltop location, the restaurants are known for their million dollar views as well as their spectacular cuisine. Riding a cable car is a popular option after a delicious meal and judging by the lines, many people come up with the same idea. The turnaround for the Powell-Hyde Cable Car is located in Victorian Park across the street from Ghirardelli Square.

Back on the bay is Hyde Street Pier, the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park located on the water and exhibiting historic ships from the past. You can go aboard the Eureka, one of the last auto ferries on the bay, or the schooner, the C.A. Thayer that transported lumber between 1895 and 1912. There is even an Italian felucca, almost unseen because of its small size. Queen of the pier is the Balclutha with its square-rigged masts. Built in 1887, the ship carried coal regularly around Cape Horn to San Francisco before becoming a lumber ship and then a transporter of men and supplies to Alaska. She was also the star of the 1930s movie, "Mutiny on the Bounty."

The views of the bay, the wharf, Golden Gate Bridge and the city from the far end of Hyde Street Pier are magnificent. On the far east end of Fisherman’s Wharf are the newest additions to the wharf area. Located here are the Blue & Gold Fleet, which cruises to various ports around the bay and San Francisco Seaplane Tours, which offer 30-minute flight-seeing tours. Plus, there are pedi-cabs, motorized cable cars, and horse-drawn carriages all available for rides.

Finally there’s Pier 39, a shopping and entertainment complex that has been popular with visitors since it was reincarnated into its present form almost 20 years ago. At the entrance is the Aquarium of the Bay, a $40 million aquarium, where you can view eyeball to eyeball the marine life in San Francisco Bay. Clear acrylic tunnels transport you through gigantic fish tanks to see thousands of fish, such as rays, sharks, and eels, swim inches away.

If you enjoy marine life, don’t miss visiting the large colony of sea lions that have made their home on floating platforms west of Pier 39. Fat, lazy, and noisy, the sea lions never fail to entertain.

But then, serendipitous entertainment is what Fisherman’s Wharf is all about. Street performers are found everywhere, on the streets, at the shopping centers, or on the piers. Some are worth watching, others not, depending on your taste. A rap singer might compose a rap song about you as you walk by, or a human mannequin may stand frozen in one position, hoping you will toss a coin into his hat. A few of the street performers have even become highly paid entertainers on television.

The hotels in the area have some of the highest occupancy rates in the city. Many of the major chains have located hotels here, including Holiday Inn, Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, Sheraton and Travelodge. Plus there are smaller sized accommodations, such as the Tuscan Inn and Argonaut Hotel.

The F-Line conveniently transports visitors on historic trolleys along the waterfront from the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf through downtown.