San Francisco Tour Downtown and the Northern Waterfront

Downtown and the Northern Waterfront

Aerial photo of Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Northern Waterfront.
Aerial photo of Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Northern Waterfront.

Start your tour at Market and 4th Street; this is easily accessible from BART’s Powell Street Station and many San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni) lines.

Walk south from Market Street on Fourth to Mission. On the Southeast corner of Fourth/Mission is:


Yerba Buena Gardens

On the corner you’ll see the Metreon, a movie, shopping, and restaurant complex. The gardens are located behind the complex (you can go through the building) on Mission Street between Third and Fourth Streets.

Yerba Buena Gardens is an urban oasis surrounded by some of San Francisco’s premier cultural organisations and examples of modern architecture (including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art designed by Mario Botta and the Contemporary Jewish Museum an adaptive reuse by Daniel Libeskind). The Yerba Buena Gardens website has information and links to these organisations.

Mission Bay

After exploring Yerba Buena Gardens, catch the Muni’s #30 or #45 bus south on Fourth Street to the Caltrain Station (you can also walk). Caltrain provides commuter rail service to the San Francisco Peninsula (including San Francisco Airport, Palo Alto, the Silicon Valley, and San Jose). The Caltrain Station is located in the heart of Mission Bay, San Francisco’s former freight rail yard. After many years of planning and controversy in the 1980s and 1990s, the whole area is now being redeveloped into a new mixed-use neighbourhood.

Mission Bay’s main tenant is the world-renowned University of California San Francisco (UCSF). UCSF has located a major medical research facility in the southern part of the site (near 16th Street).

North on the Embarcadero

From the Caltrain Station you can walk, bike, or take the Muni streetcar east on King Street to the Embarcadero. The route takes you through the Mission Bay neighbourhood, past SBC Park (home of the San Francisco Giants) and the small boat harbour. The stadium project was the result of a long community struggle (the first proposal was defeated by voters). The stadium has very limited automobile parking and excellent public transportation and bicycle access.

Turning to continue along the Embarcadero you travel through the South Beach – Rincon Hill neighbourhood. The Delancey Street Foundation buildings are located at 600 Embarcadero. The Foundation operates programs for rehabilitating substance users. Their clients built the whole complex themselves and operate the restaurant located in the building (as one of the Foundation’s training programs).

San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge

Fireworks over the San Francisco Bay Bridge (2004)
Fireworks over the San Francisco Bay Bridge (2004)

A few hundred meters later you can gaze up at the suspension section of the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge. The bridge was open to traffic in 1936 and originally the bottom deck was for electric railways serving the East Bay. A history of San Francisco bridges is available from the Virtual Museum of San Francisco at: Symphonies of Steel: Bay Bridge and Golden Gate by By John Bernard McGloin, S.J.

Next you pass the restored Hills Brothers Coffee Plant (now housing offices, restaurants, and condominiums) and the new Gap Headquarters Building (by architect Cesar Pelli).

Muni F Line

Historic tram from Brighton in San Francisco.
Historic tram from Brighton in San Francisco.

Muni’s “F-Line” provides historic streetcar service from Castro Streets down Market to the Ferry Building, where it turns north along The Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf. Regular Muni fares apply for “F-Line” service.

The historic streetcars are supported by non profit group Market Street Railway. They also offer historic trolley tours and operate the San Francisco Railway Museum and souvenir store on Steuart Street near the Ferry Building.

Ferry Building 

Fresh crab at San Francisco's Ferry Building.
Fresh crab at San Francisco’s Ferry Building.

The Ferry Building was once the heart of a vast ferry network. Today it has been converted to an urban marketplace – visit on a Tuesday or Saturday morning for an unbelievable farmers market or any day for great restaurant food and the highest quality produce.


The Embarcadero Freeway

You have been walking along The Embarcadero, San Francisco’s traditional wharves. In the 1950s the Embarcadero Freeway was constructed; this monstrosity separated the city from its waterfront and led to a general decline in the area.

SF Embarcadero Freeway

Following the Loma Prieta earthquake (October 17, 1989), and with much debate, the city decided to tear down the elevated freeway and replace it with a surface roadway. The project transformed San Francisco. When you look at the area today it’s hard to imagine that anyone could have argued to rebuild the freeway. More about the removing freeways in San Francisco on my transportation page.

Northern Waterfront to Fisherman’s Wharf

Walking north on The Embarcadero from the Ferry Building you pass the Embarcadero Center, Golden Gateway Condominiums on your left. On your right you’ll see Pier 5 where you can walk out on the pier into the Bay, turn back for great views of the city skyline.

As you continue walking along The Embarcadero you’ll see Telegraph Hill with Coit Tower. See the North Beach – Chinatown – Union Square Tour for more information on Coit Tower.


The Exploratorium is a fantastic hands-on science museum located on Pier 15. It was one of the first hands-on science museums in the world and is a truly wonderful experience for all ages.

Pier 23 Cafe

The Pier 23 Cafe is an institution on the northern waterfront. Great food and drinks, wonderful place to sit outdoors on a nice day. I celebrated one of my birthdays here many years ago.

Pier 39

Sea Lions at Pier 39 San Francisco
Sea Lions at Pier 39.

Continuing north on The Embarcadero you will reach Pier 39 – a shopping mall built on an old pier in 1978. The San Francisco Chronicle’s late Pulitzer Prize winning architectural critic, Allen Temko, started his review of Pier 39 with the words “Corn. Kitsch. Schlock. Honky-tonk. Dreck. Schmaltz. Merde.” The review sparked a lawsuit from Pier 39’s architect. Today Pier 39 is especially famous for the sea lions that took up residency there in 1989.

The question of how to re-use San Francisco’s finger piers is a huge urban planning problem. While Pier 39’s retail approach is frowned upon by many, it provides enough income to pay for rehabilitating the pier and supporting public access. Many other San Francisco finger piers are in danger of crumbling into the San Francisco Bay. The Port of San Francisco is trying to find ways to raise the money to maintain their historic piers, but rehabilitation costs are high and the legally acceptable uses are limited. This is an issue that you can probably read about in the local papers when you visit.

Fisherman’s Wharf

Continue walking west into Fisherman’s Wharf, you will pass ferry docks (you can catch a ferry to Alcatraz here, but make reservations early, the trips sell-out days in advance). Alcatraz, once a federal prison for notorious criminals, is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA).

View of Maritime Park in San Francisco from Hyde Street on Russian Hill.
View of Maritime Park in San Francisco from Hyde Street on Russian Hill.

Next you pass through the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf, the restaurants offering crab and seafood, and the boat harbour. A bit further on is the Cannery, originally a fish cannery, now restaurants and gift shops.

Past the Cannery is the San Francisco Maritime Park, also part of the GGNRA, with exhibits of historical ships.

At this point in our tour Victorian Park is on your left. Here you can catch the Powell-Hyde Street Cable Car to Union Square or continue walking to the Aquatic Park and Ghirardelli Square. Further west is Fort Mason, Crissy Field, and the Golden Gate Bridge (see my Ocean Beach Presidio Marina tour).

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