Home   Cruise, Port and Shore Excursion Reviews   Features   Forums   News   Humor  Quizzes   Links

Cruise Port Review
San Francisco

by Alan Walker

San Francisco

San Francisco is one of the world's great cruiseports: a dramatic arrival through the two-mile strait of Golden Gate, under the legendary Golden Gate bridge past the parks, forts and maritime centers on the south side of San Francisco Bay, in front of the world famous tourist sights of Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39, and ending at Pier 35 - just a stone's throw from many of the major tourist attractions of San Francisco. The cruise ship arrival or departure at or from San Francisco contrasts sharply with the experience at its big neighbor to the south, Los Angeles, where the cruise ship terminal at San Pedro has to be described as "ho-hum", and miles from anywhere interesting.

Of course, everybody knows that San Francisco is a great city to visit - whether by cruise ship or otherwise, and it's a wonder that San Francisco is not a more common port itinerary. Geography and legislation impede San Francisco from becoming a major cruiseport. For the Mexican Riviera and Panama Canal itineraries, Los Angeles is more conveniently located further south; for the Alaska season, Vancouver or Anchorage are the convenient departure points. Even on the repositioning cruises where the Caribbean ships move to Alaska, it is not possible for a cruise ship leaving Los Angeles to stop at San Francisco because of the Passenger Services Act (often referred to as the "Jones Act"). As a result, San Francisco only sees the odd repositioning cruise that does not stop in Los Angeles, or the 10/11 day round trip Alaska cruises which a few ships, such as the Sky Princess and the Crystal Harmony, offer in the summer.

Thousands of books have been written about San Francisco, and this modest article can only offer but a few tips for the privileged few who will cruise into or out of San Francisco, and have not already visited there on an overland trip.

Flying in to San Francisco

If you are one of that reasonably large group that will not fly under any circumstances, San Francisco does have the advantage of being reachable by Amtrak, and you can start your Alaska round trip cruise from San Francisco. More likely, however, you will arrive in San Francisco by plane. While the SF airport can only be called "small" in comparison to the giants like LAX, O'Hare, DFW and Atlanta, it is a friendly airport. Although there are multiple terminals, they are all connected together and you can walk from one to the other without going outside, or having to catch any kind of shuttle. As I stood around waiting for my bags at the airport, I was happy to discover a "Travelers' Information" booth nearby, where I could pick up various free brochures on SF before I even left the airport. More about these free guides later. The taxi ride to downtown took about half an hour, and cost $29 (excluding a tip). Some caution should be exercised, however, in allowing time for a return trip to catch your flight home. The SF airport is undergoing a major reconstruction which will not be finished until the summer of 2000. I have heard of others who have been delayed up to an hour in getting to the airport because of the construction, although I had no delays myself in two trips to SF in the last few months.

Getting your bearings

San Francisco is situated on a peninsula, and is therefore surrounded on three sides by water. To the west are the big rollers of the Pacific; to the north are the waters of Golden Gate Strait; to the east is San Francisco Bay, crossed by the Oakland Bay Bridge; the south connects to the rest of California, including the airport. If you are staying downtown, you will likely end up somewhere close to Union Square, considered to be the center of downtown. St. Francis HotelIf you look up the hill on Powell Street where the cable car tracks run, you're looking over to where the cruise terminal is, on the other side of the peninsula. To your right are the high-rise buildings of the financial district, including the tallest building (the Bank of America building) and the most unusual building (the Transamerica Pyramid). To your left are the theater district and the civic center. Getting around SF often means traveling back and forth from downtown to the popular tourist sights on San Francisco Bay including Pier 39, Fisherman's Wharf, ferries to Alcatraz and the entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge. Fortunately, the trip between downtown and San Francisco Bay is always exciting, whether you go by taxi or cable car, because of the steepness of San Francisco's hills. If you are at the cruise terminal, however, it is more likely that your taxi will bypass the hills by traveling around the waterfront, and then cutting back into downtown.


Bearings from the cruise ship

As indicated at the beginning, the cruise ship terminal is at Pier 35 on San Francisco Bay. Although I haven't tried it myself, if you stood at the far end of Pier 35, you should be able to see the Golden Gate Bridge to your left, and the Oakland Bay Bridge to the right. The cruise ship will not go under the Oakland Bay Bridge because that direction takes you further south into San Francisco Bay, and doesn't get you out to sea - but you will sail under the Golden Gate Bridge. The next pier to the cruise terminal is the tourist attraction of Pier 39 (there is no longer a Pier 37 - it burned down, and all the piers on this side of town are odd-numbered). More about Pier 39 later. Also in easy walking distance are Fisherman's Wharf, the Cannery, Ghirardelli Square, the Maritime Museum, and ferries that can take you on tours of the bay or Alcatraz. So if you are arriving in SF by ship, you can see a large number of the tourist sights before you venture off in a taxi or cable car to visit downtown "over the hill".

Hotels in San Francisco

Being one of the most popular convention cities in the world, SF is full of hotels although most of the major hotels are on the downtown side of SF, rather than the Fisherman's Wharf side. It is certainly convenient to get a hotel that is near Union Square. Famous and expensive hotels at Union Square include the Sir Francis Drake, the Hyatt Union Square, and the most famous of all, the Westin St. Francis. Other famous hotels in the area include the Pan Pacific and the classic Mark Hopkins and Fairmont hotels (the latter two hotels require climbing some big hills). My personal favorite hotel because of its price and location (half a block from Union Square) is the Villa Florence. Wherever you do decide to stay, be sure to get a recommendation first from someone who knows. My wife and I have previously picked a hotel just because it was within a couple blocks of Union Square, only to find that the area around the hotel was quite seedy.


This list could go on forever, and I'm only going to mention the most famous ones.

Cable Cars

Cable CarEverybody has heard about San Francisco's cable cars - they are so famous they've been designated a national historic landmark. The cable cars first started operating in 1873, but the extensive original network is now limited to three lines, Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason and California. (When I was there recently, the California line was not working, for reasons I couldn't find out.) The California line travels east/west through downtown. The Powell-Hyde line takes you over the hill to the National Maritime Museum, Ghirardelli Square, the Cannery and Fisherman's Wharf. On this line, you will also pass Lombard Street, "the crookedest street in the world". The Powell-Mason line also goes to Fisherman's Wharf (but not as close) but is the best cable car to catch if you are heading for Pier 39 or the cruise terminal (in each case, with a number of blocks to walk on foot). Unfortunately, the cable cars suffer from too much popularity, and it is often difficult to get on a cable car other than at one end of its run. It's easier to get on if you catch one early or late in the day (they run from about 6:00 in the morning till 1:30 at night). If you are near Union Square, it's usually best to walk the three blocks down hill to the start of the cable car route, in order to ensure that you can get on. If you are older, you really want to catch the cable car at one of the terminals where you can get a seat. As you will probably have noticed from photos, many passengers have to hang off the sides of the cable car, and you want to be nimble if you are going to try that.

Union SquareUnion Square

As mentioned, this is the heart of downtown. Famous stores and buildings that border Union Square include the Westin St. Francis, Macy's, Niemann Marcus, Nordstrom's and Saks Fifth Avenue. The statue in the middle of Union Square is a memorial to Commodore Dewey, the leader of the American fleet who defeated the Spanish in the Philippines in 1898.


The entrance to Chinatown is at Grant Avenue and Bush Street about four blocks northeast of Union Square. There's lots of hustle and bustle along Grant Avenue, the oldest street in SF, and Chinatown contains famous restaurants, food markets, exotic shops, temples and small museums. This is the largest Chinatown in North America. Once you have finished with Chinatown, you may want to continue in the same direction to the financial district, and get a close up view of the Transamerica Pyramid - always a great photo!

Fishermans Wharf SignFisherman's Wharf

Perhaps the most famous tourist sight in SF, Fisherman's Wharf, unfortunately suffers from its own success, and it's absolutely filled with tourists any time of the day or the year. It still has the stores, however, selling fresh crab and lobster, and if you can get by all the souvenir stores, you can see the fishing fleets docked behind the seafood restaurants.

For Maritime Lovers

To the left of Fisherman's Wharf and on the waterfront is the San Francisco Maritime Historical Park, where ships are open to the public. The Hyde Street Pier has the Eureka, one of the last side wheel ferries in the U.S., the Thayer, a classic three-masted schooner, and the Balclutha, which was built in 1883. As well, there is the National Maritime Museum itself, which has all kinds of nifty nautical history. Still on the maritime theme, to the right of Fisherman's Wharf, at Pier 45, is the USS Pampanito, a World War II submarine which you can tour, and if you would like to tour an aircraft carrier that had an important role in World War II and then in the space program, the USS Hornet is open for inspection in the east bay, but you need to take a ferry to get there from Pier 43-1/2.

Ghirardelli Square and the Cannery

Both of these buildings are to the left of Fisherman's Wharf. Ghirardelli Square is a former chocolate factory which is now home to over 70 shops and restaurants. The Cannery is a former peach canning plant, and also has an interesting range of specialty shops and restaurants, as well as being the home of the museum of the City of San Francisco which, among other things, has photographs of the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes.

Bay Cruises

There are any number of ferry cruises that you can take of San Francisco bay, including ones that go to Tiburon (said to resemble a New England seaport village) and Sausalito (said to resemble a town on the French Riviera). Ferries leave from Pier 41 at Fisherman's Wharf, among other places. Although these two places are only 20 minutes by ferry from Fisherman's Wharf, they often have sunshine when San Francisco itself is foggy. Other bay cruises go under one or both of the famous bridges, or circle Alcatraz Island.

AlcatrazAlcatraz Island

While several bay cruises will take you around Alcatraz, only the Blue and Gold ferry fleet offers a stop at Alcatraz itself. You can go on a walking tour around this infamous, closed Federal penitentiary, previously the home to the likes of Al "Scarface" Capone, "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Robert "The Birdman" Stroud. Tip: you need to book ahead for the walking tour of Alcatraz and if your time in San Francisco is limited, you may want to phone for a reservation before you even leave home (415 - 705-5555).

Pier 39

It's hard to miss this shopping center if you're on a cruise, as it's right next to where your cruise ship will be docked. There are more than a hundred shops and ten restaurants at Pier 39 and some "attractions" including the Cinemax theater, turbo ride, CyberStation and UnderWater World. If you want to be entertained while having lunch at Pier 39, visit Neptune's Palace Seafood Restaurant and try for a window seat. From here you can see about 150 of the international "sea-lebrities", the California sea lions. The sea lions and seals use to hang around the Seal Rocks, near Golden Gate Park, but about nine years ago they migrated to the private boat docks at Pier 39. After a short fight to keep the seal lions away, the dock owners decided to get rid of the boats, and keep the sea lions. The sea lions will keep you amused as they pretend to fight, and knock each other off the floats, into the water. There is a lower level where you can also view the sea lions, without having to pay for a restaurant meal.

Bus tours

As you might expect, there are any number of bus tours of San Francisco and its outlying districts, but I'll mention only one in detail in case you want to contrast it to what may be offered by your cruise ship. Gray Line's "City Highlights" tour of about 4 hours cost $28.00 per adult, and departs about 5 times a day in the summer months. Reservations are required, and the easiest place to make those is at the permanently-parked red double-decker bus at Union Square. At the time of your tour, a shuttle bus will take you from that point to the main Gray Line depot, where you will board another bus for the actual tour. Famous buildings downtown will be pointed out to you as the bus makes it way out of town to the Mission Dolores, the birth place of the city. Mission DoloresThe next stop is at Twin Peaks for a panoramic view of the city, followed by a stop at the Golden Gate Park where you can visit the Japanese Tea Garden or the Botanical Gardens. Your tour will then take you along Ocean Beach where you can see large waves roll in from the Pacific (and enjoy it while you can because almost all of the cruiseports to the north, including Portland, Seattle, Victoria, Vancouver, Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway have no big surf because they are protected by being up a river, in Puget Sound, sheltered by Vancouver Island or the other islands of the Inside Passage). Your bus will stop at the famous Cliff House before it crosses the Golden Gate bridge. The bus returns over this bridge, and then passengers are let off at Pier 39 (or if you want, a separate shuttle bus will take you back to your downtown hotel). I enjoyed this bus tour myself recently, despite the fact that fog rolled in near the end of our trip, and you could hardly see the Golden Gate bridge.


San Francisco has no good restaurants - wow, what a lie that is! There are thousands of restaurants, and all I can do is mention a few of my favorites. At Fisherman's Wharf, Scoma's is famous for its seafood, with the result that you often have to wait to get a table. Tourists end up at Scoma's by choice, rather than by accident, as it is partially hidden behind the docks at Fisherman's Wharf (look for the sign when you are near Aliotos). Kuleto's has a California-Italian menu, and is located within the lobby of the Villa Florence Hotel on Powell Street. This restaurant is so popular that you really need to phone several days in advance to get a booking (397-7720). For a fancy lunch, try the Rotunda Restaurant at the top of the Niemann Marcus store in Union Square, and admire the reconstructed glass dome containing over 26,000 individual glass pieces. The Nob Hill dining room on the main floor of the Mark Hopkins Hotel is also a great place for dinner, and might be coupled with a visit to the "Top of the Mark" which is mentioned below.


San Francisco boasts two long-running shows. Beach Blanket Babylon is described as a "zany cabaret", and is the longest-running musical review in the nation. Reservations need to be made (421-4222). "Shear Madness" is America's longest-running non-musical play, a "hilarious whodunit". For reservations, phone 982-5463. There are all kinds of wild and wacky clubs in San Francisco, including Finocchio's in the North Beach area. Finocchio's has been around since 1936, and showcases fabulous female impersonators in three lavish revues, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. I was there recently with my mother-in-law, who wanted to re-visit one of her haunts from World War II. The show was great - not at all tacky - although the language wasn't quite what we would allow in SeaLetter. On the quieter side, the top of the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill is the place for some great views of San Francisco, fog permitting. Later in the evening, a swing band recreates the glory of the Top of the Mark from the 30's, 40's and 50's. The Westin St. Francis Hotel may be too expensive to stay in, but you can still enjoy a drink in their ornate lounge. As you enter the hotel, you can see photos of famous people who have visited the hotel, but for some reason, my picture is missing.

How hot is San Francisco?

If you are cruising from or to San Francisco, you will likely be there between May and September. Average daily highs and lows are April: 62 - 46, May: 66 - 48, June: 69 - 51, July: 69 - 51; August: 69 - 53 and September: 73 - 51. Even in the summer, you could find chilly mornings and evening fog. The city's best weather is actually in September and October.

San Francisco Tourist Magazines

There are lots of tourist magazines for San Francisco, but the problem is you get them all at once when you arrive in San Francisco, and by then it is almost too late to read them. If you want to read some stuff ahead of time here's what you can do. A one year's subscription to "Where San Francisco" magazine can be obtained for $18.00 by writing to the magazine at 74 New Montgomery Street, Suite 320, San Francisco, CA, 94105. A single issue of the monthly "San Francisco Bay City Guide" may be obtained for free by writing to the magazine at 455 North Point, San Francisco, CA, 94133 (write well in advance, and specify when you will be visiting San Francisco). Similarly, the San Francisco Guide can be obtained by writing to 2087 Union Street, Suite 1, San Francisco, CA, 94123. The San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau also puts out a quarterly magazine called "The San Francisco Book" which can be purchased for $3.00 by writing to P.O. Box 429097, San Francisco, CA, 94142-9097.

For a great combination map and guide of San Francisco, contact "MapEasy" at their website at http://www.mapeasy.com. It's one of my favorite souvenirs of San Francisco (it cost about $6.00), and I'm willing to overlook the small error on the map which shows the cruise terminal at Pier 33 instead of at Pier 35.

Enjoy San Francisco - it's in the top league of cruiseports with Hong Kong, Capetown, Rio De Janeiro, Sydney, Vancouver and Venice.


Alan WalkerOriginally from Australia, Alan has for some time been permanently settled in Vancouver where he is a practicing Attorney. He has been a SeaLetter columnist, reviewer and our resident humorist for some time now.

To find all of Alan's SeaLetter columns, featured and humorous articles, and cruise and port reviews, use the SeaLetter Search Engine entering "Alan Walker" as your search phrase.

Alan is also a member of the Cruise Staff of the CompuServe UK Travel Forum. Alan loves email, and can be reached at: Alan@sealetter.com.

© 1995-2005 Sealetter Travel Inc
If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please
Contact Us