Here we are on the last days of summer – time to forget the worst of San Francisco and try some of the best.
One of the best walks in town is along the Embarcadero, with blue water on one side and San Francisco on the other. A stroll on the north bank will show you why visitors still like San Francisco, despite all the problems that have come to light.
You can start the walk like the tourists do – at Pier 39, Ground Zero for the city’s largest industry.
A true Franciscan is a snob at heart and would only go to Pier 39 to join dear old Aunt Maud visiting from the Midwest.
But Pier 39 has its charm – it’s crowded, it’s bustling, and there doesn’t seem to be the lurking road problems that are evident in the rest of the city. It has a certain salty sheen, like a carnival. There’s an aquarium, a left-handed shop, a shop that sells everything NFL, even sweatshirts with logos for obscure college teams.
There are many fake spots in San Francisco at Pier 39 – but there is also the venerable Eagle Cafe, once a hangout for dock workers, Muni bus drivers, poets, and serious drinkers. The Eagle was founded almost 100 years ago as a passenger ticket office for coastal timber schooners. It’s now full of Elsewherians, but it still serves classic San Francisco dishes like corned beef hash and Joe’s Special. There is a long bar that overlooks the bay.
Or you can wander outside and look at the sea lions. They used to hang out by Cliff House in Seal Rocks, but after the 1989 earthquake they all moved to the boat docks at Pier 39. Nobody knows why – but there they are, wild animals on the city shore.
This must be sea lion season because it looked like it would have been a hundred the other afternoon. Some slept, some barked, some splashed in the water, others seemed to be arguing. It looked like a bad day in the office.
Head south to Pier 39, past the tourist crowds, past a marina to the boat dock for Alcatraz at Pier 33, then south again past Pier 27, where the cruise ships dock. It’s fun to cruise on a large white ship, but it’s easier to sit on the deck at Pier 23 restaurant, have a cool drink and watch the ship sail. The Grand Princess, headed north to Alaska, departs Tuesday at 4 p.m. You can wave to passengers like an old buddy. “Have a good trip, Charlie! Have a wonderful time! “
Or you can take a tram ride on the Muni Railway on Tuesdays and Wednesdays when Muni rolls out its “Boat Tram”, an open car that used to run in the seaside resort of Blackpool, England. The car drives from the Ferry Building to Fisherman’s Wharf two days a week from 11am to 5pm.
On the way south, the waterfront is full of surprises. A rolling skateboard museum is located in front of the Exploratorium at Pier 15. At Pier 3, you can stroll straight through a functioning restaurant. You can also see an old ferry and a replacement river boat.
The Embarcadero is lined with markers that offer bits of history on the water: stories of storms and shipwrecks, famous ships and tough seamen. There is now everything on the water except ocean-going ships. In its heyday, this was the largest port on the Pacific coast. But the world has changed and almost all ships have gone to Oakland.
The waterfront was reborn after the Loma Prieta quake in 1989 when the old Embarcadero Freeway, which cast a long shadow and separated the city from the bay, was demolished.
It was a new day. Now the Embarcadero has palm trees and trams, wide sidewalks, bikes, and pedicabs. A great place for a Sunday stroll.
The Ferry Building is a good place to take a break. The old building, a landmark if there ever was one, is a show in itself. It’s a good place for a glass of wine, a piece of cheese, and a visit to the weekend farmers market. After a while, continue south.
Now the crowd has gotten thinner. Pier 14 is a beautiful place to walk across the bay, a quiet place where the elderly go fishing.
But Pier 14 mixes beauty with tragedy. Here Kate Steinle was killed with a gun by a drifter four years ago. 32-year-old Steinle went for a walk with her father.
It’s a reminder that the waterfront is the edge of a troubled city, no matter how beautiful.
Carl Nolte’s column appears on Sundays. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @carlnoltesf