Alcatraz Cruises boats depart from Pier 33, on The Embarcadero betw. Chestnut & Bay sts. Reservations advised. Fee.
Before Alcatraz opened to the public in 1973, this sandstone island served as a fort in the 19th century and as a federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. Native Americans occupied it from 1969 to 1971. During the time it was a maximum security prison, it was home to some of the country’s most hardened criminals, including Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert “The Birdman” Stroud. Now it is run by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area–the largest urban park in the world—and is the most visited landmark in the U.S. And it is as good as it’s cracked up to be–the boat ride, the tour, and the 360-degree bay view.
After a short, scenic boat ride to this infamous island (its name translates as “island of the pelicans”), visitors follow a self-guided audio tour of the cell block, narrated in part by former inmates and guards. A trivia tidbit is that George Lucas recorded the sound of all the cell doors slamming shut and used that sound to make the sound of the door slamming shut on Darth Vader’s star cruiser. It is interesting to note that the 84-foot-tall lighthouse still operates (when the original 214-foot-tall lighthouse was built here in 1854, it was the first on the West Coast).
Picnicking is not permitted. Wear comfortable shoes, dress warmly, and expect cool, windy weather–even in summer. If the standard tour is sold out (once Alcatraz was hard to get out of; now it is hard to get in to), consider the more expensive Island Hop, which makes a stop at Angel Island and then at Alcatraz, or the Night Tour, which provides the opportunity to see this fascinating site without crowds. Note that the full-service restaurants at Pier 39 provide a discounted parking validation for the Pier 39 garage.
Historic Gardens of Alcatraz tour
Free, excluding cost of ferry.
Gardens abandoned in 1963 they have been restored with “green” practices by the non-profit Garden Conservancy.
110 The Embarcadero.
A San Francisco exclusive since 1903, the private non-profit Commonwealth Club was founded as a place where people could convene and learn new things. Interesting recordings of historic talks are found at the website. Well positioned next to Boulevard restaurant and just a block from the Ferry Building, It has been at this new location, which is well positioned next door to Boulevard restaurant and a block from the Ferry Building, the club has been at this new location since 2017. Constructed from the shell of the former historic building located here, the new clean-lined contemporary building has a glass façade in the front that faces the bay, while the historic part of the building remains in the back. Walls are insulated with used Levi’s jeans, and it meets LEED qualifications. All this and another claim to fame is that child actress and politician Shirley Temple Black was once a club president. The best of the best have spoken here, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt in 1911 and including Martin Luther King, Jr., Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Jerry Brown, Nancy Pelosi, and Bill Gates. Programs stress public affairs and current events, and non-members are welcome. For members, some programs are free, and some require a fee. About walking tours.
Bounded by Battery St./Sacramento St./Drumm St./Clay St., The Embarcadero.
The Embarcadero Center is an enormous complex of high-rise buildings. Covering 6 blocks, it holds more than 100 shops and restaurants on its lower floors, countless offices on the upper floors, and both the Le Meridien San Francisco and Hyatt Regency hotels.
Justin Herman Plaza is home to the Vaillancourt Fountain, nicknamed “#10 on the Richter” and described by an art critic as “something deposited by a dog with square intestines.” A brochure mapping out a self-guided Sculpture Tour to the center’s treasure-trove of art is available.
Pier 15, The Embarcadero. Fee.
Now moved from the Palace of Fine Arts into its new $300 million reconstructed pier home over the bay, this famous museum has three times more space to present a combination of play and learning that is as much fun for adults as it is for kids. It adds up to more than 150 new interactive exhibits among the total of more than 600. I love that there are free exhibits outside the entrance, allowing you to get a taste for what is inside, because entry is an investment. I was seduced outside by the rickety Rickshaw Obscura, which really reeled as I climbed in. I have found only two other camera obscuras in California and do have an interest in “collecting” experiences with these old-time pinhole cameras that allow you to sit in the dark and view what is going on outside. I was reeled in by teenage “Explainer” Rhonda Gaynor (they are found throughout, wearing easy-to-see orange vests and wandering the premises ready to assist). Inside, the gigantic pier setting is broken into smaller sections and is abuzz with excitement. I thought the Sweepers Clock was very clever and fun to watch.
I recommend walking down the museum’s center, then returning via the corridor down the south side. A dissection demonstration is usually occuring at the bay end—perhaps a cow’s eye or, if you’re lucky, a flower—and don’t miss the upstairs gallery at that end for a dead-on view of Treasure Island and the bay, not to mention another small camera obscura. I appreciated the rocking chair gallery found at the beginning of my trek back.
The Tactile Dome is a geodesic dome with 13 chambers through which visitors walk, crawl, slide, climb, and tumble in complete darkness using only their sense of touch to guide them. Participants must be age 7 or older, and reservations are required. The dome was designed and built in 1971 by August Coppola (father of actor Nicolas Cage and brother of film director Francis Ford Coppola).
Seaglass restaurant consists of four cafeteria stations serving up sushi, pizza, tacos, and sandwiches plus wine, beer, and cocktails.
Ferry Building Marketplace (click for information)
Pier 24 Photography
Pier 24, The Embarcadero/Harrison St., at the Bay Bridge, South Beach. Free. Reservations required.
Situated in a spectacular location on an old but revamped pier directly beneath the Bay Bridge, this vast photography museum is one of the world’s largest dedicated to 20th century and postwar photography. More description and images.
The Punch Line
444 Battery St./Washington St.
This is the oldest comedy club in San Francisco, and Dave Chappelle’s favorite club in the world. Aspiring comedians perform every Sunday night. A light-fare menu and full bar are available.
San Francisco Railway Museum
77 Steuart St./Market St. Free.
This tiny museum features historic artifacts and archival photography among its exhibits, including fare boxes, the Wiley “birdcage” traffic signal, and a replica of the front end of a Market Street Railway Company White Front car emerging from a mock-up of the Twin Peaks Tunnel’s west portal. A selection of San Francisco Transit gifts provide unique souvenir
1 Mission St./Steuart St.
Co-owned by chef Nancy Oakes and acclaimed local restaurant designer Pat Kuleto, this sumptuous restaurant offers a feast for both the palate and the eyes and has long been one of the most popular restaurants in town. Diners enter the gorgeous 1889 French-style building via a revolving door. The belle époque-style interior features stunning mosaic tiled floors as well as sensuous blown-glass light fixtures and pressed tin and ironwork accents. Some tables have three-landmark views–of the Ferry Building, Embarcadero Center, and the Bay Bridge. Large, serious forks foreshadow the exciting, full-flavored dishes to follow. One flawless meal here began with a Chinese-seasoned appetizer of two perfect prawns intertwined over a plump rock shrimp dumpling. The entree was a thick, honey-cured pork loin served with roasted potatoes and baby spinach. A pear tart with caramel sauce and vanilla bean ice cream provided a delightful finish.
Delancey Street Restaurant
600 The Embarcadero/Brannan St.
The comfortable open room here lets in plenty of light and even a glimpse of the bay. Though that is enough to lure in plenty of diners, this special restaurant is also a training school of the Delancey Street Foundation–the country’s largest and most acclaimed self-help residential organization for former hard-core criminals. Completely self-supporting, it considers all tips as donations and all restaurant profits go directly to caring for the residents. Interestingly, no resident who has finished the 2-year training program has ever gone on to commit a serious crime.
In this win-win atmosphere, it seems impossible to leave unsatisfied. Lunch is a particular bargain, with plenty of well-priced, well-executed sandwiches, a hot dog, a hamburger, and an assortment of heart-healthy items–including a Chocolate Decadence dessert that claims only 200 calories and 6 grams of fat. The menu changes daily and features international home-style dishes and also items reflecting the current residents’ backgrounds.
1300 Battery St./The Embarcadero.
Glitzy with chrome and glowing with neon on the outside, this inviting diner offers a sleek Pat Kuleto-designed interior with an open kitchen and plenty of roomy booths hugging the window-lined perimeter. Because of its design and lonely location, it reminds me of that bleak painting Nighthawks by Edward Hopper (which the painter said was inspired by “a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet”—is it coincidence that the F-car stop for this restaurant is Greenwich?), but it shakes that image with a happy roar once you’re inside. A long V-shaped bar with seating and a communal table fill the center.
Menu items are designed to be shared. We started with tasty deviled eggs topped with crunchy quinoa and a sprinkling of tiny chopped chives, satisfying flash-fried blackened Brussels sprouts in citrusy ponzu sauce with chunks of crispy Asian pear, and oven roasted-yet-crunchy baby carrots in a bed of black garlic mole. Then we shared a delicate pink-fleshed trout filet served with flavorful Arbequina olives, fingerling potatoes, and the fish’s head!—all served attractively on an Alder-wood plank. Among the plentiful other main dishes are the kitchen’s signature whole chicken roasted in the wood oven and a good old American hamburger made special with a housemade bun and smoked tomato aioli. Bread, which is toasted in the oven and served with Straus butter, costs additional. Order up a cocktail—perhaps the margarita-like Paloma–and you’re ready to rock ‘n roll (however, there’s no jukebox in this former diner). Do save room for some Straus frozen custard—I had it with (OMG!) my own little pitcher of superb egg yolk caramel sauce, but plum sauce and dark chocolate sauce are also options—or perhaps a circular portion of apple pie flavored with chilis.
Pier 3, Bay St./The Embarcadero.
Diners at brunch are seated as they board, and the maitre d’ announces to each table when it is their turn to visit the bounteous buffet. Magnificent views of San Francisco and the bay are enjoyed as the boat goes out under the Golden Gate Bridge, past Sausalito and Angel Island, and beside Alcatraz. Live music plays in the background, and the Captain makes the rounds to greet everyone. After dining, there is time to tour the vessel. The dinner-dance cruise is more formal, with waiters serving four-course dinners, and they sometimes include spectacular fireworks viewing. Special events are also often scheduled. Note that though highchairs and booster seats are not available, parents are welcome to bring aboard strollers with wheel locks, and children are given crayons and coloring books to keep them busy.
328 The Embarcadero/Washington St., at Pier 1½.
Here, authentic Peruvian cuisine is the focus and small plates-sharing is the format. You’ll do well to order a selection of plates from the cebiches (Peru’s national dish of marinated seafood), causas (assorted kinds of potatoes, whipped and topped with something tasty), ensaladas (Peruvian-inspired salads), empanadas (delectable little pie turnovers with various fillings and dipping sauces), and anticuchos (traditional grilled skewers of fish or meat). Larger main courses and both vegetarian and gluten-free items are also available. My favorites are the complimentary “bread” course of fried plantain, sweet potato, and regular potato chips served with two dipping sauces, and anything that contains the big kernels of chewy Peruvian corn (the crispy-crusted crescent empanadas filled with a mashed sweet corn-cilantro mix are to-die for). A dessert trio is perfect if you can’t make up your mind, but the word is that the traditional picarones consisting of warm pumpkin and sweet potato fritters with spiced honey is a winner. A full bar serves an impressive selection of pisco cocktails (it is Peru’s national drink), and I can vouch for the punch packed by both the Pisco Sour and the tasty and beautiful passion fruit-based Maracuya Sour. A few Peruvian vintages are among the wine offerings, and beer and sake are also options. The best water view is available on the tent-enclosed dockside patio, but the vast interior room with its high ceiling, banquettes, attractive minimalist décor, and exhibition kitchen–you might get to see Executive Chef cutie Diego Oka in action–has its own charms.
1 Market St./Steuart St.
Situated in a scenic corner of an attractive historic building dating from 1917, this popular restaurant has great bay views and an airy, substantial interior that is a delight to be in. Celebrity chef Bradley Ogden’s all-American menu includes crab cakes and barbecued oysters as appetizers. For entrees, the changing menu might offer tender Yankee pot roast with roasted turnips and potatoes, or succulent rosemary-roasted chicken breast with wild mushrooms and three kinds of garlic mashed potatoes. For dessert, expect old favorites—a signature butterscotch pudding—and new takes on old favorites–strawberry shortcake with orange ice cream–plus stellar cookies and fruit sorbets. A special three-course lunch recently included a roasted pear salad with Pt. Reyes blue cheese and candied walnuts, grilled pink steelhead trout with Swiss chard, and toffee crunch cake. The minty Arnold Palmer drink here is particularly delicious and refreshing.
4 Embarcadero Ctr.
Featuring a lovely interior space with rough-cut stone walls and ceiling accents, artful blown-glass sconces, and a view of the Ferry Building, this restaurant has an ever-changing Mediterranean-inspired menu with strong North African influences. Delicious options have included an appetizer array of pita bread spreads, grilled sea bass with flavorful Romesco sauce and saffron rice, and killer desserts–think chocolate-marshmallow bread pudding. Deep-fried green olives stuffed with veal–a house specialty–are always available.
Off the bar, a casual outdoor terrace overlooks Embarcadero plaza; heat lamps make it a year-round option. Hookah happy hours take place there weekdays from 3 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Puffers choose a flavor—guava and peach are prime—and can also order cocktails and bar food. (Each hookah comes with a sanitary disposable plastic mouthpiece.)
Harbor Court Hotel
165 Steuart St./Mission St. 8 stories; 131 rooms. Evening wine; restaurant. Valet parking.
This historic 1907 landmark building has an attractive vintage brick façade and offers some rooms with spectacular views of the bay and Treasure Island. Guests get discounted use of the YMCA full-service fitness center next door.
155 Steuart St./Mission St. 5 stories; 62 rooms. Continental breakfast; restaurant; room service. No pets. Valet parking.
Among the guest rooms in this stylish boutique hotel are eight with expansive bay views plus five penthouse suites. All guest rooms feature whitewashed brick walls, high ceilings, and window seats. Guests have discounted access to a nearby fitness center with an indoor pool and hot tub.
Hyatt Regency San Francisco
5 Embarcadero Center/Market St. 17 stories; 802 rooms. 1 restaurant; room service. Exercise room. No pets. Valet- and self-parking.
This elegant and stunning hotel resembles a pyramid on the outside, and every room has a view of either the city or the bay. Nifty glass elevators run the 17-story height of what is the world’s largest atrium lobby (they are famous for their role in the “Towering Inferno” movie). Guest rooms are spacious and tastefully decorated, and Pulse Point Oil, Face and Pillow Mist, and Foot Cream amenities are available by request–I fell in love with them! All rooms have a white noise machine, which I also really liked, especially the ocean channel, but my room was so quiet I didn’t need it. Staying in the Regency Club category includes all-day snacks–light bites and skinny cocktails as well as a buffet breakfast and freshly baked cookies—along with the extraordinary view that comes on the top level of the hotel in what once was a revolving restaurant. Conveniently, one end of the California Street cable car line loads just outside the front entrance, and the Ferry Building, Embarcadero shops, and Exploratorium are just a short walk away. .
Le Méridien San Francisco
333 Battery St./Clay St. 24 stories; 360 rooms. Restaurant; room service. Pets ok. Parking.
Built in 1989, this sophisticated hotel is conveniently located across the street via a pedestrian bridge from the Embarcadero Center shopping complex. Luxurious in every way, its public areas are decorated with fine art. Each room has a bay or city view, and amenities include a goose-down duvet. Guests also get a complimentary shoeshine, and a car is available for shuttling within a 3-mile radius.
1 Hotel San Francisco
8 Mission St./The Embarcadero. 8 stories; 200 rooms. Fitness room; full-service spa. Restaurant; room service. Valet parking $69/night; no self-parking. Pets ok. Destination/resort fee $42/day.
Situated just across the street from the scenic bay and kitty-corner to the Ferry Building complex of shops and eateries, 1 Hotel San Francisco provides a stellar view of the bay and the Bay Bridge. More description and images.