Fisherman’s Wharf–that waterfront area of San Francisco that’s the bane of locals and the beloved of tourist buses. The Wharf isn’t really a wharf. Well, part of it is, sort of. But mostly the Wharf is a zone of San Francisco’s north side centered on Bay Street between Pier 39 and Ghirardelli Square. Several dozen seafood restaurants and about one zillion souvenir shops ply their wares to the throngs that walk the Wharf day and night.
On weekends, it seems like every human soul in the world finds his or her way down into San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. If you’ve got anxiety disorder pertaining to crowds, I do not recommend the Wharf on Saturday afternoons. For travelers with other kinds of pain, my thoughts break down like this:
I don’t really get the appeal of Ghirardelli Square. Built on the side of a steep hill, the Square is filled with steep stairs, sloping walkways, and chain retail stores. Of course the Ghirardelli chocolate factory and shop still anchors the Square. The product tastes yummy, and the tour can be moderately fun. But the product is sold all over the City–it’s not necessary to hike up to the main shop to get my chocolate fix.
The other retail stores aren’t remarkable. A cupcake shop sweetens the Square further, and some clothing and high-end tchochke shops. *shrug* Elevator access is minimal, so I was stuck with the stairs for most of my exploration. Seats scattered around the flat areas are supposed to be reserved for shop and cafe patrons, but most of the time a tired traveler can borrow a seat for a few minutes without buying anything.
Restrooms don’t appear too thick in the Square. The Ghirardelli ice cream parlor’s got a customers-only bathroom.
Ripley’s Odditorium and the Wax Museum
Both of these ridiculous, hilarious sideshow-style attractions offer a way for travelers to come inside out of the chill fog–for a price, of course. Both of these…er…museums provide gaggles of eye-popping exhibits. Should your medical condition require you to view a stuffed two-headed weasel, Ripley’s can hook you up. On the other hand, I’d recommend that anyone with a seizure disorder, anxiety disorder, or balance troubles skip the “mirror maze” that’s part of the Ripley’s ticket.
Ripley’s galleries offer very few places to sit down. On the one hand, I hate that in a museum–the pause-and-shuffle of museum visiting aggravates my pain condition. On the other hand, I’m not sure how long I really needed to spend contemplating the way Ripley’s displays body modifications and plaster negatives of Angelina Jolie’s face. Lack of seating encouraged me to move through the museum quickly.
Both Ripley’s and the Wax Museum have restrooms available for customers. They’re acceptable.
Unlike the Square, Pier 39 is very friendly to disabled visitors of all kinds. For one thing, it’s fairly flat. Where there are stairs, ramps run beside them. A new bank of elevators appears about every hundred yards, and most of them even work. The Pier has lots of benches available for public seating–they do fill up quickly on sunny days, but they’ve honestly planned well and created enough seats (with backs!!) to go around.
On the other hand, the restroom situation isn’t always pleasant on the Pier, especially for us ladies. Expect lines for stalls, and moderate to dirty conditions. I recommend taking an elevator to the second level and seeking out one of the lesser-used restrooms. Less muss, less fuss.
Entertainment on the Pier includes a carousel, a small stage with continuous live entertainment (think third-rate stand-up comedy, and magicians for the kids), the Aquarium of the Bay, and of course the sea lions. The buildings all along both sides of the pier house lots and lots of retail, plus a few seafood restaurants and cafes for flavor. The best thing about the shops is that they carry things like socks, hats, and sweatshirts–useful things for visitors with pain who’ve dressed too lightly for Wharf conditions. (Yeah, that’s me, and I know better dammit!)
The Bottom Line
Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco can be a fun, silly, entertaining destination for properly prepared travelers with pain. But that prep is key! Dress for cold, damp fog. Know that the hills rise viciously steep up above the waterfront. Beware of hordes of fellow tourists who jostle up and down the Wharf on weekend.