So Pier 39. When’s the last time you actually paid a visit? and not incidentally, stopping in to use the bathroom on a jog along the Embarcadero. Locals rarely come here, even ironically – it’s just not on their radar (Bubba Gumps? Hard Rock Café?) – which is kind of curious considering the millions of visitors to San Francisco each year (16.5 million in 2012) who quite possibly make it a part of their vacation experience, especially those with kids. It’s one of the things they remember about the city.
As a local, I wouldn’t have made a recent trip here either if not for a) a kid and b) free passes to several attractions. But it gave me the opportunity to see what the deal is (the SF tourist bureau has it on their top ten list after all). And it’s obviously a tourist haven, from skinny Eurohipsters with knotted scarves to beefy football fans from Iowa. Pluses? It’s never too crowded, and has an unhurried on-holiday vibe to it. And as crass commercialized tourists traps go, it’s not terrible. Cheesy, yes. But not trashy like much of the rest of Fisherman’s Wharf.
It’s basically ‘county fair’ meets ‘suburban mall’. The ‘mall’ part being the wall to wall shops selling everything from Swarovski jewelry to bamboo fabrics, a magnet store and a crystal shop. The county fair part comes from one fried-food emporium after another, arcades, performers, a carousel and even animals (barking sea lions). County fairs, good; malls, bad. So those two kind of cancel each other out. What makes it not terrible is the setting. Put anything on a pier next to a beautiful bay and you win points. And there’s actually shades of localness, cheesy as it might be, like clam chowder served in a sourdough bread bowl. But you can also get Dungeness crab, oysters, Cioppino and Anchor Steam, and there’s even a craft beer joint selling Lagunitas and Devil’s Canyon. And the small but decent Aquarium of the Bay is a nice snapshot of sea life in the waters around the bay, with touch tanks and river otters. But, like everything else at Pier 39, it’s overpriced. In other words, it’s inauthenticity is uniquely San Franciscan, if that makes sense.
Should you put it on your list of places to go out in the city? No. But if you like your local helping of cheese with a nice view and a craft beer, while showing your relatives from Indiana the sites, Pier 39 isn’t terrible.