San Francisco and Oakland waterfront; showing off the Bay Area via public transportation

Historic Presidential yacht of Franklin D. Roosevelt lies at anchor next to the Oakland Ferry Terminal; it's open for tours.

Historic trollies offer quick transit on the Embarcadero.
Historic Ferry Builing, 120 years old!
Ferries arriving, departing at SF’s Ferry Building.
USS Pampanito in foreground, and Liberty Ship Jeremiah O’Brien, open for tours on Pier 45.

Share San Francisco and Oakland waterfront with guests; showing off the Bay Area via public transportation. 

You have guests from out of town and want to show off the Bay Area, but dread the bumper-to-bumper traffic and parking snarls. There’s a way around that, which offers you some of the most incredible waterfront views of both cities, no cost parking, historic buildings, delightful shops and restaurants with delectable food. Consider the public ferry system, the Embarcadero historic trolleys, even cable cars, to see the best of the Bay Area.

Our recent trip was on Monday, yielding smaller crowds than during the weekend (it’s doable, seven days a week). This is a day-long tour so plan accordingly. Head for Jack London Square on the east edge of Oakland and plan to park in the Square’s parking deck (get your parking ticket validated at entrance to the ferry, yielding free day-long parking). Walk two blocks to the old Produce District and the Oakland Grill, 301 Franklin St., for a bacon and spinach omelet, French toast, crab Benedict or other delectable meals. Then catch the ferry across to San Francisco (this trip is bike-friendly, with no hills and free ferry transport). Note the old Presidential yacht of Franklin D. Roosevelt is docked next to the ferry terminal.

The ferry departs the Oakland terminal with stops on the estuary at Alameda, then heads across the bay and under the Bay Bridge, offering wonderful views of the San Francisco skyline to your portside, and Oakland’s busy waterfront and Treasure Island to the starboard. The round trip ferry ride is a bargain ($14 for adults, half off for seniors 65+ and kids under 5 free).

Destination is San Francisco’s stately Ferry Building, 120 years old this year, revitalized about a dozen years ago and sporting wonderful shops, sit-down restaurants and a variety of grab and go eateries. The Hog Island Oyster Bar is a favorite for lunches, with a variety of seafood including oysters. Watch the ferries coming and going; you’ll also realize it’s a great place for people-watching.

With sunshine and temperatures in the high 60s, we chose to walk from the Ferry Building along the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf (you also have the option to take an historic trolley, imported from other US cities and foreign countries); we are planning to take the late afternoon ferry from Pier 41 back to Oakland.

Heading north along the Embarcadero at Pier 3 we found the Hard Water Café, offering specials on seafood chowder and Sauvignon Blanc – a tasty lunch for not a lot of dollars. Our trip took us the past the Exploratorium on Pier 15; with scores of exhibits it’s always an adventure for adults or kids. Explore the history and geography of the bay and other revelations that make San Francisco special.

We stopped at Pier 39 long enough to walk to its northwestern end, to see the sea lions that make the floating docks their home much of the year. This always attracts massive amounts of tourists, but our guests enjoyed themselves.

On Pier 45, we checked out the two World War II warships. The USS Pamponito, an attack submarine, and the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, the last surviving (of thousands built for service in the war) of the storied liberty ships are each open for tours.  The engine room of the Jeremiah O’Brien was used in the filming of Titanic a few years back, should you think it looks familiar. Then it was a short walk to the old Fisherman’s Wharf, where historic eateries and retailers compete with kitschy, gaudy shops across the street.

Just west of Fisherman’s Wharf, admire the historic old sailing and steam-powered ships at the adjoining Hyde Street Pier. If you have time, take a tour through the San Francisco Maritime Museum and walk along pretty Aquatic Park, home to two historic rowing/swimming clubs where you’ll always see die-hard swimmers in the Bay, year-round! Just a block away is the waterfront terminus of the San Francisco Cable Car system, for another optional adventure.

Beyond Aquatic Park, head west through Fort Mason and the Marina District, to the Palace of Fine Arts (stunning remains of the Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915, which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal and it’s future impacts on California). Crissy Field, the old WW I airfield, and the Civil War-era Fort Point (under the Golden Gate Bridge) lie just further west.

At end of a day of discoveries, hop one of the later ferries from Pier 41 back to Jack London Square for the most stunning of evening harbor cruises.  Should you still have energy, dine on the waterfront at one of a number of Jack London Square restaurants (Scott’s Seafood a favorite).

How to get there: The Jack London Square waterfront is 75 miles from Stockton, about 1.5  hours.  Take I-5 south to Tracy, I-205 west to I-580 to I-238, then go north on I-880. Exit to Jack London Square on Broadway, and follow signs to Jack London Square parking.

What to take: Walking shoes, bicycles if a cyclist, snacks, drinks, sunscreen and binoculars!

More info: Jack London Square, jacklondonsquare.com; (510) 645-9292; San Francisco Ferry, sanfranciscobayferry.com, (415) 705-8291; Ferry Building, ferrybuildingmarketplace.com, 415.983.8030; Exploratorium, exploratorium.edu, 415.528.4444; Pier 39, pier39.com, (415) 981-7437; National Maritime Museum and Hyde Street Pier;  nps.gov/safr, 415-447-5000.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com or follow him, recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in the west!

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    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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