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Exploring Fisherman’s Wharf

A steampunk tour of the San Francisco tourist spot, from Musée Mécanique to historic ships

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Locals in San Francisco tend to dismiss Fisherman’s Wharf as a tourist trap. But the area along the city’s northern waterfront has many attractions with steampunk appeal, from the arcade games of Musée Mécanique to the historic ships at Hyde Street Pier. Amid the restaurants and souvenir shops, you can also tour an engine room used in the filming of James Cameron’s “Titanic,” and get a sense of life aboard a real submarine, albeit one from World War II.

Sea Lions

Our tour begins at Pier 39, which is undoubtedly the “tourist-trappiest” part of the wharf. Nervertheless, if you’re a fan of Esmerelda, the sea lion from Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” you can meet her brethren on the west side of the pier. Granted, the steampunk connection is thin, but with their barking and playful antics, the sea lions are the most entertaining attraction on the waterfront, and the show is absolutely free. They tend to be most plentiful from late July through mid-May.

Nearby, at the Aquarium of the Bay, you can see a giant Pacific octopus and other sea critters.

We then walk west to Pier 45 (at the foot of Taylor Street), home to Musée Mécanique and two World War II vessels, the USS Pampanito and SS Jeremiah O’Brien.

Musee Mecanique

Musée Mécanique is a museum featuring the Zelinsky collection, which consists of antique coin-operated arcade games, automata, and mechanical musical instruments, plus a homemade steam-powered motorcycle from 1912. The machines, including the music contraptions, are maintained in playable working condition. Most are from the 20th century, but the oldest, a Praxinoscope animation device, dates from 1884. Admission is free, but you may find yourself dropping lots of coins to see the machines in action.

The USS Pampanito is a World War II-era submarine that you can board for a self-guided tour. As you walk through the vessel, you can listen to an audio guide with commentary from some of the original crewmembers (you can also play the audio guide on the website). It soon becomes clear that life aboard Captain Nemo’s Nautilus was luxurious compared with a real-life sub. Regular admission is $20, with discounts available for seniors, kids (ages 6-12), students and active military.

Jeremiah O'Brien

The SS Jeremiah O’Brien is a World War II-era Liberty Ship that was part of the armada used in the invasion of Normandy on D-Day in 1944. More recently, its steam-powered engines appeared in the 1997 James Cameron film “Titanic.” Most of the engine room is open to visitors, though you’ll have to (carefully) descend an inclined ladder and a sign warns you not to wear a backpack. The ship is operational and makes occasional sea cruises. Here, too, general admission is $20, with discounts for seniors, young kids and active military.

Walking farther west, we stop by Frank’s Fisherman at 366 Jefferson Street. Frank’s began as a supplier of fishing gear, but now specializes in maritime and scientific antiques from the 18th and 19th centuries, along with clothing and souvenirs. I have low expectations when visiting retailers in touristy places like this, but the proprietor kindly allowed me to wander around the store taking photos, and I later discovered that Frank’s gets high marks on Yelp and TripAdvisor.

Hyde Street Pier

Finally, we arrive at Hyde Street Pier, the centerpiece of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Here you will find a collection of sea vessels from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including three sailing ships, the CA Thayer, Alma and Balclutha, along with the steam-powered Eureka, Hercules and Eppleton Hall.

The Eureka, built in 1890 and originally known as the Ukiah, ferried cars and passengers across the San Francisco Bay before the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is said to be the world’s largest wooden ship. The lower deck now contains a collection of antique trucks and automobiles.

The 300-foot long Balclutha is currently undergoing maintenance in Alameda and is scheduled to return to the pier this fall.

An entry pass for Hyde Street Pier costs $15 and is valid for seven days. Annual passes cost $45. Admission is free on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the first day of National Park Week in April, National Public Lands Day in September and Veterans Day.

Check out the sights in the photo gallery below.

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