From Fisherman's Wharf to the Embarcadero: San Francisco's Evolving Waterfront

by  Kristine Hansen | Feb 4, 2016

San Francisco's northeastern waterfront used to be characterized by Fisherman's Wharf, conjuring up images of a cheesy boardwalk, kitschy stores, street performers, and clam chowder in sourdough bowls. Not that there’s anything wrong with the clam chowder, of course, and we love the barking sea lions. But these were the hallmarks of a thoroughly tourist trap-y kind of area where the only hotel options were budget-minded chains charging sky-high rates. Happily, we’re starting to see a different side of the Embarcadero as well as the wharf, with new lodging options, restaurants, and activities that angle toward younger, cooler travelers.

You still have to know which areas to avoid the tourist droves, but anchoring the new wave of development is Hotel Zephyr -- a modern 361-room hotel that popped up in June as the wharf’s only boutique property, occupying a former Radisson. This season, the 10,000-square-foot courtyard is the perfect place to cozy up to the fire pits and stave off a chilly, foggy San Francisco night (and maybe engage in a game or two of life-size Jenga and Connect Four). We love that the lobby walls are born out of shipping containers and that rooms come with magnetic dartboards along with porthole windows offering bay views. You’ll find a rotation of partnerships with local tech companies test-driving their hospitality services, too. Rates start from $177-$209 on February and March weekends ($223-$319 May through October).

For lunch with a view, slip up to the bar at Waterbar, a glass-walled restaurant along the Embarcadero that overlooks the Bay Bridge. Tip: Arrive between 11:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. daily for $1.05 oysters, and between 2 p.m. and 5:30p.m. for $7 cocktails. The Bar Bites menu features shareable plates ($6-$13), like an oak-grilled squid. Another new waterfront restaurant is Caputo, a trattoria that opened in October a block off the Embarcadero. With a Michael Mina alum at the helm, it serves rustic Italian dishes paired with eight local wines on tap -- and boasts a sweet patio space to boot.

To burn off the calories, head over to the Exploratorium, the popular hands-on science and art center that just moved to Pier 15 along the Embarcadero a few years ago ($29). One of the biggest attractions here is the Tactile Dome, in which visitors have to rely on their sense of touch to emerge from total darkness to the exit ($15 add-on). A weekly After Dark adults program means special presentations, events, and other fun happenings to go with exploring the exhibits (from $15).

Hotel Zephyr

Along the Embarcadero are other spots that might call to the hipper crowd, including the Ferry Building with a 245-foot clock tower. These days, a farmer’s market happens at the building's marketplace every Saturday, Tuesday, and Thursday. Any other day, sit down to meals at places like Gott’s Roadside and Hog Island Oyster Company -- or sample Californian foods from vendors like McEvoy Ranch Olive Oil, Cowgirl Creamery’s Artisan Cheese Shop, and newly opened juice press stores Urban Remedy and Sow. It’s a great place to pick up some gorgeous kitchen gifts or botanical skincare products from neighboring Sonoma County. There’s even a bookstore, Book Passage, in the building. (Nearby, The Slanted Door is one of our editor's favorite places for Vietnamese food.)

Looking for an independent, non-chain coffee spot? Try Black Point Café, open since 2012 and a block from Ghirardelli Square. Lattes and other espresso drinks here are crafted from Equator beans that are roasted in San Rafael, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Or if it's vino that you’re after, Winery Collective is a wine bar and retailer that’s been skewing away from the big brands and bringing 50 different, mostly small, Californian producers to the wharf since it opened in 2009. If getting up to wine country can’t fit into your itinerary, this is the next best thing.

Getting There: Hop on the retro streetcars via the F-line, which services areas along the Embarcadero between Fisherman’s Wharf and Market Street.

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