Escape from Fisherman’s Wharf

On Sunday, I did two things I had promised myself I would never do: I went to Fisherman’s Wharf in the summer, and I went downtown during a ballgame.

The last time we were at Fisherman’s Wharf, Neil wanted to go to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, but he complained so much about having to go into the wax museum, we just got annoyed and went home. Later, I promised him that if he got a good grade on the book report he completed in March, I’d take him to the Ripley’s Museum. Unfortunately, his flaky teacher didn’t bother to review and grade the report until the second to last day before school ended. And so, fulfilling my promise to Neil in a timely manner meant going to Fisherman’s Wharf in the summertime.

There’s a lot of interesting things to see and to do at Fisherman’s Wharf, but unfortunately, it also annoys me with its natural tourist trap aspect. It’s like San Francisco in the form of a shopping mall, and more annoyingly, even though San Francisco has lots of interesting places where you can enjoy its culture and beauty, it seems like every city visitor is compelled to go to Fisherman’s Wharf and just stay there, gaping at Alcatraz Island and chomping on overpriced sourdough sandwiches. The vendors know this, and have priced their goods accordingly: Neil wanted a soda, but it was $2.75. I could have screamed, but I really screamed when the kids thought a cable car ride might be fun, and I saw round trip rides are $10 per person. Choke! The cable cars are f*%@ing public transportation, and when I lived in the city, I’d ocassionally have to ride them as such. Now they’ve become purely a tourist attraction. BTW, if you are visiting San Francisco, you can get a weekly MUNI pass for $15, so you can travel all over the city, and a cable car ride will only cost $1.

But I’m getting ahead of myself a little. We left early so I could snag a free parking spot in North Beach, and traipsed down to Fisherman’s Wharf. On the way, we saw lots and lots of people dressed in pink walking our way:


Once again, inadvertently, I had ended up in San Francisco during the annual Avon Walk against Breast Cancer. I actually think it’s kind of neat: a van drove by supporting the walkers, and a bicycle-mounted policeman in pink stopped to talk to us. When he told us he was from the San Jose police, who come to provide security for the Avon walkers each year, we were delighted, and told him we were from San Jose too.

When we got to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, Neil hesitated. He loves all the Believe It or Not books, but he wasn’t sure if he was ready to see some of the creepier things for real. He asked the clerk whether the museum was scary or not, and she told him there were some dark areas, but there wasn’t anything really scary. Then a local came up to flirt with the clerk, and joked “Have you told him about the hanging man?”

That was it for Neil. He didn’t want to go to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum any more. The clerk gave the flirty local a dirty look, but I was happy because he’d just saved me $25. I promised Neil I’d take him to the science museum of his choice, and since we were conveniently in San Francisco already, where there are several, we could even do it today.

But first, since we had gone to the effort to get to Fisherman’s Wharf, and I largely avoid it, I thought we should take the time to explore the few treasures it does offer (and which the tourists largely avoid, since they also often won’t budge from the Pier 39 shops and restaurants.)

First, there’s the Musee Mechanique, an antique arcade which used to be located next to the Cliff House. It has a retrospective of Playland of the Beach, the old amusement park that used to be on the ruggedly beautiful western end of San Francisco. It’s also a museum of arcade amusements, from the 1920s to the 1980s. Mostly it’s the older ones that intrigue me, even though most of them don’t work, or do so only irregularly.

There’s the football game. I love how the football players are just wearing big sweaters and teeny helmets instead of the modern armor today’s players wear:


And then, there’s the old school crack house:


Like many of these old machines, it’s an entertainment, a little show, instead of a game of skill.

There are also some mechanical toys, and some old technology that’s oddly relevant to today. This is a steam-powered motorcycle: good for the budget and the environment:


Kelly had to use the bathroom, which required waiting in a horrible long line for the grotty public toilets. I kept calm by pondering the Japanese tourists. The Japanese tourists are young and have orange hair and stylish clothes. The Chinese locals are old and wear wear baggy dark clothes. Why is this? And where are the Chinese tourists–in Chinatown? Do the Japanese tourists go to Chinatown, or are they like all the other travellers doomed to circle Pier 39 until it’s time to return to the airport?

When we finally got out, Neil had discovered a place that sold milk for only $1.50 for a teeny carton. Why, that’s down to Starbucks prices! I bought milk for Neil and Kelly and found out the Bourdin Bakery had a small museum. I raised my eyebrow at the $3 admission charge, but the counterwoman pointed out to me that my admission included Neil and Kelly for free, and there were samples at the end. It turned out to be the best deal (well, the second best deal) going at Fisherman’s Wharf.

The museum, as expected, is an advertisment for the Bourdin breads, but it’s well done, to appeal to history buffs and foodies as well. The first section of the museum has a rather thorough history of San Francisco, and an introduction to some of its key historical figures. One wall is dedicated to food that originiated in San Francisco:


Everyone knows sourdough bread and fortune cookies originated in San Francisco, but I didn’t know this city was also the first place to serve popsicles and Irish coffee. There was a cute quiz to find out “what kind of Bourdin loaf are you?” A small computer game, for Neil, had him shoving loaves into an oven quickly, and for further geekitude, there was information on how modern deck ovens work like the traditional brick ovens. Then we got to look over the bakery and its processes. Kelly was particularly fascinated by the tumbling line of proofing pans.

Me, I came for the food. It turns out the sample wasn’t just a stingy little torn off piece of sour dough bread, which was all I expected. It was pieces of bread, but there were three types of bread, together with three different types of toppings (jam, artichoke spread, olive oil), and the girl guarding the food didn’t care how long we stayed or how much we ate. They even had ice water available. That beats $8 sandwiches and $3 sodas hands down.

The bakers apparently entertain themselves by making animal-shaped loaves, and there were pictures of the bakers with their various unique loaves on the wall. A few of the fresher ones were in the tasting area for us to admire, including this lobster loaf:


Afterwards, I made sure to stop in to one of the many, many tourist stores and buy myself a new jacket. The jackets at Fisherman’s Wharf are the best deal at the wharf, and probably in the Bay Area. The San Francisco tourist jackets are waterproof, lined for warmth, colorful, stylish and reversible–and thanks to the fierce competition between the stores, they only cost $20 or less. I found one at a store advertising them for just $18, and when I found out the store’s credit card machine wasn’t working, I walked across the street and bought the same jacket for the same price. That’s capitalism at work!

Neil had decided on another trip to Zeum as his replacement for the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum. I was loathe to give up my parking spot in North Beach, because they are rare and dear, but usually it’s fairly easy to get a parking spot downtown on the weekend. Unfortuntely, I didn’t know that Sunday also happened to have a ballgame going on at AT&T Park–and, that of all ballgames, it was the All Star Game. Even the cheap downtown parking garage that only charges $5 on Sundays was asking $20. I drove east, where any parking that might be found would be in a less scary area, but warned Neil that he might have to take a raincheck on Zeum. Neil bravely opined that he didn’t mind walking a distance, and I regretted having given up our spot in North Beach even more. Miraculously, I found a spot near the Embarcadero.

Zeum is like a multimedia production laboratory for children, and Neil just loves it. It has everything at hand to create your own multimedia project: you can make masks and put on costumes, sequence your own background music, make jointed figures or playdough dolls for stop-motion animation, and record your own music video (karaoke track provided.) There are 3 different green screen stages for live action, and several more for stop motion animation. While we were there, Neil made some amazing stop motion animation. You can often buy your project on DVD, but unfortunately, that wasn’t available at the station he’d worked on. Younger children have related activities, like playing xylophones, or playing with Legos and colorforms. Kelly did manage to get onto a green screen stage and slide into flames:


I took Kelly out for a break to play in the nearby Zeum playground for a while. The downtown was overrun by happy baseball fans. I’m glad they were happy, but I’m also glad the All Star Game will be in a different city next year. I also spotted the bicycle mounted San Francisco police, who seemed largely concerned with how well they could jump steps with their mountain bikes. Remember the San Jose policeman we encountered earlier: alert, aware, and publicity-oriented? In contrast, my experiences with the San Francisco police always puts me in mind of the Keystone Kops. The SFPD at Yerba Buena Gardens did nothing to alter that impression.

Neil discovered that the music sequencer he loves working with at Zeum was available at the Zeum gift shop, so just before the museum closed, we went to the gift shop. It was only $20, so I bought it for him: it was still less than admission to Ripley’s.

And then we went home, leaving the tourist hordes and the happy baseball fans behind.

1 Comment

  1. mala@traveling-stories-magazine

    Great suggestions for an SFO trip with kids, though I think Ripley’s would have been a good inclusion too. And yes, public toilets are grotty but the one in Ripley’s has sound effects ;)!

    My SFO fleece jacket lasted 8 years.

    Mala Mukunda


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