San Francisco’s Hyde Street Pier is a gem unfamiliar even to many locals. This nearly century-old pier jutting into San Francisco Bay, offering stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island, is chock full of antique ships that offer a fascinating look at San Francisco’s colourful history – plus plenty of space for kids to run, climb and steer helms.
A few weeks ago, an old friend and her family visited from Switzerland. Between us, our six kids range in age from 3 to almost 15, and it could have been tricky finding an outing to suit everyone. However, as expected, the Pier was a hit with every family member.
Although we arrived by car, visitors can easily reach the pier by taking the scenic Hyde-Powell cable-car to its last stop at Victoria Park. With a large grassy slope, a wooded backdrop and plenty of bay vistas, this is the most picturesque – and least crowded – part of Fisherman’s Wharf. Our first stop was the small beach at Aquatic Park, where we marvelled at a half-dozen seemingly crazed swimmers plying the frigid (12˚C) water wetsuit-free. They’re part of the Dolphin Club, whose members have been astonishing onlookers with coldwater aquatics since 1877. With typical summer fog enveloping the wharf, the air temperature during our visit wasn’t exactly balmy either.
At the pier entrance, the kids tested their strength lifting heavy wooden barrels using varied pulley systems. Watching my 3-year-old son easily lift a weighty barrel using a complex pulley was a fun physics lesson. Next we hit the ticket booth with its welcome low prices: US$5 for adults, with kids going free. Several vessels from the turn of the last century are moored on the pier; two standouts are the Eureka and Balclutha. The first is a grand 1890 steamboat, reminiscent of the graceful Southern paddleboats that navigate the Mississippi River. Retired in 1957, the 91m car and passenger ferry was one of the last such vessels used in the San Francisco Bay, part of what was once among the busiest ferry systems in the world.
Inside the Eureka, the kids admired the collection of antique cars and buggies, including a horse-drawn carriage emblazoned with the words ‘Ghirardelli Chocolates’ the famous local confectioner. On the passenger level, they perused newspapers from a bygone era, still on display in the kiosk. They then ascended to the topmost floor to take turns at the helm.
The magnificent Balclutha makes the Hyde Street Pier the photogenic site that it is. One of the few remaining square-riggers in existence, Balclutha took her maiden voyage from Cardiff, Wales, in 1887, and thereafter became an integral part of San Francisco’s maritime economy. New interactive exhibits below deck offer a tangible look at life for the sailors who helped export Alaska’s salmon and California’s fruit and timber to consumers overseas, and bring back tons of coal from Australia and Wales for California’s railroads and factories. My son enjoyed pressing buttons that lit the exhibits and offered fun sound effects, such as hungry seagulls, ocean squalls or men hard at work loading ships.
The captain’s quarters on Balclutha remain unchanged. The four girls in our two families, aged 5 to 15, were all captivated by the photograph of the captain’s daughter, Inda Frances Durkee, who was born at sea on a voyage from India to San Francisco before the turn of the century.
After Balclutha, we took a quick peak at Hercules, a diminutive 1907 tugboat with a massive engine that especially interested the boys, but we skipped several smaller vessels in favour of a snack to satisfy six hungry kids. We found it across the street at The Cannery, a historic red brick building that once housed the world’s largest peach canning facility. We went straight to Norman’s Ice Cream and Freezes for luscious, locally made ice cream – a treat even on that cool, foggy day.
Fortified, we stepped into the free National Maritime Visitors Center, also in The Cannery. We viewed a massive mirrored lighthouse lens, a shipwrecked boat and several model ships. We stayed long enough to warm up and to round out our afternoon of seafaring history and exploration.