WHAT IS IT? Two museums and six restored historic ships representative of San Francisco’s rich sailing history. The Site’s ships are docked along Hyde Street Pier, located near the heart of the City’s famous Fisherman’s Wharf.
BEAUTY (6/10) Hyde Street Pier is lined on either side with ships of various size, time periods and purpose. The tall rigging of the ship Balclutha is beautiful in its lines and intricacy, but it is hard to keep your camera pointed away from the Golden Gate Bridge, the Island of Alcatraz and the hills of the city, all of which can be seen as you walk through the Park.
The ship-shaped Maritime Museum looks and feels outdated, stodgy even, compared to the vibrancy of the waterfront outside. The numerous sailboats and swimmers(!) spotted along the Bay make for more interesting subjects of your photographs.v
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (5/10) A series of panoramic photographs in the Museum illustrate the dramatic transformation of San Francisco from a sleepy coastal town with a few hundred inhabitants to a booming metropolis. It is only a slight exaggeration to say this metamorphosis happened overnight. The Gold Rush in 1849 permanently changed the landscape of San Francisco.
Lured by gold and business opportunities, people from around the world sailed to San Francisco, pulled into its harbors and abandoned ship for the fortunes they hoped awaited them onshore. From this “city of ships, piers and tides” emerged a trading center that adapted to the needs of early homesteaders, a growing nation and two World Wars. The Maritime NHP celebrates the place of the sea and its industries in the history of San Francisco.
CROWDS (6/10) There is always a large crowd around the SF Maritime NHP because of its outdoor Fisherman’s Wharf located. This section of town, however, is the one part of San Francisco where the local’s never venture. So if you only come here, you have missed much of the charm that makes the City unique. Our visit was not affected poorly by our fellow travelers, but traveling here is like entering Disneyworld. Do not limit your SF stay to only Fisherman’s Wharf.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5) If you are a tourist in San Francisco, you probably will visit Fisherman’s Wharf. If you are staying in the City, do not try to drive here. Parking is slim and high-priced. Take a cab or the somewhat reliable SF mass transit system.
The MUNI bus numbers 10, 15, 19, 30, 39, 47 and 49 as well as the Powell-Mason Cable Car all drop you off within steps of the Wharf. There is a handy MUNI bus map located at nearly every bus stop corner in the City. Bus rate is a cheap $1.25 per ride. Be sure to pick up the free transfer.
For the most direct route to the Site, take the Powell-Hyde Cable Car. Its turnaround station is next to the SF Maritime VC, which is located at the corner of Jefferson and Hyde.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5) The Park’s bookstore lives up to its definitive name, The Maritime Store. There are thousands of sea-related titles. If water is somehow involved in the story, it is probably here. There are almost 40 titles regarding knot tying and an equal amount about model shipbuilding. Also for sale are every fictional WWII Naval yarn and the entire Alexander Kent series.
Keep in mind that only half of the bookstore in stocked with books. The other half sells an incredible array of maritime keepsakes. Ship and lighthouse replicas, reproductions of nautical instruments, woodcarvings, globes, clocks, ink pen sets, ocean liner voyage collectables and more. Browsing the bookstore was more fun and a lot warmer than seeing the ships along Hyde Pier. Mark Twain was right; summers along San Francisco Bay are cold.
COSTS (3/5) The Maritime Museum and the Visitor Center Museum are free. You can wander down Hyde Street Pier free of charge but there is a $5 fee per person to board the ships. The National Parks Pass does not cover the boarding fee.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5) There was a Ranger posted behind a desk at both the Museum and the Visitor Center. Oddly, neither seemed too eager to talk. The Visitor Center Ranger sat transfixed, eyes locked onto his computer screen for at least an hour. The free tour of the Hyde Street Pier left a good five minutes before 2:00 p.m., the scheduled time. The Visitor Center film did not end until 1:58 p.m. We thought we would be fine. We raced across the street to the tour departure point and saw no one. We searched, finally finding the group at 2:07 p.m. with the tour more than halfway over. We felt like our time at the SF Maritime NHP was a bother to the staff. It is never nice to feel unwelcome.
TOURS/CLASSES (4/10) Our exploration of the Maritime NHP began at the Maritime Museum since that’s where the bus dropped us off. We expectantly entered what we thought was the center of the NHP and were disappointed to find it practically empty, save for the seniors meeting in the community center next door.
The first floor of the Museum has little more than pieces of wreckage found in the Bay, restored figureheads and a short film playing behind a curtain in a cramped room. We half-heartedly walked upstairs to the rest of the displays. The second floor is where we found the photomurals, displays on whaling and some pretty cool scrimshaw pieces. The third floor, with its “Sparks, Waves and Wizards” exhibit is the place to be.
Here you can sit in a Captain’s chair or get behind the wheel and survey the San Francisco Bay. Which boats are in the harbor today? A helpful binder identifies the most commonly found. Is anything happening out there? Slip on headphones and monitor the radio or watch the radar screen for blips. The third floor exhibits chronicle advances in maritime communication and allow visitors to have a little fun.
A brisk walk took us to the official Visitor Center and the Hyde Street Pier. The current exhibit of leisure boats in the VC looks new, but is slated to be replaced within the next year. We wonder at this quick turnaround since we have seen so many antiquated displays at other NPS sites, badly in need of updating since their Mission ‘66-era installment. Why is the Maritime VC first in line for what seems to be an unnecessary facelift?
The Hyde Street Pier is the meeting place for the free 2 p.m. tour. We recommend getting there early since we missed it. Perhaps we were too busy watching the group of pint-sized skippers and first mates receiving instructions for their overnight adventure on the Alma, one of the Site’s historic vessels. They looked so eager and excited. We were envious.
FUN (4/10) You would think the SF tourist mecca of Fisherman’s Wharf would be the perfect location for a Maritime National Park. The visitors are here in droves; the cable car turns around here for pete’s sake. Working ships are everywhere and the Alcatraz ferry leaves just a few blocks down the road.
Problem is, when you are at Fisherman’s Wharf you do not want to learn about old ships. You want to be on the wharf, eating chowder in a bread bowl, staring at the sea lions on Pier 39 and browsing through the cheesy souvenir stores. The Wharf is a fun tourist trap; the SF Maritime NHP is a boring lesson.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (4/10) If San Francisco is your vacation destination, you will probably find yourself near the SF Maritime National Historic Park. Its waterfront location between the grassy fields of the Golden Gate NRA and the bustle of Fisherman’s Wharf makes it hard to miss.
There is no reason to avoid the SF Maritime National Historic Park as you stroll along the Golden Gate Promenade. Walk down the pier, stop at the well-stocked bookstore, peek into the ships or even board a few. But if your time in the Golden Gate area is limited, we can think of more essential and entertaining San Francisco sites.
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