If you asked what’s special about Pier 39, you’d get a dozen different answers. There’s never a dull moment at Fisherman Wharf’s most popular attraction, visited by 15 million people every year.  Tourists pour out of F Market streetcars to live out what they’ve always imagined about Pier 39.
Once a rundown pier, Pier 39 was developed to resemble a wooden fishing village by a feisty businessman called Warren Simmons. It opened in 1978 to much publicity but wasn’t an instant hit, trashed to bits by the San Francisco Chronicle.  It wasn’t until the eighties that Pier 39 took off, helped by the multitude of publicity campaigns that emerged during the Pacific Coast tourism boom.
In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake devastated the Embarcadero Freeway beyond repair, pleasing residents who had hated the eyesore. Authorities upgraded the 3-mile stretch from Fisherman’s Wharf to China basin with Pier 39 as the focal point.
7 Amazing Attractions at Pier 39
Some of the many things to marvel at and enjoy to the hilt at Pier 30 are:
1. The sea lions
Shortly after the Loma Prieta earthquake, sea lions began hauling out on Pier 39’s K-dock. Watching them sunning, playing and arguing is a favorite tourist pastime. Their numbers rise and fall with the seasons, but the classic ‘arf, arf’ is always within earshot.
Located directly above the regular resting place of the sea lions on the K-dock is the Sea Lion Center. It is a cool exhibit space to learn more these fascinating mammals, and features interactive displays, presentations and videos.
2. Aquarium of the Bay
The public aquarium is home to over 24,000 animals from over 200 species. It focuses on the marine life of the SF Bay and surrounding areas, and promotes important issues of our time such as climate change and habitat loss.
The aquarium is designed as a loop. You can go around in about an hour and cover all the exhibits, which include jelly fish, otters, eels, bat rays, kelpfish, octopuses and over 50 sharks belonging to various species. The exciting bit is that you can touch the creatures, including sharks, bat rays, sea cucumbers, and skates.
Aquarium of the Bay is the only Smithsonian-affiliated aquarium in the United States, and the first institute in the country to successfully breed healthy Pacific Angel Sharks.
3. 7D Experience
The 7D experience is 15 minutes of adrenaline pumping action in a 3D theater with motion seats. You’re bang in the middle of a Wild West environment or a virtual cityscape of San Francisco sites filled with baddies that you must zap to earn points. If you’re the competitive sort, you’ll be pumped to do your best to claim top spot on the leaderboard.
The sophisticated VR effects make the interactive experience extra special. 7D Experience is popular among families and also receives corporate bookings.
Pier 39 has scores of specialty shops that you can easily spend hours exploring. Needless to say, they’re filled with tourists hunting good bargains on souvenirs. The prices are on the higher side but it’s money well spent on unique and quality products, not to mention service directly from the store owners who work behind the counters.
You don’t have to haul all your purchases on your flight back home. Visit the California Welcome Center (CWC) to have your merchandise packed into a USPS priority mail flat rate box and ship your purchases home.
5. Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze
For those looking to enter a psychedelic mood (legally and inexpensively), there’s a convenient attraction by one Charles Magowan on Pier 39. Enter a 2,000 square foot labyrinth of mirrors and black lights that follow you through twists, turns, and dead-ends, complete with music thumping in your ears, for a bona fide trippy experience.
Entry is free for children aged 5 years and younger, and $10 for adults. You can go as many times as you want, but you’ll want to spare time for other attractions.
6. Live performances
Pier 39 is welcoming of individuals with special talents who can hold the attention of crowds. Acrobats, jugglers, musicians, clowns, and dancers perform several times a day, enlivening the environment, and all for free. The live performances are among the amazing memories that tourists bring home from their Pier 39 exploration.
A number of bay cruises depart from Pier 39. Hop aboard a 60-minute or 2-hour cruise that goes under the Golden Gate Bridge and covers the best sights of San Francisco. Some run several times a day, and include hands-free audio to let you take pictures conveniently!
6 Cool Facts About Pier 39
1. Warren Simmons, the man who built and marketed Pier 39, conducted slideshow presentations 28 times a week in a bid to gain the support of neighborhood groups for his project.
2. Then-President of the Supervisor’s Board, Dianne Fienstein, appeared at the grand opening clad in a one-piece swimsuit.
3. Pier 39 has been called ‘low brow’, ‘non-architecture’, and kitschy, among other unflattering descriptions, by architecture critics.
4. One of the earlier acts at the pier involved people jumping into a large pool filled with Jell-O to retrieve their belongings from the bottom of the pool. It was replaced by a carousel in 1983.
5. The Italy-made, two-story San Francisco Carousel at Pier 39 features 1,800 LED lights and over 30 animals to ride.
6. The creator of Pier 39’s Musical Stairs previously created the famous piano from the Tom Hanks movie Big.
How to Get There
Pier 39 is located to the right end of Fisherman’s Wharf. The F-Line stops here. Two cable car lines starting at Powell and Market will also bring you nearest to Pier 39. If you plan on driving, note that street parking is a major hassle and parking garages are pricey. Taking a Lyft or Uber is preferable.
Google Maps link