Everyone knows about the popular places to go in San Francisco — the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square, etc. But there’s an even longer list of lesser-known places to go in San Francisco that reward visitors and residents alike with unexpected delights. Here, in an occasional series, I’ll share with PRiME readers some of my favorites.
Places to Go in San Francisco on the Waterfront
1. The Wave Organ
When did you last encounter a wave-activated acoustical sculpture? Your opportunity awaits you on San Francisco’s waterfront. The wave organ is the creation of artist Peter Richards and sculptor and master stone mason George Gonzales. A prototype of the installation was included in the 1981 New Music Festival. Its enthusiastic reception convinced founding executive director of the Exploratorium Frank Oppenheimer to pursue the permits and raise the funds for Richards, a Senior Artist at the Exploratorium, and Gonzales to create the installation. Completed in 1986, the wave organ is dedicated to the memory of Frank Oppenheimer, who died in 1985.
Built of concrete and other materials gathered from a demolished cemetery, plus 25 PVC pipes, the wave organ occupies several levels, descending from a jetty into the water. The jetty itself, accessed from the path along the St. Francis Yacht Club and the Golden Gate Yacht Club, is constructed from the same scavenged materials, so the installation feels organic. The materials also give the site the feel of an ancient archeological excavation.
For the best acoustic experience, go at high tide and put your ear to one of the pipes. But the sound is only a small part of the wave organ experience. This quirky creation transports you to another dimension even though you’re only steps from the joggers, strollers, and dog-walkers on the Marina Green. You probably won’t be alone there but you won’t encounter crowds, and there are so many nooks and crannies where you can easily find solitude. For a magical experience, I recommend visiting the wave organ to watch the full moon rise over the Bay. But, whenever you go, you’ll know more about the wave organ than anyone else there.
2. The San Francisco Maritime Museum
The Maritime Museum, at the foot of Polk Street, is one of those places that San Franciscans often pass but seldom visit. The building itself is striking, resembling an ocean liner. But when I finally took the trouble to go in, I couldn’t believe my eyes! Inside this Streamline Moderne-style building I plunged into 5,000 square feet of whimsical murals depicting an underwater phantasmagoria.
The murals are the work of Hilaire Hiler, an American artist who also played jazz piano, often with a live monkey on his shoulder, in nightclubs in America and France. Hiler developed a sophisticated sensation-based theory of the interaction between color and the human psyche. His color theory, called the Prismarium, is depicted in murals on the ceiling and walls of an alcove in the museum.
Both the building itself and the murals, mosaics, and carvings are products of the New Deal. Constructed as a public bathhouse and opened in 1939, the building was a joint project of the WPA and the City of San Francisco. The Federal Arts Project employed Hiler and Sargent Johnson, a prominent African-American artist, to decorate both the interior and exterior of the building. Closed to the public and used by American troops between 1941 and 1948, the building became the home of the San Francisco Maritime Museum in 1951 and also housed—and continues to house—the country’s first senior center. Turned over to the National Park Service in 1978, the museum is an anchor of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. An extensive restoration project from 2006-2012 returned the murals, mosaics, and carvings to their original luster.
The decorative elements and architecture are the singular attraction of the Maritime Museum, but there are worthwhile exhibits related to San Francisco’s maritime history, as well. Don’t miss the million-dollar view of the Bay from the veranda, either. If you’re lucky, you’ll encounter one of the knowledgeable and enthusiastic docents who will entertain you with anecdotes about the building’s history. The museum is open daily, and admission is free.
3. The Fishermen’s and Seamen’s Memorial Chapel
A gem hidden in the clutter of Fisherman’s Wharf, the Fishermen’s and Seamen’s Memorial Chapel honors the men and women from San Francisco’s fleet lost at sea. Officially called the St. John the Apostle Oratory, the chapel was built in 1979; a campanile added in 2006 has a historic bell donated by the City. The chapel’s decorative highlight is a stained glass window, presented by the Women’s Propeller Club. The chapel is the site of the annual Blessing of the Fleet, a longstanding tradition occurring the first Saturday of October. The chapel is also one of the few places where the traditional, pre-Vatican II Latin mass is still offered, Sunday’s at 10:00am.
Limited hours make it difficult to visit the interior of the chapel but no matter, as the real draw is its ambience. Situated in the inner harbor on Pier 45b, the chapel is part of the working waterfront. Follow the walkway by Tarantino’s Restaurant and you quickly leave the tourist environment and enter the world of the fishing fleet, a world that hasn’t changed much in decades.
4. Pier 24 Photography
Combine good taste, ample resources, and a touch of civic-mindedness and you get Pier 24 Photography, the best exhibition space in San Francisco. Located on historic Pier 24, the building houses the photography collection of the Pilara Foundation, containing seminal works of 20th-century photographers, as well as the work of emerging photographers.
The Pilara Foundation opened the building to the public in 2010 after spending 2 years remodeling the space. According to the website, the design “straddles the line between storage and exhibition space, while maintaining a gallery-like aesthetic.” Its location could hardly be more dramatic, situated under the Bay Bridge and offering panoramic views from the entryway. Since opening, Pier 24 has presented 9 exhibitions encompassing works primarily, but not exclusively, from the Foundation’s collection.
Here’s what you won’t find at Pier 24: a gift shop; a cafe; labels to tell you what you’re looking at; crowds. Here’s what you will find: knowledgeable and enthusiastic docents who are eager to answer your questions and discuss the art; a photocopied gallery guide to the exhibition, more or less complete depending on how far into the exhibition’s run you visit; a coatcheck so you don’t have to carry stuff around while you’re there; very clean restrooms.
Pier 24 is open weekdays and admission is free. Parking along the Embarcadero is generally easy as long as there’s not a Giant’s home game. You must reserve online through the website; three 2-hour time slots each day accommodate a maximum of 20 people in each time slot. For anyone interested in photography, Pier 24 is a must.
As you see, San Francisco’s waterfront is far more than the tee-shirt shops of Fisherman’s Wharf. From Fort Point to India Basin, San Francisco’s waterfront offers a world of discoveries, both historic and aesthetic.