The city's most popular waterfront attraction draws millions of visitors each year who come to browse through its shops and concessions hawking every conceivable form of souvenir. The pier can be quite crowded, and the numerous street performers may leave you feeling more harassed than entertained. Arriving early in the morning ensures you a front-row view of the sea lions that bask here, but if you're here to shop—and make no mistake about it, Pier 39 wants your money—be aware that most stores don't open until 9:30 or 10 (later in winter).
Brilliant colors enliven the double-decker San Francisco Carousel ($3 per ride), decorated with images of such city landmarks as the Golden Gate Bridge and Lombard Street.
Follow the sound of barking to the northwest side of the pier to view the sea lions that flop about the floating docks. During the summer, orange-clad naturalists answer questions and offer fascinating facts about the playful pinnipeds—for
example, that most of the animals here are males.
At the Aquarium of the Bay (415/623–5300 or 888/732–3483, www.aquariumofthebay.org; $19.95, hours vary but at least 10–6 daily) moving walkways transport you through a space surrounded on three sides by water filled with indigenous San Francisco Bay marine life, from fish and plankton to sharks. Many find the aquarium overpriced; if you can, take advantage of the family rate ($64 for two adults and two kids under 12).
Parking is across the street at the Pier 39 Garage (with validation from a Pier 39 restaurant, one hour free before 6 pm, two hours after 6 pm), off Powell Street at the Embarcadero; look for the mural of the gray whales to spot it.