How to Enjoy Fisherman’s Wharf Without Paying $25 for Parking

More and more people are making travel plans, so I expect Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco to be as crowded and parked up as always this summer. I currently live outside SF, but even when I lived in the city, driving has always been the easiest way to get to this part of town, assuming you don’t want to spring for a cable car ride (when they start again). The only problem is that the parking garages in the area charge $20 to $30.

In the past, I’d circle around searching for an open meter, or park at the North Point Shopping Center and then buy something from Safeway to get validation for free 90-minute parking. But this week I had to drive into the city and decided to take the opportunity for a hike, and I noticed a great place to park for free really near the Wharf: Aquatic Park.

Aquatic Park is actually a swimming beach on San Francisco Bay, just past the wharf and Ghiradelli Square. Protected by an ancient pier as well as a new one, it’s also a cove where boats can anchor. It’s a nice little spot that I had strolled past before, but I never noticed that it also has a bunch of free parking spots labeled 4-hour parking. It was easy to find an empty spot on a Monday afternoon. Sure, there’s a pandemic, but still, it was a gorgeous day during spring break for many kids, and the Wharf was only a 10-minute walk from my spot, so I was surprised how many spots were available.

Get out of your car and walk toward the Bay shore. If you’re looking for beach, you could play in the sand or swim right there (no dogs allowed). I enjoyed a walk down the old pier, which afforded slightly different views of Coit Tower and the San Francisco Skyline and Alcatraz and The Golden Gate compared to what I was used to.

When facing the Bay, if you walk to your right (east), you’ll soon be at the Fisherman’s Grotto end of the wharf, where you can get a delicious crab sandwich and check out the Musee Mechanique, or keep walking to explore the touristy delights of Pier 39. If you go left (west), you can enjoy walking along the shore past Fort Mason Center for the Arts and Culture, and eventually Marina Green, with Golden Gate views and miles of walking trails. If Marina Green is where you really want to end up, as opposed to the wharf, there is plenty of free parking at Marina Green.

Fort Mason also used to have free parking, but now it costs $3 an hour, or $15 a day. Still not bad compared to most Wharf parking, if Aquatic Park is full. However, it’s a 20-minute walk from Fort Mason to the Wharf, and you might just arrive at the Wharf to walk past two empty meter spots. (At least that seems to always happen to me.)

If the lot at Aquatic Park is full, should you drive all the way to Marina to park for free there? Depends how much you like to walk. Google Maps says it takes half an hour, which seems right based on my stroll Monday. It’s a gorgeous walk though, and personally, if I’m going to Pier 39, I want to eat a bag of Mini Donuts, so I wouldn’t mind burning off some calories first.

Another nice thing you can do between Marina Green and the Wharf: Stop at Equator Coffees. I did, for a latte (and a cup of water for Badger), and my nonfat latte was wonderful. I also picked up a bag of beans to bring home to Erik to help make up for the fact that he had to work while I was galivanting around the City.

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