San Francisco Maritime Museum

Like many things in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Maritime Museum isn't exactly what you may have thought. It's not a single building at a fixed address, but a collection of all-things-Maritime along Fisherman's Wharf, where the city was born and shaped.

This historic site includes three locations — the Visitors Center, the Hyde Street Pier, and the Aquatic Park Bathhouse Museum. Together it pieces together the history of the people and boats who shaped the city. One of the great things about the museum is that it's (mostly) free.

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Step One – The Visitor Center

Waterfront interactive exhibit

First stop is the Visitor's Center, which is part of the San Francisco Maritime Museum on the corner of Jefferson and Hyde. Housed in a 1908 historic brick cannery house, the center tells stories of discovery, voyage, and cultural diversity.

Stepping through the door, what catches your eye is a giant Fresnel lighthouse lens. The magnificent brass structure holds hundreds of precisely polished prisms. In case you're wondering, it gets its name from French physicist Auguste-Jean Fresnel, who developed the lens specifically for lighthouses. You also get to learn more about these amazing, yet mysterious lights.

The Waterfront interactive exhibit takes you on a walk through six distinct, historical San Francisco waterfront neighborhoods — .

  1. Yelamu village, 1700s
  2. Potrero Point & Hunter Point, 1880s to 1940s
  3. The Southern Piers, early 1900s
  4. Yerba Buena Cove, 1825 to 1878
  5. Telegraph Hill, the 1850s
  6. Fisherman's Wharf, 1900 to 1950

The interactive exhibit has you visiting Yelamu village, finding Gold Rush ships buried under the Barbary Coast, hearing the sailor's clamor, and getting lost in the stories that made "Frisco" a legendary port. Over 360 historic artifacts are integrated into ship facades, store front windows, and even the ship passengers' luggage.

The award-winning exhibit was a labor of love for archivists, photographers, boat builders, historic riggers, electricians and interpreters who worked with Academy Studios to design a experience that push the boundaries of a typical exhibit. It took a year of research plus three additional years to complete the exhibit that did justice to San Francisco's rich maritime heritage.

  • Open seven days a week from 9:30 to 5:00
  • 499 Jefferson Street at the corner of Hyde Street

Step Two – Hyde Street Pier

Hyde Street Pier

To continue your visit to the San Francisco Maritime Museum, cross Jefferson Street to Hyde Street Pier to visit the collection of floating historic ships. But first, stop to take in the breathtaking views of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge. Then pay your respects to the historic ships — the C.A. Thayer schooner, the Eureka steam ferryboat, Hercules the steam powered tug and more. During spring and summer months you can go sailing on the scow schooner. You can see the ships for free but if you want to enter the historic vessels, there is a small fee for a ticket.

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Step Three – The Aquatic Park Bathhouse

Aquatic Park Bathhouse

From Hyde Street Pier, it's a short stroll to the the landmark Aquatic Park Bathhouse, which is as stunning on the outside as it is on the inside. The streamline Moderne style building was inspired from the Art Deco period and follows the same clean lines as an ocean liner. Inside are murals and art by Sargent Johnson and Hilaire Hiler, created during President Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Program during the depression of the 1930s.

Set on what was once called Black Cove, the location and building has a long and interesting history, often frustrating. In the early days of San Francisco (just after the Gold Rush), local swimmers used the sandy beach and sheltered cove where the Bathhouse now stands as a location for swimming clubs. When the area was proposed to be turned into an industrial zone, San Franciscans rallied to keep the area as a waterfront park. 1914 was a turning point when the Board of Supervisors designated it as a "site for the proposed aquatic park", preserving it for future generations.

The Bathhouse was built between 1936 and 1939 as part of the New Deal Works. Thousands of thrilled San Franciscans attended the dedication ceremony, just two years after the Golden Gate Bridge was opened. The Aquatic Park Bathhouse was intended as a "Palace for the Public" and for its era was the pinnacle of modernity with a restaurant, a concession stand, and changing rooms that could accommodate hundreds of swimmers. There were bleachers for thousands of leisure seekers to enjoy the waterfront park and a curved promenade that followed the edge of the sandy beach.

The jubilation and good times didn't last for long. The city, in its so-called wisdom, decided to lease the Bathhouse to a group of private businessmen, who turned it into the Aquatic Park Casino. The gambling den and nightclub prohibited public use.

Thankfully, there was another public outcry. Outraged artists and citizens stormed City Hall. An investigation followed, and the city was found guilty of mismanagement and the doors were padlocked. After sitting idle for a few years, the future of the building looked bleak. In 1941, the city leased it to the U.S. Army, and troops were quartered there during World War II. When the war ended, the military transferred it back to the city.

In 1948, the first senior center in the country opened on the ground floor of the Aquatic Park Bathhouse building. It's now the oldest, non-profit Senior Center in the United States offering classes and activities.

The San Francisco Maritime Museum would not open until a visionary by the name of Karl Kortum, a man with a love of ships and the sea, had the inspired notion of transforming the upper floors into a maritime museum. In 1951, the Bathhouse opened as a museum with exhibits of historic ship models on display.

Today, the Aquatic Maritime Museum is managed by the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. In 2006, the building was closed for a multi-year restoration of the bleachers. New stainless-steel windows and doors were installed, and a new, red shiny roof was built to keep out the moisture. The lobby murals were also restored to rejuvenate their colors and intensity.

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Attractions Near the San Francisco Maritime Museum

Aquatic Cove Park

After you've finished you visit to the Museum, Hyde Pier Park, and the Visitor Center, stroll through the Aquatic Park. Here you'll have the opportunity to take photos of the water with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. If you are visiting with your family, there's lots for your kids to enjoy; maritime crafts, or take the wheel of the nineteenth-century sailing ship. To be certain about current programs, check the calendar for dates and time. Kids between five and twelve years can take a free Junior Ranger Program booklet in the Visitor Center at the ticket booth to learn more about the park and get a badge.

Have a picnic at the adjoining Aquatic Cove Park and enjoy some play time with your kids on the beach. See if you can identify the ten most common birds living in the park.

San Francisco Maritime Museum Resources

  • Jefferson Street and Hyde Street
  • Hyde Street Pier is open seven days a week, 9:30 to 5:00
  • The Maritime Museum is open seven days a week, 10:00 to 4:00
  • The Maritime Museum is officially called San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, administered by the US National Park Service.
  • The San Francisco Maritime National Park is in the Fisherman's Wharf neighbourhood. Given the busy traffic along the waterfront, SF public transportation is the most efficient and economical way to get to the park.
  • Bike racks can be found to the left of Bathhouse Building entrance, on Hyde Street Pier and close to the Maritime Library and Headquarters Building.
  • Parking. There are garages and metered street parking, as well as parking lots.

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