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

Even if you live in San Francisco, driving is the easiest way to get to Fisherman’s Wharf for most people, assuming you don’t want to spring for a cable car ride. The only problem is that the parking near Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 can cost $20 or more. (The Pier 39 lot has a max day rate of $60 on weekends!)

2023 UPDATE: Smash and grab car break ins have reached a ridiculous level in San Francisco. While the advice in this post is still good for getting free parking, you might want to consider paying for a garage just to avoid smashed windows. If you do park outside, make sure not to leave any bags or valuables in your car that might attract thieves. 

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. (This Safeway closed in 2023, but according to the shopping center web site you could still buy something small at one of the other businesses there and park for 90 minutes free. But the whole mall is up for sale so if this offer still works now, it won’t for long.) But if you don’t mind walking a little, there’s a place to park free for four hours 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 the ancient Municipal Pier, 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, this was during the 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 — update: now permanently closed — 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) from Aquatic Park, 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, don’t bother parking at Aquatic Park; 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 (16 on weekends). 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 cup of water for Badger and a wonderful nonfat latte for me. 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.

Other Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 Parking Tips

If you don’t want to walk that far or these spots are full, SF Parking Guide has more suggestions for affordable parking near the Wharf and Pier 39.

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