Sailing away on a Bay Area ferry is like having your own little party cruise but much cheaper. The ocean breeze whistling in your ears, the cold beers with happy, Hawaiian shirt-clad strangers, the views of Alcatraz and the Bay Bridge – sorry BART, but why wouldn’t people take the ferry as often as humanly possible?
The ferry is not just for commuters. It’s a little adventure all on its own. And summer and fall are the perfect time to get out on our water-based fun-time transit and have some fun, both aboard and after you disembark — tasty eats, interesting sights and more. Here are four suggestions on how to turn a ferry trip to Alameda, Oakland, San Francisco or Mare Island into something more.
A quick note: We chose the San Francisco Bay Ferry, because it has more routes than the also-splendid Golden Gate Ferry. Whether you use your Clipper card, an app or a paper ticket, ferry fare ranges from $4.60 to $9.30 one way, and kids under five are free. Find details and schedules at https://sanfranciscobayferry.com/.
Without further ado, here’s what you might do when you’re…
Arriving in Mare Island
The scenic journey from San Francisco to Vallejo takes about an hour, and from there, it’s another 15-minute ferry ride to Mare Island. A historic military hub for boat and submarine construction, the island now is home to funky art installations, a bustling brewery and the Vino Godfather Winery, and some of the neatest views of humongous ship-building machines in the entire Bay.
Explore: On Sunday afternoons, the Mare Island Art Studios open their doors to show off paintings, sculptures and quirky marionettes, as well as gifts like driftwood talismans and upcycled clothing. Outside, you’ll spot elaborate Burning Man creations, including a three-story Victorian house on wheels (110 Pintado St., Vallejo; mareislandartstudios.com).
Alden Park is a totally unique, war-tinged oasis surrounded by dozens of concrete bomb shelters. You’ll find military hardware, including a 28-foot, submarine-launched Polaris missile, exotic tree species planted by a 19th century Navy commander and an old wooden bandstand that’s perfect to lounge in while admiring the weirdness of it all (Eighth Street at Railway Avenue, Vallejo).
Eat and drink: In the historic core lurks Savage & Cooke with its chic iron-and-wood vibes and Southern fried chicken, shrimp and grits, pimento cheese and fluffy buttermilk biscuits. The distillery, which is connected to the restaurant, offers tours and whiskey and bourbon tastings by reservation (1097 Nimitz Ave., Vallejo; savageandcooke.com).
Mare Island Brewing in the Coal Sheds is spacious enough to hide a blimp and thronged with locals enjoying projected sports games, foosball and darts, and an outdoor beer garden overlooking the industrial Napa River. The on-site Pie Wagon serves burgers with loaded baked-potato salad, shrimp louie, seasonal hand pies and other tasty delights (850 Nimitz Ave., Vallejo; mareislandbrewingco.com/coal-shed).
Arriving in Alameda
Both ferry terminals on the island (Alameda Seaplane Lagoon and Main Street Alameda) are in slightly desolate areas that can be fun to check out, if you’re into concrete and urban ruin. Main Street, in particular, has old shipyard apparatuses arranged like fine art along the Oakland Estuary: turnbuckles once used on a top-secret ship, and a massive coil of chain a vandal has labeled “The Doo Doo Sculpture.”
But for Alameda, we recommend bringing a bike on the ferry. That’s not just because stuff can be a bit of a walk, but also the island’s wide, low-traffic roadways are a cyclist’s delight.
Explore: The USS Hornet Sea, Air and Space Museum is less than half a mile from the Seaplane Lagoon terminal. You can spend hours exploring the Hornet, a retired aircraft carrier with exhibits on World War II and the Apollo Moon missions and cool fighter jets parked on the deck (707 West Hornet Ave., Pier 3, Alameda; $10-$20, uss-hornet.org).
The Alameda Point Antiques Faire, reputedly Northern California’s biggest antiques show, is held on the first Sunday of the month near the Main Street terminal (3900 Main St., Alameda; $5-$15, alamedapointantiquesfaire.com). The Bay Area MakerFarm is a quirky installation with rescue chickens and ducks, equinox and solstice parties, community potlucks and bike clinics (2700 Barbers Point Road, Alameda; bayareamaker.farm).
Eat and drink: Alameda Point, on the former naval air station, has a wealth of options including many with open-air tables. Saltbreaker is a new neighborhood bistro that mixes French technique with California cuisine, serving smoked-trout rillette, steak frites and housemade chanterelle pasta (2350 Saratoga St., Alameda; saltbreakeralameda.com).
As you browse Spirits Alley’s popular breweries and taprooms, check out Admiral Maltings, an actual vendor of malts with a pub that pours cask-conditioned ales, German-style lagers, fruited sours and dry-hopped IPAs. Food ranges from soft pretzels with malted butter to summer salads to hearty barbecue plates with housemade hot sauce (651A West Tower Ave., Alameda; admiralmaltings.com).
Arriving in Downtown San Francisco
This terminal is buzzing with commuter and tourist activity and ferry routes spiderwebbing all over the Bay. You can take a short walk to the shops and restaurants downtown, or a longer jaunt north along the Embarcadero to interesting museums, pier-side attractions and seafood eateries.
Explore: Kids and adults alike love the Exploratorium with its pitch-black Tactile Dome and science exhibits that create clouds and show space particle impacts (Pier 15, Embarcadero at Green Street, San Francisco; $30-$40, exploratorium.edu). The San Francisco Railway Museum is devoted to the history of the city’s rail-based transit, with a replica 1911 motorman’s platform where you can play with the controls (77 Steuart St., San Francisco; streetcar.org/museum).
Eat and drink: There’s a reason the Ferry Building is so popular: its farmers markets, vendor carts and the many eateries inside the marketplace. The best porchetta sandwich in San Francisco is served at Roli Roti, so tender and juicy and topped with onion marmalade and rosemary sea salt (check the food truck schedule at roliroti.com/events/month). There are raw bites at Hog Island Oyster Co., Italian sandwiches at A16, Arab street food at Reem’s, ice cream at Humphry Slocombe and much more.
For a decadent treat try Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, which serves its Northern California-harvested fish eggs in tasting flights or on platters of smoked sturgeon, lox and pickles. Ordering a celebratory glass of Champagne is all up to you. (caviarcafe.com).
Arriving in Oakland
Jack London Square is a weekend hot spot. You’ll often find cultural festivals, art vendors and dance performances — and crowds at the waterside eateries and resident bowling alley. It’s a vibrant place to have a bite and admire boats in the marina, or walk up Broadway to explore Oakland’s Chinatown, coffee and pie shops and art galleries.
Explore: There’s live music every Friday evening in August by the Left Bank Brasserie and a farmer-and-maker’s market on Sunday afternoons (for events info, check jacklondonsquare.com). You can rent kayaks and stand-up paddle boards to explore the Oakland Estuary and territory around Coast Guard Island (calkayak.com).
Farther north there are excellent art galleries running roughly from Grand Avenue to 25th Street, and then of course the Oakland Museum of California, with its thought-provoking retrospectives, a new kids’ “nature playspace” and Off the Grid food truck parties on Friday nights (1000 Oak St., Oakland; $12-$19 admission, museumca.org).
Eat and drink: ODIN specializes in artisanal mezcal, tequila and lesser-known Mexican spirits like sotol; it’s from the folks who run nearby Nido’s Backyard restaurant and margarita garden (444 Oak St., Oakland; odinoakland.com). Matty’s Old Fashioned is pitmaster Matt Horn’s new sit-down restaurant, with a much-ballyhooed bologna sandwich and extremely decadent cheeseburger (464 8th St., Oakland; instagram.com/mattyburgers).
If you want something crazy (and crazy delicious), consider Farmhouse Kitchen Thai Cuisine with its made-for Instagram dishes like whole Tsunami Lobster with prawns and scallops and Volcano Cup Noodles with a huge short rib over instant ramen (336 Water St., Oakland; farmhousethai.com).
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