Sailing into San Francisco is quite scenic. It’s like having harbor tour without ever leaving the ship. Besides all the scenery onshore, the ship sails under the Golden Gate Bridge. Quite a few people gathered on the upper outside decks of the Royal Princess on the way into the port in spite of the early hour with a 6am passage under the bridge, and a damp misty morning. As the ship approached the bridge it appeared as if the things on top the ship would surely hit, but of course that was an optical illusion and the ship passed underneath the bridge without colliding.
On the way into its berth in the harbor the ship passes by Alcatraz Island offering passengers who got up early enough another photo op. The rest of the people can hope for clear weather on the way out and take their photos then. Alcatraz was shrouded in mist on the way in and in clear sunshine on the way out so the photos leaving town were definitely better than those on the way in on our trip.
We docked about an hour late after waiting for the Maasdam to slip into their berth first and then for the port to get the gangways ready. Being so early odds are nothing much would be open anyway so unless people had somewhere to go that required travel time they probably didn’t miss much.
San Francisco is a full-service cruise port. Ships sometimes embark or disembark cruises there. I boarded a ship there once when we took the Celebrity Infinity on a trip that went through the Panama canal. On our Royal Princess cruise it was only a port stop so we just walked through the terminal building to get outside. The port building had some information booths passengers could stop at on their way out if they had questions or needed information on things to see or do, but we already had plans and didn’t stop to see what they had.
Our ship docked at Pier 27, made obvious by the string of banners outside all saying pier 27 as well as the number being painted on a wall inside the port building. 27 is the main pier for cruise ships in San Francisco, but on days with more than one ship pier 35 is used as well, which is where the Holland America Maasdam docked the day we were there.
San Francisco’s cruise docks are in an area called the Embarcadero. This 3-mile stretch of San Francisco’s eastern waterfront sits on reclaimed land with an engineered seawall and piers jutting out into the bay. People can walk along the waterfront, or take a ride on a streetcar. Fisherman’s Wharf at Pier 39 is the 3rd most visited tourist attraction in America. It has restaurants, attractions including a carousel, and a whole lot of sea lions.
Other things to see along the Embarcadero include an aquarium, museums, the ferry terminal building (which has a lot of shops), the popular Exploratorium science museum, historic ships, and Ghirardelli Square. There’s even an aquatic park pier and a Maritime National Historic Park. All kinds of attractions are available along the Embarcadero including ferries out to Alcatraz, speedboat rides, sailing, and whale watching. Coit Tower overlooks the Embarcadero from a nearby hill.
Of course there is a lot to do in San Francisco beyond the waterfront as well, with the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz being the city’s best known tourist attractions. Other popular attractions include cable cars, Lombard Street, Golden Gate Park, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Palace of Fine Arts, Chinatown, and quite a variety of museums.
You can catch a streetcar, city bus, or the hop on hop off bus fairly close to the ship. Uber and Lyft are also readily available for transportation around town.
Ship’s excursions Princess offers in San Francisco include a number of tours to Alcatraz paired with a variety of other things, hop-on hop-off bus tour, city drive with Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito and Fisherman’s Wharf, and several other Sausalito tours paired with other things, city highlights with Chinatown, postcard landmarks tour, heart of San Francisco with cable car ride, and Sonoma wine country tour.
Overall there’s a lot more to do in San Francisco than any one person could do within the time allowed by a cruise ship port stop – even when the ship overnights there.
Sailing out of San Francisco the next afternoon brought a much more vivid brightness to the scenery with sunshine bathing Alcatraz and the bridge in light rather than being shrouded in mist as they were on the way in. It still looked like the ship would surely take out the bridge on it’s way through rather than passing under up until it the time it actually passed underneath the bridge. The captain said it cleared by 10 meters (about 30 feet), but you would never guess it had so much space while standing on the deck as the ship goes under the bridge. Once out the other side it again looked as if there is no way it ever could have fit.