When you think of the Embarcadero along San Francisco’s scenic waterfront, the first things that may leap to mind are seafood restaurants, noisy sea lions and the touristy Pier 39. And you’d be right. But take a ride southwards, and one of the gems of this famous route are the many eclectic sculptures, some as small as your hand.
Rising from an earthquake
A casualty of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the elevated Embarcadero Freeway once curved around the city’s Financial and Marina districts. Demolished in 1991, San Francisco set about turning the seedy waterfront into a destination showcase.
Originally built between 1878 and 1924 on landfill dumped to expand and create a better coastline for the then-booming shipping industry, today’s Embarcadero has been reinvented. Photo-laden information markers, restored Beaux Arts-style piers, historic streetcars clattering along a palm-tree lined boulevard, and great views attract residents and visitors from around the world.
Anchored by AT&T Park at the south end and Pier 45 just beyond Fisherman’s Wharf on the north, the two-plus mile route is edged by a broad promenade enthusiastically shared by pedestrians and cyclists.
Rent to Ride
The congested city roads are no place to bring your bikes. Instead, I recommend the bike rental company Blazing Saddles. They have several locations, with one at Pier 41. For just $8/hour you can rent a bike to go on cycling adventures around the city and beyond. Popular routes include biking over the Golden Gate and into Sausalito, and even mountain biking up to Mount Tamalpais.
On my visit, the rental crew was from Ireland, and brogue-filled banter added to the fun of my being measured for my bike and given a helmet and a map. I saddled up and started in the opposite direction from most cyclists, curious as to what I would find beyond piers and the Ferry Building.
Because I didn’t want to cope with traffic, I chose to ride along the promenade. Biking along this is not for the inexperienced cyclist. Pedestrians, other riders, and skateboarders can create congestion, and you have to be ready to brake at any time. To avoid missing the sights, I decided to stop whenever I saw something that interested me (vs. pedaling by). And that’s when I really began to notice the art.
A Treasure Trove of Sculptures
Public art is big in San Francisco, and the Embarcadero is no exception. If you’re not paying attention, you may not see many of the sculptures. Some are impossible to miss, like the 60-foot high Cupid’s Span, a bent bow arched around a scarlet arrow plunging into a small rise with the Bay Bridge towering behind.
Guardians of the Gate is just south of Fisherman’s Wharf, three bronze sea lions twined together. Near the marina, Skygate is a soaring straddle of metal that curls into a smoke-like silvery curl – it was the first piece of public art along the Embarcadero.
Just added in 2014, SOMA, near Pier 14, is a fusion of sculpture and light show. Designed to mimic brain neurons in action, it looks like exploding fireworks frozen in metal. The combination topiary-metal crab with stretching claws at the entry of Fisherman’s Wharf personifies a dish popular at local eateries. AT&T Park is surrounded by famous baseball players’ statues, from Willie Mays to Orlando Cepeda, while in nearby Embarcadero Park, a towering red tripod sextant shifts with the wind.
But it’s the smaller discoveries that enhance the adventure, especially when you observe most people don’t notice them. The delightful crawl of tiny bronze octopuses, starfish and turtles along a decorative wall south of Pier 14 almost escaped me because I was ogling the Bridge. An old gold and brick customs house is intricate with detail. There’s a scattering of ornate historical site plaques embedded in the walkway.
Nestled among the beautiful flower gardens near Pier 39 is an arching colorful glass and flower sculpture that glows rainbow in the setting sun. A tar-black saber tooth tiger’s skull beckons passersby to learn about the ancient history of the Bay, once an inland valley. And there’s more.
Take a ride, and pull your eyes away from the Bay Bridge to look around and down – you’ll be surprised at what artwork is hiding in plain sight.
Claudia Newcorn is a marketing consultant, award-winning author, and freelance writer who lives in Modesto and enjoys sharing her travel adventures with 209 Magazine and 209 Healthy Livings readers.
If You Go
• Parking is a challenge. ParkWhiz.com can guide you to nearby parking with rates.
• Plan your trip around Bay Bridge congestion. Weekdays: depart between 10AM-1PM; don’t plan to leave before 7PM, otherwise, you’ll be in rush hour traffic. Weekends: depart before 10 a.m.; leave the city in early afternoon or after 7 p.m.