I tried the worst tourist attractions at Fisherman’s Wharf

One of my first memories of San Francisco is Fisherman’s Wharf. I was in high school touring potential colleges, and I vividly recall freezing on the pier eating a clam chowder bread bowl and buying a knockoff UC Berkeley sweatshirt from one of the touristy shops. I had a blast.

But since actually moving to the Bay Area, I’ve only been back to the wharf a handful of times. That’s because locals hate it — in fact, it is the most universally derided neighborhood in all of San Francisco.

There’s a lot to hate: The wharf is overcrowded with tourists, tacky souvenirs and overpriced food that isn’t good. For years, it was even terrorized by a man popping out at people from behind a bush. It’s not the royal san francisco.

But let’s all lighten up for a minute. What if the tourists are onto something? What if, beneath all the soulless chain restaurants, seagull s—t and ugly commemorative keychains, lies a heart of gold? I decided to find out.

On a foggy Thursday morning, the smell of cotton candy in the air, I headed straight into the belly of the beast: Pier 39. My mission was simple — locate the cheesiest, most tourist-trappy attractions possible and give them a fair shot. Here’s what I found.

Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze

Magowan's Infinite Mirror Maze is not for the faint of heart.

Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze is not for the faint of heart.

Madeline Wells/SFGATE

OK, yes, this place looks very cool. It’s a neon-lit maze of mirrors kept so shiny clean that it’s actually impossible to discern what’s a real pathway and what’s just a reflection (I nearly walked into a wall about 11 times). It looks very eye-catching in photos. But as soon as I was done snapping pictures, I realized I had to actually figure out how to get out, and panic set in.

With no one but my directionally challenged self to rely on, I kept going around in circles. Would I be lost here forever? It seemed entirely possible.

If you were with a group of friends and not alone like me, I think Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze would actually be fun and not a horror movie (in other words, worth the $10). But personally, you could not pay me to go back there.

In the end, I didn’t even find the real exit — I just circled back to the entrance and booked it out of there. I glanced at the time: it had only been six minutes.

Rating: 3/10

sea ​​lions

The sea lions are the one truly wholesome thing about Pier 39.

The sea lions are the one truly wholesome thing about Pier 39.

Madeline Wells/SFGATE

Seeing the sea lions was not on my original to-do list. But after my Mirror Maze trauma, I needed a pick-me-up.

The minute I stepped through the swinging doors to the viewing dock and heard my first “ARF ARF ARF,” a huge smile spread across my face. I legitimately squealed.

There they were, those squirmy big sea puppies, flopping all over each other in a big pile. They burped and barked, cuddled and climbed. I laughed, I nearly cried. I love them.

Rating: 10/10

7D Experience

The 7D Experience is part roller coaster, part 3-D video game.

The 7D Experience is part roller coaster, part 3-D video game.

Madeline Wells/SFGATE

Next, I skipped the obvious Pier 39 carnival rides for a game that promised something more: the 7D Experience, a “virtual roller coaster” video game with motion seats. I popped in line behind a family whose children were arguing over which game to play.

“I want werewolves!” whined the little boy.

“Nooo, carnival, mommy please!” pouted the little girl.

The girl got her way — they settled on “carnival.” I paid my $14 (oof) and asked for the same thing so I could squeeze into their game.

We all filed into a dark theater, where we put on 3-D glasses and buckled ourselves into our motion seats. To my right was a blaster, with which I was instructed to “shoot the clowns.”

I’m truly not much of a video game person, but this game was fun as hell. The graphics were terrifying (think bloody clown heads scuttling toward you on two legs), and I screamed out loud more than once. The special effects of the seat jostling and air blowing in my face made it feel like I was really on a haunted roller coaster ride. I kept a death grip on my blaster, shooting clowns like my life depended on it.

In the end, I came in third place, beat by two kids who probably play video games every day. Not bad for a nongamer.

Rating: 8/10

Ripley’s Believe It or Not!


The “world’s tallest man” and the “world’s most unusual man” in the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum.

Madeline Wells/SFGATE

I didn’t have high expectations for Ripley’s Believe It or Not! But the second I entered the museum and “Hey There Delilah” blasted over the speakers, it became even worse than I imagined.

I was the only person in the entire museum, which had an unsetting effect considering all the dummies, animal skeletons and shrunken heads. The environment put me so on edge I nearly screamed my head off when an employee scurried past me.

A TV played a video detailing the life of cartoonist Robert Ripley, talking about how he was “fascinated by primitive and exotic cultures.” Things only got more offensive from there, whether people with physical disabilities or non-Western cultures were put on display as freakish things to be gawked at.

How does something like this still exist in San Francisco, much less in 29 locations across the globe? Also, how the hell does this cost $30? (That price includes admission to another mirror maze, to which I say: absolutely the f—k not.)

Unfortunately, the museum was an endless nightmare that just kept going. I speed-walked my way past an 8-foot-tall mannequin of the “world’s tallest man,” then yelped when I rounded a corner to come face-to-face with the “world’s most unusual man.” Only after braving a spinning tunnel of hell blasting “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga did I finally locate the exit.

Never have I been so happy to see the outside of Fisherman’s Wharf.

Rating: 1/10

Madame Tussauds

Rihanna, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez and other wax figures at Madame Tussauds.

Rihanna, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez and other wax figures at Madame Tussauds.

Madeline Wells/SFGATE

I’d bought the combo deal — $40 for admission to both Ripley’s and Madame Tussaud’s — so next I headed next door to the wax museum. Still reeling from my Ripley’s experience, I braced myself as the elevator doors opened.

At first, I struggled to comprehend the scene before me. An EDM remix of “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” blasted in my ears. A life-like Robin Williams figure in suspenders stood amidst a flowery, ’70s-inspired display, flashing a thumbs-up.

Robin Williams' wax figure is the first thing you see once the elevators open in Madame Tussauds.

Robin Williams’ wax figure is the first thing you see once the elevators open in Madame Tussauds.

Madeline Wells/SFGATE

What followed were wax figures of dozens of San Francisco celebrities, from Janis Joplin to Bruce Lee to Steph Curry and former San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. Some were eerily realistic (well, until you looked deeply in their dead eyes). Others, like Lady Gaga, barely resembled their muses.

By the time I reached a jail cell featuring Al Capone holding a banjo, I began to understand the assignment. Yes, the wax museum is an opportunity to experience standing next to a celebrity you will probably never meet in real life (for me, this meant realizing many of them are much shorter than I imagined).

But at the end of the day, the wax museum is just a selfie museum. I started taking goofy photos of me posing next to Bill Gates, Beyonce and Nicolas Cage and sending them to friends with no explanation, in hopes they would be fooled into thinking I was suddenly very popular and well-acquainted (confession: This did not work ).

The whole thing was definitely very creepy, especially considering how empty it was in there. But pretending to be besties with Rihanna more than made up for it.

Rating: 7/10

The Fisherman's Wharf sign in San Francisco.

The Fisherman’s Wharf sign in San Francisco.

Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

I hate to say it, but snobby locals are mostly right: Fisherman’s Wharf is a hellscape. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some treasures amid the tourist traps.

If you’re the kind of person who might enjoy shooting clowns or taking selfies with Al Capone, give the 7D Experience and Madame Tussauds a whirl. Just be sure to avoid Ripley’s Believe It or Not! at all costs.

That said, for the least cursed experience, just skip everything and head straight to the sea lions. They won’t cost you to tell me, and they’ll never disappoint you.