Fleet Week, San Francisco, 2016
Best Places to Watch the Blue Angels
Below are a variety of ideas and tips, picked up during several past years, to best see the Blue Angels and to make the most of your day at Fleet Week. Fleet Week, which attracts over a million visitors, is from Friday-Sunday, 10/7/16-10/9/16, this year.
The Fleet Week Air Show runs from 12-4 pm Friday-Sunday concluding with the Blue Angels from 3-4 pm each day.
Ship tours are Tuesday 10/4/16, Thursday 10/6/16 and Saturday-Monday, 10/8/16-10/10/16. For more information see our ship tour experiences in 2012, pictures & tips further below. This year the ship tours will be located along The Embarcadero at:
- Piers 15-17 (The Embarcadero & Green Street at the new Exploratorium)
- Piers 30-32 (599 The Embarcadero, just south of the Bay Bridge)
- Pier 35 (1454 The Embarcadero, a major cruise ship terminal just east of Pier 39)
Below are links to the up-to-date schedules & other details. These do change often.
- Fleet Week Air Show Schedule – Parking will definitely be a big problem. Get there early or be sorry!
- Ship Tours Schedule – Be sure to check the rules! It’d be a pity to stand in line for 2 hours and then not get in.
Below is described one relaxed way we have enjoyed seeing Fleet Week in the past. In 2016 you should be able to do something very similar. If you prefer more action, crowds, and ship tours try Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39 and The Embarcadero as described further down.
Take a very nice walk … Presidio-Marina Green-Ft Mason
(Note: see our Presidio Map and Marina Map for exact locations).
During a recent Fleet Week we started the day with a late morning breakfast on Liverpool Lil’s patio (now closed) just outside the Presidio’s Lombard Street gate. Then we walked our dog north via the Letterman Digital Arts Park and the Palace of Fine Arts grounds on to the St Francis Yacht Club Harbor. Then, east along the beach to Fort Mason.
It was FANTASTIC! The weather was beautiful with a low fog cover lifting off the Golden Gate Bridge in late morning. The SF Bay was filled with boats of all sorts observing Fleet Week festivities. And, above our heads as we walked, was the greatest air show on earth from 12-4 pm.
On Marina Green was a variety of military exhibits manned by Marines along with many civilian food stands, souvenir tents, and rides for kids. Thousands were picnicking & walking about Marina Green but it was still not overcrowded and had that great open San Francisco meadow-beach-sea feeling as usual.
We headed on to Fort Mason Center to further entertain ourselves by walking out to the end of the piers and then climbing the fire escapes there to watch the air show. You may already know that there are several small, unusual, and free museums at Fort Mason along with a very good used book store (Readers Book Store run to support the Public Library) which we revisited. What you may not know is that a Farmers Market is held Sunday mornings and a good coffee shop, Goody Cafe which is a part of Readers Book Store.
As the Air Show was ending we strolled back down the beach to our car parked near the Presidio. Driving south via Divisadero St was not crowded giving us a quick easy end to a great Sunday.
So, if you want to make it low key try this walk for pleasant Fleet Week. Even without Fleet Week festivities this is fun since there is plenty to do in the Marina area.
Marina Green Park
Marina Green itself is usually used for Fleet Week military exhibits along with many civilian food stands, souvenir stands, and kiddie rides. Of course, along the beach just north of Marina Green is always one of the best locations to watch the Air Show.
The shoreline just west of Fort Mason is crowded but one of the very best spots to see the Blue Angels even if you are not right in front. We just walk by watching as we go. The Blue Angels fly in low here, about 200 yards away and parallel to the shoreline.
If you have not spent time recently at Fort Mason be sure to investigate. It keeps getting better and better every year. During Fleet Week weekends there are some special exhibits as well as many other interesting things to see and do all year long. The coffee has been good at Goody Cafe, a coffee shop which is part of the Book Bay, one of the best used book stores around run by Friends of the San Francisco Library.
Aquatic Park between Fort Mason and Fisherman’s Wharf is, of course, also a top spot to watch the Air Show. Expect serious crowds but you can sit down and the view is super from right in the middle of the flight path. We also hear that Hyde Street Pier is a good spot too but is likely very crowded as well.
There are many things to see and do near Fisherman’s Wharf as usual. These include 6000 active duty sailors in uniform who will have been shipped into town. Pier 39 always has special events such as the Marine Corps Band and the view from the end of Pier 39 is excellent. Many restaurants will have good views of the air show as well but make sure you get a seat at the correct times since many limit how long you can tie up a window seat.
Of course, historical boat lovers can always find plenty more things to do at Fisherman’s Wharf (see Map for locations). These include the historical sailing ships at the Hyde Street Pier, a WWII submarine & Liberty Ship, and the Maritime National Historical Park Visitor Center.
Active-Duty Ship Tours Previous Years
There will be ship tours this year on Tuesday 10/4/16, Thursday 10/6/16 and then on Saturday-Monday, 10/8/16-10/10/16. See details (always subject to change) including what to wear (e.g., flat-heeled closed-toe shoes). Be aware that your wait in line for ship tours could be hours long which is why we don’t go every year.
In 2012 we took our first Fleet Week Ship tour which was of the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, the USS Makin Island LHD8. Makin Island is one of largest amphibious warfare vessels in the world and LHD stands for for Landing Helicopter Deck. (See Wikipedia for details).
The tour was outstanding, actually much better than expected. There was a lot to see and many pleasant young sailors and pilots to explain everything.
This active-duty ship has a navy crew of 1,200 personnel whose job is to carry and support up to 1,900 Marine troops. It provides air support (helicopters & jets) and 3 large hovercraft for getting the Marines and their combat vehicles onto land. Medical facilities include 6 operating rooms. On top is a big flight deck which makes it basically a small aircraft carrier; right underneath is an aircraft maintenance deck that works 24/7.
However, this was our last ship tour as well. Why? Because we had to stand in line for almost 3 hours. The tour itself lasted about 1 hour. So if you ever do decide to take this excellent tour start as early as possible and expect to take a full 1/2 day including the tour and the walk to the boat and back.
Ship Tour Tips:
These tips came from our personal experience. See here for the latest 2015 official times and details (which can change frequently). We recommend you get there quite early to hopefully reduce what can be an hours long wait (note: tour hours range from 9 am-4 pm in 2015 depending on ship and day). Also, definitely check the rules beforehand. They appear to be getting less restrictive in 2015 … but in 2012 a government ID was required, minimum age was 8 and no open-toed shoes, skirts, high heels, or handicapped personnel were allowed on board of working military vessels.
One thing to do in advance is figure out exactly where the ship will actually be docked; in 2012 we checked ahead but couldn’t find this information which caused us a long walk. The ship turned out to be docked just north of Delancy St, fairly close to the Ballpark. Once you know where the ship is located you should probably park nearby. Parking south towards the Ballpark also might make for an quicker escape from traffic when leaving after the air show.
Many thousands of people watch the air show from The Embarcadero. We did too since we were walking back from the ship tour. Most sightseers were at the Ferry Building, near the big Star Princess Cruise Ship docked at Pier 34, or along the shoreline north of the Bay Bridge. The Embarcadero was not a bad place to see the Blue Angels, since you are much closer than when watching from Sausalito, but most of the smaller planes in the first part of the air show were not visible. The Marina or just west of Fisherman’s Wharf are definitely better locations to watch the full air show if you are going to spend the effort to go into the City anyway.
Or, Watch Blue Angels from a Distance
It can be beautific to watch from Fort Baker or Sausalito or the Marin Headlands. However, be sure to arrive early (definitely before 10 am) or you may find there is no parking. In 2011 we decided to go Saturday afternoon which was a disaster we shan’t repeat. Golden Gate Bridge traffic was packed and police had blocked off access roads to Fort Baker due to overcrowding there. (In 2016 it will be much worse.) We ended up heading on to Sausalito where, by this time, parking was also a major challenge. Watching the Air Show through the crowds along the street was not particularly pleasant either.
The Golden Gate Promenade along Crissy Field in the Presidio is another favorite location. You might consider a walk across Golden Gate Bridge if you’ve never done that before; the pedestrian walkway on the east side of the Bridge (bikes only on the west side) will have a good view of the Air Show. We’ve also heard that Dolores Park, 18th St/Dolores St, and Alta Plaza Park, Pierce St/Jackson St, are good places to watch from a distance.
If you know someone in the City who has a good roof top view they will likely be throwing an informal party. Ask. Also ask about parking since that will be a problem for sure. We used to celebrate Fleet Week from the roof of our home near Union & Hyde then walk on down to Fisherman’s Wharf to check out the local action.
By the way, the best part of the Air Show from a long distance away is the Blue Angels. The other smaller, slower planes can be difficult to see clearly even with binoculars. So, if you are a serious plane watcher head on down to Marina Green, Fort Mason, Aquatic Park, and Fisherman’s Wharf where you will be close enough to properly enjoy the smaller military plane maneuvers.
More Smart Tips
- Warning! Our best tip is to start early and make it a day. Get there well before 10 am. Otherwise you will run into both heavy traffic and difficult parking if any. The total estimated attendance is over 1.2 million and Pier 39 alone expects 200,000 visitors during the week. On Sunday 10/9/16 the Columbus Day Parade will also be held … and that alone can attract 400,000 people. So, expect crowds, expect parking problems, and definitely arrive early.
- A good strategy is usually to park a distance away from the crowds (in the direction you will later be escaping) and walk in. Besides being less expensive it is much easier to escape when, later in the day, serious traffic snarls develop.
- Biking in is a great way to do it. This way you can do almost everything, with a combination of biking and walking, except take the ship tours.
- As usual in San Francisco, wear layers of clothes. The climate is usually moderate but if you move around there will always be places where you will be too hot or too cold depending on the sun, wind, fog, and hour of day.
- The official Fleet Week Website has up to date information which is always subject to change. Also see the Blue Angels website which includes interesting FAQs and film clips of their maneuvers from several camera angles. (note: the Blue Angels website seems to have its problems but still “works” if you proceed through the advanced portion.)
- The Marina and Marina Map – Things to do while watching the air show.
- The Presidio and Presidio Map The shoreline on the north side of the Presidio provides a good view of the airshow during Fleet Week and several good things to do during the day. This might be the time to really check out all the new things to do which have been added to the Presidio since it became a park.
- Fisherman’s Wharf and Map – Fisherman’s Wharf will definitely be crowded during Fleet Week. It is not just a tourist trap as some so-called sophisticates may imply; there are plenty of things to do there which even a jaded local will enjoy.
- North Beach and Map where the Columbus Day Parade will terminate at Washington Square on Sunday 10/9/16.
- The Embarcadero and Map – If you plan to take the ship tour try parking along The Embarcadero and then walk north towards Fisherman’s Wharf and the ships.
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