San Francisco Ferry Building History & Marketplace

The San Francisco Ferry Building history is wrapped up in the history of the great city itself.  Today, tourists and locals alike flock to the building seeking the raved about San Francisco Ferry Building restaurants, the Farmers Market, or the yummy wares of the artisan shops that line central nave of the beautiful building.  By taking the time to learn about the current Ferry Building restaurants and shopping options, as well as the ups and downs of the Ferry Building history over the decades, we can learn about the glory days, neglect, and revitalization of the waterfront, and this amazing city itself.


Today’s San Francisco Ferry Building

San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace | San Francisco Ferry Building History | San Francisco Ferry Building Restaurants | Ferry Building San Francisco Restaurants

Ferry Building Marketplace

The main reason visitors to San Francisco venture to the Ferry building today, is the Marketplace.  The marketplace evokes European food markets, which is no happy accident.  When the design work and planning was being done, designers studied Herrod’s department store in London, the street markets of Paris, and the Peck gourmet grocery store in Milan as models for the Ferry Building’s Marketplace.  So if you, like me, love European markets (see my post on Venice’s Rialto Market here, and the Versailles Market here) you’re going to love the vibe here.  The market’s stated mission is to promote regional artisan producers and be a gathering place for the Bay area’s communities.  To this end, the Ferry Building Marketplace features shops offering regionally grown or produced foods and artisanal cheeses, olive oil, breads and chocolate.  On Saturdays, local restaurants come to the building to showcase items from their menus.  The Market is so successful, it draws 40,000 shoppers per week down to the waterfront.

San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace | San Francisco Ferry Building History | San Francisco Ferry Building Restaurants | Ferry Building San Francisco Restaurants

San Francisco Ferry Building Restaurants

In the midst of the shops there are also some amazing restaurant options that cater to tourists as well as busy professionals on lunch break.  The Slanted Door anchors one end of the Ferry Building’s Marketplace and is an award-winning restaurant that provides Vietnamese cuisine with a contemporary take.  Gott’s Roadside offers a bit of a trendy spin on the American classic burgers, fries & shakes and some tacos, salads and other twists thrown in.

For a really amazing dessert treat, you have to check out Humphrey Slocombe, the little ice cream shop of wildly creative options.  I was very temped by the French Tickler (banana & creme fraiche ice cream with spicy sugar cookies) and the Secret Breakfast (bourbon & cornflakes – I mean, it was really hard not to order that!).  In the end, I had to have Firebrand: caramel ice cream with chocolate covered pretzels.  Maybe not as adventurous, but oh my heavens… yummm.  My girl’s choice?  Malted Milk Chocolate.  Sometimes you just have to go with a classic.

Our visit was on a bit of a drizzly, chilly day (I know, in San Francisco?  Shocker, right?!), so we had to go for the perfect lunch for such a day:  the grilled cheese of the day with tomato soup at the Cowgirl Creamery.  The tomato soup is creamy, tasty perfection, a great balance of the traditional taste you grew up with, but somehow a bit more fresh and a delicious step up.  And the grilled cheese on our day was an onion leek concoction whose description had me concerned the teen daughter would be a bit put off.  (Honestly, I didn’t point out the specific ingredients, though they were there in the description for her to read, concerned it would deter her.  I decided to place my faith in the highly rated little restaurant and it worked!)  She was delighted with it, and we happily munched in the communal seating, warming both toes and heart with comfort food done right.

San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace | San Francisco Ferry Building History | San Francisco Ferry Building Restaurants | Ferry Building San Francisco Restaurants

If you are looking for more dining options, check out this post on Unique Eats in San Francisco, by the awesome San Francisco blogger over at YrOfTheMonkey.  It’s tucked in my pocket for next visit!

Ferry Building Farmer’s Market

The Farmer’s Market is a significant part of the draw of the Marketplace, and it helps support San Francisco’s sustainable agriculture and environmental health goals.  On Tuesday and Thursday from 10am to 2pm, and on Saturday from 8am to 2pm, the best-known farmers’ market in San Francisco descends on and around the Ferry Building.  In a city as “Foodie” as San Francisco, this Farmer’s Market couldn’t get away with being anything but amazing, and has developed into a significant draw for the community.

Ferry Building Ferry Service

Maybe the most satisfying thread of information I followed through my research on the San Francisco Ferry Building was the ebb and flow of ferry traffic itself over the years.  From the height in the 1920s (see below – I was shocked!) to the neglect of this mode of transport with the rise of personal use of automobiles, to today’s return and growing use of Ferry service due to struggles with traffic congestion and conservation efforts.  Ferry service between Vallejo and San Francisco, which had discontinued in 1953, was resumed in 1986.  Immediately following the 1989 quake, ferry service to Alameda and Oakland, which had ended in 1953, resumed to aid commuters faced with damaged and impassable roadways, and continues to this day.  The very reason this historic landmark was created is being brought back and put to use.

For a full schedule of Ferry service in and out of the San Francisco Ferry Building, see this site.


San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace | San Francisco Ferry Building History | San Francisco Ferry Building Restaurants | Ferry Building San Francisco Restaurants

San Francisco Ferry Building History

The San Francisco Ferry Building history dates back to not long after San Francisco joined the united States in 1848.  Originally, an 1875 wooden ferry terminal occupied the location where today’s San Francisco Ferry Building stands.  A. Page Brown who, while most famous for this project, was also a strong influence behind the Mission Revival architecture style that Santa Barbara became known for, designed the current Ferry Building.  The new Ferry Building project was San Francisco’s largest project when it was designed in 1892 and completed and opened in 1898, two years after Brown’s tragic death following a runaway horse & buggy accident.

Ferry Building: World Class Transit Hub

Unsurprisingly, the Ferry Building history started being a transit hub.  The Ferry Building was the embarkation point for travelers to reach Marin and Oakland and handled a huge amount of traffic.  I had no idea that until the 1930s, with the introduction of the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, it was the second busiest transit terminal in the world, serving both as the hub of the regional ferry system, and as the terminal of the TransContinental Railroad. In fact, in the 1920s, over 100,000 people passed through the structure each day – only London’s Charing Cross was busier.  But as personal automobile use increased and with the arrival of the new bridges, ferry traffic was never again in as much demand, and slowly the building’s original use fell by the wayside.

San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace | San Francisco Ferry Building History | San Francisco Ferry Building Restaurants | Ferry Building San Francisco Restaurants

Ferry Building:  Repurposed

In the 1950s the Ferry Building history takes a sad turn, and the building interior was altered and divided up so that the building could be used for office space.  Unbelievably, little attention was paid to preserving the beautiful architectural details, and and entire new floor was inserted while linoleum was laid right over top of the marble inlaid floors.  (I know, make me want to weep just a little, too.)

To add insult to injury, in 1957 the Embarcadero Freeway was built smack in front of the Ferry Building, blocking the view of the building, and providing for precious little pedestrian access from the city.  The Ferry Building and much of the waterfront faded from the city’s sight and mind.  However, when the Embarcadero Freeway suffered major damage from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the city turned its eyes back to the beautiful yet sturdy Ferry Building.  This building had come through not only the 1989 quake virtually unscathed,  but also survived the 1906 quake and fire afterward that had decimated so much of the city immediately surrounding it.  The decision was made to remove the freeway – instead keeping a ground level Embarcadero with abundant pedestrian crossing – and look to restore and reconnect the Ferry Building and the city.  The 1898 Beaux-Arts building was returning to the limelight as part of the city’s plan to re-energize and draw people back to the waterfront.


San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace | San Francisco Ferry Building History | San Francisco Ferry Building Restaurants | Ferry Building San Francisco Restaurants

San Francisco Ferry Building Restoration

The restoration work and new plan for the use of the Ferry Building was going to have to take into account that the building was added to the National Register of Historic places and is considered an historic landmark for both architecture and engineering.  This meant that some alterations, such as removal of some of the floor of the upper level to allow the Skylights to stream light to the ground floor, would be controversial improvements.

Ferry Building Clock Tower

The 245-foot-tall clock tower is a visual landmark of the city and was modeled after the 12th century Giralda bell tower in Seville, Spain.  The tower has four clock faces, each 22 feet in diameter.  The original clockworks have been preserved but are now powered by an accurate electric motor with the pendulum still intact, but motionless.  A new lighting system was installed in the clock tower, enabling the clock to be lit day and night, and the bell still chimes portions of the Westminster quarters at the full and half-hour.  The restoration work on just the clock tower was so momentous for the city that a clock-starting ceremony was held in June 2003 and attended by the mayor of San Francisco and various other city dignitaries.

Ferry Building Interior Restored & Repurposed

The Beaux Arts-style Ferry Building was originally designed with the ground floor used for baggage handling.  The upstairs was entirely separate, and where passengers arrived and departed with inlaid marble floors featuring the Great Seal of the State of California.  The work to restore some of these features after the “improvements” of the 1950s was backbreaking work.  Hung ceilings were removed, as well as mezzanines, floors and walls.  The crossed lattice windows, Tennessee marble walls, and the nave’s skylight were all restored.  As for the decorative marble mosaic floor – it took five workers an entire year of work, mostly on their knees, applying a ground walnut shell material to restore the floor’s mosaic work after the linoleum was scraped off.  They also had to replace approximately 140,000 individual tiles.

When first developing a plan to restore the historic building, state agencies and community groups met and developed a wish list for the hopes and use of the building.  This led to the $100,000 restoration equipping the building with 175,000 square feet of office space, and 65,000 of retail marketplace space for shops, cafes, restaurants, and even a regular farmer’s market.


This newly designed and restored Ferry Building opened in 2003, and has been serving tourists, downtown business people and locals alike ever since.  Located on the northwest side of San Francisco, not far from the end of the Bay Bridge, the Ferry building is now an important anchor to the Embarcadero and waterfront area.  Next time you are in the city, take a wander through.  Have a tasty meal, get a few artisan goodies to take home, and thank San Francisco for saving this beautiful building.


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San Francisco, USA: The Ferry Building, San Francisco's historic landmark, draws tourists and locals alike to highly rated restaurants and delicious artisanal shops. Enjoy a peek inside and great information on it's current use and fascinating history. | San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace | San Francisco Ferry Building History | San Francisco Ferry Building Restaurants | Ferry Building San Francisco Restaurants | #FerryBuilding #SanFranciscoHistoricBuildings #SFFoodie #SanFranciscoMarkets

12 thoughts on “San Francisco Ferry Building History & Marketplace

  1. I love the Ferry building. I have eaten at some of the restaurants and also love the truffle salt I bought there. It’s interesting to also learn about the history.

  2. I spent a lot of time in San Francisco in 2002-2003, but didn’t go here. I will go here the next time I’m in the city. What a great place! I’m so happy they repurposed it. What a happy place.

  3. […] The first thing that attracted me to the Hotel Zephyr San Francisco, was the location.  I knew I would be in the city with my daughter and no car, so we wanted to be where a lot of sites were easily walkable.  The Hotel Zephyr location on Beach Street is only about one block from the waterfront, and two blocks from Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf.  Ghiardelli Square and the Alcatraz Ferry landing are easily walkable, and North Beach and Coit Tower aren’t bad either.  Even the Ferry Building, which is a little longer of a walk but reached by walking the flat, wide promenade that is the Embarcadero, was something we happily walked to.  (See my post all about the foodie and ice cream wonderfulness that is The Ferry Building.) […]

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