*SEE PHOTOS BELOW*
It is said that San Franciscans hate Fisherman's wharf. To some extent that's probably true. The reason is simple. Too many tourists! San Franciscans hate tourists, those who aren't in the tourist/hospitality industry at least. It reminds them that the hospitality/ tourist industry is in fact the largest in the city and that it's possible that the city's best days are behind it. Granted, gentrification has improved much of the burg, but be that as it may, whether the locals like it or not, Fisherman's wharf is an essential tourist trap.
If it wasn't so, then how do you explain the fact that it has three (count'em three) national parks, decent food, a sizable percentage of the world's sea lions, good fishing, and really good views of the bay. What more do you want? A cheesy shopping mall? They got that too.
The reason most San Franciscans rarely go there (or admit that they do) is the main reason it's essential. It's too famous. This is why most people don't go to their area's famous attractions. It's also arrogance. After all, the area stinks with tourists, and unless they work there, the locals are better than that, thumbing their noses at us fat visitors who come to see the city by the bay. This is just something you have to see...
Starting with the national parks...
The three NP's, Alcatraz, San Francisco Maritime, and Golden Gate/Miller Field aren't exactly in the wharf, they frame it, Alcatraz, on Pier 33, is the eastern boarder of the area, the other two on the west. As far as Alcatraz goes, trip is definitely worth it, however you just can't walk up to the ticket kiosk and get on the next boat. Everything's booked up for at least a day in advance, so go to the website first and get a reservation. The whole thing takes about a day, which means that Fisherman's Wharf is a two-day operation.
If you forgot to make a reservation for Alcatraz, then find out when the first available boat is and head west to Pier 39, which is where the carousel, aquarium and the notorious hoard of sea lions are. This is the little bit of Disneyland that the shishi San Franciscans so love to hate. Unless you're looking for high culture or a quiet bucolic setting (in which case what the hell are you doing in San Francisco?), this is the best spot for people watching (Union Square is a close second). The prices for souvenir tchotchies are high, but not that high, and the street performers are for the most part entertaining. This is San Francisco the theme park, and as such is pretty successful.
West of Pier 39 is the Wharf proper, bordered by the bay to the north and North Point St. to the south, and Hyde St., where the cable cars and Maritime National Park are, to the west. Here you will find a huge number of souvenir stands and seafood restaurants, just what a tourist wants and a local doesn't. After all, except for the occasional patriotic tee shirt and baseball caps during the season, who really goes around with stuff festooned with one's hometown's logo on it?
But behind the all the kitsch, you will discover that Fisherman's Wharf is a real wharf with real fisherman. Go ahead, have an expensive bowl of chowder or crab cakes. It's part of the experience. Finally, there are the two national parks. Maritime has an interesting museum and for a small fee you get to see some interesting old ships. Then there's a place to rest and look at the bay, which is owned by the US government and is absolutely free. Further to the west, you'll see a cliff. That's the Fort Mason Unit of the Golden Gate National Parks, and is technically part of the Marina district.
Fisherman's Wharf is an essential tourist trap....and why do you think they call them that?