I'll cut right to it: there are three places I can recommend:
- San Francisco Maritime Aquatic Park Cove: it will be crowded, but probably the best view, especially since you will get commentary over the maritime museum loudspeakers that describes what you are seeing. I'd recommend this for any first-timers. Arrive early and expect getting out of there to take until the eventual heat death of the universe.
- Alcatraz: If you want to see the airshow with San Francisco in the backdrop because you're looking to mix it up, I hear good things about this. This is what I'm doing this year. The trick is to reserve the tickets to Alcatraz as soon as they become available (three or four months beforehand, reserve both days, wait until the week of the show, and cancel one of them based on weather -- you can wait up until 24 hours before to cancel for no charge).
- A boat in the bay: awesome experience, but I would not recommend this for taking photos.
Be sure to check the schedule and not miss any of the parade of ships as they enter the bay if there's a carrier. It is certainly a sight to see a ship over a thousand feet long and barely able to squeeze under the Golden Gate bridge. Note the dark line around the top edge of the boat. Those are some of the five thousand people that live aboard that ship.
In terms of photography, I'd recommend studying up -- search for shooting fleet week, there's lots of good blog posts. It's actually much more difficult than you imagine. There's so much water vapor in the air sometimes that it can make focusing next to impossible with such fast-moving aircraft. Usually I manually focus if the weather is poor by focusing on a boat at the same distance as I expect the aircraft to make its next pass. Also, it can help to know what maneuvers the aircraft are going to do, so maybe enjoy the first day and remember what they did and then take photos on Sunday if the weather is promising.
Here's a great example of why knowing the program can help -- I knew they were going to surprise us from behind, and I managed to catch the number four aircraft scaring the shit out of everyone below from over Ghirardelli Square toward Alcatraz.
Here are some photos taken from Aquatic Park: http://www.flickr.com/pho
And some video that demonstrates how impressive these aircraft are taken at/near Aquatic Park (by someone else):
And it's not easy for the pilots. They pull enough g-force (6-7 times the force of gravity) to knock an untrained/unconditioned person out in some of the turns.
If you have a scanner, tune into the frequency the pilots are communicating on to hear the coordination between aircraft.
There's a great IMAX documentary called "The Magic of Flight" about the Blue Angels I'd recommend if you want to get the most from your experience: https://movies.netflix.co
Also, be sure not to miss this year's F-22 Raptor show. This is the newest aircraft the Air Force operates, and it has vectored thrust, which means it can maneuver like no other aircraft you've ever seen, as the nozzles at the rear of the engine redirect the thrust ±20 degrees. I don't want to spoil its insanity for you, but trust me, be there for that part of the show; the F-22 is going to defy gravity and physics to your eyes.
P.S. the cloud around the aircraft is not a sonic boom cloud; it is actually
a vapor cone, which is just high/low pressure differences in airflow around the aircraft instantaneously condensing water out of the atmosphere, and it is not related to the sound barrier.
Enjoy your Fleet Week!More questions on San Francisco:
Follow Quora on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Quora