SF Ferry Building

Welcome back to Condo Weekly’s lifestyle column! We provide you with useful insider tips on getting the most out of your city: in this case, San Francisco and the Bay Area. This week, one of our lifestyle columnists is covering a great hangout spot: the SF Ferry Building.

Front of the Ferry Building

The Ferry Building is a San Francisco icon. There’s a reason they sell snow globes with the building wedged next to the Golden Gate Bridge and a Cable Car. However, though the SF Ferry Building was built in 1898, it only reopened to the public in 2003 as a public marketplace. The old meets the new, with historical architecture (it’s a San Francisco historical site) serving as a home to trendy local restaurants and shops. As an avid ferry taker, I’ve passed through the halls many times, accepting samples and soaking up the grand atmosphere.

CW ProTip:
Go on a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday. These days there’s an outdoor market that sells local fruits and vegetables, as well as prepared meals. On Saturdays, this market is the largest outdoor market in San Francisco, with tents that sprawl out onto the plaza across the street. The market is only open from 10 am to 2 pm on weekdays, so you’ll want to visit during those hours. If you don’t, you can still buy a small selection of locally farmed fruits and vegetables inside the Ferry Building.

Farmers Market in front of the Ferry Building in San Francisco

CW ProTip:

Eat at a restaurant that’s far from the street. The lines are shorter the deeper you go into the building. You can find quality restaurants that will serve you immediately, even at noon. For instance, I ate at the famous Hog Island Oyster Company (they sell shirts), and only waited two minutes for a table. Why? The entrance to the restaurant is inside a grocery store. Compare this to the ever-popular Gott’s, which faces the street and often has lines that spill out the door. 

Gotts Ice Cream - Ferry Building San Francisco

Some of the best restaurants, including Boulettes Larder (of which NY Times columnist Mark Bittman wrote “may have been the breakfast I’ve ever had”), are hidden deep inside the building. You could visit many times and still be surprised to discover a new place to eat. The long and short of it is that you can skip the lines if you’re willing to look around a little.

CW ProTip:

Walk the length of the building before committing to a purchase. There are many opportunities to buy wine, olive oil, and ice cream throughout the building. The number of olive oil varieties available for purchase (lemon, rosemary, onion mustard garlic) is enough to justify a visit alone. Many of these shops will allow you to sample their wares before you commit to purchasing as well.

Inside the Ferry Building in San Francisco

You don’t want to buy a bottle of wine at the ferry building’s indoor supermarket only to stumble upon a much larger selection at the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant a few stores down. Pro tip: If you really want to explore all that the ferry building has to offer, make sure you don’t neglect the corridors. In addition to the stores that line the length of the building, there are also short hallways that have restaurants, coffee shops, and a bookstore that you might not notice on your first visit.

My Trip to the Ferry Building

I got to the Ferry Building by car, but if you’re located outside the city, then you will probably want to take the ferry (obviously). 

CW ProTip: If you park nearby in a lot with paid parking, you can get validated through any of the shops inside. 

As I entered the Ferry Building from the left, I ignored the line of tents from the Farmer’s Market (they stay open until 2 pm) and headed indoors. Some of the walls have decorations explaining the history of the Ferry Building. Rumor has it that they’re planning another upgrade soon.

The Ferry Building memorial in San Francisco

When I entered from the north, I came face to face with the two ice cream options the Ferry Building has to offer. To my left was Gott’s frozen yogurt stand, and to my right was Humphrey Slocombe. Both shops are Bay Area based, as are many of the other stores in the Ferry Building. Humphrey Slocombe is known for their unusual flavors, like “Secret Breakfast”, “Pomegranate Pina Colada”, and “Harvey Milk and Honey Graham”. Here’s something I didn’t know before trying “Secret Breakfast”: it tastes like alcohol. The ice cream is Bourbon flavored, hence the secret.

Ice cream shop inside the Ferry Building in San Francisco

I continued walking down the hall, stopping in to examine soaps, bowls, and maybe some beeswax candles? There’s actually a cart devoted to selling honey and other bee-related products. Somehow, they’ve managed to create at least eight unique honey flavors, all of which are available for you to sample. Speaking of samples, the opportunities are plentiful. If you see anything you’re interested in at the Ferry Building, you can probably get a sample of it. It’s basically like a high-end Costco without the membership fees. I sampled ice cream, chocolate, pressed juice, donuts, olive oil, hand cream, and balsamic vinaigrette.

The building itself is multistoried, but the second level and floors above it are office space. You can hang out upstairs, but you’ll have to get past the security guard who will also explain the boundaries of where you are allowed to go (it’s limited). You’ll find the second level by exiting the building and going up a flight of stairs outside. 

Ferry Building view from upstairs

CW Protip: If you want some privacy while you eat, this would be a great place to get it, because I only saw a few people up here.

The Ferry Building is a marketplace that puts a heavy emphasis on food. It’s home to a plethora of restaurants, both formal (Boulettes Larder, The Slanted Door) and casual (Cowgirl Sidekick, Golden Gate Meat Company). It sells an assortment of pantry staples for cooking at home, like honey, mushrooms, wine, olive oil, and more. Because it’s San Francisco and you’re near a ferry terminal, i.e. on the water, you’ll find a lot of seafood. In this spirit, I decided to eat lunch at the Hog Island Oyster Company.

If you thought I was going to get oysters, prepare to be disappointed. I entered the restaurant through their front entrance, which is hidden in the back of a grocery store. Though oysters at the Hog Island Oyster Company are local and fresh (from Tomales Bay), I decided to order a grilled cheese. Why? Well, partially because I like grilled cheese, but also because it was made with cheese from Cowgirl Creamery, another Bay Area food icon. You can also get their grilled cheeses at their dairy bar (Cowgirl Sidekick) inside the ferry building.

The Hog Island Oyster Company faces the water, so I got a great view of all the ferries coming and going. They also offered the opportunity to sit outside on the patio as well. Though I didn’t drink anything on this trip, there was a full bar inside the restaurant. You can also purchase alcohol throughout the Ferry Building, especially wine, which I saw in the grocery store, a store dedicated to Italian food, and a shop dedicated to wine. 

I ended my tour at Gotts Creamery. Though their flavors are tamer than Humphrey Slocombe’s, they’re still sophisticated, with options like “Fior di latte” (sweet cream), “Organic Vanilla”, and “Coffee”. I got a Fior di latte and coffee swirl with toppings.


Back to the farmers market: There were tents outside lining the length of the entire ferry building. Many tents offered samples of fruits and vegetables. The thrice-weekly event is sponsored by the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA). If the selection inside the building isn’t enough for you, the farmers market also serves full meals and pastries from local shops. 

CW Protip: You can buy food here, and then walk behind the building to the public benches and eat with a view of the bay.

Lauren Glazer