Herb Caen Way

Herb Caen Way is the sidewalk that runs along the north side of the Embarcadero between Pier 39 and AT&T Park. It’s wide, flat, and smoothly surfaced, and it’s great for walking, jogging, and rollerblading; it’s also a great place for children to ride scooters or bikes or simply be pushed along in strollers.

Fresh air, exercise, and views of San Francisco Bay are reason enough to love this 2.6-mile promenade, but there’s more. There are historical markers along the way that recount the history and culture of San Francisco’s waterfront; there are public art installations — including one that runs nearly the length of the walkway; there are public piers and restaurants, and, of course, the iconic Ferry Building with is shops, eateries, and farmers market.

So, who was Herb Caen?

Herb Caen was the most widely read and well-known newspaper columnist in California. He wrote six columns a week for nearly 60 years – most of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. He called his style “three-dot journalism” because his columns were a rapid-fire series of short items separated by ellipses. He wrote about the city: the art, the architecture, the people, the politics, and more. In 1996, he was given a special award by the Pulitzer board. He called it his “Pullett Surprise.”

He was a clever writer and wickedly funny; he lightheartedly made fun of everything and everyone. On June 15, 1958, he wrote, “FUNNY OLD TOWN: The bridges replaced the ferries and the city promptly got too big for its bridges, wherefore the ferries are still running, but the bridge trains aren’t…”

01) HCW Sign (Z28-0-272)

Herb Caen loved San Francisco. He called it Baghdad-by-the-Bay. There’s a bronze plaque on the railing behind the El Mar restaurant at Pier 11/2 with one of his famous quotes: “One day, if I do go to heaven … I’ll look around and say, ‘It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco.’”

The walkway was originally called the Embarcadero Promenade, but it was renamed Herb Caen Way in 1996. In 1997, he died of lung cancer. Thousands attended his memorial service • • •


Here are some of the things you can see as you walk along Herb Caen Way:


02) Tele Hill Pylon (Z28-0-275)03) Signage (Z28-0-220)

Historical Markers, Plaques and Signage:

Along the length of Herb Caen Way there are 21 black and white striped pylons that serve as historical markers. Each of the 14-foot high metal pylons tells the story of some facet of San Francisco’s history. There is, for example, one about Ferryboats, one about Telegraph Hill, and one about the harsh life of sailors. The history on the pylons is told with old photos, quotes, and stories.


In addition to the pylons, there are podiums, like the one shown here, and numerous plaques embedded in the walkway. There are also whimsical bronze sea creatures attached to some of the concrete seating areas.


05) Ribbon (Z28-0-271) 07) Rocketship (Z28-0-338) 08) Cupids Span (Z28-0-352)

Public Art:

The Promenade Ribbon is a five-foot-wide, 2.5-mile-long stream of concrete with a continuous line of greenish glass blocks sandwiched in the middle. It represents a connection between the waterfront and the city. A bronze plaque at Pier 38 describes it like this: “Light spills up through the glass as if from a void. This is where the Bay ends and City begins. The line of the pavement rises and falls. It lifts up to function as seats and bollards. It sinks back under your feet where it is pavement. This is where you walk the line, the thin line between land and water. This is where you cross the line, from land into water and from water into land.” The Promenade Ribbon was created by artists Vito Acconci, Stanley Saitowitz, and Barbara Stauffacher Solomon in 1991–2000


Skygate is a 26-foot-high polished stainless steel sculpture by Roger Barr. The arch-shaped sculpture was installed near Pier 35 in 1985; it was dedicated to the memory of longshoreman-philosopher-poet Eric Hoffer.


The 40-foot-high Raygun Gothic Rocketship was installed this year at Pier 14, near the Ferry Building. Described as retro-futuristic, the rocket ship looks like a vision from the 1930s. It was originally created by the Black Rock Arts Foundation for the 2009 Burning Man Festival. It’s a temporary installation and will only be here through September 2011.


Cupid’s Span is a 60-foot-high bow and arrow sculpture made of painted fiberglass and steel. Installed in 2002, Cupid’s Span is the work of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen. It’s located in Rincon Park, a tiny sliver of a park along the Embarcadero at the foot of Folsom Street.

Created by Mark di Suvero in1995, Sea Change is a 70-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture that was installed in South Beach Park, near Pier 40. This kinetic sculpture serves as a gateway to the refurbished South Beach waterfront. The plaque at the base has a quote from Shakespeare's Tempest. It reads in part:

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

10) Red's Java House (Z28-0-210)



There are several restaurants sprinkled along the 2.6-mile route. Some are upscale like the Waterfront Restaurant at Pier 7, or the Waterbar and Epic Roasthouse along South Beach. Some are more down-home like Pier 23 or Red’s Java House at Pier 30. There are also places, especially in the Ferry Building, where you can get food to go and have a picnic on the waterfront. If you’re interested in food or drink, just wander along until you find what you like.


Side-trips and Piers:

Herb Caen Way follows along the westbound lane of the Embarcadero and frequently has buildings between it and the bay. At Piers 11/2, 3, and 5, there is a second public promenade behind the buildings, and it’s right on the water. It has great views of the bay, beautiful hanging flower baskets, and ample seating. Duck into one of the many openings and checkout this walkway too.

11) Ferry Bldg (Z28-0-349)


The Ferry Building is the midpoint along Herb Caen Way. Following a major restoration, this 1898 building reopened in 2004. It’s still a ferry terminal, but it’s also an upscale gourmet marketplace chock full of shops and eateries. There’s a large farmers market outdoors on Tuesdays Thursdays, and Saturdays.

There are two really nice public fishing piers off of Herb Caen Way. Pier 7 was rebuilt and reopened in 1990. Pier 14 was added in 2006.

If the pier numbering seems confusing, the even numbered piers run east of the Ferry Building to AT&T Park and beyond; the odd numbered piers run west of the Ferry Building to Fisherman’s Wharf and Fort Mason.


The Waterfront Transition:

For decades, the San Francisco waterfront was marred by a double-ugly, double-deck freeway, which ran above the Embarcadero. Many San Franciscans, including Herb Caen, had a love hate relationship with it. It was convenient, but it made our waterfront, unsightly, uninviting, and virtually unusable.

In October 1989, the freeway was so badly damaged by the Loma Prieta earthquake that the decision was finally made to tear it down. In 1991, the freeway was gone and a long series of projects were started to recover the waterfront. This included building the 25-foot-wide walkway along the waterfront and embellishing it with art installations and historic and interpretive signage. As mentioned earlier, the walkway was originally called the Embarcadero Promenade, it was renamed Herb Caen Way in 1996.

The walkway project was finally completed in 2000. That’s the same year the new Giant’s ballpark (now called AT&T Park) was completed and when the F-Streetcar Line was extended along the Embarcadero from Market Street to Fisherman’s Wharf. Hundreds of palm trees were installed along the Embarcadero. In 2002, Rincon Park and Cupid’s Span were added, and in 2004, the renovated Ferry Building reopened.

In less than 15 years, the Embarcadero and waterfront were completely transformed from China Basin (by AT&T Park) to Pier 39. It’s beautiful; it’s welcoming, and it’s used and loved by tourists and locals alike.


© Virginia E. Vail 2012