San Francisco's Historic Ghirardelli Square Is The Modern-Day Chocolate Factory We All Deserve

If you're a chocolate fan, odds are you've heard of Ghirardelli. It's the chocolate brand from San Francisco whose decadent 1-inch chocolate squares come wrapped in bright colors and a variety of flavors from classic milk to gingerbread or hot cocoa. But the company is so much more than its single-serving squares. It also produces baking bars, chocolate chips, fudge and caramel sauces, as well as cocoa powder.

While Ghirardelli's chocolate is a delicious indulgence that makes any dessert or treat extra special, the flagship store and square in San Francisco is a wonderland of excitement, history, and of course chocolate. Situated in the Marina on the San Francisco Bay, this tourist spot isn't just for the devoted chocolate fan. It's a place to enjoy a quiet cup of cocoa with a friend, play games with your children, relish a nice dinner, or satisfy that chocolate craving with a rich hot fudge sundae. It's the place to visit when you don't just want to eat chocolate, you want to experience it.

On a recent visit to San Francisco, I got the chance to visit the square, enjoy some of that famous hot chocolate, a sundae or two, and even sample some of Ghirardelli's most popular chocolate squares. Read on to discover everything you need to know about the chocolate giant and its original location.

The Ghirardelli Chocolate Company started after a couple of false starts

Ghirardelli Square wasn't always the chocolate factory it is today. It actually started when Domenico "Domingo" Ghirardelli came to California after hearing his friend, James Lick, tell tales of pioneers making their fortunes overnight thanks to the Gold Rush. So, Ghirardelli came and tried his luck at prospecting. While he failed to make his own fortune in gold, he knew he could make a living selling his chocolate. He set up a general store in Stockton that supplied the 49ers with mustard, coffee, spices, and, you guessed it, chocolate.

After trying out four other locations that were never the right fit, Ghirardelli found the Pioneer Woolen Mills on North Point Street in San Francisco. He bought the mill, and set up shop, and the chocolate company has been there ever since. But then fear struck die-hard chocolate lovers when the shop was sold in the 1960s.

That fear didn't last long, thanks to a small group of San Franciscans who got together, bought the property and ensured the chocolate company would remain on the Bay's shores for many years. To further seal the deal, Ghirardelli Square received National Historic Register status in 1982, guaranteeing it would continue to be a beacon of chocolate for millions of future generations of chocolate lovers.

Guests can sample chocolate in a factory that dates back to the Civil War

Stepping through the doors of the Woolen Mill is like stepping into Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Everywhere you look there's chocolate, from the largest Pick & Mix island holding every Ghirardelli flavor you can think of to the stunning hot fudge sundae painted on the brick wall. But the real excitement takes hold as you make your way to the Chocolate Experience counter. Behind tall panes of glass, dark and milk chocolate gushes from spigots, ready to be turned into giant chocolate bars laced with almonds.

You'd never know that the brick building where strawberries and handmade waffle bowls are hand-dipped in dark chocolate is the same place where seamstresses toiled their days away sewing uniforms for Civil War soldiers. Thanks to a recent remodel in 2020, the stunning shop whose walls are made of burgundy brick and white marble isn't just the place where you pick your favorite Ghirardelli squares to take home, it's where you can enjoy one of 15 signature sundaes including Ghirardelli's World Famous Hot Fudge Sundae while staring across the bay at one of San Francisco's most iconic tourist attractions: Alcatraz. And if you want to enjoy the full "chocolate experience" just sidle up to the bar and receive a sampling of Ghirardelli's most iconic flavored squares while employees turn freshly made waffles into stunning ice cream bowls and drizzle white chocolate over freshly dipped strawberries.

See the original 19-foot G from the marquee inside the Original Ghirardelli Chocolate & Ice Cream Shop

As soon as you enter the Original Ghirardelli Chocolate & Ice Cream Shop just a few hundred feet from Ghirardelli's Chocolate Experience, you see the two items that remind you just how old the iconic company is. Past the counters where you can order your favorite Ghirardelli desserts and drinks stands the giant "G" that used to be located atop the square before it was replaced with an LED version. While the "G" is pretty amazing to see in person, the antique chocolate machine to the right got me excited. To witness the machines Ghirardelli and his team originally used to make chocolate really instilled in me that today's chocolatiers take as much care with their chocolate-making as they did when Ghirardelli created the shop all those years ago.

While you can savor the same rich sundaes covered with all that luscious fudge and caramel at the Original Ice Cream Shop that you can get at the Chocolate Experience, patrons can also enjoy cookies, brownies, and milkshakes inside this location. I was elated to see that I could pick out my favorite chocolate squares here, too, but soon discovered that the Chocolate Experience had a wider variety of flavors from which to choose.

If you're in a rush, you can still get your favorite chocolate at Ghirardelli On-The-Go

Situated right on the corner of the square, Ghirardelli-On-The-Go is the place to visit when you want to grab a quick sundae, cup of coffee, or hot chocolate, but simply don't have the time to sample chocolate or watch the magic happen. As the name of this shop suggests, it's the place to hit when you want to take your chocolate to go.

Located on the ground level, this small shop is hard to miss if you're walking along the shore from Fisherman's Warf. Its bright blue awnings and small outside tables alert each visitor to the excitement hiding inside. While you can't pick your favorite flavors from a Pick & Mix island like you can inside the other two shops, patrons can still grab their favorite chocolate squares, cocoa powder, or full-sized bars to take home or enjoy across the street at the beach. And even though I couldn't get enough of that giant glass goblet filled with creamy ice cream and the richest fudge and homemade whipped cream, those goblets are hard to take with you. So, Ghirardelli has started making mini versions. They're half the size, come in the cutest little plastic to-go cups, and are also available inside the smallest of the three shops.

There's more than just chocolate at Ghirardelli Square

While hot cocoa and hot fudge sundaes are enough of a reason for us to go anywhere, it's not all Ghirardelli Square has to offer. Turns out, there's enough to do to make a day out of it. If you're in the mood for tacos, steak, or seafood, there are several restaurants where you could have a nice meal. Then once you're done, go shopping for a stunning new piece of jewelry or pick out some high-end olive oil and vinegar for a home-cooked meal. There's even an arcade and miniature golf course in case the kids get bored.

Unsure when to visit the famous square? Time your chocolate tasting with the holidays as the Square always has something fun going on, from flower popups for Valentine's Day to lion dancing for the Lunar New Year. It recently hosted a "Black Makers Popup" in honor of Black History Month. With so much to do, it's no surprise Ghirardelli Square is still a hot spot after all these years. But it's the recent renovations that elevate the whole experience. After all, who wouldn't want to indulge in some freshly made hot fudge while picking out their favorite chocolates and enjoying the ocean breeze? I know I'd be first in line.