Welcome to San Francisco. You can call it the City or San Francisco or occasionally SF but please, please, whatever you do, don’t call it San Fran or Frisco or any other nickname that comes to mind. You’ll peg yourselves as tourists immediately (if you haven’t already done so by showing up in the city having packed only t-shirts and shorts).
First things first. San Francisco may be in California and it may have palm trees but it is NOT warm. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s anything like its sunny southern counterparts (LA and San Diego). San Francisco is chilly at some point in the day, every day, all year long.
So, bring layers because if you are lucky enough to visit on one of the two 75 degree weekends of the year you will start the day in a t-shirt only to find yourself joining flocks of other tourists purchasing fleece sweatshirts at 4:30 p.m. when the fog rolls in and the temperature drops 15 degrees in 15 minutes. You may want one of those fleece sweatshirts as a souvenir and that’s ok but if you have your own sweater to keep you warm you can at least shop around for one you actually like.
Hills, hills and more hills. As you probably know, San Francisco is a very hilly city and some of them are killers only made worse by the whine of children complaining about having to walk up them. Being the nice person that I am, I decided to ease you in by keeping things mostly level for this first “A Weekend with Kids in San Francisco” post.
There are a number of good hotels in the city, including the big chains. The Westin St. Francis on Union Square is in a great location in that it is on one of the cable car lines and not too far of a walk from the Embarcadero – the main drag that runs along the Bay. If you want to be closer to the water, check out Hotel Vitale toward one end of the Embarcadero or the Argonaut Hotel at the other.
Depending on when you arrive in the city, a good first day activity is to visit Union Square (SF shopping Mecca). The kids can run around the square (chasing pigeons if they’re into that kind of thing) and you can get a good espresso or latte and tasty pastries at Emporio Rulli. From there, batteries charged, you can head over to Yerba Buena Gardens. These two blocks of public park space contain a movie theater, a bowling alley, an ice skating rink, the Children’s Creativity Museum, an outdoor carousel and a playground. Additionally, they are bordered by the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the Museum of the African Diaspora, the Cartoon Art Museum and the SFMOMA (which is currently closed for renovation). Culture anyone?
Great restaurants abound in San Francisco but you will need to make reservations in advance. One of my favorite places is Perbacco. The food is delicious (housemade charcuterie, need I say more?) and the atmosphere is busy and lively (read: noisy enough that no one will notice if your kids kick up the volume).
Saturday morning, get yourselves over to the farmers’ market at the Ferry Building early – before the crowds. I’m guessing, if your kids are like mine, sleeping in isn’t an option. So, take advantage of the early rise and head to the market. The vendors start setting up at 7:00 and things are in full swing by 8:00.
As soon as you arrive, find one of the Blue Bottle Coffee kiosks (or go to their stand inside the Ferry Building) and get yourself a coffee. Yes, there will be a line and yes, it will be worth it. They also make delicious, high quality hot chocolate that will hopefully suffice to bribe your kids into waiting in said line.
Coffee in hand, swing past Alfieri Fruits & Nuts’ stand and grab yourself one of the dark chocolate almond brittle samples they almost always are handing out. This stuff is crack! I have been known to round back by for a second (read: third) sample… for my daughter… of course (ahem).
Around the side of the building are a number of prepared food vendors selling a range of tantalizing products from roasted chicken to breakfast sandwiches to raw, vegan wraps (Are you surprised? This is San Francisco.). On the backside of the Ferry Building is another large group of vendors, including more prepared foods to go.
When we lived in SF, I was a creature of habit when it came to the Saturday morning farmers’ market. I would get my Blue Bottle Coffee and head straight for Downtown Bakery’s stand to buy one of their whole wheat currant scones. They also sell fruit tarts, sticky buns that I hear are to die for, a donut muffin and various other sinful breakfast treats.
Coffee and scone in hand, I would then visit our favorite vendors: Tierra Vegetables for their chili jams, Andante Dairy for amazing cheese (which would later be accompanied by the aforementioned chili jams), the Fatted Calf for cured meats and pates, Cap’n Mike’s Holy Smoke for smoked salmon and any of the produce vendors for great fruits and veggies. Inside the Ferry Building, be sure to check out Cow Girl Creamery cheese shop and Acme Bread Company, at a minimum.
After spending some time at the farmer’s market, you can head across the street to the wonderful new Sue Bierman playground. From there, continue along the Embarcadero to the newly relocated Exploratorium.
This hands-on science museum is a must for kids of all ages. When we lived in the city I took my daughter there almost weekly from when she was 2 years old. Although she obviously didn’t quite understand the science behind the exhibits, she loved that fact that she could put her little hands on everything.
Appetites worked up, there are a number of places along the Embarcadero where you can grab lunch. Two of our favorites are The Plant Café Organic and La Mar. After lunch, you’ll be heading to Fisherman’s Wharf so you could opt to eat there instead. Being the tourist frenzy that it is, there are plenty of places to eat, including Boudin, a café by the 160 year-old San Francisco sourdough bread bakery of the same name.
Normally we would not recommend that you check out tourist traps like Fisherman’s Wharf. But this one is different. To the side of Fisherman’s Wharf, also known as Pier 39, is where the famous San Francisco sea lions reside. The number of sea lions in residence varies with the seasons, available food supply, migration patterns, etc. but there are always some there barking, shoving each other off the docks and stinking up the air!
Once you’ve had your fill of the smelly rough-housers and if you are brave enough, you can head on into the shops and restaurants area of Fisherman’s Wharf where you will find a double-decker carousel that is quite pretty and a nice ride.
From Fisherman’s Wharf, you can head up minimally inclining (I’m good to my word) Powell, Mason or Taylor Streets to North Beach, the Italian neighborhood and home of the famously crooked Lombard Street. We’d take you up Lombard but it’s a steep, steep hill and I promised I wouldn’t do that to you – not this time anyway. If you can’t resist then go for it and let me know how the kids fare!
A few blocks past Lombard Street is Washington Square. The center point of North Beach neighborhood, it has lots of grassy space for relaxing, kicking a ball, tossing a Frisbee, etc. and there is a playground in one corner. If you want to shop for some unique items to take home, check out Grant Avenue between Filbert and Vallejo Streets.
Some of my favorite local and independently owned shops include Little Vine (gourmet eats to go and a small but good wine selection), Lola of North Beach (owned by an awesome couple with three young kids the store is choc-a-bloc with great quality toys and trinkets for kids, including some SF themed items), and Mashka (really unique jewelry), to name a few.
For dinner, head to Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. Tony is so insane about his pizza that he has four completely different and separate ovens for making four different styles of pizza and they’re all amazing. But — and there’s always a but for places this yummy — they don’t take reservations. So go early (5:00-5:30) or you’ll be waiting quite a while to get in.
If you aren’t into the wait, you can make a reservation instead at Restaurante Ideale. The owner and waiters themselves are all imports from Italy and they make some great pasta dishes and appetizers. The second plates are ok but not worth skipping the pasta for. For dessert, I highly recommend Gelato Classico (576 Union Street) for a few scoops of their delicious homemade gelato.
For a slower Sunday in recuperation from your frenzied Saturday you should take to the water. Alcatraz Island is completely worth a visit. The history of the island and the jail house tour is fascinating for all ages. Just make sure to get your tickets through Alcatraz Cruises, the official ticket seller for the National Park Service’s Alcatraz Island tours, and be sure to reserve them a couple months in advance, especially during the summer season.
Some kids may not be into visiting a jail on an island. Awhile back our daughter one day refused to let us buckle her car seat so we told her that we could go to jail if we drove off with her unbuckled. She started bawling and yelled, “I don’t want to go to jail. Jail (sob, sob)… is on a rock (sob, sob)… in the ocean (sob, sob)! I DON’T WANT TO GO TO JAIL.” If your kids aren’t too psyched about the whole jail thing – as clearly ours wouldn’t be – fear not, you have other options for getting out on the water.
There are ferry services through Blue & Gold Fleet that cross the bay to Angel Island, a state park with hiking and bike trails, and to the waterside towns of Tiburon and Sausalito. From the ferries, you will get some great views of that “jail on the rock in the ocean” as well as of the Golden Gate Bridge and the beautiful Marin Headlands behind it.
Once in Sausalito and Tiburon you’ll find several dining options and shops in which to poke around. If you go to Tiburon, I recommend grabbing lunch or drinks and snacks at Sam’s Anchor Café. In nice weather, they have outdoor seating on the water and year-round they have self-serve popcorn available to help keep the little ones fed and busy until your orders arrive.
As you ferry back to the city, take in the stunning panorama that is San Francisco and get a good look at all of those hills. Next time, we go up (and down and up and down and….)!