As winter break was winding down, our family of four decided to coordinate a few fun days away. With two kids (ages 10 and 11) in tow, my husband and I were looking for a locale no longer than about an hour away by plane, with plenty of outdoor activities and indoor recreation, a temperate climate and family-friendly eateries. And it needed to be someplace ideally easy to get around in - on foot and via public transportation (so the grown-ups could spend less time behind the wheel and more time enjoying the environment). San Francisco proved to be perfect for a mini-vacay weekend away.
The City by the Bay
San Francisco is a manageable size - about six square miles - and although parking can be highly problematic, the ease of access and ability to navigate the city's public transportation system made it totally possible to pack in plenty of sightseeing and "playing tourist."
Locals are used to San Francisco's somewhat wacky weather, which is influenced by microclimates (temperatures can vary by 15 degrees from one neighborhood to another) and by the "intermittent fog" that rolls in most days to provide postcard-perfect atmospheric photo ops of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Summer here tends to be downright unsummery. September and October are the warmest months. January can be a bit on the blustery side, so we packed plenty of layers and were prepared to don and shed them several times a day.
Water surrounds San Francisco on three sides, so there's no need to worry about getting lost. Just remember: Downtown is east. The Golden Gate Bridge is north.
If you're going to be doing a lot of sightseeing, consider purchasing the San Francisco CityPass, which includes entry into seven major attractions (including a 7-day Muni & Cable Car passport, Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise, Exploratorium, Aquarium of the Bay and the California Academy of Sciences) for a flat fee ($89/adult, $69/child 5-17). Another benefit: You can go to the head of the lines (think of the time savings during high tourist season). If you're planning on getting around on streetcars and cable cars and visiting at least three of the seven sites that are included, there’s no better bargain.
Cable cars aren't the fastest way to get from A to B, but riding these open, historic trolleys is a quintessential San Francisco experience and a pretty big bang for your entertainment buck from a kids’ perspective. There are 17 cars currently in service on three lines – we hopped on the Powell-Hyde line which starts at the corner of Powell and Market streets, rolls through Nob Hill and Russian Hill, and winds its way down to a turntable at Victorian Square in front of Aquatic Park, near Ghirardelli Square. If you’re looking for a quicker way to get around, there are six streetcar lines, designated J through N, running underground downtown and above ground on the streets in the outer neighborhoods.
Because the following were located in the same general area (Fisherman's Wharf/Pier 39/The Embarcadero), we were able to experience several attractions in a single day (other than looking at the sea lions, which was free - admission to each of the other stops are included in the San Francisco CityPass:
Fisherman's Wharf/Pier 39 (Beach Street & the Embarcadero): If you've never been here, you might not believe it: Hundreds, literally hundreds, of fat, lazy - extremely noisy - sea lions lounging on the docks ... in other words, a really fun (and free) place to bring the kids.
Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise (Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf): Extremely popular 350-passenger sightseeing boats depart for a one-hour narrated cruise several times each day. The itinerary is a wide loop of the bay, motoring right under the Golden Gate Bridge, then past Sausalito and Angel Island, and finally around Alcatraz. Morning cruises are typically less crowded than those in the afternoon.
Aquarium of the Bay (Pier 39): Perfect for younger kids, this small aquarium is the ideal way to while away an hour or two - ride the moving sidewalk or walk through a clear plastic tunnel right underneath San Francisco Bay for a close-up view of the marine creatures who live there-sharks, eels, rays, and lots of fish. Back at the surface, kids can visit three touch pools and get up-close and personal with small sharks, bat rays and sea stars. Very knowledgeable guides are available to answer all their questions.
The Exploratorium (Pier 15, 698 The Embarcadero): This hands-on museum is like one enormous, extremely interesting science fair. There are hundreds of exhibits here -from super-bubble blowing to a tornado machine to a computer that lets you fingerpaint and immensely popular Tactile Dome, where you navigate in total darkness using every sense except sight. Stop by the gift store for all sorts of great brainy games and toys.
Since our first day was filled with indoor activities, we opted for outdoor endeavors on Day Two:
Gray Line San Francisco: The Gray Line San Francisco Grand City Tour (www.graylineofsanfrancisco.com) was a great way to tour San Francisco from the Bay to the Ocean with plenty of opportunity for photo ops and to get off the bus and see the sights. This fully narrated tour took our family from Twin Peaks (for an awe-inspiring 360-degree view of the city from 1,000 feet above sea level), through Golden Gate Park, Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, Land’s End, North Beach (Little Italy) and the city’s iconic Victorian homes in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood to the once infamous Barbary Coast.
Coit Tower (Telegraph Hill Boulevard): Perched atop historic Telegraph Hill in North Beach, this round, stone tower sits atop Telegraph Hill and offers great views of the city (it's free to get into the city-owned monument, but if you want to check out the scenery from the very top, it's $9 for adults and $2 for kids 5 - 11 and $6 for ages 12-17). Into art? Commissioned by the federal Works Progress Administration, the murals that adorn the inside of the tower - painted by more than 25 artists in the late 1920s and early 30s - were completed in 1933 and are great fun to look at.
Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market (Ferry Building, 1 Ferry Plaza, base of Market Street on the Embarcadero): If you're in town on a Tuesday (10 am - 2 pm) or Saturday (8 am - 2 pm), this is a fun stop for local color and awesome fresh food. Hundreds of stalls are manned by local farmers and gourmet purveyors of all things yummy, which makes it a great place to pick up exotic non-perishables that you can't find back home.
Where to Stay
If you're searching for an unforgettable family-friendly accommodation - rich in amenity, thoughtful touches and a super convenient location perched at the edge of the Bay at Fisherman’s Wharf, Argonaut Hotel (495 Jefferson Street) comes highly recommended for good reason. Equal parts posh and posse-friendly, the hotel is housed in the historic Haslett Warehouse (a renovated early 20th-century fruit cannery warehouse that's listed on the National Register of Historic Places), a grand building built in 1907 of exposed brick, rough-hewn wooden plank floors, Douglas Fir beams and so much seaside character (think vintage steamer trunks and antique telescopes) that you feel as though you can almost reach out and touch the colorful Barbary Coast past.
Situated in the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park (a mecca for the city’s maritime history which both educates and entertains with a library, museum, and fleets of historic seafaring vessels), this sunny boat-inspired boutique property is further defined by Four-Diamond service and postcard-perfect view from most of its generously sized contemporary hotel rooms and suites- each characterized by white wooden blinds, textured walls, sea blue and grey furnishings, whimsical nautical styling and accents.
Amenities include a 24-hour fitness center, business center and free bike rentals on a first-come, first-served basis. Right outside the hotel are walking/jogging paths along the waterfront leading into the lush green Presidio parklands.
Located right next door to the Argonaut Hotel is the Blue Mermaid Restaurant - a dining experience defined by an authentic, richly textured oceanfront ambiance accented with sea-faring touches like renderings of mermaids, rough-hewn timbers and thick braids of rope. Popular starters include three types of homemade chowders (crab and corn, New England clam and Manhattan clam), steamed mussels jumbo shrimp cocktail and a cheese and charcuterie board with toasted bread, dried fruit, nuts and honey (my personal favorite paired with a glass of fine wine).
Aside from its cosmetic beauty and picturesque waterfront location, this historic gem is convenient to everything you'd want to experience in San Francisco. And for our family, it boasted the added bonus of being in the heart of Fisherman's Wharf and within easy access to cable cars, streetcars and ferries and/or walking distance to a number of other nearby popular tourist destinations including North Beach (only a 20-minute stroll) and Chinatown.
All Day Dining Options @ Pier 39
Wipeout Bar & Grill
Something for everyone from specialty omelets (all-meat with ham, bacon, sausage and jack cheese; veggie or Western with ham, red and green peppers and jack cheese) and classic favorites (fluffy pancakes, eggs, French toast) to chilaquiles (fresh tortilla chips coated in red chili sauce served over black beans, two over easy eggs, queso fresco, cream, red onions and cilantro) and a chorizo & egg burrito (two eggs scrambled with chorizo sausage, jack cheese and potatoes, rolled in a tortilla topped with red chile sauce, melted cheese and sour cream).
This 3rd-generation family owned and operated establishment was voted "Best Seafood in San Francisco" by KRON 4 TV's Best of the Bay with good reason. In addition to its award-winning New England clam chowder and authentic sourdough bread (another quintessential San Francisco tradition, Pier Market’s is “voted Best on Fisherman’s Wharf"), Pier Market serves up an amazing array of seafood cocktails, shellfish, salads, fresh fish (delivered daily and hand cut by the restaurant's chefs) dishes, mesquite grilled meat and seafood and Pier Market Specialties, including the Jambalaya, which combines smoked pork, clams, mussels, shrimp and chicken simmered in a Creole sauce and served over Cajun rice.
Fog Harbor Fish House
Fare: 100% Sustainable Seafood
Atmosphere: The quintessential San Francisco waterfront dining experience
Owned by the Simmons family who developed Pier 39 (they also own Wipeout and Pier Market), Fog Harbor Fish House bears the distinction of being the first restaurant in Fisherman’s Wharf to serve 100% sustainable seafood based on recommendations from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program and Aquarium of the Bay.
Popular fresh fish and seafood entrees include a pan-seared Pacific Sole, pan-seared Pacific Cod or Anchor Steam beer battered fish with french friend and cole slaw (a favorite with the kids). More of a meat eater? Try the grilled-to-perfection Filet Mignon with Pt. Reyes blue cheese demi sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, pearl onions and sauteed spinach. House specialties include a local favorite - an aromatic and flavorful Cioppino - tomato-based seafood stew brimming with fresh fish, mussels, clams, shrimp and crab.
My entree was decided the minute I saw the "Garlic Roasted Whole Dungeness Crab" on the menu. Two of my favorite flavors - garlic and crab - in one dish? Done. It was a little messy eating, but wonderfully delicious and totally worth the work.