Sunday, February 19, 2017

San Francisco, California

My husband and I adore San Francisco, and finally got to introduce our kids to its wonders as part of a longer California coastal trip over winter break that also included Monterey and Santa Barbara.  I love that there's a nice mix of kitschy, touristy stuff to see and do, as well as some beautiful hikes and bike rides.

Where to Stay

If you're traveling with kids, Fisherman's Wharf is a perfect home base, as it's close to several family-friendly attractions. We stayed at a centrally located Holiday Inn Express with a fantastic complimentary breakfast buffet, but there's plenty of hotels in varying price ranges to choose from in that area.

What to Do

We started the visit at Pier 39 in Fisherman's Wharf, which is a pretty nicely done, as far as tourist traps go. In addition to all the sweet shops and souvenir stores, there's a carousel, a dock for viewing the sea lions, a set of stairs with piano keys for steps and, my kids' favorite part, Magowan's mirror maze.

If you're into biking with the kids, there's nothing like the route from Fisherman's Wharf to the Golden Gate Bridge, then across the bridge into Sausalito (here are more details about that route). Most people take the ferry in Sausalito back to San Francisco at that point, an easy-breezy commute with a closeup view of Alcatraz.

The biking took us approximately two hours, which included many stops for pictures, and to walk the bikes up a handful of hills. Truth be told, it's not an easy ride with two kids in tow, but they loved it and proclaimed it to be their favorite part of the trip. And the views simply can't be beat. We rented our bikes from the ubiquitous Blazing Saddles, which was great for all the great kids' options (trailers, tag-along attachments, baby seats, kids' bikes).

An easier way to get gorgeous views of the bridge is to take a hike down the steps of the Batteries to the Bluffs Trail in Presidio Park. We took a cab to the southern trailhead on Lincoln Boulevard and started down the many steps to toward the beach. All along the way is a dizzying view of the Pacific Ocean crashing against the bluffs, and the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. The trail is less than three-quarters mile one way and not terribly strenuous, but also not stroller-friendly, as it mostly consists of sandy steps. My kids loved playing on the beach and flying a kite here. 

On a rainy afternoon, we visited the California Academy of Sciences, a science museum whose claim to fame is the earthquake demonstration room. It's a pretty neat (and educational) simulation that we all thoroughly enjoyed. There's also a three-story rainforest, an aquarium and a planetarium.

If your kids are into fortune cookies, it might be worth a stroll into Chinatown to find the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, situated in a nondescript alleyway. This place is more of a tiny shop churning out fresh cookies than a factory, but at any rate, you can observe a couple of workers folding hot little pancakes coming off a conveyor belt into the familiar cookie shape. You might even get a free sample, as my kids did. There's also an array of flavored fortune cookies for purchase.

And, of course, a family visit to San Francisco wouldn't be complete without a ride on the trolley. We hopped on the Powell-Hyde car at Fisherman's Wharf and took it to Chinatown, a route that gives you a glimpse of the famously crooked Lombard Street as well as several impressively steep hills  it almost feels like a slow-moving roller coaster at times. Here's a nice map of all three cable car routes. If you want to take the Powell-Hyde cable car, don't begin at the first stop, Beach Street, where the massive line forms (unless you're looking for front-row seats); walk two blocks to the second stop at North Point Street and hop right on. They always enough room for a few more passengers.

Where to Eat

My favorite place to eat was Boudin at Fisherman's Wharf. It's pricey and touristy, but totally worth the money, in my opinion, for the amazing sourdough bread bowls. The kid's menu features a turtle-shaped bread bowl.

Have your meal upstairs for an awesome view of the bay and complimentary entry to the Boudin Bread Museum, a factory tour that gives you a bird's eye view of the bread production. My favorite part was getting a chance to see the 170-year-old "mother dough," from which all the bread at Boudin is spawned. They keep her in a special chamber!

For a taste of everything, the Ferry Building along the Embarcadero is a fun place to visit, filled with delicious sights, smells and free samples. A farmers' market adds to the culinary circus on Saturdays. Be sure to get a scoop or two from ice cream vendor Humphry Slocombe.

What's Nearby

We spent a morning in the hushed grandeur of the Muir Woods, about half an hour north of San Fran, and the scenic drive alone was worth the trip. The forest is filled with redwoods averaging 700 years of age, and they can be a dizzying sight to behold. We took an easy hike following the red trail on this map; the whole thing took about an hour, with lots of breaks for taking pictures and peering through binoculars. The park offers a scavenger hunt as well.

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