For years when I thought of San Francisco, I thought of Rice-a-Roni or Uncle Joey from “Full House.” It seemed like a cool enough place, with the cable cars and the crazy hills, but it never really piqued my interest. Thankfully, that all changed when I recently attended a wedding in the bay area. I wanted to make the most of the trip and as I researched I got excited. It turns out, San Francisco is a really cool city. In fact, it almost seems European in its sensibilities. If you want to feel like you’re really getting away, without all that pesky jet lag and all of those annoying customs forms, a trip to San Francisco may be in order. Pro tip? Don’t let your six-year-old be in charge of the camera when you get to Fisherman’s Wharf. If you’re later wondering why I’ve sourced the photos for this article from other Flickr users, it’s because my camera is at the bottom of the ocean somewhere. I guess it could happen to anyone, at least I’d like to think so.
Pier 39. Photo by Flickr user Dan. This is around the same spot my camera went flying into the water due to a child’s sea-lion-induced excitement.
Let’s Talk About Chocolate
San Francisco is home to Ghirardelli. That’s the chocolate maker that sells those fancy little squares you get at Christmas. For me, Ghirardelli Square (home of the flagship store) was reason enough to make the trip. You can find little Ghirardelli shops all over town, but the best one is in the heart of the aptly named Ghirardelli Square. Order a brownie sundae. They use freshly made hot fudge and brownies. I don’t care what your diet plan is (I mercilessly ignored mine), try one. You’ll thank me later. This is also where I got my thank you gifts for the neighbor who watched my mail and the friend who dog sat. I actually had to stop back there on our last day since we’d eaten most of the gifts over the course of the trip. Oops.
Ghirardelli Brownie Sundae. Photo by Edward Russel via Flickr. I’m glad he shares my passion for chocolate gold.
I love public transportation. I don’t mind driving, but I’d rather spend twice the time to use a bus or train and let someone else do the work. We flew into San Francisco International and were staying in the Financial District. That’s a bit of a haul. My husband started to book a rental car and nearly finished the reservation before I intervened. Since we only had one place (that wedding) we needed to be during our visit, I thought we should try skipping the rental car.
It worked out really well. We took the BART train from the airport to the financial district and it was only a short walk to our hotel. I had done a lot of research and knew the basic areas of town and how the metro system works. We bought multi-day passes, since we knew we’d be hopping off-and-on buses and cable cars all week long. Public transportation is a way of life for lots of residents, be prepared to encounter full cars. You may have to stand for part of the ride, but you’ll be okay. If you have kids that need a car seat or a stroller, you might look into renting a car. Mine are old enough to be on laps or standing up on public transportation, so we went with it. It was a great experience for the kids and I didn’t have to worry about navigating in a strange city.
SF Airport BART station. Photo by Mathieu Marquer via Flickr. God bless the person who invented rolling luggage.
San Francisco also has an active bike sharing program. They’re listed as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the U.S. by the HCCMIS travel blog. Because we were with the little ones, we skipped the biking as transportation. The city has really accommodated bikers, but we’re not proficient enough at city biking (or hills) to comfortably embark. We did go for a ride in Golden Gate park and that was fantastic. If I went back without the kids, I would definitely try the bike share to tour the town.
Bike trails in Golden Gate Park. Photo by Brian Jelonek via Flickr. We probably took 500 photos of the bridge— before our camera went to its watery grave.
Probably my favorite stop on our tour was Fisherman’s Wharf. There was so much to see and do. We missed out on touring Alcatraz because I hadn’t pre-booked. Apparently, those tours can sell out WAY in advance. If you’re heading to SF and you really want to see Alcatraz, book a tour as early as possible.
I escaped the wrath of my family (apparently Alcatraz being booked was my fault) because there were so many other cool activities nearby. We toured the Maritime National Park, which is run by the National Park Service, where you can tour a variety of historical ships. Tickets are only $5 per person (16 and over) and kids under 16 are free. Plus, your ticket is good for seven days! If someone gets tired, cranky or hungry, you can just finish the tour another day.
Hyde Street Pier. Photo by Roger Wollstadt via Flickr. Bring a jacket!
Speaking of hungry, if you’re at Fisherman’s Wharf, stop at Boudin and try the clam chowder in a sourdough breadbowl. If San Francisco wasn’t such an expensive city to live in, and I didn’t mind uprooting the whole family, I would move there just to eat this once a week. I’m all about trying to be as green as possible at home (but that’s kinda hard with kids and reality and what not) so I was super impressed that when we finished eating we had a lot of options for discarding our trash. At Boudin specifically, but also throughout the city, you can put food waste in one bin to be composted. Then you recycle as much as you can, like utensils and glass bottles. Finally, you trash the remainder, which hopefully isn’t much at all. I thought it was a great chance to talk about how important it is to treat the environment well.
Boudin’s famous sourdough creations. Photo by Ashleigh Nushawg via Flick. My kids went crazy for these “bready bears.”
While you’re at the Wharf, you’ll have to go see the sea lions at Pier 39 (see the first photo). There’s no museum or visitor’s center or admission cost. Just a bunch of sea lions that love to play and hang out in the sun. There are benches aplenty for you to go sit and enjoy this up close encounter with marine life.
San Francisco also has lots of culturally rich neighborhoods. There’s Chinatown and Little Italy and lots more. Just taking a few hours to stroll around, see the sights and smell the smells was so delightful. The restaurants in North Hill (that’s where Little Italy is) all looked so amazing it was hard to choose one. These areas are popular with tourists, but they’re really just delightfully interesting neighborhoods.
Gateway to Chinatown. Photo by Ruthnne Reid via Flickr. The gate is a cool way to welcome visitors into Chinatown. But no matter where you enter from, you’ll know when you get there, trust me!
Suffice it to say, I no longer think of San Francisco as the Rice-a-Roni city. I’d go back for another visit in a heartbeat. We had a great family vacation and it would make a stellar romantic getaway, too. All that’s left to do is start saving and look for a babysitter!
Maria Mencia is devoted to contributing to her community’s art program, environmentalism, and being the best mom she can be to her twin boys. Writing is her favorite way to wind down after a hectic day.