Three Days in San Francisco With Kids
Since we were going to central California to visit Stu’s family for Christmas, we figured why not stay a while? See a city we haven’t seen enough? I looked at resorts and Legoland in LA for a hot minute before deciding a) the weather could be cold and therefore not pool/beach friendly and b) Finn, at two, has no business in an amusement park. And since flights were better into San Francisco to get to the central coast anyway, our decision was made.
So the last time Stu and I were in San Francisco was waaaaaaay back in 2005, the first Christmas we were married. We flew into San Francisco for a couple days before hitching a ride with Stu’s step-sister, Holly, to Yosemite to meet the rest of the fam. It rained, THE WHOLE TIME.
We had no money and, apparently, really bad taste in clothes, and weren’t in that great of shape back then.
I’m never cutting my hair again.
And kids weren’t even on the horizon. We did everything we could on our very visit and have fond memories, even if our jeans were soaked to the waist by the end of both days.
Anyway, fast-forward to December 2016, this time we had an ambitious list that began with tall trees, involved lots of walking, delicious food, and plenty of kid-friendly activities. It started with a stop at the Monterey Bay Aquarium on our drive back to the city and a swim in the hotel pool—so I’m counting that as a 1/2 day. Here’s how the others broke down…
Ever since we saw the National Parks movie at the St. Louis Science Center (it was narrated by Robert Redford and totally spectacular), Ethan and I have been planning trips. In movie, we learned about John Muir and how he helped to start the parks system, so clearly the first stop on our San Francisco trip had to be Muir Woods!
This magical place is about 45 minutes from downtown San Francisco, meaning we got to drive across the Golden Gate bridge, which was absolutely thrilling, past Sausalito, which is gorgeous, and through winding, narrow roads that go up and down very large, steep hills. Stu had to make some work calls so I drove to the park and seriously, it’s a bit of a crazy drive. Crazy but short and fun and in no time we were there.
Parking is an issue. The lots are small and it gets really busy as the day goes on. I’d say we arrived around 9:45am and didn’t have to walk too horribly far from our spot on the side of the road. By the time we left though, around 12:30, it was packed and people were trolling for spaces. So just a heads up!
The weather cooperated every day of our trip, this one was no exception. It was sunny and brisk but in the shade of the gigantically tall trees it felt like we were wrapped in a cocoon. The air was damp and warm and there was a piney smell, moss and ferns covered the ground along the boardwalk paths. Walking paths snaked throughout the park, making the journey easy for the whole family (that means Finn did fine). Ethan and I explored one of the mystical elevated paths that frequently branch off the boardwalk, examining a fallen tree that was cut through to clear the way. I could have walked up there for hours but it wasn’t stroller or toddler friendly, so after a few minutes we went back down to join Stu and Finn.
We wandered the boardwalk in a huge loop, reading informational plaques between gazing skyward, just kind of in awe of this place where the trees surpass one’s wildest imagination, until Finn started getting fussy and it was time to go. So let’s say it’s a kid friendly place but you’ll be limited in your explorations. Which was ok because we had more on our list.
My California-born friend told me we HAD to see the Palace of Fine Arts. I had no idea what that was but it was right by the bridge when we crossed back over and so we checked it out.
Ok my picture doesn’t do this place justice. It’s incredible. There’s a charming pond all around the fabulously detailed structure, with ducks and benches and people picnicking on the grassy knolls. Ethan was kind of obsessed with pigeons on this trip so he and Finn had a blast chasing them around while Stu and I did some learning about this structure, which was originally constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. Very cool. And there’s a beach right across the street.
Here we thought we’d get a nice family picture with the bridge in the background, but in the 30 seconds it took to get the uber-embarrassing selfie stick set up (I only have it for family pictures, otherwise it’s hidden in the bottom of my bag), the boys had run to the middle of the sand to start playing. Apparently they’ve been deprived of sand play because this was like Disneyland. My picture was forgotten and we let them play.
After filling their shoes and clothes with sand, they humored me for exactly seven seconds for this one precious shot. Since this was “Date Night” for Stu and I, we headed back to the hotel a little early to take Ethan for a swim and let Finn have a short nap. Later we walked a couple blocks to the Yerba Buena gardens to run around the fountains and people watch. Another attraction right here is the Children’s Creativity Museum which we didn’t visit, but looked really fun. If the weather had been bad, we’d have been there.
That evening we had hired a babysitter through Destination Sitters in order to have a date night. It’s something we wanted to make sure we did so we had some child-less exploring time, and this service came through with a really wonderful babysitter. Since we had two adjoining hotel rooms (thank you Stu’s work traveling for all those points!), there was space for Ethan and the sitter to hang out after Finn hit the rack. If you can swing it, two rooms is the way to go when traveling with kids.
Our plan was to just walk around see things, so we headed for Union Square and all it’s touristy goodness. It was absolutely packed with people and entertainers and Christmas lights so we of course instantly regretted leaving the kids behind. But we got over it and found Pacific Cocktail Heaven (or as the sign said PCH) and happily consumed a few of their delicious concoctions. Next we headed a few blocks west to The Saratoga, known for it’s whiskey and steaks. We ordered a few delightful small plates, our favorite by far being the Banga Cauda-Poached Tomato.
Truth? We were exhausted and were home by 9:30pm. But having some kid-free time in a new city is a must and we were grateful for the break.
The kids’ favorite morning ritual became eating single-serve cereal cups of Cheerios while watching cartoons on the hotel couch. In matching pjs. Day two was going to be busy! We had lots of walking planned, but the first stop for what was touted as the best coffee in San Francisco: Blue Bottle.
They had me at the inconspicuous and wordless blue bottle logo on the door. After one sip, we were huge fans. This place takes coffee very seriously, so basically they were speaking our language (our city feels the same way). The kids snacked on over-priced-yet-delicious yogurt parfaits while we enjoyed our lattes in a sunny booth.
Next up, the Dragon Gate. Just a short walk from our coffee haven, appearing around an unassuming corner, was the beginning of Chinatown. We window shopped as we slowly walked up Grant Ave., popping in and out of overflowing stores, inspecting trinkets and treasures. Ethan picked out a special “moon rock” in one store, and we grabbed the boys some kid chopsticks in another. We found the shop where we bought our wok in 2005 and stopped at a park where the kids played on the playground after watching a group of people practice tai chi.
It killed me that it was too early for lunch and we weren’t hungry because oh man the food smelled SO good. And I know the kids would have loved dim sum. Next time. We did get to stop at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory to see how the little folded treats are made. After that we were excited to catch the Powell street car, but it pulled up to the stop packed to the gills with tourists—people were hanging off the sides like in the movies. And since we had our BOB stroller to haul along with us, we decided to see how things went on foot.
The best thing about walking is finding places you’d otherwise drive right past. Like the Joe Dimaggio Playground located just a few blocks from our lunch destination, Fisherman’s Wharf. Just as Ethan was starting to complain that his “legs were killing him”, this playground appeared in the distance like a mirage. The kids tore onto the astro-turfed and fenced play space with renewed energy.
It’s listed as one of the best playgrounds in the city for a reason. Almost every piece of equipment was new to us. A sling-shot-like swing, enormous rope climbing structures, metal slides build into a hill (which seem to be a san fran favorite)—all of it exactly what we needed. The boys played happily until they were starving, so we hit the road for chowder.
I usually hate big, touristy areas, but Fisherman’s Wharf stayed on our list because we knew the kids would love it. Ethan is a huge fan of seafood soups so he was jazzed to try this clam chowder in a bread bowl specialty of San Francisco. We snuck past the crazy lines at Boudin Bakery and ducked into Sabella & La Torre for soup and calamari. We ate, regained our energy, and stepped back out on the boardwalk to see everything. Street artists, junk shops, piles of sea lions, huge ships in the harbor—Finn missed most of it while passed out in the stroller but Ethan was enthralled. We walked along the Embarcadero until we hit the Ferry Building for some well deserved ice cream.
After that, we caught a street car! Finally! We took it to Market Street for a very important errand. This day was December 28th, making the next day was Ethan’s sixth birthday, so we thought a little surprise was in order…The Lego Store!! His little life was made when he saw that big red and yellow sign. We walked back to the hotel for a swim and some movie/snuggle time before bed.
Just for fun, here’s a map of our day. We, with credit mostly going to Ethan, walked almost six miles.
Our walking day in San Francisco – Purple line is walking, Red is street car.
The day dawned with stiff bodies and a six year old in our midst. Though we were flying home this day, we had plenty of time to fit in a few more sights, namely, Tartine Manufactory.
Sure it was technically Ethan’s day, but I just HAD to stop by this new venture by Tartine, it’s been taunting me on Instagram. We made the short drive over to the amazing, industrial space in an up-and-coming part of the Mission District. To my absolute astonishment, THERE WAS NO LINE. We walked right in to order pastries, coffee, and breakfast sandwiches surrounded by racks and racks of fresh bread. By the time we left the line was around the corner.
Stu found a promising green space a few minutes away so we decided to check it out. Little did we know it would be like walking through the Full House opening sequence. Beautiful houses surrounded the Mission Dolores Park and Helen Diller Playground, everything situated at a 45 degree angle to account for the hill. The boys raced to the incredible playground, yet again thrilled to explore all the unique equipment with a breathtaking view of the city.
Ethan’s favorite part was the extra-wide metal slide. Finn, our playground purist, liked the swings. And I can’t help but mention the bathrooms. They were THE nicest park bathrooms I’ve ever seen in my life. San Francisco, your park game is strong. This place was just what we needed to burn some energy before the long flight home.
After a drive across the Bay Bridge we arrived at the Oakland Airport. The boys were ready to zone out to some toons while I spent four hours coming down with the full-on flu. What way to end a spectacular trip!
Overall I’d say San Francisco is a fantastic place to travel with kids! We were so thrilled to have nice weather but we went prepared for the worst, with winter coats and plenty of layers. If we had to spend more time inside, a few things on our list were Children’s Creativity Museum, California Academy of Sciences, the Aquarium of the Bay (though that would have been overkill after already stopping in Monterey!), and the Exploratorium.
While we had a rental car that was super helpful to get to Muir Woods and Tartine, we tried to walk and use public transportation/Uber as much as possible, which is pretty easy in SF. A stroller is recommended!!
We stayed in the Courtyard Marriott Downtown and liked the location. It had plenty of amenities, was updated and clean, plus it had a small pool and hot tub, nothing fancy but perfect for the kids.
So what did we miss? What is your favorite place in San Francisco?