Today I thought I would recap the San Francisco portion of our family’s California trip. This vacation was a jam-packed week and a half of city sightseeing mixed with outdoor exploring and adventure. Not one we will soon forget. Brian and I actually honeymooned in this part of California back in 2000, but haven’t been back since. It was fun to get to experience it again but as a family of four this time!
Since this was the first time the boys would be in San Francisco, our goal was for them to see a few of the quintessential landmarks, but to mainly focus on favorites of people who actually live here. Like I mentioned in THIS post, I love reading blogs written by people who live in the city with kids and relied heavily on their advice when crafting our itinerary. Apparently, they were definitely won over by San Francisco because several times they declared they wanted to move there. I don’t blame them. I was thinking the same thing. We LOVED the city and everything it had to offer. I cannot wait to come back.
What we did in San Francisco
On our first morning in San Francisco, after breakfast, we had an Uber drop us off at Lombard Street. It was early on a Sunday morning, so there was really no traffic and very few people there. As you probably know, Lombard Street is known as the crookedest street in the world. It is a steep residential street that goes on a zig-zag. It’s filled with beautiful flowers and lined by some beautiful houses. Although it seems like it would be a big pain to live on that street with all the traffic. This was one of those quintessential landmarks we wanted the boys to see, but not waste too much time at. Going early in the morning was a great way to see it on our way to the bike tour.
On our first full day in San Francisco, we had reservations with Blazing Saddles (a bike rental company) for a guided Bike the Bridge bike tour.This tour took us from the Fisherman’s Wharf area throughout the waterfront and over the Golden Gate Bridge, finishing up in Sausalito across the Bay. There were a few really steep stretches that were insane, but the rest was flat. We rode through Crissy Field, which is a beach right next to the Golden Gate Bridge. And from there we got on the Golden Gate Bridge. In case you were wondering, you are biking on a lane for bikes only, which is nice. However, it is very windy and there are bikes coming in the other direction. We all agreed it was a fun experience and kind of thrilling to go over the bridge. After crossing the bridge, we biked all the way into Sausalito. Sausalito is a port town across the bay from San Francisco. It is very picturesque and filled with shops and restaurants. Overall, we would recommend the bike tour. The group was much bigger than we would have preferred, but that might have had something to do with it being Memorial Weekend. The other little glitch we experienced was taking the ferry back. Again, not sure if it was only because it was Memorial Day Weekend, but there were tons of people waiting to get on, and we only got on after the 3rd ferry which took about an hour of waiting. Even though Sausalito is a pretty town, it is very much a tourist destination. If we biked the bridge again, I would probably do the self-guided tour and stop at Cavallo Point Lodge for lunch, which is a gorgeous resort a couple miles before Sausalito, with an equally exquisite view of the Bay minus the crowds.
We enjoyed this playground in the Mission District so much that we came back the next day. Mission Dolores Park is a gigantic park smack dab in the middle of one of the best neighborhoods in San Francisco. Filled with picnickers, people lounging, playing games and everything else you can imagine, there is also a huge playground with great equipment that the boys loved. The park is surrounded by tons of amazing food options like: Pizzeria Delfina, Tartine Bakery, Bi-Rite Creamery, Tacolicious, Craftsman & Wolves. Too many places to eat, not enough time. Next time we come, I would look for an AirBnB here to take advantage of all the Mission District goodness.
This was probably one of our favorite destinations within San Francisco. Golden Gate Park is huge – even bigger than Central Park. There is so much to do inside the park. I know we only saw a small portion of it and it took the better part of a day. If you are going to be in SF, I would definitely recommend coming to Golden Gate park for at least half a day, if not more. Next time we are in the city, we will be coming back for sure. There were so many things we wanted to visit and just didn’t get to: Japanese Tea Garden, Conservatory of Flowers, Stow Lake, and more. What did we do? We went to the Academy of Sciences, De Young Museum observatory, and the Koret Children’s Quarter Playground.
This museum is definitely one of my top recommendations of things to do with kids in San Francisco. If you decide to visit, do not schedule less than 3 hours to spend here. It is that good. We arrived about 15 minutes before it opened to have access to the most popular exhibits without crowds. This natural and life sciences museum is modern and exquisite. It had everything you can imagine: an aquarium, a planetarium, a butterfly rainforest greenhouse. An incredible cafe. A living rooftop garden. Museums like these make me want to pack my bags and move so that my kids can have access to them whenever they want. Truly amazing and very well done!
The de Young Museum is an art museum located right across the way from the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. I had read that although it is a very good museum, it is not super child-friendly. However, they do have an observatory up on the 11th floor that is free and provides a birds eye fire of the city.
After several hours in museums, we knew the time was right to let the boys run and play. I had read great things about the Koret Children’s Quarter at the park, so we headed right over. By this time in the afternoon the fields throughout the park were filled with picnickers, sunbathers and people playing games. The kids playing baseball caught Max’s eye. The playground was giant. We set the picnic blanket down on a grassy knoll, and told the kids to have fun. The climbing pyramid was a favorite, as was the stone slide. We also took a ride on the carousel. Overall, a fantastic area to bring your kids to play in a beautiful setting.
After getting a feel for the Mission District when we were at Dolores Park the day before, I knew I wanted to get back to that area. I remember having read about to fun shops located there that I knew the boys would enjoy. Paxton Gate and Paxton Gate Curiosities for Kids are right in the heart of the Mission District, so we had an Uber drop us off there. Traveling with kids, our expectations for shopping and browsing are low. Unless we find shops that are interesting to them as well. Paxton Gates and their kid shop were PERFECT. We could have stayed for hours. Both are located on Valencia Street, which is chock-ful of independent shops, cafes and specialty places. No chains here. If you are into shopping and seeing interesting things, I highly recommend coming to Valencia Street in the Mission District. Between the shopping, amazing food options and the incredible park, this was hands-down our favorite neighborhood in San Francisco. Next time, I would look for an AirBnB in this area for sure.
Walked The Presidio/Crissy Field/Palace of Fine Arts
After our camping adventures in Yosemite, Santa Cruz and Big Sur, we came back to San Francisco for two days. It was a lot of pressure, trying to decide what to do when there was so little time left and so much left. During our Bike the Bridge bike tour, we really had enjoyed riding through the waterfront, away from Fisherman’s Wharf towards the Golden Gate Bridge. There is a neighborhood called the Marina District, a beachfront area called Crissy Field, and then all the area at the base of the bridge is called the Presidio. We went back to a freestanding shop/restaurant called “The Warming Hut” where Ben wanted to get his souvenir for the trip – a fog globe. Going there for the fog globe was a great excuse to revisit the beachfront area. After picking up the globe, we walked on the beach and took in the views. From there, we walked to the Palace of Fine Arts. This structure came to the city during a world’s fair called the Panama Pacific International Exposition back in 1915. When the fair was over, people petitioned to keep this part of it in tact. Today, it continues to serve as a cultural hub and theater. It is easy to see why this is a popular place for weddings and photos.
On our last morning in SF, we finally took the boys on a cable car. One of the three cable car routes was very close to our hotel, so we planned on riding the Powell-Hyde line, but early. Before the mobs of visitors hopped on. The great thing about the cable cars is that they start running at 6am. So by getting there around 8am, we were able to get on one pretty quickly. We rode it from the start, near Fisherman’s Wharf, and rode it to the end, which was Union Square. From Union Square, we walked towards the Embarcadero, which is the waterfront with all the different piers. We took the F-Train to Pier 15, which was the Exploratorium. This little excursion was fun because the boys got to experience some public transportation. Up until that point, we had pretty much only taken Ubers everywhere.
Our main destination on our last day in San Francisco was the Exploratorium. I had read pretty consistent positive reviews leading up to our trip, so I knew it was a must-see. According to their website, the Exploratorium is a “public learning laboratory exploring the world through science, art, and human perception.” It could not have been more up our alley. My head almost exploded when we were there. I would describe it as an innovative space for all things hands-on. There were hundreds of hands-on exhibits for kids to get involved with. It’s what I imagine and hope that education could be for our kids. We stayed for a little over two hours, and that felt rushed. If you plan on coming to the Exploratorium, I would definitely carve out 3 hours for this experience. Highly recommend it!
Browsed and ate at the Ferry Building
If there is one place I knew we couldn’t leave without going to, it was the Ferry Building. The Ferry Building is located in Pier 1 of the Embarcadero and is a food lover’s mecca. If you have ever been to Chelsea Market in Manhattan, I would say the Ferry Building is similar, but bigger. It is an entire marketplace of different places to eat and unique shops. We went there for lunch after the Exploratorium. Not only does it have fantastic vendors, it is also a great place to go for families because everyone chose a different place they wanted to buy their food from, and then we came together at a communal table to eat. After lunch, we went to the bookstore until it was time to pry them away.
You might remember from THIS post that we tend to steer clear of the main tourist attractions as much as possible. However, since our hotel on our last day was located right by Fisherman’s Wharf and we had 1 hour to kill between having to check out and heading out for the airport, we thought we would use that time to show the kids the famous sea lions. It confirmed all of our opinions of places like this. Jammed full of tourists, filled with souvenir shops and overall not appealing at all to walk through. To top it off, Pier 39 was not as close as the hotel made it sound, so by the time we got there, we had about 5 minutes to see the sea lions. Which really was fine. They were cute and fun to watch for about that amount of time, but I definitely would not recommend to anyone going to San Francisco waste their time trekking over there. We took a different way back to the hotel to not have to experience Fisherman’s Wharf again if that tells you how we felt about it.
Where we ate in San Francisco:
On the first part of our trip we stayed in an AirBnB in the Cole Valley neighborhood. It was a quiet, residential area located really close to Golden Gate Park. There were several cafes to choose from for breakfast, but we ended up going here every morning. The boys were familiar with La Boulangerie because the croissants they order at Starbucks come from the La Boulangerie case and I had told them it was based in San Francisco. I thought we would go once and then try out the other places in the neighborhood. But we all liked it so much we just kept coming back. Although it was bought by Starbucks to give some credibility to their baked goods, there is no sign of Starbucks here. Organic eggs, fresh baked breads and croissants, and excellent coffee. I believe there are a few other locations in the city. If you are staying near one, I would recommend it. I would probably not recommend you go out of your way to find one if it is not nearby though. This is just one of many yummy breakfast options.
After our bike tour and crossing the Golden Gate bridge into Sausalito, we ate at Salsalito Taco Shop. Like I mentioned above, Sausalito is a beautiful town on the water, but filled with shops and restaurants for tourists. I am guessing the residents of Sausalito don’t eat on the main drag. As you probably can guess, Sausalito Taco Shop serves Mexican food. It’s not on the water, but it has a great view of the Bay. Brian had their tacos, I had a chicken tortilla soup, and the boys had quesadillas. I would say it was a good place, not a great place. Nothing bad about it, but not anything memorable. I have a feeling we would have said the same of pretty much any restaurant there.
Now, THIS place is somewhere I would make a pilgrimage to for sure! It is located in the Mission District right by Dolores Park. You really cannot go wrong with the food options in the area. Pizzeria Delfina is small with a handful of tables inside and a handful outside. Combine this with their incredible pizzas, and there was a line when we got there. The good news is you put your own name on the chalkboard when you get there so you know how many parties are ahead of you at all times. It took us about 30 minutes to get seated. If you are a coal-fired pizza lover, you will NOT be disappointed here.
Academy Cafe – Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park
On the day we went to California Academy of Sciences inside Golden Gate Park, we ate lunch at the museum at the Academy Cafe. May I say, that this was the BEST museum cafeteria food I have ever seen? It also is the most expensive. But I would totally eat there again happily. They had tons of options to choose from, all were healthy, organic and locally sourced. When you come to the museum (and you definitely should), make sure to eat lunch here!
On our second time visiting the Mission District and browsing the shops on Valencia Street, I saw the sign for Dandelion Chocolates. I remember reading about it in THIS article as the chocolate shop to visit instead of Ghirardelli. The advice is spot on. This chocolate/coffee shop has a great atmosphere and a perfect stop for a treat. They sell their chocolate sourced from beans across the world, but they also serve hot and cold drinks featuring their exquisite chocolates. In addition, the have a selection of unique chocolate baked goods and pastries. Brian and I split a chocolate passion fruit tart (to die for) and the boys had their chocolate chip cookie. They had a brownie flight featuring 3 small brownies which looked devine. If you are in the Mission District, I would HIGHLY recommend making this pit stop.
So many of the articles and blog posts I had read mentioned Bi-Rite Creamery as a “must” in San Francisco. There was a line wrapped around the block, but don’t let it deter you. The storefront only holds about 6 people as they make their selections and pay for the ice cream, so it really goes fast. I am so glad we tried it because it was VERY good. This is not a place with ice cream fully of candy bar pieces or chunks. It’s all about the real flavors and consistency. Brian got the salted caramel and I ordered roasted banana. So good.
This place is the perfect place to grab some picnic supplies for the park. It is a small market that they have jam-packed with fruits, vegetables, drinks, chocolates, prepared foods, and all sorts of treats . If you have been to Dean & Deluca in New York, I would compare it to that, except smaller. The night before we left for Yosemite, we came by after the park to pick up dinner to bring back to our AirBnB. Loved that because everyone got to choose what they wanted.
I read about Souvla on THIS post, and looking at the menu, I knew it would be good and a place I wanted to try to squeeze in our visit. Its a casual dining Greek with a simple but solid menu. There’s a spitfire going with chicken, pork and lamb roasting above. You choose any of those meats (or a white sweet potato option that was delicious too) in a sandwich or salad. In addition, they have some great Greek sides, and what looked like a pretty amazing Greek frozen yogurt with baklava smashed on top. It’s definitely a neighborhood hot spot filled with locals. There was a line out the door, and you basically have to stalk a table to get a spot to sit.
We went to Smitten Ice Cream after Souvla. We probably shouldn’t have because we were so full from Souvla. But it was on my list of highly recommended places, so we didn’t have a choice! It is a cool concept. There is a limited amount of flavors…four the night we were there. Each of the flavors is simple and high quality. They pour the liquid cream and other ingredients into a bowl where liquid nitrogen is added to “freeze” it right before your eyes. It was definitely delicious, but I was undeniably uncomfortably full by this time. I recommend going if you are in Hayes Valley. And, if you have little ones, there is a small park right there so the kids can run and play a bit.
Where we slept in San Francisco:
Like I mentioned earlier, we began our trip to California with three nights in San Francisco and then on the way back from Yosemite and Big Sur, we stayed an additional night. The first three nights we stayed in THIS AirBnB property. It was a large studio apartment, very clean and our favorite part was the location. It was a quiet residential area that was very peaceful.
On our return to San Francisco, we decided to book a hotel because AirBnB doesn’t make that much sense for just one night. A lot of properties will not allow it. And we knew that we would benefit from having a hotel that could keep our bags when we checked out, etc. When it came time to find a place, the prices were extremely high for all the decent hotels we were looking at. The best price I found was the Holiday Inn Express Fisherman’s Wharf. I thought that was ironic because I knew we didn’t want to spend time in Fisherman’s Wharf, but we went with it. The hotel ended up being super clean, nice and a large comfortable room with good beds. Would I stay there again? Not if I could find a similarly priced hotel in a different neighborhood.