Insider Guide: San Francisco
Advice from folks who’ve been there By the MiniTime Community
Why Go: It had us at hello. This fairest of towns where Tony Bennett left his heart. Where hippie-love culture was born. Where the majestic panorama of the bay can cause a longtime local's spirit to soar as if he was seeing it for the first time. The appeal starts, as your grandmother would say, with "good bones." The city is built on a 46-square-mile peninsula that separates San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean—a setting that guarantees a multitude of water views. And then, of course, there are the glorious hills, which afford so many heartbreakingly gorgeous vistas that we're hard pressed to choose a favorite view. (Our savvy readers have whittled it down to five, below.) Even getting up and down those inclines has its charms, thanks to little cable cars that climb halfway to the stars.
Cosmopolitan and sophisticated yet welcoming and friendly, this city inspires its fair share of nicknames: Fog City, City by the Bay, SF (but, please, not "Frisco"). The famously vibrant, multicultural diversity means that foodies are in for a special treat. This is one of our nation's great dining towns, with more restaurants per capita than any city in America. And with dozens of enormous, open, grassy spaces and hundreds of opportunities for active pursuits, San Francisco is also an outdoor-loving family paradise.
Care for a friendly word of advice? Locals are accustomed to the city's somewhat wacky weather, which is influenced by microclimates (temperatures can vary by 15 degrees from one neighborhood to another) and by what is politely called "intermittent fog" (read: incredibly atmospheric photo ops of the Golden Gate Bridge). Visitors are wise to heed these words often attributed to Mark Twain: "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." Summer here tends to be downright unsummery. September and October are the warmest months. If you arrive during any other time of year, dress in plenty of layers and be prepared to don and shed them several times a day.
The Westin St. Francis (335 Powell St.; 397-7000 or 800/937-8461.) One of San Francisco's most historic grand hotels makes families feel welcome with kids' gift packs and a super Union Square location. Traveling with a baby or toddler? Many travel essentials—from cribs to strollers to potties to extra diapers—are provided free.
Get Your Bearings
Water surrounds the city on three sides, so there's no need to fret if you get lost. "Always remember: Downtown is east. The Golden Gate Bridge is north." You're more likely to get disoriented if you're driving, given the maze of one-way streets and streets that "break" when they hit a hill. Leave the car behind. Finding a parking spot is a hassle and, "unless you're a local, driving can be quite frustrating." Besides, "there are plenty of fun ways to get around this city that let you enjoy the views—something you can't always do when you're behind the wheel."
If you're going to be doing a lot of sightseeing, consider buying the San Francisco CityPass. It lumps the admission fees of seven major attractions (including a 7-day Muni & Cable Car passport, Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Ferry, Exploratorium, and Aquarium of the Bay) into one price ($54/adult, $44/child 5-17). Another key perk: You can jump to the front of all the lines, which is a huge benefit during high tourist season. To figure out whether the CityPass makes sense for you, do the math. It's a bargain if you're planning on getting around on streetcars and cable cars and visiting at least three of the seven sites that are included.
Most fun way to get around:
Cable car: Maybe they aren't the fastest way from A to B, but riding these open, historic trolleys is both a "quintessential San Fran experience," and "tremendous fun for the kids." But "just don't call it a 'trolley'-locals hate that." There are three lines. The most interesting ride and "the best way to survey the hilly cityscape" is the Powell-Hyde line, which starts at the corner of Powell and Market streets, rolls over both Nob Hill and Russian Hill, and zigs and zags down to a turntable at gaslit Victorian Square in front of Aquatic Park, near Ghirardelli Square. The next-best pick is the Powell-Mason line, which also starts at the intersection of Powell and Market, then climbs Nob Hill before making its way down to Bay Street, just a few blocks from Fisherman's Wharf. Rides cost $3/person, including kids over 5. Note: included in the San Francisco CityPass.
Streetcar: These sleek electric rail vehicles are a quick 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. "By far, the most useful and enjoyable line for visitors is the F line, because it's the only line that uses beautiful, vintage, 1930s-era cars." The F is "an easy and very lovely way to get from uptown to downtown," running from 17th and Castro streets to Beach and Jones streets near Fisherman's Wharf. In between, it travels on the city's main artery, Market Street, and its grand waterfront boulevard, The Embarcadero. You can board the F line at specially-marked center islands along the route. The fare is $1.50/adult; 50¢ for seniors and children 5 to 17. Note: Admission is included in the San Francisco CityPass.
Bike Ride on the Embarcadero: This famous thoroughfare is wide, flat, and mostly crowd-free-making it an easy family ride. Rent bikes and pedal down the street past the piers, stopping where you like. "This is best done first thing in the morning when it's not crowded. You might have to walk your bikes when you get to Pier 39 and Fisherman's Wharf if there are too many pedestrians." You can go all the way to the Hyde Street Pier and Aquatic Park.
Best local tour:
Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise (Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf; 773-1188). This very popular, one-hour narrated cruise leaves several times each day aboard 350-passenger sightseeing boats. The itinerary is a wide loop of the bay, sailing right under the Golden Gate Bridge, then past Sausalito and Angel Island, and finally around Alcatraz. "The views are sensational! Have your camera ready when you cruise up to the bridge." Be aware that "the morning cruises are less crowded than those in the afternoon" and "don't forget to bring a sweater since it gets positively chilly on the open water-even in the summertime." The discounted online fare is $23/adult; $19/youth (12 to 18 yrs); $15/child (5 to 11 yrs). Note: included in the San Francisco CityPass.
Bay Quackers San Francisco Duck Tours (Anchorage Mall at Fisherman's Wharf, corner of Leavenworth and Beach Sts; 431-3825). "This tour is definitely expensive" ($35/adult; $25/kids 12 and under), but it's "a real hoot for everybody in the family." The 90-minute "quirky and really fun" tour takes place inside a U.S. Coast Guard-approved World War II amphibious craft known as a "duck." After touring through some of the city's most interesting neighborhoods (Fisherman's Wharf, Chinatown, North Beach, South Beach, Union Square, China Basin), the duck splashes down into the water and gives a short cruise of the bay. "The atmosphere on this tour is very lively, thanks to the excellent, very outgoing and funny guides."
Golden Gate Promenade and Crissy Field (Marina District). Walking along the bayfront marina, "you get an unbeatable, sweeping view of the Golden Gate Bridge, sailboats in the bay, and the pretty Marin headlands." It's a favorite spot for "all sorts of active people-joggers, Rollerbladers, windsurfers, cyclists, moms and dads strolling with their kids, you name it."
Coit Tower. This round, stone tower sits atop Telegraph Hill, just east of North Beach (362-0808; Admission: $4.50/adults, $2.00/kids 6-12). From the top, you can enjoy a spectacular, panoramic vista of the city and the bay. "Take a few moments at the base of the tower to admire the beautiful murals" painted by more than 25 artists in the 1930s.
Alamo Square (Fulton, Hayes, and Steiner Streets). This grassy square in the middle of the historic district affords one of the most famous views of San Francisco. "You'll see it on a gazillion postcards and posters, but it's much more fun to take your own snapshots of this place." The unusual panorama features a row of exquisitely restored Victorian townhomes (a.k.a. the "painted ladies") on Steiner Street, whose gables cut a sharp edge when juxtaposed against the powerful Financial District skyscrapers behind. "This is a wonderful spot for letting your kids run around on the grass and release some energy."
Top of the Mark (InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel, Number One Nob Hill; 392-3434). On the 19th floor of this famous landmark hotel resides this legendary sky-bar, which is deservedly famous for its "dreamy, panoramic views" of San Francisco. "While it's known for its 100 Martinis menu, kids are made to feel very welcome, too."
Filbert Street Steps (Telegraph Hill). No time to hit the gym while you're in town? "It's a long hike (and great exercise) to climb up the flight of steps on Filbert Street, but you are rewarded with some really fantastic views."
de Young Museum Observatory (Golden Gate Park; 750-3600; Admission: $10/adult, $6/teen, free for kids 12 and under; Open Tues-Thurs & Sat-Sun 9:30am-5:15pm, Fri 9:30am-8:45pm). Go for the artworks, but don't leave without taking the tower elevator to the ninth-floor observation platform. "The floor is entirely encased in floor-to-ceiling glass, so you get a 360-degree view of the city. Even in the fog, it's a very cool place from which to view the city."
Soak Up the Local Scene
Best weekend family hangout:
Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market (Ferry Building, 1 Ferry Plaza, base of Market Street on the Embarcadero; open Tues 10am-2pm and Sat 8am-2pm). "This is the place to be every Saturday morning-great local color and awesome fresh food!" The 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 at home." Count on spending at least an hour here, perusing the stalls, noshing your way through breakfast, and picking up picnic fare for lunch.
Best sightseeing attraction:
Alcatraz Island (2.5-hour Tours depart from Hornblower Alcatraz Landing at Pier 33; Prices: $24.50/teens and adults, $15.25/kids 5-11, free for 4-and-unders. Family price: $74.50 for 2 adults, 2 kids). "You see it from Fisherman's Wharf, but you don't really appreciate it until you visit." This island, known as "The Rock," was the site of an infamous, maximum-security federal prison from 1934 to 1963 whose prisoners included Al Capone and Robert Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz." Inmates were kept in line not only by guards but by the sharks swimming in the bay. The island is now maintained by the National Parks Service, and tours include an excellent, award-winning audio tour narrated by actual former inmates and prison guards. "This tour is incredibly well-done. The guides are knowledgable and full of interesting anecdotes and stories, and the audio tour is fantastic." Kids can participate in the Be A Junior Ranger program. "For families with older kids, the night tours are wonderfully spooky and fabulously evocative." (Note: Night tours cost an additional $7/person.) Because of its popularity, this tour should be booked online in advance.
AT&T Park (formerly Pacific Bell Park). "Even if you're not a Giant's fan, you will enjoy an afternoon or evening at this gem of a baseball stadium. The atmosphere is absolutely wonderful." You can buy same-day outfield bleacher seats at the park, but if you want something plusher, try online. Kids will love "playing at the terrific Coca-Cola playground behind left field, and snacking on the outstanding food concessions." "Getting there is easy. Just take the N-line streetcar-it lets you out right at the front gate!"
Let the Fun Shine In
Golden Gate Park. This 1,000-acre park stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Haight and has something for everybody. "Whatever you like to do-tennis, jogging, biking, fishing, basketball, archery-is possible here." One beloved tradition for San Franciscan kids is going boating on man-made Stow Lake. At the boathouse (50 Stow Lake Dr, on the northwest bank; 752-7869), "you can rent pedalboat and rowboats." The boathouse also rents bicycles, including quadcycles that are great for families.
Best picnic spot:
Marina Green (Marina Boulevard near Crissy Field, Marina District). "Right on the water, with an enormous grassy area, a wide bike path, and terrific views of the sailboats in the bay."
Alamo Square Park(see "Best view," above). A wonderfully quintessential San Francisco vista, "wide open, grassy space and a playground for the kids."
Best public beach:
Baker Beach (Battery Chamberlin Rd., Presidio; 561-4323). This mile-long beach lies below the cliffs on the western edge of the Presidio, affording a wonderful vantage of the Golden Gate Bridge. "Sunsets are nothing short of spectacular."
Children's Playground, Golden Gate Park. The city's most famous park has huge family appeal. "The best swingset in the city, plenty of fun climbing equipment, a lovely carousel, and loads of sand and grass. And boy-oh-boy, what a setting!"
Walk on the Wild Side
Best animal experience:
Sea Lions at Pier 39 (Fisherman's Wharf). If you've never witnessed it, you might not believe it: "Hundreds, literally hundreds, of fat, lazy sea lions lounging on the docks-in other words, a really awesome place to bring the kids." "You won't believe how much noise they make, which is great fun."
Aquarium of the Bay (Pier 39; 888/SEA-DIVE; Admission, with online discount; $14.95/adults, $8, kids 3-11). "This is a neat experience. You walk through a clear plastic tunnel right underneath San Francisco Bay, so you get a close-up view of the marine creatures who live there-sharks, eels, rays, and lots of fish." As you ride the moving sidewalk or walk through the tunnel, "you'll be surprised at the number of sharks!" 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. Note: Admission is included in the San Francisco CityPass.
Feed Your Culture Vulture
Best museum for kids:
The Exploratorium (3601 Lyon St, Marina District; 563-7337; Admission: $14/adults, $11/teens 13-17, $9/kids 4-12, free for 3-and-unders). This hands-on museum "is like one gigantic, extremely interesting science fair." The hundreds of exhibits-from super-bubble blowing to a tornado machine to a computer that lets you fingerpaint-"really get your little gray cells working." It costs $3 extra (and an advance booking) to enter the immensely popular Tactile Dome, where you navigate in total darkness using every sense except sight. "Don't forget to stop into the gift store, which is packed with fantastic brainy games and toys." Heads up: Admission is free to everybody on the first Wednesday of every month. Note: Admission is included in the San Francisco CityPass
Zuem 221 4th St (corner of Howard and 4th); 820-3320; Admission: $10/adults, $8/kids 3-18, free for under-2s. Open Wed-Fri 1pm-5pm, weekends 11am-5pm during the school year, Tues-Sun 11am-5pm in the summer). This interactive museum lets kids create "all sorts of really cool stuff," including their own claymation film, music video, music soundtrack, and digital art. "If you have a 3- to 6-year-old, don't miss the 'Little Z' workshops on Wednesday afternoons. For older kids, the weekend how-to workshops are really fantastic. The best thing is that your kids will have something amazing to take home with them." Check the online schedule for workshop times before your visit.
Ella's (500 Presidio Ave, at California St; 441-5669). "Breakfast here feels like an upscale treat but it's very accessible and kid-friendly." Small fries get crayons and paper while they wait. Everything is good, but "the gooey sticky buns and buttermilk pancakes are particularly yummy." "Get there before 9:15am on weekends to beat the lines."
Tommaso's (1042 Kearny St, North Beach; 398-9696). Locals, tourists, and celebrities (Francis Ford Coppola is a huge fan) have been coming for over 70 years to this cozy, down-to-earth place with "nirvana-esque wood-fired, oven baked pizza" that's "famous for its crunchy crust." You'll also find plenty of "laid-back, authentic local atmosphere."
Goat Hill Pizza (300 Connecticut at 18th St, Portrero Hill; 641-1440). This popular pizza joint pours on the family-friendliness with checkered table cloths, "really scrumptious pizza," and markers and coloring placemats for the kids. "Sit at a table in the back for a fabulous view of downtown San Francisco." On Monday nights, you can have all the pizza and salad you can eat for $10.95/adult and $5.95/kids.
Mel's Drive-in (2165 Lombard St; 921-2867). On the world's zig-zaggiest street resides "not just any 1950s-style diner. This place is iconic." George Lucas filmed 'American Graffiti' at Mel's, and over the years this diner has starred in a handful of memorable TV ads. Nostalgia reigns supreme with formica counters, 25-cent tabletop jukeboxes, and blue plate specials. "Each kid's meal arrives in a cardboard '57 Chevy and balloons are handed out when you leave." The meatloaf and potpies are legendary, as are the "awesome Melburgers," fries, and shakes. Check the web site for additional locations, including 3355 Geary Boulevard and the corner of 4th and Mission Streets.
Best hot dogs:
AT&T Park If you catch a game here, don't pass up on a dog. "The best in the city, definitely."
Best international fare:
Y. Ben House (835 Pacific Ave, Chinatown, between Stockton and Powell Sts; 397-3168). Much of the fun is getting to Chinatown, either by cable car or walking from Union Square up Grant Street and through the Dragon Gate. "The dim sum is all delicious and so inexpensive that you can try whatever you like."
Best for toys:
The Chinatown Kite Shop (717 Grant Ave, Chinatown, between Clay and Sacramento Sts; 389-5182). "A superb collection of kites of all sorts-fish kites, windsocks, stunt kites-and a terrific flair for whimsy."
The Exploratorium Gift Shop (see "Best museum for kids" above). "Brain food! Some of the coolest gadgets and thinking toys around."