San Francisco was the first stop on a 5-week mini-retirement with my wife and 2-kids (13 and 10). For our San Francisco portion, we based most of our activities around a useful article in Time called “San Francisco: 10 Things To Do”. I’ve been to San Francisco many times. At one point in my career I was going 5 times per year. But this was my first time as a tourist and surprisingly I was at a loss for what to do, where to go. We had good friends that had a just spent 3-days there who followed the Time article suggestions and loved it so we had things pretty well mapped out. This itinerary worked out really well for both the kids and us adults.
Where to stay?
Of course that depends upon budget and personal preference but we stayed in the tourist district near the wharf. There are far more posh or hip places to stay. If you want the hippie and Bohemian cultural scene stay near Haight Street (e.g. Metro Hotel or Stanyan Park Hotel). For the luxury hotels there’s the Ritz, Four Seasons and Marriott Marquis clustered between Market and Mission Streets. But if you don’t mind being among 1,000s of tourists, the hotels between Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf are great if you have kids.
We stayed at The Argonaut, a boutique hotel on Jefferson Street near Scoma’s. It’s slightly out of the main Pier 39 tourist mayhem but a close walk to it if you want to view the sea lions and loads of various street performers. This hotel isn’t cheap. The average rate being in the $450/night range. In a future post I talk about a hyper credit card point accumulation hack we used to make it affordable.
Day-1: Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower, Haight-Ashbury, Golden Gate State Park and the California Academy of Sciences
For starters the weather was perfect. The high was 65 and the day perfectly clear. We decided to make this our foot exploration day. We walked up Columbus to the backside of the Telegraph Hill steps. If you take the steps coming from Embarcadero you are faced with 400 steps to climb. I am one of these nutty stair climbing types so I was excited about the challenge but my kids not so much. So instead we walked up the backside of Telegraph Hill from Greenwich Street which is about a 250-step climb. When we got to the Coit Tower the only way to the top was using the elevator and the lines were long, so we bailed and meandered around the park before making our way to the train stop on Embarcadero.
At $2 per person, the San Francisco public transit system is still the best value in America and the train operator was actually courteous. We took the F-Line up Market Street and got off near Haight Street. From there we walked up Haight Street to the Golden Gate park. Note that this is a pretty long, over 20 blocks from Market Street to the park. But if you are up for it you will walk through some of the most eclectic neighborhoods in America. My kids saw things and people they never had witnessed before. My personal destination was Amoeba Records near Haight and Ashbury. But my kids and wife really weren’t into it as they were tired and hungry. I could have spent 3-hours there. I talked to an employee who had worked there for 25-years. I excitedly told him about my collection of old records that I that I just knew they were worth a fortune now. I told him about my Rolling Stones “Some Girls” album with all the faces on the cover prior to them being blocked out by the threat of lawsuits and my Public Image Limited (PIL) “tin can” album. He nodded having heard this story hundreds of times before and finally said “those are cool, but they printed millions of those albums when they first came out”.
We ate at Cha Cha Cha (recommended by the guys at Amoeba) and if you like Cuban food and are in this area you can’t beat it. Great margaritas and ample portions that will satisfy any weary traveler. We then walked into Golden Gate park to be greeted by a couple of guys that looked like they lived in the park getting into it with some young, brazen tourists. We walked through the gardens and then made our way to our final destination, the California Academy of Sciences (CAS) planetarium and aquarium.
This was definitely worth the trip. If you go, the must see exhibits are the planetarium, the living rainforest and the aquarium. The planetarium show was top notch and we learned all any non-physicist would want to know about dark matter. The aquarium too is world class. We talked to a couple of the volunteers there and learned pretty quickly that they are proud of their aquarium as they’ve replicated a deep (50 foot) living coral reef similar to those found in the south pacific. To keep the water warm in the San Francisco chill, they have huge stadium lights affixed to suspension cables propped just above the water line. The aquarium is visible at three different levels. After climbing to many different levels of the rainforest we checked out their sustainable roof that is alive with plants and solar panels that power the majority of the building. To top it off we took an Uber Town Car back to the holte. We used Uber as much as possible in SF.
Day-2: Bike the Golden Gate, Lunch in Sausalito and then Sea Lion (and people) watching at Pier 39, Dinner in Chinatown (optional)
This is a must do tourist activity when the weather is accommodating and we had perfect weather as the photos below show. We were told that San Francisco has on average 70 clear days per year and this was one of them. The Argonaut makes bikes available to their guests for free on a first come first serve basis. They had two left so we rented a tandem bike from Blazing Saddles. I want to give Blazing Saddles a quick shout out because they’ve got two things down. 1) They have an efficient process for getting customers signed up, trained on the rules of the road and then outfitted on a bike. The owners or managers must have experience in the fast food industry or something. 2). Each of the staff members we dealt with had a super attitude and upbeat personality.
When are bike trip was over my wife and I enjoyed a couple of beers at the Blue Mermaid and then ventured out with the kids to Pier 39. We did the proverbial Sea Lion watch which is what it is but for me the more interesting thing was seeing the variety of talent performing on the street. Jugglers, musicians, break dancers, rappers, you’ve got it all right there in that 5 block stretch. We stumbled across a band from Portland, OR called All The Apparatus. They were playing a gig that night somewhere and decided to bang out 45 minutes of music to promote their show. My wife and I were standing next to the manager of the Blue Mermaid and she said “this is one of the best acts we’ve seen here in a long time”.
We actually went to Chinatown the following day. This is where my suggested itinerary diverges from what a family of four could reasonably take in given 2-days is all you have to spend in San Francisco. Instead of having dinner in Chinatown, my wife and I were invited to have dinner at the St. Francis Yacht Club with a client of mine and his wife. The views are absolutely over the top. If you are biking the bridge you go near the club so check out the views yourself. (As a side note: the kids stayed at the hotel and we ordered them Tony’s Pizza delivered to the hotel).
We didn’t have much time on the third day because we had to pack and prepare for our flight to Hong Kong. However we did hop the cable car up Columbus to Chinatown. I wanted to prepare the kids for the arcades and bazaars we would encounter in Hong Kong and there are some great restaurants in Chinatown if you avoid the tourist traps. After walking around to get a feel for the place, amused by the many street vendors and hucksters, we made our way to The House, an asian fusion restaurant on Grant Street. At the time of this writing it was by far the best meal we’ve eaten.
Next stop Hong Kong!