We are a certified San Francisco family -- going to every birthday party venue in town; trekking out to the beach in summer, bundled up in jeans and jackets against the fog; loading up the kids' bikes in the car every week to take them somewhere flat to ride; buying our organic greens at the Farmer's Market; and considering steamed pork buns, shrimp dumplings, and stuffed crab claws (in other words, dim sum) a fine meal for breakfast.
Visits to the city's most famous attractions will certainly be enjoyable, but I hope that you take the time to stray off the beaten path -- if even just a little. When in Fisherman's Wharf, consider skipping the T-shirt shops and candy vendors of PIER 39 and heading instead to the Hyde Street Pier, where you can get a real sense of the city's seafaring past (while the kids climb all over antique ships). In Chinatown, go ahead and check out the colorful tourist stores on Grant Street, but don't miss the exotic and authentic grocers on Stockton Street. And although I know that cashew chicken at the big restaurant in the middle of Chinatown sounds appetizing, consider ordering dim sum out in the Richmond District instead.
One of the terrific things about San Francisco is that a whole lot of the sights and activities that appeal to tourists in general will appeal to families specifically. What kid doesn't enjoy a ride on a cable car? And although everyone loves a stroll along Crissy Field, younger ones will be especially delighted playing on the grassy hills and sandy beaches. Not to mention the ferry ride to Alcatraz Island, which is perfect family fare. Certainly, not every kid will be thrilled by a trip to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), but a terrific children's center is just across the street. For every adult attraction you ante up, I'll see you three that are fabulous with kids. In fact, having little ones is a great excuse to visit the Exploratorium, the California Academy of Sciences, and the San Francisco Zoo -- all of which are first-rate. So get started planning your trip.
Shopping at the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market
Perhaps you haven't had a chance lately to stop and smell the roses, admire the tomatoes, or compare the peaches. If that's the case, hop on the F-Market streetcar to the Ferry Building and take a stroll around the best outdoor market in the Bay Area. It's a Saturday morning ritual for a great many San Franciscans who come down with their baskets and carefully select the season's finest from organic farmers and local purveyors of fresh sausages, free-range meats, olive oils, honey, and baked goods. The farmers offer tastes of their wares, so your kids may discover what just-picked-at-their-peak fruits taste like -- a revelation if they've never had a perfectly ripe pear or apricot. Don't eat breakfast first; along with coffee drinks and a huge array of morning breads, pastries, and sweets from the very nicest bakeries, local restaurants serve specialties that taste even better eaten with a view of the bay. Beyond Saturday, the market is open Tuesdays, as well as Sundays and Thursdays in spring and fall. Read more about Ferry Plaza.
Eating Shrimp Dumplings for Breakfast
If crab claws, pork buns, and steamed dumplings aren't your idea of Sunday brunch, it's time to branch out from omelets and pancakes. One of our favorite weekend morning activities is gathering with friends at a large table with a lazy Susan in the middle, while servers bring trays laden with bite-sized Chinese delicacies. If you're planning on staying downtown, Yank Sing is the place to go (One Rincon Center, 101 Spear St., at Mission St. tel. 415/957-9300). If you're planning a walk at Land's End, consider hopping on the 38-Geary bus and trekking out to Ton Kiang (5821 Geary Blvd., between 22nd and 23rd aves.; tel. 415/387-8273) for a hearty pre-hike brunch. Just get there early, as tables fill up fast.
Strolling through Chinatown
Just steps away from Union Square, you can enter another world -- one decorated by bright red, green, and gold banners. The knick-knack shops, traditional herbalists, vendors of ceremonial papers and incense, and grocery stores teeming with live frogs, crabs, and other wriggly seafood are all a visual and cultural treat. A stop by the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company just adds to the fun. Read more about Chinatown.
Hanging Out at Crissy Field
What better way to spend the day than to slow down and take in the views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city from the Bay Area's newest national park? Kids can run around on the hills, check out the gift shop, pile up rocks, or play in the sand. Buy some nice sandwiches at the Warming Hut and enjoy a picnic at one of the many bayside picnic tables. Read more about Crissy Field and Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Riding Bikes down the Embarcadero
The boulevard is wide and the street is flat, making the Embarcadero an easy family ride. Start at the Bike Hut (Pier 40, tel. 415/543-4335; www.thebikehut.com) and cruise down the street past the piers, stopping by the Ferry Building to buy picnic food. Walk the bikes down Pier 7 and see if anyone's caught a fish or crab at the end of the pier. Continue toward PIER 39 and Fisherman's Wharf. It may become too crowded to pedal here, but once you reach the Hyde Street Pier, space opens up. Keep going until you get to Aquatic Park, where you can stop to eat your pre-packed lunch. Read more about biking San Francisco.
Boating on Stow Lake
Pile into one of the seriously dilapidated, but safe, electric motorboats (top speed is maybe 5 mph), rowboats, or pedal boats and circle this man-made lake as many times as you can. Bring stale bread for the ducks if you like, and relax as you admire the trees and revel in the laughter of the kids as they attempt to keep the craft from bumping into other boats or landing on the bank. Read more about Stow Lake.
Checking Out the Scene at the Maritime National Historical Park
Young kids will love exploring the antique ships of the Hyde Street Pier, running around on the grass at Victorian Park, and gaping at the crazy swimmers in Aquatic Park who brave the Bay's chilly waters. All the while, grownups can marvel at the lovely scenery. Then everyone can grab lunch at the Oakville Grocery in The Cannery, and perhaps listen to some music from a local performer. Read more about the Maritime National Histroical Park.
Hanging Out in Golden Gate Park
You don't need an agenda to fritter away the hours around San Francisco's most famous park. The antique carousel is a big draw and the Koret Children's Quarter, promises to be a world-class playground. The Japanese Tea Garden is so composed and elegant you'll want to meditate there, but the kids will prefer stepping over the stone walkways and scaling the Drum Bridge. Budding botanists will appreciate the dahlia garden outside the Conservatory of Flowers and will especially enjoy ogling the carnivorous plants inside. The de Young Museum tower affords super city views and the Three Gems structure in the sculpture garden is a great place to chill out for a moment. On Sundays, the park is closed to traffic; be sure to look for the skate dancers near 6th Avenue and Fulton Street who put on a fine show.
Taking the Ferry to Marin
Bundle up and catch a Blue and Gold Ferry from Pier 41 to Sausalito or Tiburon. You can take bikes on the boats if you like, but both villages are petite and walkable. The ride is glorious. Remain outside for the full effect of the wind and salt spray. On a clear day, you'll have trouble deciding where to look; the scenery ahead is as thrilling as the view behind you. Sausalito is very touristy, but the stores are fun for window shopping. Tiburon is even more upscale than Sausalito. It won't take long to tour the village; leave someone behind to claim a table at Guaymas, at 5 Main St., where drinks and passable Mexican food on the sunny deck make this trip a little vacation within your vacation.
Standing on Market Street Watching the Chinese New Year's Parade
The crowds are thick and the night can be chilly, but come early to get a good spot for a truly marvelous spectacle. The contestants from the Miss Chinatown USA pageant wave from their float, marching bands travel in from around the Bay Area, and an elaborate dragon winds its away along the route, the traditional finale. It seems like the entire city is either in the parade or watching it. Walk to Portsmouth Square afterward for the night market. Read more about the Chinese New Year's Parade.
Cheering the Home Team at AT&T Park
You don't even need to be a baseball fan to derive a lot of pleasure from an afternoon or evening at this gem of a baseball stadium. Bleacher seats go on sale at the park on game days, but if you prefer something fancier, you can usually get good seats online from season ticket holders if nothing's available at Giants Dugout Stores or at the park ticket booth. Kids will have a field day playing at the Coca-Cola Fan Lot playground and chowing down on the notable food concessions. Transportation is a breeze on the N-Judah streetcar; it deposits you at the front gate. American League partisans have the option of taking BART (the local commuter train) across the bay to the Oakland Coliseum. Read more about AT&T Park .
This article is an excerpt from Frommer's San Francisco with Kids, available in our online bookstore now.
For a listing of events in the region, search Frommers.com's San Francisco events calendar.
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