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How to Feel Like a San Francisco Family: Practical Insider's Tips and Your Best Bets for What to See and Do

Bay Area mom and author Paula Tevis tells you where to go and what to do in San Francisco along with some practical advice on what to wear and how to manage your time sensibly.

San Francisco has fascinated me from the moment I laid eyes on the city as a child. My working mom, who practically never took a planned vacation, would sometimes on a whim literally pack my sister Patience and me in her two-seater sports car--I had to squeeze into the space behind the seats--and speed the 350 miles from our home in Santa Barbara to San Francisco where some favorite relatives lived. The highlights of my visits over the years--feeding squirrels in Golden Gate Park; shopping in the enormous department stores on Market Street; dining in a dark, narrow, multistoried Chinatown restaurant where the food arrived in dumbwaiters; admiring the gleaming towers of the Golden Gate Bridge peeking out beyond a robe of fog--must have left an indelible impression on me, for as soon as the opportunity presented itself, I moved to San Francisco.

Not long after unpacking my bags I married, and three years later my husband and I had our first baby. Prior to giving birth I hadn't considered what it might be like to raise children in the big city, but San Francisco turned out to be a marvelous place for introducing kids to the world. While the idealized neighborhood, where your child's best friend lives down the street and gangs of eight-year-olds ride bikes to the park, does not exist in the midst of heavily trafficked streets and overextended parents, pluralism is the motif for San Francisco's kids whether or not they understand the term. My girls would be at a loss to describe a typical family from our historically working-class section of town. Our neighbors include an extended Filipino household, a gay mom, our English electrician and his psychologist wife who foster African-American teens, an elderly Italian couple, and a British-educated Kenyan married to a friend from Bombay--and that's just the folks who live within shouting distance. Multiculturalism and varied family configurations are a way of life in this city, and the kids who grow up here are probably more confused when confronted by a homogenized suburban community than by a group of gay activists dressed as nuns.

Along with instilling in our children the understanding that people come in all shapes, colors, and wardrobes, San Francisco provides families choice in many other areas. No matter what your children are interested in exploring, an opportunity exists somewhere for them within or near the city limits. Sports fans have endless choices as players or spectators; if food is your thing, you can introduce kids to cuisines from around the world without traveling more than a few miles. Families with an intellectual bent have museums, bookstores, and cafes galore at their disposal, and artsy types will not starve for concerts, festivals, theater, or dance recitals.

How to Avoid Looking like a Tourist

I don't understand why being a tourist is considered so beneath some people. Even my own dear husband scoffs at tourists--or people he presumes are tourists--and when we travel he does his well-meaning best to look like a local. This generally leads to amusing misunderstandings on behalf of actual citizens, who either ask him something in a language he doesn't understand, or presume he knows where he's going when he hasn't a clue. So, why live a lie, I say. If you're visiting for pleasure and have a keen interest in looking around, you're a tourist. Be proud. Wear that camera around your neck (but maybe leave the B.U.M. bag at home). Rattle a map in frustration. Ask a stranger for directions.

Otherwise, memorize the following tips.

  • Dress for the Weather--This is not the 90210 zip code; you cannot tan here. In summer, it's foggy and cold in the morning, turning to sunshine in the afternoon, with temperatures in the upper 60s or low 70s. I know this, because the weathermen repeat the same forecast every morning in July and August. Dress in long pants, not shorts. Wear a sweater over your T-shirt and a jacket over that. You can always tie extraneous clothing around your waist when you enter one of our famous microclimates. In San Francisco, the temperature changes from neighborhood to neighborhood, so if you're shivering in Golden Gate Park, head to the Mission to warm up.
    September and October are the warmest months here. If you look good in shorts, wear them then.
  • Don't Trust Your Map--Those darn hills have a way of interrupting the streets in ways that may not be apparent to the untrained eye. Telegraph Hill is the worst offender. If you can't go through, you'll have to go around.
  • Don't Gawk at Tall Buildings--An article in the San Francisco Chronicle noted that San Franciscans do not gawk at tall buildings, although I don't know if that includes skyscrapers in other towns. Probably. But the author also noted that San Franciscans are breaking their own rule and gawking like mad at the new downtown ballpark. So, if you don't want to look like a tourist, don't stare at the Transamerica Pyramid--a quick glance should do--but feel free to drool while admiring Pac Bell Park. You'll then resemble a local who didn't buy season tickets.
  • Don't Eat or Shop like a Tourist--Be picky about where you spend your time and money. Places most residents wouldn't be caught dead in include the Hard Rock Cafe, any restaurant on Fisherman's Wharf, Ripley's Believe It or Not, and the camera/luggage stores on Powell Street.
  • Wait Till You Get Back to the Airport to Buy That Delicious San Francisco Sourdough--Don't walk around with loaves of bread wrapped in plastic for the trip home. Around here we buy our baguettes for same-day consumption. Anyway, you can buy that particular brand of bread at the airport, where no one will see you.
  • Cross the Bridge Before or After--But Not During--Rush Hour--Don't cross the Bay Bridge between 3 and 7pm unless you want to be mistaken for a suburban commuter. Anyway, no one, not even the commuters, is actually crossing the Bay Bridge at this time; rather, they're sitting and fuming and occasionally inching their way forward. This is important to remember if you have friends on the East Bay who invite you to come over for dinner.
  • Don't Stare at the Locals--Don't point/gasp/shriek at the man/woman/other with the attention-getting tattoo/leather chaps/chartreuse wig no matter how unusual he/she/it appears. That would be unseemly.
  • Don't Shout at People You Suspect Don't Speak English--Don't raise your voice or speak extra slowly to your waiter if you suspect he doesn't speak English. In fact, he does speak English. He's merely trying to turn your table as quickly as possible.
  • Do the Farmer's Market Thing--Hang around the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market on a Saturday morning. Have breakfast, circle the stalls, eat all the samples, buy something nonperishable to take home.

Of course, living in this unique city and raising a family here is necessarily different from arriving as a tourist. San Francisco families don't regularly line up for the ferry to Alcatraz or hang around Fisherman's Wharf, or ride the cable cars unless their relatives are visiting--not because we're jaded, but because, just like at your house, there's soccer practice, grocery shopping, birthday parties, or exhaustion taking up one's free time. Yet, the town continuously exerts an irresistible tug on locals and visitors alike. I remember pulling the car over while driving home from my cousin Irene's house one sunny afternoon just to point out the view from the top of Market Street to my kids. It's the same glorious downtown and bay scenery I've admired hundreds of times, but I suddenly wondered if the girls had ever really looked. And I wondered if it was a picture one could ever grow tired of coming across. In retrospect, I think the secret to feeling like a San Francisco family, whether you live here or are just visiting, is threefold: Appreciate the differences, be willing to try something new, and keep your eyes open.

Some Practical Advice

My husband and I began seriously traveling with our children when they were four and six years old. Up to that time, vacations revolved around car trips to visit the relatives or an occasional weekend in Monterey or Lake Tahoe. What we actually knew about planning and executing a family trip was confined to such esoteric information as making sure we didn't run out of Cheerios and juice boxes, and having extra clothes for those inevitable accidents--except for the time the baby's diaper came loose on an airplane and stained my white trousers (moral: never wear white). Now, after 10 years of packing and unpacking suitcases in cities from Tanzania to Spain to New York we've made about every mistake possible when it comes to traveling as a family. In light of our experiences, I'd like to offer some words of wisdom.

  • Don't rush. Before leaving on a trip, sit the family down and just talk over what everyone needs to take with them--passports, jackets, glasses, house keys, student identification, umbrellas, medication, that bill you have to get in the mail--whatever you'd soundly regret leaving behind. It takes 10 minutes to sort this all out and make lists for each family member. I assure you, this will save you hours of arguments and frustration.
  • Add in time to be late. We just returned from a short break, made shorter because we missed our flight due to traffic and poor timing on our part. Waiting at the airport can be a drag, I know, but it's nothing compared to the aggravation and expense incurred by cutting it too close.
  • Plan ahead. Arriving in a strange city--or anywhere for that matter--without a hotel reservation is asking for trouble. You'll waste time looking for a decent place to rest your head and you'll pay more than you would have otherwise.
  • Start your day early. Sleep late when you go home. When you're in a new city, the best time of day to explore is the morning when everyone is fresh and energetic and the rest of the tourists are still in their pj's. It's also the only way to beat the crowds.
  • Have a good breakfast. I know, I sound like your mother, but really, make sure everyone eats breakfast. Sightseeing takes a lot of energy.
  • Know ahead of time where you want to dine. I'm a spontaneous person, really I am, but when I'm traveling with my husband and kids, everyone's happier if we know where we're going and how to get there before low blood sugar sets in. Someone has to make the decision where to eat anyway, so you might as well do so before your people fall apart from hunger. Have a few restaurant recommendations written down and directions on how to get there. You'll eat better, too, because you won't stop off in the first dive you come across.
  • Don't compromise when it comes to food. If lunch is going to be a burger, make it the best burger you can. If you'll eat better by stopping off for deli sandwiches, do that. Think about it--when people reminisce about their vacations, food is always a big topic.
  • Remember that everyone has limits. Little kids especially tire out while on holiday, but they aren't equipped to return to the hotel for a nap on their own. If they start acting out, chances are they need a rest or a snack. Adults also get tired and cranky. Respect everyone's limits and do what you can to provide what's needed, for yourself as well.

Frommer's Favorite San Francisco Experiences

Cheering the Home Team at Pacific Bell 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 between the Coca-Cola Fan Lot playground and the truly magnificent food concessions. The hot dogs are among the best in the city and you can get your Krispy Creme Donut fix every few yards--at a price. 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 across the bay to the Oakland Coliseum. You can find game schedules, ticket prices and directions to the ballparks online; go to for Giants' info, for the A's, visit

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 so, 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, oysters, olive oils, honey, and baked goods. As the farmers offer tastes of their wares, your kids may discover what just-picked-at-their-peak fruits and vegetables taste like--a revelation if they've never had a perfectly ripe pear or apricot. If you're around during tomato season in July, the heirloom varieties come in exquisite colors of green, yellow, orange, purple, and red, and each has a unique flavor. 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.

Eating Dim Sum and Wandering Around Chinatown: Part of the fun is getting there on the cable car or walking from Union Square up Grant Street and through the Dragon Gate. However you enter Chinatown, try to come in the morning early enough that the shoppers aren't clogging the sidewalks. Head for Y. Ben House (835 Pacific Ave., btw Stockton and Powell sts.; tel. 415/397-3168) and point to any dim sum that looks good--it's all so inexpensive that you might as well try everything. Walk through the alleyways, examine the strange roots and potions in the herbal shops, stop in Sweet World to see the latest in Asian treats and in the Fortune Cookie Factory just for fun.

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 at the end of Townsend at Embarcadero; tel. 415/543-4335; call ahead during winter months to see if anyone is around) and cruise down the street past the piers, stopping by the newly reopened Ferry Building or across the street at the Embarcadero Center 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.

Boating on Stow Lake: Pile into one of the seriously dilapidated--but safe, I assure you--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.

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 Children's Playground has the best swings in the city, lots of climbing structures, a refurbished carousel, sand and grass--it won't be easy to pry the kids away. Make it a later stop after visiting the California Academy of Sciences, one of the best natural history museums ever, and the Japanese Tea Garden, so composed and elegant you'll want to meditate here. One of my fond childhood memories is feeding the park squirrels, and they continue to be quite friendly in the hopes that you'll have a few nuts to toss. Sundays are extra fun, if crowded, because cars aren't allowed. Bring a picnic in the spring and take a bench in the music concourse to hear the famous park band. Be sure to look for the skate dancers near 6th Avenue and Fulton who gyrate to an infectious beat and put on a fine show.

Taking the Ferry to Marin: Bundle up and catch a Blue and Gold Ferry from Pier 41 to either 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 completely touristy, but the stores are fun for window shopping. Your best bet for lunch is the hamburger stand not far from the dock, with an ice cream cone, easily found on the main street, for dessert. 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 (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 wends 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.

Gaping at the Sea Lions on PIER 39: These guys (and they are predominantly male) are huge, lazy as a high fly ball, and loud. There's also something so entertaining about the lugs that you can't help but stare in fascination. My little niece, who must have been about 2 when she came to visit, loved the sight of all those pinnipeds, and she was as reluctant to leave her perch on the northwest side of PIER 39 as they appear to be. Come down early--this is prime tourist territory.

Sipping a Cappuccino or a Hot Chocolate in a North Beach Cafe: Preferably this is to be done at an outdoor table, midmorning, on a weekday when everyone else is at work. If the sun's out, all the better. You'll have your pick of enticing cafes, but I don't mind recommending Caffè Greco (423 Columbus Ave., between Vallejo and Green), which is bright and roomy, with superb coffee and an attractive pastry selection. It's always full of locals and you can embarrass your kids by striking up a conversation with them. Should the kids become antsy to get moving, if they're independent enough they can safely prowl the nearby shops while you finish your coffee.

Getting the Most Out of Our Suggestions

Our new guide, San Francisco with Kids, is primarily a resource for families who want guidance when it comes to planning a satisfying vacation, but it's also for residents who need up-to-date information on what to do with kids in the Bay Area. You won't find information on the city's architecture, but you will get my opinions on which places to stay, eat, shop and visit are the most family friendly. Since I've spent the majority of my adult life in San Francisco, and have raised two children in the city, I'm quite comfortable showing you around in print. The reality of travel writing, however, means that things change. Restaurants go out of business, hotels lose great staff to rivals, construction closes a tourist site temporarily, and subtle or not-so-subtle shifts in the world have effects on business that can't be predicted. Nonetheless, use San Francisco with Kids to help make choices, which in turn will make your vacation easier to manage and ultimately more fun. Focus on a few attractions that your family will enjoy and don't worry about seeing everything. Like all great cities, San Francisco deserves more than a single visit.

The city is far from perfect, and it is immersed in the difficulties every urban center must handle--homelessness, infrastructure problems, awful traffic, and lack of parking. At the same time, San Francisco is imbued with that quintessential Northern Californian zeal for continuous self-improvement. In the last few years alone, public transportation has taken a giant leap with the opening of the Embarcadero corridor and the restoration of the historic F-Market streetcars. Crissy Field, a formerly desolate airfield in a prime bay location, has been completely redesigned and redeveloped into a tranquil open space with mass appeal. At press time, the new Asian Art Museum and the gloriously remodeled Ferry Building were both about to be unveiled, bringing extra cachet to Civic Center in the first instance and providing a handsome permanent space for a farmer's market and food center in the second. The repair of the Conservatory of Flowers at Golden Gate Park is nearly finished, the zoo's new Lemur center is a model of conservancy, and the public Harding Park Golf Course is undergoing a face-lift, due to be complete in summer 2003. New hotels continue to be built, new restaurants continue to open, and San Francisco, in all its wacky glory and exceptional natural beauty, continues to delight.

Have you traveled to San Francisco? What do you like to do best when there? What was your least favorite experience? Tell us about it on our California Community Boards. Simply click here to get started.