SAN FRANCISCO FAMILY ADVENTURE by Robin Gorman Newman
Let me first say that I’m a HUGE California lover. Two summers ago, we went to San Diego, and it was just a lovely vacation.
This past summer, we chose San Francisco and surrounding areas because my son, Seth, age 11, is a huge fan of the website Roblox.com, and we discovered that Roblox has a corporate office in San Mateo, CA, where they periodically host free office visits and feedback sessions for visitors (you have to make a reservation). Upon hearing this, Seth, of course, couldn’t get there fast enough, so we built a trip around that visit (yes…we really did) and during his two week break from day camp.
We stayed for 7 nights in San Francisco at the Hotel Nikko, a convenient choice in the bustling shopping and dining district of Union Square. One of the reasons we chose it is because they have an indoor pool, which unfortunately wound up being under construction during our stay, but the hotel was gracious and provided us with a free fitness club membership, continental breakfast and evening wine and cheese in the lounge, which wound up being a nice way to unwind after a busy day, and often served as a light dinner for us.
One of the things I love about San Francisco is that there is plenty to do of interest to both kids and adults, and if you remain open-minded, you might discover activities that, were you not a parent, you wouldn’t seek out, but they can prove special. Such was the case for Seth and I.
We took a bunch of tours while there, and one of the highlights was the Fire Engine Tour. I had stumbled on this doing my research, and it was totally up Seth’s alley. The tour started from the Cannery at the Fisherman’s Wharf area, took us through town, and then over the Golden Gate Bridge, making stops for gorgeous photo opps. There was something surreal about riding in an open top, real, old-fashioned firetruck, with the wind blowing through your hair, as you cross a beautiful, iconic bridge. Our tour guide shared both information and songs (she sang) during the 90 minute tour, and it was a memorable, fun experience I’d highly recommend both for kids and adults. You can even wear fire garb, which they provide. Seth was all into that.
Fisherman’s Wharf was fun, and near there we walked around The Cannery and Ghiradelli Square (known for the famous chocolate). If you love fresh seafood, be sure to treat yourself to a cup of fresh lump crabmeat and baby shrimp (with cocktail sauce). You can purchase at one of the outdoor food booths near the restaurants and find a bench to sit on and enjoy. Seth chased the pigeons and had a blast as I ate!
Another tour leaving from Fisherman’s Wharf is Ride the Ducks San Francisco. This tour is a hoot, and offered excellent views of the city both by land and sea. A Ride The Ducks San Francisco tour includes a ride on land and water duck boats through the historic streets and neighborhoods, and then you splash down and cruise the Bay. Kids get to drive the Duck, if they like, and quack along with the captain (they supply duck quackers) and the music aboard this 90-minute city adventure. The tour guide captain mixes fun, music, and history into an interactive experience. The Ducks are built from the ground up exclusively for Ride The Ducks and its partners. The vehicles resemble the WWII DUKW in appearance only. They are regularly inspected, tested & certified by the United States Coast Guard to ensure a safe and comfortable experience.
The Exploratorium at Pier 15 is an eye-opening, playful place—in San Francisco and online—to explore how the world works. For 40-plus years, they’ve offered creative, thought-provoking exhibits, experiences, tools, and projects that ignite curiosity, encourage exploration, and inspire profound learning. You could spend major time here, and it’s highly interactive, making it a gem destination for kids (and curious adults). Dedicated to education reform in and out of the classroom, the Exploratorium is a premier professional development center for educators and a creator of award-winning educational resources. Since 1969, the Exploratorium has influenced generations of entrepreneurs, artists, scientists, teachers, students, children, museum professionals and everyday doers, reaching nearly 180 million people annually from around the globe.
California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is home to a state-of-the-art aquarium, planetarium and natural history museum and four-story rainforest, all under one living roof. They conduct world class research and offer education programs. To say it’s impressive somehow seems an understatement. It’s such a memorable place. They periodically introduce new exhibits…when we visited, they featured Skulls. Ongoing exhibits include African Hall, Animal Attractions, California Coast, Earthquake, Southwest Native Pottery and Silver, Human Odyssey, Islands of Evolution, Living Roof, Philippine Coral Reef, Science in Action, Water Planet, and more. They offer special programs daily including penguin feedings and coral reef dives, and you can drop into the Discovery Tidepool, Early Explorers Cove, and the Naturalist Center to dive deeper.
Two of our favorites were The Swamp — where we got to see an albino alligator named Clyde. Who knew they existed?! And, Rainforests of the World was just “awesome” between the tropical birds and butterflies.
One day, we took Dylan’s Tours, which included a visit to Muir Woods, where we got to see the majestic, old red wood trees. A peaceful place, and somewhat meditative. I photographed this beautiful black crow in flight there.
Of course, we road a cable car….no easy feat since they are a big tourist attraction and lines can get long. We were able to hop on one on the way back one day from the Chinatown area, and got lucky enough to get seats. To get more of an insider view of Chinatown, we signed up for a WOK WIZ Walking Tour. It definitely enhanced our Chinatown experience, and we visited places like an authentic tea shop and learned about tea-making, wandered through food markets (where unique produce, etc. were pointed out), perused an herbalist, meandered through back alleys, visited a fortune cookie making establishment, met a barber/musician, and more, ending with a delicious lunch with an opportunity to sample an array of food and discovered I love shrimp/chive dim sum (lunch is optional). Every Wok Wiz tour leader is either born in, or grew up in Chinatown, giving a very local flavor to the tour, and each speaks fluent English as well as Chinese.
Chinatown’s sprawling Grant Street is a lovely street with many interesting shops, again, for the retail therapy lover. :) Wok Wiz is in business over 25 and has been featured on Food Network, Travel Channel, History Channel and PBS. It was started by late chef/author Shirley Fong-Torres whose daughter Tina now proudly leads the tour company team.
Other cool destinations in San Francisco:
Pier 39 is a lively, worthwhile destination. There we saw a magic show, checked out a battleship, watched sea lions and went to the Aquarium of the Bay. The Aquarium is San Francisco Bay’s only waterfront aquarium. It’s a well-constructed 50,000 square foot facility that features 20,000 animals from octopuses, to native sevengill sharks, bat rays and giant sea bass. There are four species of jellies, and you have a chance to touch skates, sea anemoes and “tidal zone” animals while learning how animals and humans are interconnected with water. They ofter behind the scenes tours, and also on Pier 39, is a free Sea Lion Center that features interactive displays, educational videos, and a wonderful learning opportunity for sea lion lovers.
At nearby Pier 45, we visited the unique Musee Mecanique. Musée Mécanique is one of the world’s largest (over 200) privately owned collection of coin-operated mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade machines in their original working condition. (You can play them…you pay for the games but no admission fee for the Musee!)
For shopping in San Francisco, check out these areas — Filmore, Chestnut Street, Hayes (off Gough). And, if you’re a book lover, as I am, there are a number of independent bookstores, but the real treasure is the City Lights bookstore and publisher…a literary landmark since 1953 with an impressive history.
I love to walk, particularly on vacation, but San Francisco isn’t the easiest walking town since it’s famous for hills….and the famous winding street called Lombard. Taking a break from the city, one day, Seth and I took a ferry to Sausalito, and we later stayed overnight at Inn on the Tides. You can’t beat the Inn’s location….right on the water…and our room came equipped with binoculars that Seth used to peer out the window and look for boats, particularly Coast Guard. It’s a quaint, beautiful, walkable town worth a visit.
We also drove down the coast to visit Monterey and Carmel by the Sea, and the scenic 17 mile drive was just breathtaking along the Pacific Coast. This is a must do! One photo opp after the other. These two towns are simply lovely, and if you enjoy shopping, Carmel is an excellent destination. In Monterey, we stayed at the comfortable and moderately priced Hotel Abrego, and we ate at Phil’s Fish Market, which I highly recommend. Casual, but fresh, well-priced and large portions. We also visited Tiburon and Mill Valley, small but some nice stores and restaurants in each. In Monterey, The Cannery is fun to explore, and be sure to stop at Moss Landing to see the boisterous sea lions in the wild. There is also a nice aquarium in Monterey, though we didn’t have time to visit.
Before our flight home, we made a stop in Berkeley, where we enjoyed the free, annual, colorful Berkeley Kite Festival, and took a quick drive by the Berkeley College campus.
For general information about San Francisco, visit http://www.visitsfbayarea.com/.
Note: Many thanks to the properties (where a link is provided) for offering complimentary tickets and visits.