Many months ago, I offered to write a San Francisco City Guide. Easy, right? I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 16 years, worked in San Francisco for the better part of the past 10 years, I know this city, I’ll knock this article out in 20 minutes! But there’s a lot packed into our 7 square miles. Not to mention, all of the cool things to do outside of San Francisco proper. How do I pick the best things to write about without writing a novel?
I assume, if you are visiting the city by the bay, you will be staying near Union Square or Fisherman’s Wharf. I assume you’ll eat some mediocre clam chowder on Pier 39 and will hit all the usual tourist spots. (Pier 39- check, Coit Tower- check, cable car ride- check, Chinatown- check, Alcatraz- check, Golden Gate Bridge- check). Because you will have the usual tourist spots covered without my help, I will focus on all the things off the beaten path. And, for the sake of time, I’ll even keep you inside San Francisco proper and leave the out-of-city excursions for another day.
Before I get started, a few notes. Locals call San Francisco, “The City,” “SF,” or “San Francisco.” We do not say, “San Fran.” And we never, ever call it “Frisco.” Don’t out yourself as a tourist just by saying the wrong name. I’m sending you all over the city. Get around how you like – cabs, Uber, Lyft, Muni, BART. Drive only if you’re brave on hills, can maneuver crazy cyclists like a ninja, and you’re good with the emergency brake. Now that we’ve got that covered, I can share some of my favorite spots.
Keep Those Kids Busy:
The best place to take kids for a day filled with activities is Golden Gate Park. Tucked just outside of The Presidio and a short uber-trip away from downtown, Golden Gate park is filled with things to do in all budget ranges, and for all age ranges. You will not be able to cover all the activities in the park in one day- botanical gardens, Japanese Tea gardens, bike rentals, free concerts, museums and a carousel are only part of what you will find there. You are guaranteed to tire those kids out so you can enjoy an extra cocktail after bedtime. Top Picks for Golden Gate Park:
- The California Academy of Sciences promises a day of fun mixed with education – an aquarium, planetarium, history museum, science museum, a real, live albino alligator, and an earthquake simulator? Sign me up.
- The Herschell-Spillman Carousel – who doesn’t love a carousel? You? Okay, move along, move along, but note that kids can ride for only $1, which is a bargain anywhere, not just in San Francisco.
- Skatin’ Place– you miss derby, your kids need to skate off some energy. And it’s free. Win-win.
- Ocean Beach – okay, this technically isn’t *in* Golden Gate Park, but you can take the free shuttle on weekends from Golden Gate Park to Ocean Beach. Nobody should visit CA without putting your toes in the sand and getting some Pacific Ocean Views. (Okay, I really go there to ogle the surfers while my kids play in the sand, I’m only human.)
- Giants baseball games are always fun. You can even watch three innings for free in designated view areas. If you opt to buy tickets, get the bleacher seats with views of the bay and the game, and take a walk to the coca-cola bottle slides to give the kids a break from the stands. And always get the garlic fries.
- Urban Putt – indoor mini-golf in the Mission. Need I say more?
Mom, I’m Hungry!
San Francisco is the home of trendy, hipster, not necessarily family-friendly restaurants serving avocado toast with a side of kombucha, or whatever else is popular this week. That said, if your screamers are adventurous eaters, and can sit through dinner without needing an exorcism, there are more options than I can even list. Assuming the devil resides at least part-time inside your punky kid (as he does with my punky kids), I’ve kept the list mostly family-friendly.
- Tacolicious – Ferry Building or Mission District. Kids get tacos, mom and dad get margaritas, and all for a reasonable price. What if you don’t like tacos? Then you’re wrong. Just wrong. But if you’re at the Ferry Building, it’s filled with food stands and restaurants with every cuisine imaginable, so find something else.
- Truck Stop SF or Off the Grid –We love our food trucks in San Francisco. This is a great way to try out many of our local up and coming chefs, without any of the hassle of getting a table at a busy restaurant. You will see them throughout the city, at lunch and dinner. I’ve just given you two examples of where to find them. If you’re here for a weekend, Off the Grid at Fort Mason Center is the place to be on Friday nights – 30 trucks, live music, and even a bar. Take in a view of the bay while enjoying your dinner and drink. Truck Stop SF is a smaller selection of trucks available for weekday lunch.
- Mariposa Baking Company – in the Ferry Building. This is for you my gluten-free friends! They serve 100% gluten-free pastries and hot food to go, with many vegetarian and vegan options as well. When was the last time you had a gluten-free croissant? Never? You’re missing out. Grab some food and sit outside, watching the ferries come and go. Just don’t feed the pigeons, because pigeons are assholes.
- La Taqueria in the Mission. I know, two taco places – it really depends on what you’re looking for. Trendy? Go back to Tacolicious. An authentic taqueria? You have to take BART 24th and Mission and visit La Taqueria. America’s best burrito. Eat it and you’ll be done eating for the day. You’re welcome.
As much as locals hate to admit it, if you’re eating with the kids, the touristy restaurants around Pier 39 are usually the most kid-friendly. (Don’t hit me!) Below are some other options that are manageable with the munchkins.
- The Cliff House sits at Land’s End, at the very edge of the city, on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It looks formal, but is casual and family-friendly. This can be combined with a day of hiking and visiting Ocean Beach. Sit by a window and watch the waves and spot sea-critters with the kids. This is the perfect ending to your day at Golden Gate Park or Ocean Beach.
- Mel’s Drive-In (multiple locations): You can’t go wrong with Mel’s! 50’s kitsch + traditional diner menu = win for any Punky mom. Kid’s meals come in a cute cardboard 50’s hotrod car, in place of a plate.
- The Buena Vista Café– (Near Fisherman’s Wharf) Okay, this is slightly touristy, but they have kid-friendly food, and the best Irish coffee in town. Seriously. Just drink your dinner and walk back to the hotel!
I’ve ditched the kids! Where is this hipster toast you’ve been telling us about?
- State Bird Provisions – This is about as California and San Francisco as it comes. Yes, you can eat the California state bird for dinner. But, they also have a great selection of vegetarian options. They serve small plates, dim sum style, so you see your food before you choose it. Did I mention that a section of their menu is dedicated to toast? I promised you trendy, hipster food, and this is where you can get it.
- SPQR – You’re out without the kids. Live it up, dress fancy, enjoy food you can’t make at home. With a Michelin star, an award-winning chef and fresh Italian-inspired California cuisine, this is not your mom’s Italian restaurant. The menu makes me drool, and the wine list makes the entire Napa Valley jealous of Italy. Plus, you can say you ate with the cool kids.
- House of Prime Rib – This is more of a San Francisco classic than a trendy restaurant. If you like big cuts of beef, sliced to order in front of your table, with traditional sides like mashed potatoes and creamed spinach, this place is for you. You ditched the kids, take a cab, and order a bottle of Cab with your steak dinner!
A subject after my own cold, black, heart – Coffee! Lest you are not the coffee snob nerd that I am, I will keep this section simple. Similar to our love of trendy, hipster food, there is no shortage of coffee options in San Francisco. Locals tend to be a fan of Peet’s — a Bay Area original, it was even the inspiration for Starbucks. (Take that, Seattle!) You will find Peet’s in San Francisco, as easily as you find Starbucks in your home town. Just prepare yourself – coffee at Peet’s actually tastes like coffee. Oh, and do yourself a favor and buy your kid a maple scone. (Or, “syrup muffin” as my kids used to say – it tastes like eating a stack of pancakes!)
Other local coffee snob nerd favorites are, Blue Bottle Coffee and Ritual Coffee Roasters (multiple locations) — all great options to grab your caffeine before you head out for a day of sightseeing. But, if you’re looking to caffeinate in a relaxing environment, while checking your Facebook with one eye, and half-watching your kids with the other, check out Rigolo – a French café with great coffee and food, a kids’ menu, and – unheard of in The City- a play area with a chalkboard and balloons for the kids!
Mom needs an adult beverage and a show. STAT.
Drinks and shows are not hard to find in San Francisco. We eat, we drink, we eat, we drink, we drink, and we drink. You’ll probably find many places in your travels through the city, but here are a few of my favorite stops for a drink or two.
- Thee Parkside – Potrero Hill. I saw Me First and the Gimme Gimmes here a while back for $15. Yes, that’s right, $15. This little dive bar is a punky mom’s dream escape from kids and trendy expensive restaurants. It’s everything we loved in college – live music, sticky floors, cheap drinks, greasy food and off the beaten path. It is not uncommon to see some of your old favorite SKA and punk bands play live shows here. Or, if you’re feeling more like adulting, you can hit up Sunday brunch and bottomless mimosas instead of a late-night show.
- Smuggler’s Cove — A pirate themed tiki bar. Pirates + Tiki + ALL THE RUM = Win. Seriously, they have the largest rum selection in America. Just note, Smuggler’s Cove has received so many awards, it is getting difficult to get in. I recommend stopping in for cocktails before dinner, and then heading out to a restaurant to eat.
- The Tonga Room – The Fairmont Hotel. Remember that time you couldn’t get into Smuggler’s Cove, but it was okay because you wanted to have food with your drinks, and dang-nabbit, those hipster kids at the bar were too loud anyway? Yeah, go to the Tonga Room. Another classic San Francisco restaurant, with all of the Tiki-theme, none of the “cool new bar” hassle, plus a great Hawaiian-Asian inspired menu. Hell, you could even take the kids here. (I know you missed them and didn’t want to ditch them again!)
Wow, I hope you planned a long vacation so you can do all the touristy stuff and check out my favorite places. If not, skip Coit Tower- the kids will just whine anyway as they climb the hill and walk up all the steps. Whining kids are never fun.
Ms. Sinn is a Bay Area mom to two tweenage assholes. She spends her days kicking ass and taking names in IT to support her bad coffee habit. Her nights are spent drinking wine, helping with homework, snacking on the souls of her enemies, and binge-watching cooking shows.