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San Francisco Speed Tour
Using cable cars, guided boats, and good old-fashioned foot power, our family took in the city’s major sights in record time.
Two half days. That was all the time we had to explore San Francisco on our way to and from Yosemite National Park in May. Though my husband, Bob, and I had visited the city before, our kids—Amy 21, and Matt, 23—had never been. We were anxious to show them as much as possible in such limited time.
Our flight from New York touched down around 11 a.m., and we set off to conquer as many sights as we could. On our drive to the hotel, where we’d be spending the night before heading to Yosemite at the crack of dawn, we stopped for a quick lunch at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market. (It’s only open on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Don’t miss the carnitas and short rib tacos from the Tacolicious food cart.) Then we dropped off our luggage and rental car, and hopped on the Powell-Mason cable car, which conveniently stopped right outside our hotel.
Off to the Wharf. Though not the quickest ride in town, San Francisco’s historic cable cars are certainly the coolest way to tour the city and are an attraction in themselves. As ours lurched up and down the hills with bells clanging, we got fantastic views of the Bay, Victorian homes, the TransAmerica building and Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. I could have done without the added “thrill” of watching my son hang off the outside of the car, however. (I know he’s 23, but I’m still his mother, OK?) If family members insist on doing this, tell them to tuck in their tushes when other cable cars pass; they come really close!
We stayed on till the end of the line, and were deposited on Taylor Street, an easy 2-block walk from Fisherman’s Wharf. There, we gawked at the famously loud and comical sea lions on Pier 39, and Amy did some shopping at Lefty’s, where she discovered that Benjamin Franklin and Lewis Carroll were fellow southpaws. Next, we hightailed it over to the Blue and Gold Fleet kiosk, to catch one of their last boat tours of the day.
Exploring the Bay. The 1-hour narrated Bay Cruise Adventure took us under the Golden Gate Bridge and past foreboding Alcatraz federal penitentiary, where Al Capone did time. We learned about Angel Island (the Ellis Island of the West) and Telegraph Hill (once a Morse code signaling station). As we got another look at the sea lions on the way back to shore, we heard why they briefly disappeared from their hangout back in 2010. Rumor has it they were vacationing in Oregon!
Back on land, we ducked into the Aquarium of the Bay to meet more of the creatures that live in the waters surrounding San Francisco—like Sevengill sharks, bat rays, and moon jellies. We were too late to watch any of the fish feedings. But our own hunger pangs led us back outside to Boudin at the Wharf for dinner—clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, the specialty of the house.
Zigzagging Our Way Back Downtown. By now it was around 8 p.m. Though we were starting to feel jetlagged, we still wanted to show the kids Lombard Street—touted as San Francisco’s crookedest. We planned to take the Powell-Hyde cable car there, but the line at the Ghirardelli Square station was theme park long. So we decided to walk up the most ginormous hill I’ve ever seen. (A less strenuous alternative would have been to walk back to Taylor, and up to Columbus, through the Little Italy area of North Beach, and then along Lombard.) I was shocked to discover, that despite my daily gym workouts, I couldn’t make the climb without heavy panting. (Not to self: ratchet up the incline on the elliptical when you get back to NY.)
As we trudged along, several cable cars passed us, and I recognized many tourists from the line. I guess it moves faster than I thought. But the trek was totally worth the effort. We watched cars zigzag down Lombard Street, and savored the skyline views as the sun set. Since many tourists get off at this stop, we had no problem re-boarding a southbound cable car. The city lights were just coming on, and we enjoyed a glittery ride back down to Union Square. Bob and I went straight to the hotel. Amy and Matt sat in a diner, plotting what to see after Yosemite.
San Francisco, Take 2. After a few days of hiking in Yosemite, we returned to the City by the Bay, and had about 6 final hours to tackle the kids’ wish list. With the CityPASS‘ unlimited access to municipal transportation, we were able to cover more than we’d ever imagined. We parked the car in a Union Square lot, and used a combination of walking and trolleys/busses to see:
- AT&T Park, home of baseball’s Giants. From the Union Square area, we walked over to 3rd Street, following it about a mile east to the ballpark. (But we also could have taken the 30 bus, which brought us back to Union Square.)
- The Painted Ladies Victorian homes, or as Matt and Amy call them, The Danny Tanner houses from the sitcom Full House. Take the 21 bus from Union Square to Steiner & Hayes.
- Haight-Ashbury, hippie haven from the 1960s. From the Painted Ladies, walk south on Steiner, turn left on Haight, and catch the 71 bus, getting off at Haight & Masonic.
- Golden Gate Park, where you’ll find the California Academy of Sciences, and some really beautiful gardens. Get back on the 71 bus at Haight & Masonic, toward 48th & Ortega, getting off at Lincoln Way & 9th, and walk into Golden Gate Park. There’s also an ocean beach here (the park shuttle takes you there), but we had a plane to catch. We took the 16X bus (which only runs during rush hour) from Lincoln Way & 9th back to 4th & Market, picked up our car, and headed to the airport to catch our redeye. There’s plenty more to see, but we’ll be back.