Travelogue: Weekend in San Francisco (with Alcatraz)

San Francisco, Travel, Guide

With San Francisco just a little over an hour away, our visits to the city tend to be daytrips. So it’s a special treat to settle in for a night or—even better—two. The impetus: a two-night-hotel-stay auctioned off at Hudson’s school, and Aron’s was the winning bid!

I keep a running list of ideas for things to do with kids in San Francisco (I’ll include it below), but we tend to repeat a lot of our favorites. This time, we decided to make it what we like to call a full Larry Gets Lostweekend (after the kids’ favorite San Francisco-themed book—a great inspiration source), and include everything from Pier 39 and cable cars to a ferry trip to Alcatraz. It turned out to be a beautiful two days!

We pulled up right around brunch-time, so our first stop seemed pre-destined to be dim sum. The Yank Sing at the Rincon Center has a validated parking garage and takes reservations, so it was an easy start; the kids love picking out food as it comes around on steaming carts. This time, we couldn’t help but think of the Oscar-winning short, Bao, and found the kids looking for faces in the dumplings.

There are two locations of Yank Sing and we love their house specialty, the Shanghai dumpling: minced Kurobuta Pork, scallion, and ginger, wrapped and steamed in its own broth. You place the broth-filled dumping onto a spoon, top it with vinegar and pickled ginger before placing it all in your mouth. Delicious! Also especially wonderful is the Peking Duck.

From there, it was a short walk from there to the Embarcadero and the Ferry Building. The Saturday morning Farmer’s Market was in full swing, so we started by browsing the stalls of organic fruit and fresh seafood before heading inside.

The ferry building is like a sampler of San Francisco’s favorites: Heath, Miette, Cowgirl Creamery… It can get too crowded, but it’s still hard not to love it.

We didn’t go to the Exploratorium on this visit, but it’s just a few piers down and would make a good pairing with these food stalls.

In fact, you can board a historic streetcar on Market and it will take you all along the Embarcadero—past the Ferry Building, the ports to Alcatraz, and the new site of the Exploratorium—to Fisherman’s Wharf. It can feel very slow at times (so many stops!), but it’s a nice way to travel along the bay if you’re not in a rush.

SF MoMA would also be a convenient, nearby next stop.

After lunch, we checked into our hotel, Hotel Del Sol. There are a lot of good value-hotels (think Travelodge) along this strip of the Marina, but this one was nicely remodeled, with a little saltwater swimming pool and hammocks in a central courtyard. It offered on-site parking, cookies and milk in the afternoon, and a continental breakfast with Equator coffee in the mornings.


After dropping our things, we went back over to the water to take the kids to Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. Did I mention we played tourist? Aron took the role so far as to get swept up in one of those street performances where a group of guys with serious acrobatic skills leap over you. It’s impressive, sure, but man—the build-up. They. Take. Forever!

We worried we wouldn’t get out to the water before sunset, but we caught plenty of golden hour with the resident colony of sea lions.


And we watched the changing light, with flocks of pelicans forming rows overhead, as we took in the incredible view of “the Rock.”

Pier 39 itself is worth a stop if only to see the incredible carousel: The two-level carousel was hand-painted in Italy with scenes of San Francisco, and is the only one I’ve seen with spinning teacup-like additions.

We had hoped to make it to Pier 45 to visit the Musée Mécanique, too—one of the world’s largest collections of coin-operated mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade machines in their original working condition—but it will have to wait for another time.

By the way, to get to and from our parking, we crossed through Hotel Zephyr, which had some great game set-ups and play areas. It looked like such a fun family hotel, if you want to be close to the piers. Here’s a post with some more hotel suggestions for San Francisco.

Finally, for dinner, we weaved our way over to North Beach and went for pizza at Il Casaro—whose Naples-style pizzas were a hit with everyone (just be sure to check on the heat level of anything with spicy oil). It’s walk-up reservations, which—when you have neglected to make any—can actually work in your favor.

I generally check SF Eater for recommendations that come with an interactive map, which is how I found this spot, but Garrick Ramirez wrote a great guide to North Beach for the blog a while back that I’d love to put to even better use.

The next morning we walked down to Ghirardelli square (conjuring hazy memories of hot fudge for the kids) and passed through the crowds for Golden Gate Half Marathon. Race day meant it was a perfect time to board the cable cars—there was no line at all!

I’ve written a full guide to riding the cable cars in San Francisco, here.

This time we got off at the Cable Car Museum, to see how the cables are working (it’s set in the Washington-Mason powerhouse and car-barn on Nob Hill), and take a look at the collection of historic cable cars and old photographs. There’s also a gift shop with a nice book selection, and we picked up a copy of The Cable Car and the Dragon, which tells the story of a car named Charlie who finds himself in the Chinese New Year parade. They also had the kids’ classic, Maybelle the Cable Car.

We hopped back on, took the next car to Union Square, and then used public transit to get over to the Mission District.

Everyone was ready for lunch, so we stopped at Souvla, a casual Greek souvlaki spot that’s popping up all over San Francisco. We’d stopped in once before just for their delicious frozen Greek yogurt with olive oil. From this point on, I don’t think we really stopped eating.

For example, we had first dessert at Smitten ice cream (small-batch ice creams made using liquid nitrogen), before “testing” chocolates at Dandelion. And then, I walked into Craftsman & Wolves to get a sampling of items—like their famous Rebel Within (asiago, sausage, green onion, soft cooked egg) and an ‘Alfajores’ Kouign Amann with dulce de leche and a coconut macaron (that I absolutely loved).

The Mission is one of my favorite parts of the city, with many of my favorite shops and restaurants, but my top spots to stop in with kids are 826 Valencia‘s Pirate Supply Store (benefitting local writing programs); Paxton Gate’s Curiosities for Kids; and the alleys filled with murals and public art.

From Valencia, we walked over to Dolores Park, which is packed on sunny weekends. The playground there is massive, so we enjoyed our pastries (i.e. didn’t have to share them) while the kids played.

We don’t use a lot of public transportation in Davis, so part of the excitement of any visit to a city is trying out all the ways to get around. We caught the J-line Muni at the top of the park and rode it over to Hayes Valley (stopping first at Warby Parker, as you can see).

It’s a great neighborhood-y stop—there’s a playground just down the block, on Octavia, as well as plenty of interactive space within the parklet between Hayes and Linden, along with great coffee, ice cream, and some of the city’s best boutique retail—like Rand + Statler, Reliquary, Amour Vert, Marine Layer, Oak + Fort and, of course, Clare Vivier.

I popped into a few of these spots while everyone else was entertained outside, and then we all caught a caterpillar bus (the kids’ favorite) back toward the Marina.

We went for a second night of Italian at A16 (so named for highway which runs across Italy from Napoli to Bari). Reservations are definitely needed here, and it might seem like an intimidating spot to bring the kids, but they were very welcoming, with crayons, a booster, and child’s portions of pasta.

And as if that weren’t enough, we made one last stop on Chestnut Street for cupcakes from Susie Cakes before heading back to the room. (They’re some of the best if you want that super-sweet-swirly-buttercream type.)


Our next day’s itinerary included pre-purchased tickets to Alcatraz. We got to pier 33 about 30 minutes before our ticket time and joined the line for the ferry. I think the last time I’d gone I was probably 10 years old and it was freezing! What a difference.

Still, it can be cold and windy—even in sun, even for the short 10 minute trip—so bring layers or opt to sit inside. But the views from the deck are amazing!

After a quick ranger introduction, you hike up the hill and into the penitentiary. There, earphones with a recorded audio tour are handed out to take you through the Cell House block and Recreation Yard, with stops at points of interest. We would pause often to be help explain anything that might be confusing, but overall I think it was a great overview of the island’s history and the inmates’ life there, for all four of us. Skyler’s attention was hard to hold, but no more than usual for her age.

They were fascinated by all the same things as I was when I was a kid, like the idea of people tunneling out and swimming across the bay. It was a source of conversation all the way back home that afternoon.



One thing to note if you’re making plans to visit: only bottled water is allowed anywhere on the island other than the docks. (Those raisins… contraband. Shhhh.) So you’ll want to eat before your visit and have a plan for after, too.

In general, three hours is the suggested visit time on the island. I’ve heard some take more, but we probably spent just over two. I could have stayed longer, but it felt ample with the kids.

It’s probably a destination best-appreciated with kids Hudson’s age and older, but we all enjoyed it. The kids chose lenticular postcards as souvenirs.


Lately, I feel like no trip to San Francisco is complete without a stop in the Outer Sunset (here’s a guide to the area). We wrapped up our weekend with breakfast at Outerlands (note that our trip was over a Sunday/Monday, and thus the low crowd—weekend mornings are really busy), and some browsing at General Store, Mollusk, and Black Bird bookstore. Then, Aron had second breakfast/dessert at Trouble Coffee next door (the best cinnamon and sugar toast).

We had bought blank notebooks for the kids and they worked on journals about the trip, while we waited for our food. Hudson wrote about the sea lions and the guys jumping over his daddy, riding the carousel and the cable car (“when we went down the wheels made smoke”), whistling while driving down Lombard street, and being in jail on Alcatraz. Skyler drew pictures and told us what they were.


Here’s that ever-growing list of ideas I keep handy for daytrips with kids, in case they’re helpful to you. The links below are to ones with posts about those activities.

Presidio groves and Goldworthy Line
Ride Cable Cars
City Lights bookstore kids’ section
deYoung Museum
Ocean Beach
Stow or Spreckels Lake
Cal Academy of Sciences

And no doubt there’s so much more!

What would you add? 

P.S. Find more Northern California destination, like Sonoma, in Travel.

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