Saturday, September 28, 2013

Looking Back: San Francisco, CA with kids - The Exploratorium and the bay

Our fourth and final day in the city was spent at the Exploratorium, which is a wonderful, hands-on science museum dedicated to kids! When we went in 2012 it was still at its old location at the Palace of Fine Arts. It was a beautiful campus, however the new location, at Pier 15, will provide visitors with a much more logistical location.

At the old Exploratorium location at the Palace of Fine Arts

The museum was full of engaging exhibits. My kids got to create a tornado, play with magnetic sand, and watch a cow's eye dissection. They learned while touching, watching, exploring, and thinking while here. Overall it's a fantastic place for children, especially those interested in science.

Afterwards, we crossed the street to hang out on the beach. It was a cool, windy day, but the kids still enjoyed playing in the sand and dipping a toe into the bay. It was definitely cold, they said!

Post Exploratorium visit to the beach

This was our final day in San Francisco. Next up: Heading north to Muir Woods and on to Sonoma!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Looking Back: San Francisco, CA with kids - The Bus Tour

One of our favorite things to do as a family when we travel to a new city is take a red double decker bus tour. It's a great way to see all the top sights in a relatively short amount of time. You can then hop off and explore what attractions interest you and then hop back on again. The guides are knowledgable and usually share little factoids along the way. Sometimes you get lucky with a guide that really enjoys his/her job and gives a humorous commentary!

On our third day in the city we took the double decker bus tour, beginning in Union Square. We stayed on the bus for the first duration, as once we got the coveted upper deck seats we knew we may not be so lucky once got back on. We got to see all of the top sights and learn along the way. One thing we learned is that the famous Lombard Street is actually not the crookedest street in San Francisco, as it is often claimed; rather that title belongs to Vermont Street, which numerous guides mentioned is not in a good area of town. So we were fine with climbing Lombard and pretending we were in fact on the crookedest street in the city for the time being.

View from the top of Lombard street and trio at the bottom, before the strenuous climb!

We had plans to bike or walk across the Golden Gate bridge, but it had been too windy to comfortably do so. Instead we went for a quick ride over it on the bus!

Crossing the beautiful Golden Gate

We ended our tour at Fisherman's Wharf and decided to take a cable car back to the hotel, being part of the quintessential San Francisco experience. I will admit, this ride wasn't all that fun. The kids and I had to ride inside while my husband luckily got to hang on the outside. We had to hang on tight so we wouldn't land on our fellow passengers. Even though the ride was anything but relaxing, the operator worked very hard, doing all the "driving" manually inside, and it's one of those things you just have to do in the city.

Kids on a Cable Car

With our third day in the city done, we had one day left in the city: Off to the Exploratorium!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Looking Back: San Francisco, CA with kids - Alcatraz

On our second day in the city we were feeling adventurous and apparently full of energy so we decided to walk all the way down to Pier 33, which is the location for catching the ferry to Alcatraz. The temps were in the mid-60s so it felt great to be walking outside. We came across a little café so my husband and I stopped as we wanted to grab a coffee. It turns out the cafe carried chocolate soy milk so I surprised my kids with these special drinks for our walk!

We made our way through the Financial District, past the Embarcadero, and finally reached our Pier. I purchased our tickets online about 6 weeks ahead of time as it was August when we visited, still at the height of tourist season. When I purchased them there was already one slot sold out so I highly recommend booking the tour well ahead of time!

We arrived about an hour before we were due to board so we killed some time by having a small snack in the gift shop/cafe. We got in line to board the ferry about 30 minutes before departure and others soon followed. I had read that in order to get the best view of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge as the ferry departs for Alcatraz one should sit on the top deck on the left side. We were sitting towards the back on the left and this was definitely a great spot! We got our first glimpse of the Golden Gate and beautiful Marin County beyond with it’s emerald hills rolling peacefully as far as we could see. In front of it was a rocky outcrop known as Alcatraz Island!

Approaching Alcatraz Island

Once we disembarked at the dock of Alcatraz Island, a Park Ranger tried to gather the crowd around so he could give a PSA. A lot of folks decided to just go on their merry way but we stopped off to listen. He gave us information on where to get the headsets for the cellhouse tour and how the departure worked. We decided to do the cellhouse tour first, as it was what the kids were looking forward to most. We got our headsets and made our way through the cellhouse, seeing the bleak cells that criminals once called home. We listened to testaments from both former guards and former inmates. They retold the story of the infamous escape and to this day it’s still a mystery if the escapees survived or not. We learned that Alcatraz wore many hats, having been a lighthouse, military outpost, military prison, and most famously a federal penitentiary. Alcatraz also harbored many well-known criminals, such as Al Capone, Robert "The Birdman Stroud", and George "Machine Gun" Kelly.

Inside the cellhouse, sights on Alcatraz Island, the kids peering into the kitchen, and menu with the last meal served

Once we finished touring Alcatraz Island, we boarded the short ferry back to the mainland. We were hungry for lunch so we headed to Fisherman's Wharf where we ate at a quaint little water front restaurant, the Eagle Cafe. The staff was very helpful with the kids' food allergies and they enjoyed hamburger patties and french fries. My husband dined on the quintessential San Francisco bowl of clam chowder. We also had great views of the pier and waterfront so it definitely was a great first restaurant to try in San Francisco. From the cafe we ventured to Pier 39 to see the famous sea lions! We easily found it as there is signage directing you to this popular spot throughout the Wharf. My kids had a blast watching the sea lions frolic around in their natural environment!

Watching the sea lions at Pier 39

Afterwards, we took a spin on the carousel and checked out the many touristy shops. Our last stop at the Wharf was Musee Mechanique, which is basically an interactive museum of old carnival games. The kids all had fun playing a few games and were impressed to see how far games have come.

As for dinner this night, we discovered The Cheesecake Factory across the street from our hotel. We often to have to rely on chain restaurants when we travel as we are familiar with their menus enough to know that they are safe for our kids’ allergies. Like usual, it was a very long wait but it was worth it. We finished our delicious dinner and headed back to our hotel for some shut-eye.

Another day of fun in the city by the bay was behind us. Up next: Day 3 – The bus tour!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Looking Back: San Francisco, CA with kids

This is the first post in my "Looking Back" series where I reminisce about trips we've taken in the past few years. Because I just recently resumed blogging about our travels I thought it would be a great way to "look back" on old memories.

In August of 2012 my family visited the city of San Francisco, CA. When we first arrived, after a four hour flight from Chicago, we took the train from SFO (the BART) which landed us near Union Square where our Marriott hotel was located. Our first impression of San Francisco was how cool it was weather-wise, especially compared with the hot and humid temps we had left behind in Chicago. The next thing we noticed was how hilly it was! We now had to drag all of our luggage uphill a couple of blocks to our hotel! I’m sure we were a sight!

Once we were settled into our hotel we trekked to Chinatown, which was just a few blocks away. Our map at hand is a favorite of mine, the Guy Fox maps, that you can find here. It’s designed for children due to the fact that it’s simplified yet colorful and complete with the necessary major streets and popular monuments and landmarks. They have become a favorite of mine to use since I first used one in London.

As we entered the "Dragon Gates" complete with dragon statues on either side and topped with green pagoda rooves, we were suddenly immersed in a new, mystifying place known as Chinatown. Chinatown is very bright and colorful, crowded with both locals and tourists, and the strong smells of Chinese cuisine waft through the air. We enjoyed taking in the sights and sounds and the kids happily picking up a few souvenirs along the way.

Colorful sights of Chinatown

We took a detour down a small alley which is nestled in between the bustling streets of Chinatown and found the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. It was very tiny inside, just enough for our family of five to get a good view. We watched the workers mold the warm cookies hot off the presses. They offered free samples so I took one. I had never tasted a warm, fresh fortune cookie before so it was a new experience! There was a bucket out where they have a sign, “50 cents for photos”. I took a few pictures and dropped some money into the bucket and we were on our way.

The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory

After spending the evening there, we returned to our hotel for some room service dining as we were tired from our long day. Up next: Day two, venturing to Alcatraz and Fisherman’s Wharf!