Taking in the City by the Bay with the kids

McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceJune 22, 2014 

SAN FRANCISCO — When visiting the famous City by the Bay, it’s easy to be overwhelmed with the variety of activities and dining options that you will be presented with. Everything looks fun, all the food smells amazing — so if you only have a few days or week, where are the best places to spend your time and money on your family vacation?

If you like to tour cities, let me suggest the Ride the Ducks Tour. This is a chain that can be found in several states, with San Francisco being one of the newest places to tour on amphibious vehicles that resemble the World War II DUKW. Yes, this is definitely “touristy” — and it’s also extremely family friendly, and a good way to see the sites of the city in a way that adults will enjoy and kids will love. The captain — your knowledgeable, often funny guide and driver is certified by the U.S. Coast Guard, so you are in good hands — knows the city inside and out, and will not only point out landmarks, but also fun spots you might like and good places to eat or shop. They also let the kids have a turn driving the DUKW while it’s in “boat mode” in the bay, which will thrill them. Since they “guarantee” they are “cheaper than other” sites in San Francisco, you won’t spend as much to see and do what you’d like to.

Your family will see the best of San Francisco from land and water. Get up close and personal with the iconic Bay Bridge, float by Alcatraz, see Fisherman’s Wharf, roll through Chinatown, wave at cafe patrons in North Beach (San Francisco’s answer to New York City’s Little Italy) and take in great views of the city skyline.

To see as much as you can for as little money as possible, buy a San Francisco CityPass. Available for $84, the pass provides access to many of the most popular sites in the city, as well as seven-day unlimited-use Cable Car and Muni transportation pass to help you get around. If you don’t have a car, this is the best way to get from place to place. (If you have a car, be aware that most venues charge for parking, and it isn’t cheap. You could rack up the price of the pass in a day or two, very easily.)

Another spot included in the CityPass booklet is the famous California Academy of Sciences, where you can climb into the treetops of a man-made rainforest to see life on literally all levels, see what it feels like to be in an earthquake, check out eggs that are bigger than your kids, view the bones that show the evolution from ape to human, and see a rare albino alligator (named Claude, in case you’d like to get formal).

Also included in the pass is the Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure, which gives you a tour of the city via boat. See the sights from the inside or outside of the boat, which ventures out several times a day. This hourlong tour is scenic and narrated, and available in nine languages via audio tour as well. The children will love being on a boat as they cruise past the Pier 39 sea lions, which are a must-see for any visitor to the city. You can also see them on land when you visit the pier later on (and make sure you take a spin on the merry-go-round).

For a look under the sea, so to speak, take out your CityPass and head over to the Aquarium of the Bay. It is tailor-made for children to get hands-on learning and exciting experiences while increasing their love of the water and its creatures. They also teach respect for the environment and why it’s important to be eco-conscious. Check out the touch tanks; feed the creatures under the watchful eye of the caretakers (at assigned times); walk or ride through tunnels that proved a view from all sides of underwater life such as rays, starfish, turtles, and plenty of sharks; and even catch a 3-D movie in the aquarium’s theater.

There are several choices to pick from, depending on the age of your children. Snacks are available (and affordable — we’re talking $2 popcorn). The aquarium is conveniently located on the same pier (39) as the aforementioned sea lions and merry-go-round.

Your little science buffs won’t want to miss the Exploratorium, where they can tinker and create all sorts of mechanical madness, as well as open up all that moves to see what’s inside and what makes things tick. Wondering what’s inside your favorite candy? Check out the Candy-O-Matic and see how it’s made. Ever wonder why wintergreen Lifesavers create sparks in the dark or in your mouth? Find out!

Make sure you take time to photograph your shadows. Strike a pose, wait for it, and voil! There are several light displays that enrapture the kids, as well as optical illusions and even a few mind ticklers, such as a toilet water fountain. Why drink from a regular water fountain when there is a clean, never-used toilet with the same water spouting from it? No reason any kid could think of, even if it makes the adults squeamish.

Hungry? Two places stand out for first-rate family dining. On Pier 39 is the aptly named Pier Market. Not only is the food good, but there are a few things that make it special. It’s family owned and operated, and it shows. When you walk up to the door, you are greeted and given a smile before you even enter. They also serve only sustainable seafood, and offer an amazing view of the docks and bay from nearly every table. Not only do they offer a kids’ menu and crayons for coloring, but all children who color their menus and bring them to the Aquarium of the Bay get a free theater ticket. The fare is fresh and delicious, and served quickly as well. This is the perfect place to go eat with kids without having to sacrifice taste or quality, or wait for service or the check when you are done. (And there’s nothing not to love about the garlic fries.)

My favorite spot to eat in San Francisco is Nick’s Lighthouse, on Fisherman’s Wharf. The staff was amazing with the kids, and the service was fast. The food was brought to the table quickly and drinks refilled as soon as they needed to be. The kids’ menu includes traditional children’s favorites as well as some local favorites, and the regular menu is filled with seafood lovers’ delights. You can also order a quick bite “to go” if you are in a rush, but head in if you can.


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