Many years ago I wrote a blurry travelogue about my boozy exploits staggering around the City by the Bay called “I left my liver in San Francisco.” It was an enjoyable trip, from what I remember, filled with cocktail joints, resurrected speakeasies and a classic tiki bar with scheduled thunderstorms and an equally dangerous happy hour.
Last month I returned to the scene of the crimes against my endocrine system. This time, however, would be a tamer affair. Partly because I’ve learned to treat my ruggedly handsome 46-year-old body with more respect, and mostly because I was travelling with my partner and her 10-year-old son.
Turns out, you can still have a lot of fun soberly traipsing around San Francisco with a precocious, baseball- and bacon-obsessed child in tow. Who knew?
First off, a word to the wise. Avoid travelling to San Francisco on the exact dates the American Urological Association’s annual convention is in town. Apparently, 18,000 urologists streaming into a city soaks up a lot of hotel rooms and dampens your chances of finding affordable accommodations. OK, enough pee jokes. Thankfully, we nabbed a last-minute deal through Expedia for Hotel Zoe near Fisherman’s Wharf. Not only were our comfy digs a block from a Trader Joe’s and the Powell/Mason Cable Car turnaround, but the hotel gives its adult guests a free glass of wine upon arrival. Yes.
Pass it on
If you plan to go car-free on your trip, which I would recommend, a San Francisco CityPASS can help lighten the load on your wallet. Each adult ticket booklet is $89 and valid for nine days. It offers three days of unlimited public transit — including buses, those old timey street cars and the iconic cable cars, which are normally $7 per ride — and gets you free admission to the California Academy of Science, Aquarium of the Bay, Exploratorium, SF Museum of Modern Art and a one-hour boat cruise, plus discounts on shopping and bike rentals.
Take me out to the bacon-scented ball game
Our trip’s first order of business was catching an afternoon baseball game at AT&T Park. If there’s a more picturesque, waterfront stadium in professional sports, I’ve yet to see it. The ballpark also offers a feast of food choices, though the 10-year-old junk food aficionado in our midst opted for the bacon-wrapped hotdog with a bag of rainbow coloured cotton candy as an appetizer. He’s a Renaissance man/boy.
After the 9-5 drubbing the San Francisco Giants unleashed on the Colorado Rockies, we decided to burn off our stadium calories by walking to Chinatown for dinner. Rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest and largest in North America and provides a colourful and quirky mishmash of old and new. After perusing the neighbourhood’s many tourist shops, where we picked up some unofficial Golden State Warriors T-shirts at the equally unofficial price of $3.99 and a 30-cent box of bang snaps, we headed to Z&Y Restaurant. The popular eatery is famous for a few things: its sweat-inducing Szechuan dishes, a visit from Barack Obama a few years back and its “kung fu tea” service. The latter is a 1,000-year-old practice known as “gongfu cha,” where tea master Xumin Liu performs what looks like martial arts filling patrons’ teacups from a sword-length copper kettle. The tea tastes pretty good, too.
While Fisherman’s Wharf can feel a little crowded and tacky to some tourists who like to pretend they’re not tourists (read: me), there’s one attraction I will endorse wholeheartedly — Musée Mécanique. Located at Pier 45 and family-owned since 1933, the antique penny arcade is one of the world’s largest privately owned collections of coin-operated mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade machines in their original working condition.
Admission is free and the games (more than 200 of them) cost between 25 and 50 cents a pop. While Skeeball, Whirly Bird, player pianos and sharp shooter games are familiar to many, some of the amusements are downright bizarre and macabre. “Opium Den” is a minute-long vignette on the dangers of opium addiction illustrated by miniature figurines (it doesn’t end well, BTW). Same goes for the uplifting “Guillotine” and “the English Execution.” There’s also a creepy arm wrestler, laughing puppets and a mechanical boxing game, in which I absolutely destroyed my 10-year-old opponent. Not that I’m bragging or anything.
A bridge too far
Despite the abundance of buns-of-steel-making hills, San Francisco is a great city for biking, with cycling routes, rental shops and tour companies aplenty. Equipped with three soft-seated hybrid commuter bikes from Bay City Bike Rentals and Tours, we embarked on what we thought would be a leisurely ride to and across the Golden Gate Bridge. Our self-guided journey to the bridge took us along the northern shores of the Marina District and nearby Palace of Fine Arts. The visually impressive structure, which was erected for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition, eventually fell into disrepair and was rebuilt in 1965. Now it’s one of the most photographed wedding and graduation backdrops in the city.
From there we wheezed and puffed our way through the Presidio — a 1,500-acre national park and former military post that includes grassy Crissy Field, sandy Baker Beach, the Walt Disney Family Museum and, for our replenishing purposes, the Presidio Social Club. Housed in a former circa-1903 military barracks, the restaurant is both classy and understated, boasts an airy patio, serves a mean Shirley Temple according to our prepubescent food critic, and is dignified enough for the likes of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who I saw eating a salad.
Unfortunately, American politician sightings, comfort food and Shirley Temples did not provide us with enough liquid courage to complete our Golden Gate Bridge crossing. A quarter of the way across, the bridge’s height, traffic noise and bike lane-oblivious pedestrians proved overwhelming and unconducive to our easy-going pursuits. So we pedalled back to our hotel and soothed our souls at the nearby Baked Bear Custom Made Ice Cream Sandwiches shop, which will send both your Instagram account and glycemic index off the charts.
View to a thrill
If gravity-defying heights without the windburn and exhaust is what you’re after, take an elevator ride up to the 39th floor of the Marriott Marquis hotel and grab a coveted seat at the View Lounge. Sure, the cocktail prices reflect the height at which they’re made, but the lounge’s arching floor-to-ceiling windows resemble a superhero’s secret hideaway overlooking the city and kids are allowed from 4 to 9 p.m. I have it on good authority the View Lounge also serves a mean Shirley Temple. Hint: If you want to get a window seat and beat the urologist crowd — who doesn’t? — get there right when the lounge opens.
For our final full day in town, we honed our seasoned tastes on the Mission District (“the Mission”). San Francisco’s oldest neighbourhood is having its moment among the hip folks but, as I learned, independent boutiques, craft beer and single origin coffee roasters aren’t exactly a high priority with the 10-year-old set.
That said, the colourful, mind-bending murals of Clarion Alley off Valencia Street were a hit, as was Mission Dolores Park. If it’s not too foggy, the pet-friendly park sports sweeping views of the city and a pretty decent playground. It’s also a short walk to 826 Valencia. Launched by author and McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers, the eclectic space operates as both a student writing centre in the back and a “pirate supply store” in the front. Visitors can explore the many nooks and crannies of the retail shop as well as purchase eyepatches, hook hands, spyglasses, adventure kits, compasses, fool’s gold, calendars, anthologies from the 826 writing group and a boatload of so-charming-it-hurts trinkets and seafaring memorabilia. You can also cool your heels in the tranquil, velvet curtained confines of the store’s aquarium theatre and stare at a rather cute pufferfish named Pasha.
Parks, pirates and pufferfish aside, our real mission for visiting the Mission was burritos. And not just any burrito — San Francisco’s best burrito. The debate over who makes the city’s best Mexican hand accessory has raged for years on the internet — dividing families, testing marriages and ending friendships with heaps of online polls, anecdotal research, celebrity endorsements and a controversial and much-disputed “burrito bracket.” After some information gathering, we settled on a scruffy, no-frills hole-in-the-wall that’s popular with the locals called El Farolito. It did not disappoint. In a moment of inspiration, I decided to obliterate any traces of vegetarianism lurking in my DNA and ordered the lengua (beef tongue) burrito. Turns out, 10-year-olds who couldn’t care less about craft beer and single origin coffee roasters aren’t the hugest fans of beef tongue, either. And neither are their mothers. Luckily there were plenty of tasty alternatives to satisfy the culinary peasants in my group.
Bus a move
Feeling comatose from our belly bulging burritos, we ended the day, and trip, by jumping on one of the many open-roofed, double-decker tourist buses that roam the city. Not only did it wind through some of the neighbourhoods we couldn’t fit into our packed itinerary (Haight-Ashbury, Golden Gate Park), it took us across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, rectifying the previous day’s defeat. And because we grabbed one of the last buses of the day, we had the entire rooftop to ourselves. It might not have been the 39th floor of a hotel lounge or the right field bleachers of a baseball stadium, but our 10-year-old fellow traveller was impressed with the view. And so were we.
If you go…
For more information on visiting San Francisco, go to sftravel.com.
Note: The writer received assistance from San Francisco Travel, which did not review or approve this story prior to publication.