How to Introduce Your Child to San Francisco
Story & photos by Jessica Genova
When you’re vacationing in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, it comes as a bit of a shock when one of your travel companions keeps turning to you to ask: “When are we going to see the pretty part?”
Sure, the views from atop the de Young Museum observation tower in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park were somewhat obscured by a pewter-colored blanket of fog, but before us were Victorian neighborhoods in miniature and the shimmering Oakland Hills in the distance. Still, our well-traveled nine-year-old daughter, Claire, was somehow bored and unimpressed. The only thing that was crystal clear for miles around, apparently, was that I had foolishly fallen into the trap of creating great expectations.
Downplay, downplay, downplay has long been my parenting mantra. Yet, my husband and I, both former inhabitants of the Bay Area, had been rhapsodizing about San Francisco’s singular charms for years. And just like the time Claire saw a skinny young man at the mall posing as Santa Claus, she just wasn’t buying it.
Happily, the California Academy of Sciences, right next door, was just the place to literally shake some sense into Claire and restore a bit of our credibility. This extraordinary, eco-friendly museum, completely redesigned by Italian architect Renzo Piano in 2008, beguiled Claire from the get-go. On this late-summer day, the Academy was shockingly empty, which meant that she spent her time in the Steinhart Aquarium with nothing separating her from the giant swirls of fluorescent fish, but a plate of glass. We spent hours studying translucent jellyfish, stealth stingrays and spiky anemones. When it was time to come up for air, the three of us had a hard time emerging from our trance-like state.
Upstairs in the four-story rainforest we roamed around marveling at chameleons and poisonous frogs, while butterflies and birds flew freely in the moist air. But the highlight for Claire was the Shake House (see what I meant about literally), where visitors walk into an earthquake simulator disguised as a typical San Francisco Victorian house and get to experience all the shakes, rattles and rolls of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the devastating 1906 earthquake. To cap off the visit, we headed up to the museum’s signature living roof of undulating grassy knolls and native California plants studded by glass skylights.
On day two, the sun came out—not a common occurrence in summer—and San Francisco decided to seduce us all with her beauty. The three of us met up with our friends Amy and Michael and their five-year-old daughter at the Exploratorium, which was recently moved from the original site at the Palace of Fine Arts to a larger, brighter space built right on the water at Pier 15 on the Embarcadero. From the minute you walk in the door, it’s virtually impossible to avoid getting sucked into the life-is-one-big-science-experiment vibe. The Exploratorium is fully hands-on, interactive and addictive.
My surfer-wannabe daughter was immediately drawn to the wave-making station, where you turn a crank to move brass rods to simulate how waves can join together to form even bigger waves. We all had a hard time pulling ourselves away from the seismic sand exhibit where the vibrations you make by banging a rubber hammer on a sand-filled disc create different patterns. The girls also liked playing geologists, examining slide samples of sediment taken from all different parts of the San Francisco Bay. Other highlights included being able to see a cross-section of a fallen 330-year-old Douglas fir tree and creating frozen-in-time shadow box images of ourselves. If only science class were this fun.
The Exploratorium’s unique setting also can’t be beat. As we walked out on the deck, Claire’s eyes opened real wide and I watched her whole face take in the view: the expansive blue of the water and sky, the Bay Bridge, tree-dotted Angel Island and America’s Cup sailboats racing by. She didn’t utter a word, but her expression said it all.
On the remaining days of our trip, we sampled all the things that a first-timer to the Bay Area must see: Chinatown, Coit Tower and North Beach, Lombard Street, the Ferry Building, the Palace of Fine Arts, Fisherman’s Wharf (begrudgingly on my part) and Crissy Field. It was a lot to absorb, but Claire was all smiles and giddy enthusiasm. We also spent half a day on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, hiking amid towering redwoods in Muir Woods and taking in the dramatic views of the city and bay from the Marin Headlands. Per Claire’s request, we also took lots and lots and lots of cable car rides and a trip out to Alcatraz, which exceeded everyone’s expectations. It didn’t hurt that the ferry operator let Claire and a few other young passengers man the wheel for most of the ride.
What I think made the greatest impact on Claire, however, were our long walks through the city’s intimate neighborhoods, where I got to share with her some of my favorite San Francisco treats: the original Swensen’s ice cream shop at the corner of Union and Hyde, Green Apple Books on Clement, the Octagon house atop Russian Hill, the secret gardens and Edwardian cottages on Macondray Lane, the Vallejo steps, the aptly named Alta Plaza park in Pacific Heights, Mama’s and L’Osteria del Forno in North Beach and, of course, the innumerable grand homes and Painted Ladies that dress up much of the city. During these walks Claire’s camera was working nonstop and I was peppered with questions about my ordinary post-college life in this extraordinary city. Then one night on another vertiginous climb back to our hotel, Claire stopped me suddenly and said what I had waited to hear the entire trip: “Mama, I can see why you and Daddy love this city so much, but with so many pretty parts, why would you ever leave?” Now I was the one who was speechless.
These days it’s hard to have a mediocre meal in San Francisco, but eating out with a kid in tow poses its own challenges. Here are a few family friendly dining options that would appeal to kids and adults alike.
I’ve honestly never eaten better at a museum. The menu is seasonal and the ingredients are locally sourced. Everything we ate—sushi, salads, pizzas and tacos—was delicious and fresh as can be.
Pier 15; 415-528-4444
One of the few authentic Italian restaurants in North Beach. Polenta, focaccia, skewered lamb, pizza. Delizioso.
519 Columbus Avenue; 415-982-1124
This Italian seafood restaurant, on quaint Belden Place in the financial district, was convenient to our hotel, the kid-friendly and centrally located Omni San Francisco. Claire loved the mussels and pastas so much that we ate here twice. The waitstaff were also friendly and accommodating.
88 Belden Place; 415-593-8000
I’m still dreaming about the corn soup with black pepper and pecorino, as well as the chilled watermelon salad with mint, ricotta salata and chili flakes. The pizzas are also first-rate. We ate at the outpost in Pacific Heights, but there’s another one next to the acclaimed flagship restaurant, Delfina, which friends tell us is their favorite spot in the whole city.
2406 California Street; 415-440-1189
3611 18th Street; 415-437-6800
Once you get past the name and dive into the food, you’ll thank me. Located in the Richmond District, this Burmese restaurant is close to Golden Gate Park. The fermented tea leaf salad and the pork curry with potatoes were off-the-charts good.
309 Clement Street; 415-387-2147
Chef Staffan Terje’s sophisticated Northern Italian eatery doesn’t exactly offer kiddie fare or ambiance, but if you go for an early dinner and your child is an adventurous eater, you won’t be disappointed. Everything we ate was heavenly. Claire gobbled up the pappardelle in a slow-cooked short rib ragu with gusto. For something a little more rustic and casual, head next door to his trattoria, Barbacco.
230 California Street; 415-955-0663