Big Bridges. Crazy earthquakes. Hanging off the cable car without a car seat or even a seat belt: San Francisco was made for kids.
There is no longer a toll collector’s booth to get you across the Golden Gate Bridge. I Googled it the night before from the hotel in case I needed to find an ATM and have some cash on hand, but apparently, in this day of surveillance technology, you just drive, and they’ll mail you a bill. You are supposed to go online and pay within 48 hours of your crossing. There are further instructions for rental cars.
I have to admit: in the past 5 years or so, I have panic attacks on bridges (o.k., more like careening off them). I even Youtubed the drive-through of this bridge from the driver’s point of view to get a sense of how high it was, how close to the edges the cars were, and how quickly cars go from land to sea and back over land again. It wasn’t bad at all. Neither was the actual crossing. I’ve actually had far worse experiences on much lower causeways.
The San Francisco side swirls your car around the Palace of Fine Arts, which is good for a point-out, and you find yourself on Lombard Street without having to do any work at all.
It is not, actually, the curviest street in the world.
It’s still crawling with tourists.
Go ahead, just keep driving. Some guidebooks say lines to drive the street can be long, but on a weekday at the height of tourist season, we cruised right down. And yes, we stopped at the bottom to hike back up.
After Lombard hiking, I thought I’d drive everyone over to Golden Gate Park for a couple photo opportunities. Maybe we’d hit the conservatory of flowers like when I was a kid. It seemed Mommy could warm up in there. I knew the Japanese Tea Garden was there. I was pretty clueless about what else there was to do, but we had a tentative schedule to hit a few more obnoxious tourist destinations that day anyway, then meet a friend by dinner. I ended up blowing our schedule in this place. Walking, running, bathrooms, and no one being forced to behave. Perfection.
Since we know someone living with AIDS, and since you can take the mama out of the social sciences but you can’t take the social scientist out of the mama, I took the chance to do a little history education at the AIDS Memorial Grove.
And there’s a playground! And a carousel! With cement slides! And rainbow steps! Who’s going to say no to that?
Stowe lake has turtles, which we don’t see at home, and had a great time poking. Careful: they bite! (Zoom in to see his open mouth. This is the moment of truth…)
We finally made it over to the Japanese Tea Garden (are you seeing where our schedule went?) You can listen to the tours as you walk through with older kids. Younger kids may upset the calm of everyone else’s Zen experience, but it’s an outdoor walk, and it could be way worse. I lost the kids as they zig-zagged through there quite a few times, and I didn’t feel judged at all.
Eventually, I found them touching koi. Didn’t they learn from the turtle incident? We were starving by this time, and had some miso and cool Japanese marble sodas in the outdoor snackateria. It may not be lunch-worthy for picky kids, but the few items there are reasonable, the seating can’t be beat, and it could tide you over if nothing else.
We even saw some elite kendama competitors using the tea gardens as a backdrop to make videos of their mad tricks. Love.
San Francisco is a little difficult to do in a day. We were already way behind and it was 1:00 p.m., so we headed over to Chinatown by car. You can download a parking app, but it’s almost easier to eat the price and just go for convenience. They’re all bad.
Chinatown was more of a “miss” than I thought. It’s crowded, and even in the cool groceries, we skimped on buying Chinese lemon heads and nori because nowhere takes credit. It’s as if the whole neighborhood got together and said, “All these tourists! Let’s limit their cash flow!”
So we discovered an ATM, got out $20, and bought our silk wallets. Alice thought this place was way too crowded, and no one found anything they really thought was impressive.
So we hopped on a cable car back down to the water.
At this point, we were way late, so we rode it down to Fisherman’s Wharf, rode it right back, and got ourselves a bubble tea for the car ride.
On the way, we came across a French family whose rental car had been broken into and who couldn’t communicate with the insurance company, which wanted them to make a police report, or the police station. Where is the nearest police station? How would we know? But my first grader knew more French than anyone else on the block, and we don’t strand fellow tourists. So we worked it out with them and rewarded ourselves here:
The painted ladies reflect a Victorian past that’s so un-West Coast that it feels very vacationy. On Steiner street, right up against Alamo park, you can stand around with a small gaggle of other tourists and take some pictures of the city too. On a sunny day, I can imagine the sunset would make the whole thing orange and awesome. On a cloudy day with scaffolding…not so much.
However, now every time we see this block in the movies, on a postcard, on Full House, or on Matt dancing around the world, we scream, “Painted ladies!” Wasn’t that totally worth it?
Best thing (7 year old): The Japanese Tea Garden
Best thing (9 year old): Riding the cable car
Worst thing (7 year old): Chinatown
Worst thing (9 year old): Chinatown
What I wished we could have done (7 year old): Ride a boat.
What I wish we could have done (9 year old): Obviously, Alcatraz!