They say the city of San Francisco is like Disneyland for adults: for the residents, there are parties, sporting events, theater productions, clubs, parks, and more…and the thousands of restaurants offer every fare imaginable.
Happily, it’s also a Disneyland of sorts for visiting families. On our recent visit, we decided to explore San Francisco as tourists, and see what it has to offer those of you will using the city as a cruise port.
We chose to stay across the bay, and take the Larkspur ferry (see the current schedule here) over to the city. I’d definitely recommend this technique if you’re coming in to the city from outlying areas; we saved ourselves time, effort and the headache of winding up lost or searching for parking. (This 30 minute ride cost our family of four $54, roundtrip.) Note: Ferry tickets may be purchased from ticket vending machines located at all Golden Gate Ferry terminals. They’re usable on any ferry departure and don’t specify a time or date.
We arrived at the San Francisco Ferry Building and walked with two grammar-school aged children from this pier (which, by the way, is Number 1) all the way down to the Aquatic Park area. Here’s a map that gives you an idea of the scale and placement of the piers… there’s no distance measurement on it, but a quick search on MapQuest tells me that it’s roughly two miles. A pretty easy walk, even with kids, and a popular area for area residents morning runs.
If you’re embarking/disembarking a cruise ship in San Francisco, getting to the largely commercial area around Pier 39 (likely the most popular destination on the wharf) is even more simple, as most of the ships operate out of Piers 27 or 35, a five minute walk from Pier 39.
On the way down, we passed Alcatraz Landing, at Pier 33. Tours of the infamous island penitentiary depart here, and tickets can be purchased online, or at a kiosk on site. The prison presents an interesting history lesson (you can read an extended history here), having been home to some of America’s most notorious criminals. From 1934 to 1963 it saw inmates like Al “Scarface” Capone, and the “Birdman” Robert Stroud, but now the majority of residents of “The Rock” are rare flowers and plants, marine wildlife, and a plethora of sea birds.
At Pier 39, we first visited the Aquarium of the Bay (pricing is about $55 for a family of four) where the kids enjoyed the walk through aquarium tunnels and hands-on exhibits that featured tiger sharks and skates. We lunched at the Hard Rock Café across the way, which is an excellent people-watching post, and left us all pleased with lunch (Let me recommend the Poached Pear and Grilled Shrimp salad, if you haven’t tried it.) After lunch, we explored the rest of the pier, with its many shops, kiosks, street performers and musicians.
We continued on down the wharf then, heading towards the Boudin Bakery. This place is worth a stop to take a quick tour, and see the demonstration bakery and bread creations. It’s also a good place to pick up some of the best bread ever and perhaps have lunch or a quick bread bowl of soup.
Just past the bakery, we cut back and visited the USS Pampanito, a WWII era submarine that’s now docked at Pier 45 and offers tours. We boarded the Pampanito at a family rate of $25 … and it was by far one of the neatest things we did on the entire trip. This is not the flashiest of exhibits, but the full force of history hits you once inside. We were the only ones onboard, taking a move-at –your-own-pace, self guided tour. It’s a true trip into the past, as the ship is being restored to its condition of summer, 1945, the height of WW II submarine development.
The last thing we tried out was one of the open-bus tours available to see the city. We chose the hop-on-hop off tour by Super Sightseeing Tours, which offers a 17-stop circuit that allows you to get off, investigate an area and re-embark the next bus that passes through the stop. (Buses run at approximately 30-minute intervals, so the wait is never too long.) The entire trip, if you were to ride straight through, would take approximately 2 hours, and makes stops at a viewing site for the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park, the Palace of Fine Arts, Union Square and more. (See their full listing of stops here.)
What the itinerary forgets to mention is that the tour also passes through The Tenderloin, probably San Francisco’s worst neighborhood, and not a place I would have chosen to take my young children. Ironically, this part of the tour was also especially entertaining, as our slightly frenetic but upbeat British guide, channeling Mary Poppins, explained the hazards to the neighborhood. (I would have been able to enjoy it more, however, if I didn’t spend my brief time in the area highly concerned about our safety. This was NOT an area we chose to “hop off”.)
For the most part, however, this is a good tour, which hits many of the most popular tourist spots. If you’re wanting to see some of the city’s most famous areas, this is a good way to do it.
After disembarking at Alcatraz Landing, we walked back to the Ferry Building (a distance of about a mile) and headed back over the bay. While you could undoubtedly spend several days visiting all the sites in this area, we enjoyed our whirlwind tour, and the city makes for a great pre or post cruise excursion.