This trip took place from June 30th to July 15th of 2018. The Knutson family numbered three as James was joining Beth and myself on his first major vacation!
Day 4; City by the Bay: Finally, the first day of sightseeing! I love to plan vacations full of activities and things to see. On day four we would finally be travelling into the City by the Bay to experience the local culture. For me this would be my third trip to San Francisco and I am a big fan. Beth grew up visiting the area twice a year with her family since most of her father’s relatives lived in the area (and still do). Ken tells me they went into the city often on their trips but mostly the summer ones, the warmer of the trips each year. James, of course, would be seeing everything for the first time. I just wish he was old enough to remember some of it.
The hardest part of planning a fun day of adventure is having to wake up to an alarm, probably a major part of why Beth prefers to relax on vacation. Debbie and Thom, Beth’s aunt and uncle, would be joining us for this July 3rd excursion. Debbie offered to drive since she has a larger vehicle and we could all fit comfortably. We headed to pick up Thom around 9am in nearby Martinez, where he lives. It can take 45 minutes to an hour on an average day to get downtown from the suburbs. San Francisco also has heavy traffic at times but we didn’t experience it (on this particular morning, at least). The sky was clear as we crossed the Bay Bridge; a good sign for our day.
I am always excited to see city skylines and San Francisco is no different. The view from the bridge is always solid (whenever their isn’t fog) and there was even a relatively new skyscraper there as well. The top section is a different color than the rest so we joked that it looked unfinished or like they ran out of that specific paint color. I did read later that the top section is actually led lighting so the top can be lit up in colorful patterns. Debbie drove us past the Ferry Building Marketplace on The Embarcadero. The beautiful historic building was on my list of things to see but we weren’t stopping to go inside on this trip. It used to be a ferry hub for thousands of travelers to the city each day before the modern bridges were added and cars took over. In 2003 the Ferry Building was converted into an indoor market specializing in artisan foods. It looked a bit frou frou online so maybe we can eat there in the future when we don’t have a toddler in tow.
We drove down The Embarcadero (me taking pictures the entire way from the passenger seat) and parked at Pier 39. Pier 39 is a bit of a tourist trap but it can still be a good stop. There is a wide variety of shops and restaurants. Beth went inside a brand new store called ‘Lefty’s’ that had recently opened. They specialize in products designed specially for left-handed people along with items praising the southpaws. Beth’s dad, Ken, is left-handed so Beth bought him a shirt. I bought a magnet at the nearby ‘Magnetron’. The entire interior of the store was metal plates covered in magnets of all kinds. Funny enough, I didn’t even buy a San Francisco or California related magnet. I got a Montana magnet to add to our collection since we had visited that state on a previous trip and didn’t yet have the magnet.
There is a carousel towards the end of the pier that James really wanted to ride but it was five dollars per person (both kids and their adult chaperones) and for 60 seconds of fun that didn’t really seem worth it. Don’t worry though. If you keep reading these posts you’ll see that James gets to go on several rides later on. The view of Alcatraz from the end of the pier is pretty good. It’s hard to believe a famous prison sits so close to a major metropolitan area. We didn’t spend much time looking at the seals off the pier but they were barking away per usual. Upstairs on the pier we checked out a tourist information office that had free brochures for hundreds of attractions in Northern California, not just in the Bay Area. They also had free maps galore (lucky me)! There was a wax figure of Elton John, potentially on loan from Madame Tussauds San Francisco down the street.
From the pier we walked a few blocks to Fisherman’s Wharf. There is a lot of interesting stuff along the shore there including the Pier 43 Ferry Arch, the USS Pampanito, and the SS Jeremiah O’Brien. I also saw a bike in the water. We walked up to the Fisherman’s Wharf sign (which was surrounded by people) and then went for lunch at the Boudin Bakery.
Boudin is a well known sourdough bakery (at a minimum their bread is sold at Costco) based in San Francisco. Their building on the wharf is impressive, both in size and style. The cafe on the main floor doesn’t have a ton of seating but we got a table right away. The Bistro upstairs has a different (and more expensive) menu and would have been a longer wait anyway. Right away my attention was drawn to a conveyor system hanging from the ceiling. Wire baskets filled with bread hang from the conveyor as it rotates around the building’s interior.
I went to place our lunch order at the counter. All the adults wanted the clam chowder bread bowl and we ordered a small pepperoni pizza for James. The wait was surprisingly manageable considering the lengthy line. The area where you wait for your food reminded me of a really hip French cafe (except for the displays filled with Boudin merch). The bread conveyor system lowers the baskets right behind the counter, presumably so they can grab fresh bread whenever needed. So cool! They also had a display behind the counter of sourdough loaves shaped like animals and symbols. There was a turtle, an alligator, a heart, a Jack-o-lantern, a shamrock, and more. The clam chowder was really good. I was the only one to finish the bread bowl because the portion was so large (it was tasty and I was, and often am, hungry). As we left the building we paused at the windows to watch the baked goods being produced. They put the workers creating the cool animals up front so you can watch them being made from the sidewalk!
Once we were back in the car we drove West along Beach Street past Ghirardelli Square. We didn’t stop in this time but Beth and I went there with Beth’s Aunt Elaine in 2015 (and stuffed our faces). The next destination was Lombard Street. We’ve been there before too but it can be seen in a couple minutes, it’s free, and the views are great! From the top of the hill you can see Coit Tower off in the distance on top of Telegraph Hill. The Bay Bridge is further beyond that and you can see plenty of the recognizable San Francisco architecture in all directions. Nowhere is that easier to see than Lombard Street itself. The street is so steep that sharp turns are required to make it easier to navigate safely, which is why the street is famous. The houses along this curvy stretch are absolutely beautiful. I cannot remember exactly which of my car-mates said it but the consensus was that despite the houses looking great and the real estate being worth a lot it wouldn’t be worth the annoying tourists outside your front door 24/7.
I actually got out of the car as we approached the hill. There was a line to drive down it (again, famous street filled with tourists) so I figured I had time to take pictures while Debbie waited for our turn. It can be difficult to get clean pictures of the most crowded sights and this one was no different. There must have 300-400 pedestrians on that hill from the top to the bottom in addition to the line of cars. One of the cable car routes goes past the hill on Hyde Street so I got to see that as well before Debbie and the rest of our crew reached the top of the hill. I jumped back in the car and we slowly marched downward. My favorite house along Lombard has a giant vining plant along its entire face. I don’t know what kind of flowers they were but they were in full blooms of purple. The curb appeal of this place is massive.
From Lombard Street Debbie headed towards the shore. We could see the Golden Gate Bridge from the parking lot near Crissy Field where we stopped to change James’ diaper (okay so Beth changed his diaper while I got out to take pictures). We had to backtrack a bit to actually cross the best known bridge in the world and passed the Palace of Fine Arts in the process.
Debbie drove us to the Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point on the North side of the bridge. There were a few tour busses and the small parking lot was packed with cars too so it took two trips around to find a spot. It was a beautiful day in the city but the wind up on the hill was whipping with frenzy. Thom offered to take a family picture with us and James so we posed much like Beth and I had on a previous trip standing in the same general spot. I took his picture as well and he held his hand in such a way that it looked like he was pinching the top of the towers together.
In addition to the bridge the vista has great views of the North end of San Francisco, Alcatraz Island, and Treasure Island beyond it. It is definitely worth a visit when in the area. If you’re going there to check out the bridge anyway you might as well see all the beautiful views available and that includes both sides! James got an upside-down tickling before we headed back across. I had found a dessert spot that I wanted to try and had hyped it up quite a bit to Debbie and Beth the night before.
I don’t think anyone was really that hungry after our chowder lunch (okay, I was) but hey, it’s vacation! The place was called The Baked Bear. They have 26 locations in nine states, so it’s not a mom and pop type place, but the original location is in San Diego so it’s still a California-related choice. The location we went to was at Columbus Ave and Grant where parking is hard to find, apparently. James had fallen asleep again so Thom offered to stay in the car with him while the rest of us went inside. The menu consists of ice cream, cookies, and brownies. Inside there was a woman on a ladder writing on the chalkboard menu. Apparently she isn’t a store employee but does chalkboard work all over town. She’s a professional doing calligraphy and art on chalkboard menus in coffee shops, cafes, and wherever. When we seemed interested in her niche line of work she said she was in high demand!
The thing at The Baked Bear that got my attention when looking for cool restaurants before our trip even began was the fresh ice cream sandwiches. Every piece is customized so you can pick the cookies you want, the ice cream flavor, and even toppings (assuming you want toppings). I’m a big snickerdoodle fan so I did a snickerdoodle cookie with cookie dough ice cream coated with peanut butter cup crumbles. It was decadent and wonderful. That combination might not sound cohesive with all those different flavors going on but given my love of each ingredient it was perfect for me. Beth had a big fresh (warm) brownie with ice cream. I don’t remember what Debbie ate but we got Thom some ice cream so he could eat it on the way back home.
There happened to be two other places from my sightseeing list near The Baked Bear, City Lights Booksellers and the Sentinel Building. With James napping it would have been too difficult to go inside the bookstore but I want to go back on a future trip. The outside of the building was covered in murals and a book-covered art piece actually hovered over the street. The Sentinel is a historic landmark in the city constructed in 1907. We saw both buildings from the street and passed the Transamerica Pyramid before heading back to Interstate 80. It was only 3pm and on an adults-only trip we may have had several hours left to sightsee but it was best not to tempt fate with a little one. James had been doing very well thus far but since he was napping anyway it was a good time to head home to Debbie’s. There was a bunch of traffic leaving the city even that early in the afternoon. I guess people like to beat the rush.
James woke up eventually and we dropped Thom at home. James had chicken nuggets with ketchup, veggie chips, and milk. I don’t remember what the adults ate but Jack, Debbie’s husband, was jealous when he found out we had Boudin for lunch! The kiddo enjoyed playing for a couple hours before bed. He put all his toys (and some dog toys Debbie’s dogs, Lucy and Remus had) in a laundry basket and pushed it all over. He enjoyed being pushed around in the basket too. Lucy and Remus got a good workout being chased around. He’s so friggin’ cute. End of day four.