I love the pulse of a city, the vibration between people, the buildings and the sense of humanity and history in all surfaces, as though they are breathing in response to generations. As a traveler, I want to feel that I am a part of a city’s beat just for a moment, for a day. San Francisco is intoxicating, a heady mix of sleek tech and bohemian past. The hills give a whimsical quality that feels drawn from a fairy tale. Fascinating art, culture, architecture and seriously stunning natural beauty abound, making this a place I dream of returning to over and over. Here are some places where you can take a deep breath and take in this magical city.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Art and museums are a part of my soul care. I started taking my kids to the Blanton Museum and Contemporary Museum in Austin when they were still in strollers. How much did they get from those early experiences? Not sure, but I am certain that I am a better mom and person when I am filled up with spirit-level sustenance and stimulation from art. I know it can be a bit terrifying to take little people with their energy and often unpredictable wild arm movements near precious works of art, but I think it’s worth the experience. We had no problem finding art to engage every age. Everyone loved the René Magritte exhibition with immersive, thematic galleries. For me, though, the highlight of our visit was a room of massive steel spiders that towered with narrowing, needle-sharp legs. The collection is by one of my favorite artists, Louise Bourgeois. The sculptures are both delicate seeming and delightfully strange. They were large enough that the kids were able to walk beneath them and feign theatrical terror.
If I am fed by art, then my husband is sustained by science. He happily enjoyed The Exploratorium at Pier 15 right along with the kids. There are hundreds of exhibits filling indoor and outdoor galleries. Optical illusions, soap film painting and a chance to roll ping-pong balls through a toothpick replica of San Francisco are just a few. The museum has too many amazing and marvelous activities to cover, but this is absolutely worth a visit.
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On our final day in San Francisco and with limited time, we opted for a mini bus tour through Dylan’s Tours. The bus tour picked us up in Fisherman’s Wharf and we were off on a whirlwind of sightseeing through historic neighborhoods. We were able to do a quick drive-by of the Painted Ladies, a row of brightly colored Victorian houses, including the one from TV show Full House. Our first official stop was in the neighborhood of Haight Ashbury, birthplace of hippie culture. Kids enjoyed window shopping past the funky and eclectic shops. We lingered in front of Piedmont Boutique to marvel at a massive sculpture of fishnet-stockinged lady legs dangling out one window.
We rode to our next stop, The Presidio, which is a massive park on a former military post. Some of my favorite places are where nature and urban environments bump up against each other, each more vivid and vibrant for their proximity to one another. I think of City Park in New Orleans, Central Park in New York City, Mont Royal Park in Montreal. The luxury of green space within tightly populated areas takes on an almost reverent and mystical quality. To have so much space around you in the crowded, color-rich cityscape of San Francisco is notable. Moving into a natural environment from the city is a lovely contrast for the senses. We were able to get our beautiful view and must-have photos of the Golden Gate Bridge, standing next to the rocky shore, gazing out over the dark blue water of the Pacific Ocean.
Speaking of those stunning views, our next stop was the top of Twin Peaks. This park is named for a pair of hills that sit close to the center of the city and afford a full 360-degree view. We got a sense of the density and breadth of the city from here, as well as impressive looking photos from the top.
I cannot write this list without mentioning the stop we made at The Women’s Building to see Maestrapeace Mural. The mural flows in vibrant color over all five stories of the building. An image of a pregnant woman lifts her head to the sky and beams of light pour down over her and flow into ribbons of ocean, which glide into the massive outstretched hands of the women painted in profile below. The detailed and stunning artwork was completed in 1994 as a collaboration by well-known local muralists and celebrates the contributions of women through history. Maestrapeace means “woman teacher of peace” and reflects and highlights the work going on within the building. The Women’s Building is an active community center, addressing the needs of women from job seeking support to legal clinics to a food pantry.
We bundled back into the bus and rode to Mission Dolores Park. Our kids loved riding down long slides built right into the ground as well as the inventive play and climbing equipment. This was a much needed run around stop to expend energy before we drove to our next destination. The park is a relaxed green space, scattered with palm trees, right in the heart of the Mission district, which offers a view of downtown and the Bay. It felt like a place you would visit regularly as a local.
We made a quick stop at San Francisco City Hall. In addition to the picturesque view and beautiful architecture, this gave us an opportunity to talk to our kids about Harvey Milk. Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. An inspiring leader and gay rights activist, Harvey Milk was tragically assassinated. After his death, he was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and is the first openly gay person to have a Navy vessel named after him. For a great book for kids about his life and how he was instrumental in encouraging the development of the rainbow flag as a symbol of gay pride, I recommend Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag.
For lunch, we voyaged out of the city itself and over to the scenic little town of Sausalito. The waterfront is packed with cafes and shops and had the humming busyness of a cruise-ship stop. We found enough chairs and a table at an old-school Italian market. We were ready to gulp down the oversized, crispy baguette sandwiches, washed down with sips of Orangina. After lunch, feeling more composed, we walked to Viña del Mar Park, buying giant, drippy ice cream cones on our way. We ate them sitting at the edge of an elaborate fountain, towering palm trees over our heads, water bubbling in the background. We could see part of the skyline of the city from further back, the delicate arches of sailboats in between. I was so relaxed, sleepy and full at that moment that I lost track of time. We nearly missed our bus to Muir Woods. We ran along, laughing. Crowds of birds took flight as we passed. Rushing onto the bus, we sat breathlessly in our seats, hiding our sticky fingers from the other waiting passengers.
From Sausalito, it is a 30-minute ride to Muir Woods National Monument. Walking into the trees, the forest was so beautiful. I can admit I got a bit weepy with existential joy. I felt part of the earth. How did I forget I was part of the earth? There was an awed, quiet feeling in my heart, walking over the paths into the dim, humid green of the woods, blanketed by fern fronds. The massive redwoods rose overhead in inconceivable height and size. It was a pleasure straining our necks up to try to follow the trunks up to the sky. The worst thing about the Muir Woods is that the pictures you take will never do the place justice. The woods are an excellent, accessible stop for families with little kids because immediately you are in a spot to see the trees and explore, the trails are flat and wide enough for strollers.