San Francisco — Visting the Locals

Photo by ggewen

Every year we try to go to San Francisco.  My husband’s brother and sister, who are twins, both live there with their families.  Seemingly, this is not a big deal.  However, my husband and his family are from the Philadelphia area and I just think it’s so freaky both his brother and sister, who are twins, ended up living in the San Francisco area.  None of them think it’s a big deal but I’d like to use it as the basis to conduct yet another scientific study on twins! 

We always plan this trip in January during President’s Day weekend.  This can be tough considering we are still from the Philadelphia area.  It is quite a way to travel for a long weekend but we are always up for the challenge.  It’s also our niece’s birthday and my in-laws fly out for one of their annual visits too.  It’s a big family affair!

Travel Tip One:  Keep an adventurous spirit.  There are many people who don’t travel to great destinations because they believe it’s too far and it’s not worth it if there is only a limited time to spend there.  This is so not true!  I’ve been on many short trips to really far-away places that have brought lots of fun.  Try it, you might like it!

This year, we decided to leave early on Friday morning.  The trip included my husband, my 11 year-old son Matt, my 18 month-old daughter Leah, and me.  We had to take my younger son out of school for the day.  My older son Justin did also attend but he came on a late-afternoon flight on Friday.  Being a junior in high school doesn’t allow the luxury of getting an extra day off from school.  As much as it pains me to say, he is old enough and responsible enough to fly all alone.  I don’t know how it’s happening but it is – he is growing up.

The airport was quiet that morning and we didn’t have any troubles through security.  We arrived to our departure gate with some extra time before boarding.  A perfect opportunity to let my little one do some walking around to work off energy before having to endure a five-hour flight.  First, my husband and son took her through the terminal while I stayed with our things. 

Then, it was my turn.  Up and down the long terminal halls.  Navigating an 18 month-old through harried travelers, is tough.  Some smile and think she is adorable.  Others scowl and just try to get by her without disaster.  Luckily, we were mostly greeted with smiles.  As we made our second return to the gate area, I see lots of people crowding around the gate entrance.  And then, I see my husband waving madly to me.  I picked up my daughter and rushed my son to my husband, who was now trying to get all of our things by himself to the gate, through many annoyed travelers.  We all hurried to get everything together and into the jet-way, let’s just say it wasn’t pretty.  There’s nothing I hate more than rushing.  Fortunately, we got through and made it to our seats.

Travel Tip Two:  If you have extra time, it’s a great idea to let your children play before getting them into that plane seat, especially if it’s a long flight.  Some airports even have designated play areas.  Check before you get there and determine their proximity to your gate.

Travel Tip Three:  If you do let them play, be sure to bring your cell phone with you no matter what.  You will at least have a clock with you to monitor the time or receive the frantic phone call from your partner, advising you to hurry up and get back to the gate – now!

Travel Tip Four:  No matter what happens, don’t worry about other people staring at you.  Just go on about your business and make the best of it.  Sometimes it helps to offer your apologies, sometimes its better to just to keep moving – I leave it to your  judgment.

The flight was good.  Leah played with the toys and books we brought on board.  She only had one messy diaper, didn’t spill anything, and even took a nap – an all around success.

Travel Tip Five:  If you’re out of toys to play with on the flight, make use of the barf bag.  Okay, not any used barf bags but the new clean unused ones.  Little ones can color them, hide things in them, rip them up, etc.  They can be quite fun, once you get over the intended use.

Travel Tip Six:  Always change your baby’s diapers in the lavatory and dispose of them in the lavatory.  I know this sounds obvious but my best friend is a flight attendant and has numerous horrifying diaper stories.  Play it safe and use the lav.

We arrived into San Francisco on time.  Now, I have to complain for a bit.  I’ve been to many airports with my children.  I have to say San Francisco is one of the worst airports to travel with kids.  The simplest things there are difficult.  It’s tough to navigate a stroller, car seat, luggage, and kids – the passageways are just so narrow.  Then the elevators are numerous.  To get out of the main airport, you have to take an access shuttle.  In most airports, it’s not a big deal.  However, in San Francisco, you have to take an elevator to the exit level, go outside (yes, outside, granted it’s very short distance but it’s still outside), and get another elevator (an extremely small elevator) up to the shuttle level.  Not at all child-friendly.

Travel Tip Seven:  You never know when you might have to go outside or experience a dip in inside temperatures, always come prepared with a jacket for your kids (and you).

We managed through the maze at the airport and got our rental car.  We didn’t have plans for any immediate family events and already decided to visit China Town.  Based on previous adventures, we had our GPS and maps ready to go. 

We found our way to China Town and although my husband fancies himself an expert parallel parker, we didn’t want to spend the time looking for a spot.  We pulled into one of the first parking garages we saw.  Based on a recommendation, we selected Empress of China for lunch.  Please take my recommendation, if you are traveling with kids, don’t pick this place for lunch. 

It is not at all family friendly, I mean not at all, they had no high chairs.  None.  As you could guess if they didn’t have high chairs, they certainly didn’t have a kid’s menu.  We made the best of it though.  We moved a chair and Leah just stayed in her stroller.  Although the decor was extremely out-dated, the food was good, and the fortune cookies fun.   Speaking of which, we were onto our next stop, a fortune cookie factory.

Before the trip, I did do a little research and found The Golden Gate Fortune Cookies Factory offered tours.  You can order a tour online but we decided just to wing it.  After lunch, we used the GPS to direct us to the place.  It’s down a really small alley.  Now let me tell you, I love touring factories.  If I can tour a factory I will, I know it’s probably odd, but I find it really quite fascinating.  So, when I saw this tour, I was so excited!  Although the information on the site does portray it accurately but for some reason, I had a big factory tour in my mind. 

As we made our way through the tiny door, there was a tiny place to stand where you saw a tiny woman making fortune cookies right in front of you.  As the cooked dough came off the machine, she would fold a small piece of paper with the fortune using a little metal device.  She then placed the finished cookie into a cooling mechanism, a big cardboard box.  It was all very high-tech.  There were three stations where cookies were being made.  We didn’t leave our little area right in front but they did give us some samples of the messed up ones coming off the machine, which we all loved, especially Leah. 

Of course, we couldn’t resist buying a mixed bag of chocolate (who knew) and regular cookies.  These set us back five dollars – not sure if that’s a good price or not but we bought them.  They also charged us a dollar to take a picture.  This was a complete waste of a dollar because we didn’t realize the flash didn’t go off.  We didn’t get the picture.  Oh well, we’ll just have to go back again!  So, it wasn’t the factory tour I was expecting but it was still an awesome time.

We then went back to our car and started to leave China Town before we realized we hadn’t seen the China Gate yet.  Each city’s China Town area usually has a Gate.  We used the GPS and although it took a while, we finally drove by the gate.  Although we couldn’t take a long time to view it (for some reason the other motorist just wouldn’t allow it), we were able to snap a quick picture – better success than at the Fortune Cookie factory.

Onto our hotel – we checked into the Embassy Suites San Francisco Airport – South San Francisco.  This was a great location for a few reasons.  First, it was located an equal distance between my brother-in-law and sister-in-law.  Okay, that point doesn’t really matter to you but hey, it worked for our needs.  Second, the Embassy Suites is a great hotel if you are traveling with kids.  Obviously, they offer suites (you probably guessed that from the name, and in fact, they only offer suites!).  They also include a nice breakfast with your stay, which works for us.  And, they have a nightly happy hour with free snacks and drinks.  A nice relaxing drink in the lobby while your kids sip a soda and eat goldfish – so civilized.  Also, because Embassy Suites is so family friendly, there are a lot of families staying there – surprise, surprise.  This means, no one looks at you funny when some of the goldfish end up on the floor – not so civilized.

This Embassy Suites also had the added benefit of a beautiful lobby.  Now, normally the lobbies are pretty lush because they build it around a glass-ceiling atrium so there are always tons of plants and other greenery.  However, this one also had a coy pond.  A coy pond is fun for all ages but it was especially fun for my 18 month-old, no toys necessary when a coy pond is involved.

Before the dressing incident.

That night we went to my sister-in-law’s house, easily found with our GPS, and went to Usulutan for dinner.  It was a quick walk and great food for reasonable prices.  There wasn’t a cool atmosphere at this place but the staff was quite friendly!  The funniest part of the evening was when my father-in-law went to put dressing on his salad.  They brought him over a bottle of salad dressing (see, a real down-home place).  He proceeded to shake the bottle without realizing they’d already removed the cap.  Dressing was everywhere.  I know this is one of those stories that probably doesn’t translate well if you weren’t there but trust me, it was funny and is important because of this tip…

Travel Tip Eight:  Check to be sure any bottle of liquid has a closed cap before you shake it, especially salad dressing in a restaurant or that pink medicine you give your kids when they have an ear infection (trust me, this is a big mess to clean up!).

Speaking of kids getting sick, we woke up Saturday morning early (thanks to my daughter’s jet lag) to find she had pink eye.  Don’t get freaked out.  Although neither of my sons ever got pink eye, any time my daughter gets run down or even a little sick, she gets pink eye.  We give her the drops and she’s fine.  That being said, you might think I remembered to bring her eye drops.  But, you know, I didn’t.  This took a few calls (to the doctor, to the front desk, to the pharmacy, back to the doctor) but we were able to have the drops ready for pick up in two hours.

Travel Tip Nine:  Remember to bring all medications, even if symptoms aren’t showing. 

Travel Tip Ten:  If you forget Travel Tip Nine, don’t be afraid to call your doctor and have them call in a prescription for you.  It’s a lot easier than you might think.

After our morning medical issue and a hearty breakfast at the hotel, we embarked on visiting the California Academy of Sciences.  We were meeting our extended family there for a fun day together.  We found the museum on the GPS under the attractions section and set off.  Now, I’ve been talking up my GPS for much of this article.  It has been invaluable during our travels.  However, as we neared the destination, there was no museum at the location listed.  We couldn’t understand it, we were baffled.  We called his brother, then his dad, and finally his sister was able to help us navigate to the correct address.  Guess what happened?  The museum changed locations the year before and our GPS still had the old address.

Travel Tip Eleven:  Double check any addresses for your GPS.  Things may have changed and you might not have the latest maps available. 

Travel Tip Twelve:  If you do get lost, try to make the best of it.  Yelling at your travel companions is not going to help you find your way any faster.

The museum was beautiful.  We couldn’t stay too long and it was quite crowded but we all had fun.  We spent most of our time in the aquarium area but also caught the Planetarium show.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get to the rain forest are because the lines were so long and we were limited on time but it does look awesome. 

We ate lunch at the museum café.   The food was very hip and even with that, it was good.  The lines were long and it was hard to find a place to sit, especially with a large group and two strollers.  I’m sure there is probably tons of information out there on packing lunches, where to eat those lunches, etc. but that’s not here.  I’m not a big “lunch packer”, in fact, one of my favorite things is eating out so I’d never suggest doing it.  Here’s what I would suggest…

Travel Tip Thirteen:  Bring a snack for the little ones and try to go to the café at off hours, not right at prime lunch time.

Right outside of the café, is a great outdoor space (may be good if you are a lunch packer).  All the kids (and grown-ups) loved playing out there.

After the museum we were going to tour the Japanese Gardens, which are located close to the museum but it was raining and we couldn’t go.  We did take my oldest son to Oakland to visit a friend who had moved there a few years earlier.  It was a bit of a drive to take him, come back to the hotel, and then go pick him up but it was worth it. 

Travel Tip Fourteen:  Traveling with children in various age groups requires different activities.  Even if you have a late teen, try to find things that appeal to them too, even when it takes extra time or energy.  Their appreciation alone makes it worth it.

On the drive to my son’s friends house, we were on a double-decker highway, which reminded my husband and me of the 1989 earthquake.  We all discussed the devastation, rebuilding, and earthquakes in general.

Travel Tip Fifteen:  Traveling to new places allows for new conversations.  Use the opportunity to discuss things as a family that you might never talk about at home.

We had dinner that night at my brother-in-law’s home.  It was a very nice family evening, then on to pick up my oldest from his friend’s and back to the hotel.  After the baby went to bed the boys headed down for a late night swim.  Hotel pools are so much fun.

Leah had an early morning again.  Our hope of a late bedtime did not make for a late morning.  My husband took her for her very own tour of the hotel and of course, coy pond visit. 

My niece’s birthday party was that afternoon but before going there, we stopped at Jeffrey’s Hamburgers for lunch.  This place is great.  It’s small and one of those places where you put your order in and then pick it up and take it to your table.  I know, it sounds like McDonald’s, right?  This place was so much better and they even had a “fixins” bar.  The food was really good and it’s just a fun atmosphere.

After the big birthday party, we went back to the hotel to rest a bit and then onto my sister-in-law’s for dinner.  Not too exciting but on the way, my husband missed the exit we were supposed to take.  We took the next exit as the GPS “recalculated.”  We drove down Vermont Street.  Now, I know Lombard Street is supposed to be the curviest street but I’m telling you Vermont is definitely curvier, not as fixed up and pretty but definitely curvier.  You’ve got to check it out.  Also to note, the GPS redeemed itself from the museum incident.

We left the next morning for our long flight home.  I, unfortunately, have to comment on the horrible San Francisco airport again.  While we were in line at security, the entire area was built on a downhill slant.  Although everything seems like it’s on a hill in San Francisco, did they have to carry the theme through to security?  Have you ever tried to get you, your kids, your husband, a baby, a stroller, carry-on bags and a car seat through security on a downward slope?  It’s not easy and it’s not fun.  I know I’m bashing that airport unrelentingly but I just expect so much more from such a great city.

We did make it through though and arrived safely at home that night.  The good part about the jet lag was Leah slept late on Tuesday morning and it only took her a day to get back on her regular schedule – completely worth it!

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4 thoughts on “San Francisco — Visting the Locals

  1. San Francisco is a beautiful place to visit. It’s great that there is family there so that you can go back several times. There is so much to see that a long week-end is not enough time, but you can always go back. Great travel tips for families.

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