We just got back from Visiting San Francisco and I’m going to share our experience. The first thing to note: San Francisco is a big city. It has almost 900,000 people in just under 47 square miles. We’re from the small State of Vermont where our major highway is 2 lanes in each direction. There is also a mask mandate in place, which meant we masked up any time we went into a business or restaurant and many restaurants required proof of vaccination in order to dine inside.
So why did we choose San Francisco to visit? Todd’s cousin, Eric, and his family live in Petaluma, California which is just about an hour outside of the city. It made sense for us to go out and spend some time with them and then check San Francisco off the list, as well.
We flew into San Francisco airport with no issue. It was very early morning when we arrived on November 27. Eric picked us up and we headed to his house, crossing the Golden Gate bridge in the dark. We basically dropped our bags and went to bed to try to catch a few hours of sleep. We lucked out with beautiful weather for our whole trip. It was mid-to-high 60’s during the day, with it being a bit chillier in the mornings and evenings, but we were perfectly content in our sweaters and pants. Much better than the snowstorm we had going on back home in Vermont!
Checking out Napa Valley
Once we woke up, we decided to check out Napa Valley and V. Sattui Winery, a family-friendly establishment. V. Sattui Winery is under 1.5 hours from San Francisco and offered the perfect spot for a picnic and wine tasting. It offers three tasting rooms, an Artisan Deli and Marketplace and it had plenty of outdoor space and tables with trees and greenery.
The venue is gorgeous and I could just imagine hosting a Wedding or other event there! My daughter, Olivia, Eric’s daughter, Valentina, and I had some fun taking photos throughout the outdoor area.
We were dressed casually and fit in just fine, though there were others that were dressed to the nines. There were plenty of families enjoying the weather in the outdoor space along with us. We had a picnic table and a blanket on the green. The kids kicked the soccer ball and watched as the wine trains went past. We got sandwiches from the deli (so good!) and a couple of bottles of wine to try. The prices on everything were affordable and we spent several hours hanging out. There was much more to the property that we did not explore because we had the kids and were just looking for a relaxing day after our long travels the day before.
Sequoia Trees in California
On Saturday we headed to the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, which is about 1 hour and 45 minutes outside of San Francisco. This reserve is home to huge, old Sequoia trees, also known as Coast Redwoods, and tranquil nature trails. Seriously, these trees are old, and huge! The drive to the park is scenic and enjoyable and once you’re in the park you are instantly transported to another time. The trails are easy to navigate and you’re going to find yourself constantly craning to see the tops of the trees that are reaching so high into the sky! It was just so peaceful – even with the kids hustling and bustling about! We stopped to read the information plaques on the self-guided tour, learning about the environment surrounding us. And again, we took tons of pictures – the reserve is so picturesque, it’s hard not too! It’s also a great place for a picnic.
This was probably one of our favorite places in California and we highly recommend checking it out. And if you come across a maple leaf – pick it up and smell it! We’re from Vermont, as I mentioned, which is a huge maple sugaring state. My uncle owns a sugaring house, my brother boils his own sap – it’s in our blood. But our maple leaves do not smell like maple. The leaves in this park smelled exactly like maple syrup! It was incredible. Each one we came across we sniffed and each one held the smell of home!
There is limited paid parking in the lots, with overflow along the road that leads to the reserve. There is a welcome center and public bathrooms available.
On the ride home we stopped at WickedSlush Petaluma, which serves what is basically Italian Ice and soft-serve ice cream. They also have something called the splits, which is the Slush layered with ice cream. It is the weirdest combo, but is actually really good! And they have some crazy flavor combos – Todd got a Tigers Blood/Vanilla combo while the kids went with Rootbeer and Vanilla. If you’re in the area and looking for a surprising, yet refreshing treat, check them out! You can dine inside or out on the green, which is what we chose to do. The pricing isn’t bad for the size that you get, and it was worth it, in our opinion.
For dinner that evening, we left the kids at home and the adults went to the Graton Casino & Resort in Rohnert Park, CA which is just over an hour from San Francisco. We ate a delicious meal at Tony’s and played a few rounds of BlackJack, before heading to one of the bars to finish the early night with a drink. The only complaint about the casino is the smoking. There is a non-smoking section, but it’s all one big place, so non-smokers will smell the smoke no matter where you are. The other thing of note is that if you sit in the VIP bar in the middle of the casino, you will need to keep your mask on, even if you order drinks. That is not the case if you’re in a restaurant or in a bar in a restaurant.
Golden Gate Bridge Photo Spot
On Sunday we headed into San Francisco proper. On the way to our hotel, we stopped to take in views, and snap photos, of the Golden Gate Bridge. It really is a marvel and is so cool to view from up high on the mountainside. I have no idea where we ended up – I just know there was a detour and we took a windy road that went through a large tunnel that was only one lane and had a 5 minute red light! We passed what looked like some old military barracks that are now apartments and ended up overlooking the bridge from high up. Right when you get to the views of the bridge you can turn left or right – everyone else was turning left to what leads to the super-popular photo spot, so we chose to go right and get a higher vantage point and were so glad we did! It was much less crowded and still offered stellar views of the bridge and the city. Driving over the bridge is a little lackluster, but the photos are worth it!
Once we hit the city, we also made sure to hit Lombard Street, the famous street on a hill with 8 hairpin turns. It is very cool to be on such a famous street and to envision those that live there. It was super busy with both motorists, walkers and tourists taking tons of photos. And of course it doesn’t take up a whole lot of time, but worth checking out.
I think the thing that surprised me the most about San Francisco was just how hilly it is. I knew it was a big hill, but until you’re there and experiencing it, you don’t realize! The streets are so steep, and the parking is crazy. I’ve never seen someone have to park a car at a 90-degree angle before. All I could imagine was an earthquake sending the cars barreling into one another as they slide down the street. Good thing winters are mild and they don’t get ice like Vermont does!
Union Square San Francisco
We ended up in Union Square and The Cheesecake Factory inside of Macy’s for dinner. This definitely cemented the idea that we are not big city people. The place is so crowded, the smell of pot permeated the square and we witnessed several people smoking – a sight that was new to my children. We talked about how it is legal, but they absolutely hated the smell, and I agree. Not my favorite. It is well known that San Francisco has a large homeless population and they definitely hang out in the park. It is sad to witness and definitely eye-opening. That became even more apparent the next day when we were dropped off in the wrong location and walked several blocks past at least 100 hundred homeless people camped out on the sidewalk. The smell of urine wafted from alleys, there was lots of day drinking and obvious mental illness. Something we did notice was people standing on corners in black and yellow jackets that were overly friendly – chatting with us, and clearly talking with the residents of the street. It appeared that they were an organization to possibly be a liaison between tourists, residents, and the homeless population.
Back at Union Square we checked out the skating rink and the large Christmas Tree that was up for the season. There was live music and people were having a great time. We had a great vantage point of the square from the Cheesecake Factory. I did notice many of the stores had their windows boarded up and had to do a search to figure out why – and it appears the city has a problem with looting during the holidays, which is really sad. There was a mobile command center set up right outside of Macy’s and tons of police presence. As you can also imagine, parking is hard in the city. We ended up finding a space in the garage under Union Square, but it took a while. For the rest of the trip we used Uber and Lyft to get around so that we didn’t have to deal with parking.
Musee Mecanique, Fisherman’s Wharf
Our hotel was in Millbrae, which was closer to the airport, so we booked an Uber to go to Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 the next day. With COVID, we had to get XL vehicles because passengers are not supposed to sit in the front seat. With 4 of us, that meant large SUV’s or vans. It did cost us about $50-$60 each trip, but it was worth it to have someone drive us that knew where they were going and so that we didn’t have to deal with parking. Sunday started off with a visit to Fisherman’s Wharf where we started at Musée Mécanique. It is a museum of mechanically operated musical instruments and antique arcade machines and it was a blast! Everything cost about .25 to .50 cents. The machines were so old and cool to look at and we just had a really good time being silly and checking out what passed for “electronics” 100 years ago!
We walked Fisherman’s Wharf and checked out the USS Pampanito, a WWII submarine, enjoyed views of Alcatraz and the boats at Hyde Street Pier. We got ice cream and walked along Pier 39, stopping to check out the sea lions. As we were watching them, a seagull swooped down and took my son’s ice cream cone right out of his hand! The sea lions smell, but are so fun to watch! There are some cool sights to see along the pier – fun painted murals, shops, and musical stairs! This is definitely a tourist destination and the prices are set accordingly – aka stupid high.
Alcatraz Night Tour
We were booked for the Alcatraz Night Tour so headed to the pier for 3:30 pm. The night tour had been bumped up to 4 pm from 6 pm. Masks had to be worn at all times once we arrived. The building was closed, so we all waited outside near the ferry boat. At 4 pm, we boarded the ferry and started across to the island while a guide shared stories about the area and the history of the island.
Once we arrived at Alcatraz, we were guided up the steep slopes, stopping to give people breaks while the guide gave a bit of history. Once at the prison proper, we were sent on alone to listen to the audio tour which guides you through the different cell blocks, library, warden’s office, and so on. You’re left to your own devices and it was neat to see the prison, especially if you’ve seen it in movies.
It was eery and the cells were tiny. There was so much information to glean, if that is your thing. We also couldn’t believe the views! And one tidbit that we didn’t know and that really seemed bizarre to me was that children lived on the island! There were houses for the guards and their families lived in them. There are photos of the children in the museum shop.
The island also offers some spectacular views of the city. We were able to enjoy day and nighttime views. We even saw Karl, the Fog of San Francisco, roll in and engulf the Golden Gate Bridge.
Our only complaint with the tour was that we had seen everything that we wanted to within an hour and a half, but being the night tour, we were stuck until the boat left at 6:40. It made for a lot of downtime. We ended up traversing the 13 story hill 3 times! If you’re with young kids or don’t being like stuck in a place with no way to leave, we recommend the day tour so that you can leave when you’re ready on the ferries that arrive about every half hour. Definitely worth checking out – the price is a little steep for what you get, but it is a popular destination, so to be expected.
Umbrella Alley San Francisco
For our last day, we headed back into the city with no plan. We started at Ghiradelli Square, though we decided we’d come back a bit later as it was close to lunch and we wanted to eat first.. We started walking, looking for a place to eat, and checking out the sites, which is how we happened upon Umbrella Alley, literally an alley/garage full of vibrant interactive murals.
This was Olivia’s dream come true – a place to be silly and take some pretty cool photos. It is a by-donation art installation and we had a ton of fun taking photos. If you’re looking for the perfect Instagram worthy shot, then definitely check this place out.
For lunch we ended up at The Buena Vista, an old-timey place right near the wharf. The service was good, and the food was tasty, though a bit pricey, as was to be expected.
After lunch we headed back to Ghirardelli Square for dessert and also found a small arcade for the kids. There were also some shops and a couple of restaurants in the square. There was a small coffee kiosk that looked like a one-woman show and served reasonably priced and delicious coffee.
Ripley’s Believe it or Not
We walked a bunch more this day. Going down different streets and alleys. We found a sweet shop called It’Sugar that had fun and unique sweets. It was fun to look at all of the different candys and just feel like a kid in a candy shop! I loved watching the trolleys and cable cars. We actually saw a training trolley and saw the conductor learning how to control the car. We didn’t ride either of these – they are a bit pricey – $8 per person, and we all decided we really didn’t care that much to ride them.
After walking for a while we ended up back at Fisherman’s Wharf and Ripley’s Believe it or Not. This was one stop that my son really perked up at. They had a Transformer and Iron Man built out of auto parts on display right out front and he thought they were pretty cool. I remember going to a Ripley’s in Florida when I was a kid and knew it had been a fun experience, so we decided to go in.
I am so glad we did! Each and every one of us enjoyed it. There are so many odd exhibits, as is to be expected. But they also had some cool interactive exhibits that we had so much fun with. The triangle dance room with mirrors, music, and crazy lights made for cool videos and photos and we had a great time busting out some moves.
The exhibit that had us really excited was a room with a bridge and “spinning walls of color”. It looked innocent enough… until you walked inside and it felt like YOU were spinning too! Todd walked through first and came back to get us, all giddy with excitement. “Wait until you see this!” He had me close my eyes and walked me to the middle of the bridge and then told me to open my eyes. I did… and didn’t get it. HA! I was like, “Umm? A spinning wall and bright colors? Cool.” and walked out. He was like, “WHAT??!” He then started walking Olivia in and she immediately fell to the ground! My son tried it and had the same reaction that I did… so apparently, some people are more susceptible than others. After 2 and 3 tries, both Mason and I finally saw what they were seeing. I stared at the doorframe and the door literally started to spin upside down… and felt like me along with it. I ended up falling into the railing and had to hold on for dear life! It was such an odd experience and we were all dying of laughter. I have it all on video – and it’s just us crazy laughing and falling over – for no apparent reason!
After Ripley’s we decided it was time to call it a night. We had a super early flight the next morning and were content with seeing most of what we had wanted too. So we called an Uber and headed back to the hotel. Overall, our trip was great. We enjoyed our time with family and seeing California for the first time. Will we go back to San Francisco proper? Probably not. It’s a been there, done that item for us. We will go back to visit with our family and see other sights that California has to offer though!
The above video is a small glimpse into our trip, including the fun exhibits from Ripley’s!
Have you ever been to San Francisco? What was your very thing to do?
We also made a few fun Instagram Reels while traveling. Check them out below:
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