Once upon a time I lived in “The City” as people residing in the Bay Area affectionately refer to San Francisco as, and rarely used my car. These days I live in a more rural area which means I’m completely dependent on my SUV and my bike collects dust in the shed. So when I get to spend a day in San Francisco I want to leave my car behind and savor the carefree feeling of wandering the city and relish the slow, unpredictability of traveling by bus. Fortunately I have two boys who are fascinated by anything with wheels, so a walking, sightseeing, culinary, public transportation adventure in San Francisco was a perfect, if not slightly unconventional, mother-sons outing.
What we did in SF via BART, cable car, street car and Muni
- People watched in Union Square
- Walked Lombard St
- Admired unique SF houses
- Checked out the Maritime Museum
- Watched sourdough bread be made at Boudin
- Ate sourdough bread at Boudin
- Studied sea lion interactions at Pier 39
- Tasted delicious morsels of chocolate from Dandelion Chocolates in the Ferry Building
- Watched boats on the bay while eating an ice cream cone from Humphry Slocombe
- Enjoyed an amazing meal at Liholiho Yacht Club
BART to San Francisco
You can drive into the city and park your car at one of the many parking garages in the Union Square area or you can take BART into SF and get off at the Powell St Station. Cost: Bart pricing depends on where your point of origin and destination is. Parking in San Francisco can be pricey, like everything in San Francisco, and you’ll probably save money by taking BART. Even if taking BART doesn’t save you money, you won’t get a new set of wrinkles from trying to decipher the cryptic parking garage pricing.
Cable Car to Fisherman’s Wharf
There are several different cable car routes in San Francisco. From the Powell St BART station it is about a ten second walk to the beginning of a popular cable car route. Just a heads up that the lines can get really long here and that you’ll need to purchase your tickets from a nearby kiosk before getting on the cable car. Also, there are two different routes that depart from this spot so if you’re heading towards Fisherman’s Wharf make sure you get on the Powell/Hyde St cable car. Cost: $7 for a one way trip $14 for a roundtrip ticket. No getting on and off.
Once you’re on the cable car enjoy the frigid San Francisco breeze and take in the views of the urban landscape. If you want to see Lombard Street hope off at the Lombard Street stop. (Just tell the cable car operator. Chances are he will stop anyways and most people will hop off. ) The iconic twisty section of Lombard St is only a block long and it’s almost impossible to get a picture that captures it in all its curvy glory.
After walking to the bottom of the twisty section take a left and head down the hill towards the bay. Enjoy the unique Victorian homes and gardens along the way until you eventually end up at the waterfront.
Once you reach the waterfront you can either go left or right. If you take a left you can wander around the old boats and marintine machinery at the Martine Muesum on the pier ( it’s free although if you want to go onto the boats there’s a fee). From here you can see the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance and on a warm day you can dip your toes in the chilly water at the nearby Aquatic Park. Ghirardelli Square is also a few blocks away if you want to indulge in a hot fudge sundae.
If you take a right this will lead you past the endless tourist shops and restaurants that comprise the Fisherman’s Wharf area. Keep moving. This is not the most attractive or charming part of San Francisco but there are some hidden gems like the Boudin Bread Store. From the street you can peer through large windows and watch the workers expertly shaping mounds of dough into sourdough turtles, crabs and bears. If you go inside you can buy a sourdough critter to snack on before continuing on a few blocks further to Pier 39.
Walk to the end of the pier and spend some time watching the sea lions lounge on the floating docks below. It’s a stinky, noisy, fun -for- everyone experience! If you’re with kids and they’re misbehaving point out Alcatraz and provide your youngster with a loosely historically accurate overview of the legendary prison. (For example: “back in the day people who didn’t follow the rules were taken out to that island and left there.” Expect big eyes and better behavior for the next few minutes..)
Streetcar to the Ferry Building
At this point your feet will be ready for a break. Walk across the street from Pier 39 and catch the streetcar towards the Embarcadero. Cost: $2.75 for an adult. A ticket gives you unlimited rides for two hours on either the streetcar or Muni bus. It’s about an easy 10 minute ride to the Ferry Building, where you can browse the gourmet food shops and artisan crafts or simply make a beeline to Humprehy Slocomb for some locally made ice cream. You can end the day and walk to the Embarcadero BART station if you’re ready to leave the city, or if you want more urban adventuring take the Muni towards Union Square.
Muni to Union Square
There are endless food and lodging options in the Union Square/downtown area. We took the #2 Muni bus from Market and 1st Street to make our way back to the Union Square area. To finish up the day we had dinner at Liholiho Yacht Club because it’s basically an unofficial requirement that if you’re going to San Francisco you must have at least one extraordinary dining experience. With tasteful decor and unique menu offerings (I can now say I’ve tasted homemade spam) this is an adventurous dining option that will excite adults and challenge young taste buds. There’s also plenty of pizza and burger options in the area if you want to keep it simple.
From Union Square it’s a quick walk to Chinatown if you feel like exploring this section of the city or at least taking a picture under the often photographed archway leading into Chinatown.
When you’re done with shopping and feasting it’s an easy, aka downhill, walk to the Powell Street BART station or the parking garages in the Union Square area.
- Kids under 4 are free on the public transit in SF
- Reservations are always a good idea if there’s a particular restaurant you want to go to
- Strollers can be cumbersome, especially on the cable car
- Wear an absurd amount of layers. Weather in SF is unpredictable and always changing
- A backpack keeps your hands free and gives you a place to stash all your layers
- Wear sunscreen. The SF fog can leave you unexpectedly sunburnt
- If you’re not sure of when to get off the bus or cable car just tell the driver when you board and they’ll stop at the correct spot for you
- Having lots of small bills with you is helpful for paying for transit tickets
- BART info
- Muni info
- Cable Car info