San Francisco from the Top

San Francisco: an enchanting city and with a stay at the Mark Hopkins on Nob Hill, who wouldn’t be enchanted. We discuss our inter-generational travel to the city by the Bay and how to make it work for every generation along with our exciting adventures.

The City Is the Adventure

You would think that a city without a large amusement park would be the last place to take children.  San Francisco is an amazing place because it is the city itself that provides the amusement.  There is something about it from the hilly streets, cable cars, winding roads, bridges, fog and rain, and of course Nob Hill and the Mark Hopkins hotel that makes this city enjoyable for all generations.  This city holds extra charm for us because it is the city where my mother and I started our journey together–where my mom had lived as a single woman and then taken me as her baby and young daughter to enjoy city life.

During our 3 days in San Francisco, we took in the city’s sites using our San Francisco City Pass. From other shows, you know we are a fan of checking for City Passes that include multiple attractions and rides on local transport services–this was a great deal since it included museums, cable cars, muni-bus service, and a ride on the Blue and Gold Fleet.

The Escape from the Rock cruise around the bay plus Alcatraz was fabulous and well worth the extra money. Alex, who never stays still, listened to the narration intently.  He had read a few books that featured Alcatraz and was surprised to learn that Al Capone was just a short, fat Italian who he never would have recognized as a criminal mastermind. The view of Alcatraz was incredible.  We opted not to go to the island because the climb up is very steep and Grandma would not be able to make it.  Sometimes, with inter-generational travel, you have to make these decisions.

Another thing we are fans of are hop-on hop-off bus tours because they allow you to see the sites in major cities the way you want to in an efficient manner.  The City Sight Seeing San Francisco double decker bus was just perfect for this.  We opted for the 4-tour pack but only were able to do two of the tours–the downtown loop and Golden Gate to Sausalito. It was still a bargain and I would do it again (we ran out of time and it was raining in the evening so the night tour would not have been that much fun). The tour guides on both were lively and entertaining with great stories and information to help.

Because the weather can be very unpredictable in San Francisco and we dealt with a great amount of rain while we were there (houses in the city were flooding), we had to plan around it a bit. Remember to bring rain gear and warm clothes even in the summer.  The sweat shirt shops do huge business in July when tourists expect summer temps and get rain and cold.

We also enjoyed walking through Chinatown and going to the Chinatown Kite Shop.  Alex bought a Dragon Kite that we have since found is impossible for him to fly (the woman at the store was very knowledgeable and tried to help him find a kite that was easy to fly but he chose looks over function and how we have a nice kite hanging in his room).  We went to Japantown as well, but it is not comparable to Chinatown in size.  We did get some great Bento Lunchbox items and Origami papers there though.

Being in the city itself is the fun.  We rode the cable cars up and down California Avenue enjoying the feel of the wind in our faces and the fun of the ride.  Our HUGE tip is do not wait in line at Fisherman’s Wharf for the cable car ride–you can wait up to 2 hours to ride a cable car if you do on any of the three lines.  Walk, drive or take public transportation to any where down to the middle or other end one of the three lines and you can get right on.  At the end of the California line, there were only 10 passengers boarding and we got to take pictures while the gripman took a quick break.

Even though the city itself is the attraction, we did go to two museums: the Cable Car Museum and the Exploratorium. The Cable Car Museum sits on Nob Hill and can be accessed by the California line or the Powell-Mason line. It is the actual working hub of the cable car system and allows you to see how the cables run through the city and what employees need to do to keep the cars running.  It is incredibly educational and fun, especially after a few rides on the cable cars.  We left Grandma behind for this museum because the trek from the California line was too steep for her.  However, we could have taken her on the Powell-Mason line which drops you off right in front of the museum.

The Exploratorium is a uniquely educational and fun museum for kids and parents. It is filled with experiments and displays that, if the time is taken, can teach principles of science, physics, geology, meteorology and more.  My kids were less interested in active learning and opted for the “let’s have fun” approach and just played in the Exploratorium.  That has its value too.  Mom and Grandma got some needed time to relax while the kids entertained themselves. The Exploratorium is included in the San Francisco City Pass and the pass even gets you past the very long line to get in–you go to a separate window and get right in–a real plus for us since we were there on a day where the line had over 100 people waiting in it.  If you are taking the Golden Gate to Sausalito hop-on hop-off bus tour, you can stop at the Exploratorium before going to Golden Gate. Even though parking at this museum is free, it is difficult so if you have the tour, use it first as transportation to the museum and then join a tour a few hours later to go across the Golden Gate Bridge. Tip: The food at the Exploratorium is great.  Like most food in the Bay area, it is a step up from the common fare at museums.  We had the hand-tossed pizza and nachos which used REAL cheese and not sauce. It was very delicious.

Reaching the Top

The most enchanting part of our entire stay in San Francisco was the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins on Nob Hill.  I cannot say enough about this hotel.  People may shy away from it because of its prestige and location, but it is a fabulous family destination.  The service is incredible and the hotel is enchanting.  My kids ask everyday if they can go back to the Mark Hopkins again.  When we made our reservations, the staff asked the ages of our party members and if any members of our party had any special needs.  When we arrived, there were cookies and milk in our room for our kids and even a plate of gluten free cookies for me (WHOOO HOOOO!) The pastry chef at the Mark Hopkins has to be a cookie fairy.  These were the best cookies ever.  My kids and Grandma ate cookies day and night.

We had asked for a room that accommodated roll-away beds if possible–a rarity in a city hotel because the rooms are generally quite small. When we arrived and were shown our room, the manager called up and said that he was afraid that our room was too small for a roll-away but that he could move us to a room where one was available.  We agreed and the staff moved our luggage while we were at dinner.  When we arrived at our new hotel room, we found that we had been moved to a room on the 16th floor that looked exactly the same as our other room with one exception–it had a sun room where the staff had placed a roll-away bed with a teddy bear on it!  We had a 3/4 view of San Francisco to enjoy as well.  My son thoroughly enjoyed his stay in the sun room and did not want to leave.  The magic of older hotels is that there are small gems like this room tucked away in them.  We are so lucky we got to experience it.  After one of the staff told us that we were staying on one of the floors where the Saudi princes stay when they come, we had fun imagining who might have stayed in the room we were in.

The Mark Hopkins is truly a luxurious hotel but is also very accessible for families.  We met a family earlier in our travels (see our show on Monterey) and they were also staying at the Mark Hopkins.  The rack room rate is very reasonable and the rooms are quite luxurious.  Of course, the hotel has a wonderful set of suites if you need the extra space and have the money to spend.  These are very luxurious and include rooms that bring the charm of old San Francisco with a feel of staying in a library to a modern suite that feels like an apartment for a hip DotCom mogul.  But, you don’t have to splurge to take advantage of the amazing staff (that is the REAL difference in a good hotel and an amazing hotel).  The staff treated us like royalty.  They parked our Hundai rental car right next to a Rolls Royce and a Lexus happily and were there to open doors, give advice, and make our stay amazing.

The Mark Hopkins has a famous restaurant called the Top of the Mark.  It is a great place to have tea with the kids and enjoy the amazing view of the city.  It is one of the highest points in the city and the view cannot be matched.  The Top of the Mark has been the sight of many impressive parties and was a true in-spot in the 1960s.  In her younger days, my mom met Liberace at the Top of the Mark.

One option the hotel offers that I would suggest is the Club Intercontinental Lounge.  If you are not a member, you can purchase a membership while you are staying at the hotel.  Located on the Lobby floor, the Club offers 5 food and beverage services a day including a spectacular continental breakfast with smoked salmon, cheese, cold cuts, cereal, yogurt, fruit, pastries and much more. Grandma and the kids LOVED the last service called Sweet Dreams because they served their favorite cookies which we cannot say enough about! The food services are also very convenient if you are dropping in to the hotel during your activities.  The kids were able to get a soda and some fruit in between sight seeing and riding the cable car.  We were in no rush and did not have to sit with other diners while we just had a quick sip and then were off again.  It is a perfect option with kids who need to eat frequently but don’t eat too much each time.  As we enjoyed ourselves, we could hear the cable car bell outside which added to the charm. The Club also includes a game area where families can play games in the evening as well as a tv with DVDs and a Office area with computers, internet, printers and so forth needed to make travel plans easily. Members are also enjoy a later check out time–2pm–and a guest relations staff member there to help arrange anything needed.

My heart and the hearts of my children have been left in this beautiful city. They ask daily if we can return to the Mark Hopkins and to the wonderful city of San Francisco. The trip was a magical experience for all generations with my mom and I reliving our past experiences while making new memories with my children.  San Francisco is a place we will return to again and again.