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San Francisco: A Fun Family City with Heart

It was our last night in San Francisco and we asked our kids what they'd like to do. Another feast in Chinatown? A ride on the Hershel-Spillman Carousel in Golden Gate Park? A trip to Fisherman's Wharf to say goodbye to the seals? For once, the decision was unanimous. "Let's ride the Cable Cars," they cheered.

It was not as they hadn't been on them. All week, we'd been the cars attached to cables beneath the street. The kids were seven, nine, and 11 and they loved it - especially when the cable-car conductor gave an impromptu concert with the cable-car bell, or when we were edging down a steep hill looking as if we might land in the Pacific, or when, at one point, the cable car got stuck going around a curve and the gripman called for assistance. He let the boys help "push" the vehicle around the corner to a point where he could replace the part he needed and continue.

Even the story of how this moving National Historic Landmark began will enchant kids. When Andrew Hallidie, a Scottish mine cable designer watched as a horsedrawn wagon faltered and rolled backward down a steep hill, dragging the poor horses behind, hedecided to invent a better system.

Named after perhaps the world's most-loved saint, San Francisco has always been known for its tolerance - toward the Haight-Ashbury hippies of the 60's, the gay community, the homeless. Kids may ask lots of questions about the people who have spread out onto the city sidewalks, but they will also learn about a city whose citizens built the first public playground and who, today, are raising funds for the homeless with a 5-km run called "Gimme Shelter." Families with kids are also very welcome too and there is lots to do. Based on our week of touring, here are some must-sees when kids are in tow:

  • Golden Gate Bridge: It was too windy the day we tried to walk across the 1.2 miles of suspension bridge. But for active families who manage it, the kids can always boast, "I've walked across the Pacific." Whether you walk or drive along, the size of the structure is memorable and the view stupendous. (Some 34 painters work full-time to maintain the rust-orange colour of the bridge.)

  • Lombard Street: watch cars snake down "the world's crookedest street," edging slowly down Russian Hill around nine hairpin turns. For a lark, my husband treated the kids a couple of times.

  • Fisherman's Wharf: This waterfront area features street entertainment, seafood restaurants and shops where you can buy banners proclaiming "I left my heart in San Francisco." Outdoor stands serve Dungeness crab and famous San Francisco sourdough bread. Nearby is Pier 39, where dozens of seals congregate on the boat moorings each year to romp and bark at the tourists.

  • Alcatraz Island: Ferryboats leave from Pier 41 for the 15-minute trip to the notorious Federal prison which housed such famous criminals as Al Capone. Our kids were fascinated with the cells, used as recently as 1963. Rent the recorded tour, realistically taped by former prisoners to hear what life was really like "on the Rock." Listening to inmates' spoons banging on the cafeteria tables and music echoing from across the Bay as the cell doors were clanged shut for the night is eery for kids and adults. The Island is also a National Park. Buy tickets a day ahead to avoid the line-ups.

  • Golden Gate Park: On Sundays, roller bladers have full access to the major pathway through the park. All week, kids can ride the restored carousel housed in a turn-of-the-century Greek temple, visit the Aquarium or hands-on Discovery Room at the California Academy of Sciences. Older kids may enjoy the Japanese Tea Garden where you can consume tea and fortune cookies in a peaceful setting.

  • Cliff House: It's worth it to have a drink in the high-up glass-enclosed restaurant perched over the ocean to watch the surfers, the sea lions, and the sea as it rolls in toward the sand. Only minutes from downtown, the wide expanse of beach is great for running along; beware the dangerous undertow.

  • Chinatown: our family still laughs about a restaurant here where the waiter insisted we order spaghetti, not the Chinese food we wanted. The kids loved visiting the shops, examining the markets and listening to the Chinese language being shouted across and down the street between shopkeepers. With small kids, it's best to visit in early morning when strollers can still be manoevered down the streets.

  • Ghirardelli Chocolate Manufactory: order a "Strike It Rich" sundae inspired by the 1849 Gold Rush or the "Alcatraz Rock" (with an island of rocky road ice cream) in this old-fashioned ice-cream parlour. Suspense is heightened as the kids watch the gooey vats of chocolate being made into sauce at the back of the store. It's a treat!




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