San Francisco with Teens: A Perfect Family Day

San Francisco with Teens: A Family Vacation


The band Train got their start playing San Francisco's cafes in the mid-1990s. On the recent, hit-packed album, "Save Me, San Francisco," the band implores, "I've been up, I've been down, won't you save me San Francisco!"This could be the cry of parents of teens and tweens on the road. Beset by "boredom" and incoming text messages, tweens and teens alternate between highs and lows that boggle a fun-seeking parent's mind.

On a recent Saturday, we took up Train's plea, called out to the hills and red bridge, save us San Francisco, and set off to explore with our two children, Will, 17, and Helena, 13.


We started at the corner of California and Presidio with breakfast at Ella's Restaurant.

Since opening in 1990, Ella's has been a neighborhood favorite in the San Francisco– and our teens have gone from front pack to high chair to chair here, while munching through stacks of their famous pancakes. A short stack (2) with bananas runs about $6.75, with their signature corned beef hash with two eggs at $10.75. On the weekends, expect a line during peak brunch hours (10AM till 12:30PM). But it's worth the wait. The inventive, changing menu includes dishes like scrambled eggs with artisanal cheese and local, seasonal vegetables and fried grits with eggs from free-roaming chickens. Find Ella's at 500Presidio.

After breakfast, head down Presidio Boulevard into The Presidio. The Presidio became a national park in 1994, after 218 years as a military installation – the Spanish military raised a flag here in 1776 – and continues to evolve in its unusual role as urban national park. More than 2,000 people, including our family, lives in the park in former military housing, making this the most-populous national park in the country.

Drive down the hill to Crissy Field and park near the Warming Hut. From here, stroll along the bay towards Fort Point, designed by military architects and reflecting the "Third System" period (1850- 1884). This massive, vertical-walled fort, which looks like it dropped from a Hollywood action film onto the shore under the International Orange Golden Gate Bridge, is the only one of its kinds west of the Mississippi.

Teens can run the tight spiral stairs to the eerie-created barracks and then to the wind-pounded roof. From the roof, you have a brilliant and unusual underbelly view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Traffic and its noise far away, it is a perfect up-close encounter with the bridge, which opened in 1937 and links San Francisco to Marin County.

As you wander through the fort's long, dark, arched brick halls, it is easy to imagine the grim, cold life of soldiers stationed here. The fort never fired a salvo of cannonballs in defense – by the time it was completed in 1861, it was largely obsolete. Today, National park rangers describe the life and lore of the fort – a place many locals consider one of the "undiscovered" gems of the city.

As you leave the fort, make sure you press your hands onto the hand-sign posted on the chain-link fence on the bay side of the parking lot. From this vantage point, if the tide is right, a fleet of surfers offer a thrilling spectacle -- riding waves that roll in under the bridge and then crash onto the rocky shore.

For a more recent dose of San Francisco's history, head over to Haight Street, the original, ultimate "teen destination" – in 1967 teens from across the U.S. began flooding into the neighborhood.

Today, with greater emphasis on parental monitoring of teens, it seems almost impossible to conjure – so many young people wandering the streets arguing for a freer, gentler world.

The Haight offers an eclectic selection of "throwback stores" trading on its flower-child past – mixed in with today's hipster icons -- skateboard shops, vintage clothing, and an assortment of one-of-a-kind shoe and Japanese anime emporiums.

We often start at Bang-On, a make-your-own-tee-shirt shop reminiscent of something from an East Coast beach town, located at 1603 Haight Street between Belvedere and Clayton. There, you can create a shirt, hat, or jacket with iron-ons presented in a half-dozen binders. Iron-ons range from the tame – cartoon characters like Porky Pig to old ads for junk foods, to more racy offerings – which seem to bring a smile to most teen faces.


While they make your shirts – it can take a few hours, but they are open until 7PM PT – stroll along the street towards Ashbury and look for the Pork Store Cafe at 1451 Haight Street. Note the coolish glass Pork Store sign, made in Italy in the early 20th century for the original Pork Store at this same address – a Czech-owned butchershop. For more information call (415) 864-6981.

Known for burgers and cheesesteaks, this neighborhood-fave cafe offers a delicious "old school" patty melt, a fat, juicy burger served on grilled rye with melted swiss & grilled onions. If you need a break from meat, try the Veggie Melt, a garden burger on rye, and melted swiss with grilled onions. Sides include curly fries, fried jalapenos, and onion rings.

After lunch, follow Haight Street west into Golden Gate Park. The rectangular-shaped park, covering more than 1,000 acres, is 20 percent larger than Central Park. One of the hottest tickets is the recently re-built California Academy of Sciences, with its popular albino alligator, penguin feedings, and living roof. However, on a weekend day, long lines often push my teens' "I-don't-care-what's-in-there-this-line-is-so-boring" button. Located at 55 Music Concourse Drive in Golden Gate Park, admission to the academy is $24.95 for adults and $19.95 for youths.

We often choose to forego the lines and head to the nearby Japanese Tea Garden at 7 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive. A wonder of garden and architectural design, the five-acre Tea Garden offers teens the chance to wander its whimsical paths, peer into small pools and climb the steep drum bridge. Built in 1894 for the California Midwinter International Exposition, the garden offers a refreshing and modern view of how nature and urban life can exist in a balance. The gardens are open daily with summer hours (March 1 to Oct. 31) from 9AM PT to 6PM PT and winter hours (Nov. 1 to Feb 28) from 9AM PT to 4:45PM PT. Admission is FREE Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays if entered by 10AM otherwise it's $5 for residents or $7 for non-residents. For more information call (415) 668-0909.

Well fed, well-walked, and ready for an early night, I offer a cheery thanks to San Francisco and all its loveliness – it did, indeed, save us with its enduring charms – a diverse place often listed as one of the best cities in the world. Our family – even the teens – heartily concur.

Leslie Carol Roberts is the author of The Entire Earth and Sky: Views on Antarctica. Her forthcoming book, Here Is Where We Walk: 11 Episodes from the Forest, documents her life in San Francisco's Presidio. Read her blog on Red Room.

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