San Francisco – you have my heart.

How can it be a week since we’re home from our holiday and a month since we were in San Francisco?! They say time goes by fast, and for the most part it does, but we experienced and saw so much it feels like those first few steps in San Francisco should only have just happened.

The holiday gave us some amazing memories and while pictures paint a thousand words, believe me there were tantrums and whinges along the way, from adults and kids, because that’s the reality of travelling as a family.  I thought I would share our experiences and tips that we learned from travelling with the kids. As we went to many places, I’ll split the blog into parts as I find it’s easily more digestible than one long piece of text.

For the flight, and as my boys are older, once the plane has a screen they’re happy. They played some games (ones I didn’t have to pay for) and then watched movies. I did have the Microsoft tablet and Nintendo in the bag just in case they were needed which they were as the plane was delayed by six hours. Neither of my boys enjoy the plane food so I pack snacks to nibble on such as Ritz biscuits, fruit, a bag of dried apricots, ham and cheese buns, some mini chocolate treats and little bags of popcorn.

TIP: Pack more snacks than you think you need in case the plane is delayed or the kids are hungrier than usual.

The flight to San Francisco from Sydney was 13.5 hours. It was a mid-day one which meant they were up for a while then slept and were awake a few hours before we landed. To help them sleep for the first few nights I gave them Melatonin spray 30 minutes before bedtime which was recommended to me by a pharmacist. For some reason I expected it to make the boys fall asleep quicker. That definitely didn’t work with the youngest but I do think it helped them have a restful sleep as they didn’t wake once during the night throughout the whole holiday. That may also have been a consequence of us being up and out early each day and constantly on the go!

TIP: Try to get into your destination time zone as soon as you get on the plane. HOWEVER, don’t expect kids to sleep when you want them to, especially younger kids, because they will be excited about being on a plane. Just go with it.

Generally when we’ve travelled internationally it’s to my home, Ireland,with a quick side trip for a few days to Europe. We stay with family so have a fully functional home including kitchen, laundry and a backyard. This was our first overseas trip where we didn’t stay with family and decided to book a one bedroom place (two queen beds) in motels and hotels along the way, each one with at least a microwave and fridge. Our first stop was San Francisco . I’ll admit when I rocked up I thought uh-oh, the motel was a middle of the road place and, not knowing San Fran, I wasn’t sure exactly how central it was. Turns out it was the perfect location and great motel, The Inn on Broadway. The staff were friendly and helpful and the rooms were very clean and large.

I’ve never shared a room with my kids apart from when they were first born. I like my sleep and space and sleep with ear plugs so wasn’t overly confident about how well our sleeping arrangements would go. The only time I have to do anything, like most parents, is when the boys go to bed. My eldest falls asleep easily. My youngest, not so much. Because we were in the same room it was hard to tell them to go to bed while we sat there sipping a glass of wine, trying to have a conversation or watch TV. While we eventually got into a routine, I would not do a shared room again and would opt for a serviced apartment over a motel room.

TIP: If possible, and depending on budget, book a separate room for you and the kids. You all need your space!

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We got by with the food basics but after nearly three weeks of no oven or stove, I found it hard to cook food like veggies (my kids don’t eat raw vegetables) and I was sure at one point they would turn into chicken nuggets and pizza as that’s all they would order for dinner when we went out. One thing I did like was the option to order fresh fruit as a side instead of chips/french fries. Not far from our motel was a Pharmacy (grocery shop) so we picked up essentials such as cereal and milk to get through breakfast and bread, butter, ham and cheese to make sandwiches if we went out. We also had Vegemite with us and knew that at least the kids would eat that!

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The best way to see San Francisco is to walk. And walk we did. For 2.5 days (thanks to a delayed flight we missed most of our first day) we went up and down the steep streets. Out early each morning and back late in the evenings. The kids did so well considering the amount of walking we did. And the copious amount of port-a-loos along the streets were a god send for a child that needed to pee nearly every 15 minutes! There is so much to do and see in San Francisco,  we could’ve stayed longer. Lombard St is a must even if it is to join the throngs of tourists viewing the crookedest street in America. The kids loved going down the steps one side and up the other. We wandered down Lombard and found the Joe DiMaggio playground. A great local park with lots of obstacles for the kids to climb, slide and run off a bit of jet lag.

TIP: If you arrive at your destination during the day, try to get out and about. Daylight for the body does wonders!

After a decent nights sleep, we jumped on the sightseeing bus to make sure we got to see the main sights. We did the B Bus tour and while it stopped at the main sights, I think it went for a bit too long. We hoped off along the way and discovered the area for ourselves. The place that gave us the best laugh was a painted mural called the musical wall which is at the Haight-Ashbury stop. Apparently if you put your ears to the wall you can hear the music. Of course all the males on our trip did it but heard nothing though that didn’t stop them from doing their air guitar movement! From this stop we walked to the Golden Gate Park which had fun high slides, wooden obstacles and waves to climb.

TIP: Visit the Golden Gate Park – it’s a fabulous park for the kids and worth the walk through the park to get to it.

Pier 39 is a tourist spot but I loved the hustle and bustle of it. So much so we visited it twice. There’s a place called Mirror Maze and it’s literally a maze of mirrors. It’s $US5 per person and the kids loved it! Outside is a set of symphonic stairs located which makes your own music as you walk up or down them. One thing I realised on this holiday is if we give the kids some fun things to do, they would come along with very little whinging when we wanted to go and do some adult sightseeing. Give and take I guess. Along with shops and restaurants, there are also the famous seals that took over Pier 39. The kids (and adults) loved it. The seals have some personality and gave us plenty to laugh about. As it was nearing lunchtime we decided to have lunch at one of the restaurants on along the pier called Pier Market. I’ve heard they are tourist traps and are so much more expensive due to the area but we were all pleasantly surprised – it wasn’t as expensive as expected (standard Sydney lunch prices), the food was plentiful and fresh and it was nice to sit back and people watch along the pier.

TIP: Be a real tourist and get lost amongst the hustle and bustle of Pier 39! Early in the morning is a good time – not overly busy but still a buzz to it. And go see the seals!

I’ve always wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge – the main reason for this trip to San Francisco – and on the day we visited the wind was whipping up a gust and the fog was low. Did you know San Francisco is known as the Foggy City? I now know why! Within saying that, I loved that we got to experience the bridge that way. It felt mystical, albeit a little cold, crossing the bridge and coming out through the fog to see the amazing archways. A walk-through one of the biggest Chinatown’s was great for art murals but it felt that every second shop was the same one.

Friday was set aside for Alcatraz. Tickets become available 90 days in advance and sell quickly. I organised tickets for the second ferry of the day and even then there were so many people on the ferry (they only allow so many per booking). Boarding happens at Pier 33, starts 30 minutes prior to departure and they leave on time. There’s stories and a video available on the ferry as well as a station that sells tea, coffee, juices and some snacks. Alcohol can be purchased on the return ferry only. We made sandwiches at the motel and took them along with snacks and heaps of water – the kids in particular drank quite a bit of water.

The ferry ride doesn’t take long, about 20 minutes, and once you disembark there’s a guide who provides a quick introduction to the island and some housekeeping issues. There are tour guides on the island and you can join these groups at any time. You can also get an audio guide and go around yourself. We jumped in and out of the tour guides depending on the area we were in at the time. The stories told by the staff made the prisoners real, the security staff real, the riots real. We even had the opportunity to be locked in a cell and have 30 seconds of solitary confinement which was something you can’t imagine until you’ve experienced it. Prisoners who were put in solitary confinement experienced this for 22 hours a day. Eating is only permitted at the ferry docking station and we ate our sandwiches while waiting to board the return trip which kept the kids from whining (winning!).

TIP: Take food as there is nothing to purchase on the island. And allow at least 3 hours to walk around, listen to the stories and feel like you’re going back in time.

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It was a massive day so we took the cable car back which left us near the motel. That evening hubby and I got to go out to dinner minus the kids. The perks of having grandparents travel with you! They were all happy to sit in and savour the local pizza while we went out. Before we left Sydney I booked a restaurant, Capannina. Walking away from the city and towards the suburbs, I loved the architecture of the houses. It was exactly how I thought they would be. The restaurant was a 15 minute walk from where we were staying and as we walked down the main street I immediately got a sense it was a trendy area with it’s hip restaurants and shops. I would liked more time to stop and wander but a pre-dinner drink at gastropub, Hollow Cow, was calling. A perfect place to watch people come and go – some finishing up work for the week and others ready to kick start the weekend with a blast.

TIP: If time permits, go beyond the main points of San Francisco because there is more happening in surrounding suburban streets.

It wasn’t a late night as our road trip down the coast began early the next day but it was the perfect way to finish the first section of our trip. San Francisco provided everything and more. A city I would happily visit again.

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