24 Almost Perfect Hours In San Francisco

san francisco baker beachA pair of hairy middle-aged Chia Pets are blasting Wham’s “Careless Whisper” from a new age boom box. A cluster of Latino immigrants is fishing and drinking cans of Tecate just steps away from a male paddleball player in a tight speedo with a Taliban-style beard and his long hair pulled in a Samurai-style bun. A teenager with a map of Bosnia and Herzegovina tattooed on his chest is enjoying a joint, not that anyone cares. A tattooed guy in a San Francisco Giants hat is playing the bongo drums while just up the beach near the rocky foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, a bevy of bronzed men, and one eccentric old lady with bright orange hair stroll the beach in the buff. There is no better place to drink in San Francisco’s delightful eccentricity than Baker Beach on a warm, sunny day.

Muddy Waters once referred to San Francisco in song as “mean old dirty Frisco,” but my experiences with the City by the Bay over the last two decades have always been significantly more positive. I’m always looking for an excuse to visit San Francisco, so when the opportunity arose to tag along with my wife on a business trip, I jumped at the chance. Here’s how I spent 24 hours in the city with two little boys, ages 3 and 5.9 p.m.

At first I was a little bummed when my wife informed me that the company she was visiting booked us into an Embassy Suites in South San Francisco (which bills itself as the birthplace of biotechnology) near the airport, but it turned out to be a good place to explore the city on a budget. They have free parking, a rare treat in these parts, and the place is less than a mile from Grand Avenue, which is filled with a variety of tempting and cheap ethnic restaurants, including Mexican, Thai, Brazilian, Mediterranean, Chinese and Vietnamese. I picked up takeout from a little place called Ben Tre Vietnamese Homestyle Cuisine and we feasted on BBQ Pork spring rolls and a tasty Garlic Noodle BBQ chicken dish ($20 all told) in the bedroom while our boys crashed on the pullout couch in the living room.

8 a.m.

I love how Pacific Standard Time can turn a night owl like me into a morning person literally overnight. I was up at 6 a.m. but felt like I’d slept in, and after a mediocre but free breakfast at the hotel, the boys and I were on the road heading to Golden Gate Park, San Francisco’s bucolic 1,000-acre green heaven. The rub with staying in the burbs is having to endure traffic heading into the city; but we made it to the park by 9 a.m. and easily snagged a free place to park right near the park’s century old Japanese Tea Garden.

It was a glorious day, sunny and warm and the park was filled with joggers and Chinese senior citizens taking their morning constitutionals. I paid $7 each to wander in the sumptuous Botanical and Japanese Tea Gardens (the Japanese Garden would have been free if it had been a Monday, Wednesday or Friday, when it’s free from 9-10 a.m) and then let the boys chase after birds and ducks on the walk around Stow Lake. At their urging, we also hit one of the park’s playgrounds but never made it to the carousel, the Buffalo Paddock or any of the parks other attractions because I was too eager to hit the beach.

11 a.m.

We drove through the park and scored another free parking spot just across the street from Ocean Beach, which on this Thursday morning was gloriously empty, save a smattering of sun worshippers and frolicking dogs. James, my 3-year-old, took his shoes off, dug his toes in the sand and did a little happy dance, gleefully running around the beach in circles. With the sun out and the waves crashing in, it was easy to relate.

1:30 p.m.

After spending an hour digging tunnels and making sand castles, my sons immediately crashed as soon as we got back in the car, so I took the opportunity to take a slow, circuitous drive through Richmond, the Presidio, Pacific Heights and Russian Hill en route to North Beach, a historically Italian-American neighborhood that was once the stomping ground of San Francisco’s Beat writers.

North Beach is one of my favorite neighborhoods in the country for strolling, but somehow I’d never been to Molinari Delicatessen, which has been on Columbus Avenue since 1896. It’s a gloriously old-school place – their house-made salami and sausage links hang from the ceiling and the intoxicating aroma of meat and cheese hits you the moment you step through the door. I had a sandwich with prosciutto, Molinari salami, provolone and sun dried tomatoes on fresh focaccia bread that was out of this world.

4:30 p.m.

After a little siesta/work break at the hotel, we picked up my wife and drove to Baker Beach, which has to be one of the most picturesque city beaches in the country. Aside from the unparalleled people watching described above, there is the view of the ocean, the hills in the distance and the Golden Gate Bridge. On an unseasonably warm day, it seemed like the whole city was there, some clothed, some naked, many with picnics, wine and beer.

6:30 p.m.

The view of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance from Baker Beach is alluring but the vistas get even better a mile north along the Presidio Coastal Trail.

7:30 p.m.

Even after taking walks on the beach and on the Presidio Coastal Trail, I still struggled to finish the massive, delicious grilled fish burrito ($7.95) at Nick’s Crispy Tacos, which is located inside a lively bar called Rouge SF that has $4 pints during happy hour.

9:00 p.m.

We worked off our dinners with a long walk through North Beach, which was alive with panhandlers, nice looking people dining al fresco and lots of motorists circling the neighborhood looking for elusive parking spots. (It took me a half hour to find a spot myself.) And when it was time to eat again, we repaired to Gelateria Naia, a gelato place on Columbus Avenue. I loved the offbeat selection but we thought that the gelato, which has nearly 700 glowing reviews on Yelp was overrated. But if the worst thing you can say about a place is that your artisanal gelato wasn’t creamy enough, and that you have a “Careless Whisper” earworm, you are in a very special place indeed.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]