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San Francisco with heart
By Nancy Pistorius

Is there anything that you can't do in San Francisco? While there on a recent visit, I examined fruit flies through a microscope at the Exploratorium, rode a big red fire engine across the Bay to Sausalito, toured the Boudin Bakery Museum and watched workers make sourdough bread, enjoyed the hysterically funny and campy "Beach Blanket Babylon" musical, saw Painted Ladies on a Victorian Home Walk tour, savored exquisite French cuisine at Restaurant Jeanne D'Arc and, oh yes, I left my heart. And that was just in the first 24 hours.

You need several days to even scratch the surface of the more than 40-neighborhoods that call San Francisco home. From the exotic smells and flavors of the restaurants and markets of Chinatown to the spectacles of the dazzling storefronts in the fashionista heaven of Union Square, San Francisco is filled with sensorial delights. Each neighborhood is like a little city in itself and all of them are worth exploring.

You can ride a cable car or trolley or bus, but perhaps the best way to see San Francisco is on foot. These streets are made for walking, but you'll have to put forth some extra effort if you're used to strolling along flat Midwestern roads. San Francisco has 43 hills, ranging upward from 200 to 938 feet.

As the saying goes, "When you get tired of walking around San Francisco, you can always lean against it."

If you're planning a family getaway to San Francisco, what more appropriate digs than the Hotel Diva? It's located near Union Square, the shopping mecca - Lush, Gump's, Ted Baker and Macy's, anyone? You just can't go wrong when you book this place; your kids will consider it the epitome of cool. This ultramodern boutique hotel has a sleek and sexy stainless steel décor. Your plugged-in teen will appreciate the free wireless throughout the hotel, the flat-screen TV in her room and the handy iPod rental station at the front desk, and you'll be grateful for the Starbucks adjacent to the lobby. Instead of a "Do Not Disturb" hanging sign for each room door, there's a tag with a big star on it, saying: "The Star Is In." Handprints pressed in the sidewalk by several celebrities further emphasize the Hollywood theme.

Families with pint-sized children might want to check into the Little Divas Suite, with its bright "pop art" colors - turquoise, lime green, orange and fuchsia.

Your tuned-in kids will each receive complimentary use of an iPod shuffle filled with music and coupons for kid-sized hot chocolates at Starbucks.

As long as you're in the area, you should try to make time for a meal at the Oak Room Restaurant in The Westin St. Francis. The atmosphere is elegant, but they do offer Westin Kids' Club menu items.

Another of my favorite places to stay in San Francisco is the unique Cornell Hotel de France, a true Francophile's delight, centrally located between Union Square and elegant Nob Hill. Billing itself as "A taste of France in the heart of San Francisco," the Cornell is extremely charming and quirky, and could indeed have been lifted directly from the streets of Paris and plopped down in "the little city by the bay."

Best of all, the hotel's Jeanne D'Arc restaurant offers a superb dining experience. Menu items change in response to seasonal offerings of fresh fruit, seafood and vegetables and the wine cellar is extensively stocked with vintages from France and California. The atmosphere is exquisite and romantic. The dining area is replete with tapestries and stained glass and there are many private nooks and crannies. You'll consider your dinner here one of the highlights of your time in San Francisco.

At some point during your stay, you'll find yourself amid the trappings of Fisherman's Wharf. Yes, it's touristy and hokey and about as cool as spilling hot tomato soup down your shirt, and no self-respecting San Franciscan would be caught dead there - or at least admit to it. But Fisherman's Wharf is not totally lacking in charms; your whole family will be amused by the hundreds of sea lions who congregate on Pier 39 and you can find your own personal pearl in oysters at The Pearl Factory.

The aquarium of the bay's new Giant Pacific Octopus Exhibit features an observation bubble where kids can pop up inside the tank. There's also a fabulous vintage-style carousel on Pier 39 that would especially appeal to younger kids.

Although native San Franciscans might roll their eyes and dismiss the seafood restaurants at Fisherman's Wharf as tourist traps, a landlubber like me from the landlocked Midwest is always thrilled beyond measure to be able to taste fresh seafood at some of the wharf's "biggies"- Alioto's, Scoma's, No. 9 Fishermen's Grotto and A. Sabella's. But one of my greatest pleasures in San Francisco is strolling down the wharf and grabbing a bite of fresh shrimp salad from The Crab Station.

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Springfield anymore.

Pier 45 at Fisherman's Wharf is home of the Musée Mécanique, one of the world's largest privately owned collections of mechanically operated musical instruments and antique arcade machines. There are more than 300 items, ranging from coin-operated pianos and antique slot machines to small bird boxes. Don't miss the famous "Laffing Sal." Her cackle is the stuff that nightmares are made of.

Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum, 175 Jefferson St., is just as bizarre and weird and tacky as you'd expect, but it's also a pop-culture phenomenon and well worth a visit. Wander around two floors and more than 10,000 square feet filled with the strange, the unusual and the unbelievable!

At the Boudin Bakery at the Wharf, you can see "the original San Francisco flour children." Tour the museum to learn about Boudin's history. It's actually really interesting, with lots of interactive exhibits.

A glass-walled catwalk leads to a tasting room, where you can sample oven-fresh bread, artisanal olive oil and jams made in Northern California. You can't leave San Francisco without having clam chowder in one of Boudin's famous sourdough bread bowls.

Dine in at the Bistro Boudin or sit outside amid screeching seagulls and people-watch to your heart's content.

A great place to crash in the Fisherman's Wharf area is the Best Western Tuscan Inn. It's a Kimpton boutique hotel that hosts evening fireside wine receptions, and the front desk staff always make me feel welcome. Café Pescatore, its Italian restaurant, offers an extensive pasta, pizza and seafood menu I highly recommend the Zuppa Di Pomodoro Con Polenta and warm, friendly service. The location couldn't be better - it's situated just one block from the Powell and Mason Street cable car turnaround.

Are you a chocoholic? Then head down to Ghirardelli Square - just follow your nose - on the west side of Fisherman's Wharf. Treat yourself to a sweet concoction at the Ghirardelli Ice Cream Shop and then browse the gift shops. Lori's Diner at Ghirardelli Square is a nostalgic diner, complete with the neon lights, flashy architecture and rock 'n' roll of the fabulous '50s. There are also other Lori's Diners scattered throughout the Bay area. Hamburgers and french fries are on the bill of fare, and they also make a mean malt.

The "red-hot way" to tour the Bay is by ... what else? A fire engine. San Francisco Fire Engine Tours & Adventures offers a big red shiny Mack fire engine for your riding pleasure. Imagine crossing the Golden Gate Bridge in this baby. I can't imagine a more spectacular way to cross an ocean.

A more sedate - but no less beautiful - tour is the popular Victorian Home Walk. This walking tour meanders through Pacific Heights with its colorful "gingerbread" Victorian row houses, famous mansions and stunning gardens. You can even go inside a period Queen Anne Victorian. A highlight of the tour is getting to see the house where "Mrs. Doubtfire" was filmed.

Another fun way to tour the Bay area is to take a ferry to Sausalito, a quaint, seaside village filled with art galleries and eclectic little shops and restaurants, and Tiburon, another charming seacoast town with antique and specialty shops. You can easily spend a day in these two communities, which are often compared to the French Riviera.

Entertainment abounds for the whole family in San Francisco, from the street performers - tricksters, magicians, jugglers, comedians and mimes-at Pier 39 to the Exploratorium - a hands-on museum of science, art and human perception - and Zeum - an interactive arts and technology museum where kids can explore animation, sound and video production, live performance and visual arts. Whenever I visit either of these two fabulous venues, I always see grown-ups having just as much fun as their offspring.

A visit to San Francisco is not complete without a visit to the theater, and there are two don't-miss shows running here that are "distinctly San Francisco."

In Steve Silver's "Beach Blanket Babylon," the character Snow White makes a fast-paced musical journey around the world in search of Prince Charming.

Packed with hilarious spoofs of pop culture, over-the-top costumes, outrageously gigantic hats and one show-stopping number after another, this show has been performed for more than 34 years, and continues to dazzle audiences at Club Fugazi in San Francisco's North Beach.

People under 21 are not admitted to evening performances, but you can bring the kids to the Sunday matinees.

Teatro ZinZanni  - "Love, Chaos & Dinner" - is a bewitching evening of European cabaret and cirque, divas and madmen, spectacle and sensuality, with live music and a gourmet five-course dinner. Now in its ninth smash year, Teatro ZinZanni is staged in a European Spiegeltent along San Francisco's historic waterfront, the Embarcadero. The shows and cast members constantly change. When I saw the show, Joan Baez was the star performer. Currently, Teatro ZinZanni is presenting "Under the Gypsy Moon," featuring sultry chanteuse Duffy Bishop.

There are many more wondrous sights, attractions and experiences to be found in San Francisco - the Ferry Building, the Cannery, Haight-Ashbury and Golden Gate Park, to name just a few - but you know that you'll be back. San Francisco is a hard town to leave. As the late newscaster Walter Cronkite said, "Leaving San Francisco is like saying goodbye to an old sweetheart. You want to linger as long as possible."

And when you do go, prepare to leave your heart. 


Story published Friday, January 8, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 1 )

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