UPDATE: Mandarin Oriental, San Francisco is now Four Seasons San Francisco at Embarcadero. Refer to my list of best San Francisco hotels for more details.
We took a kidless and gin-filled trip to San Francisco last year and decided that it was time to bring our 6-year-old. There are just so many things to do in San Francisco with kids. Like last time, we chose the luxurious Mandarin Oriental, San Francisco as our home base. Due to the hotel’s convenient location, comfortable digs and guidance from the concierge, we packed in a lot in just 48 hours… which means you can, too.
Mandarin Oriental, San Francisco Location
Mandarin Oriental, San Francisco rests on Sansome and California Street in the Financial District. Exit the lobby, turn right and walk a few feet to the California Street cable car stop. Sights within walking distance include the heart of Chinatown, Ferry Building Marketplace, Exploratorium, Fisherman’s Wharf and more (though with toddlers in tow, consider public transportation to some). A CVS next door for kid snacks, wine and anything you forgot to pack is also priceless. All of this convenience is key, especially when in town for a short time.
We took an early Virgin America direct flight to SFO and then BART to the Embarcadero stop. The hotel is just a few blocks away. I might reconsider BART if you have more luggage than you can handle personally but for us, it’s always easy.
Day 1: Arrival
Walk To Lunch, Shopping And Play In Chinatown
After dropping off luggage at Mandarin Oriental, San Francisco, Chinatown was the next destination as after living in Hong Kong we crave the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. Walk about 10 minutes from the hotel (up a slight hill) into the heart of it. My foodie husband identified (in advance) the popular and no-frills House of Nanking as our first culinary stop. Arrive 10 minutes or more prior to opening at lunch as the line will get long, though it did seem to move quickly. Service is quick and rather Soup Nazi-like, but we did enjoy our Chinese meal and it didn’t break the bank. Order the Famous Nanking Sesame Chicken (below) and dumpling soup, though the noodles were good, too.
Shop Grant Avenue for random trinkets before or after lunch. After a while, you’ll notice the same offerings in quite a few stores, but it’s fun and can be slightly touristy. If the kids need to burn off steam stop at Portsmouth Square, considered the heart of Chinatown, where there are plenty of benches for parents to relax on while kids explore the playground.
Or, there’s the much smaller Woh Hei Yuen Park near Grant Avenue. Walk back to the hotel and perhaps duck into the CVS next door for random snacks your kids like before heading up to the room.
Late Afternoon At The Forbes Five-Star Spa
By special arrangement, a mother-daughter, side-by-side manicure, and pedicure is possible at The Spa at Mandarin Oriental, San Francisco. Though, you may want to consider going it on your own for the ultimate in pampering. The new spa is absolutely gorgeous and babysitting can be arranged through the concierge.
My daughter opted for a manicure that actually lasted for a full week… a major achievement for her busy hands. My therapist assessed my callused feet and set to work rectifying the problem. I could have sat in this tranquil space for hours.
Signature treatments were created in consultation with specialists in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and master aromatherapists. Plan plenty of extra time to channel zen while sipping tea or flavored water in the relaxation room.
Enjoy The View During Room Service Dinner
If there’s a better view from a San Francisco hotel, I’d love to hear about it. We’ve enjoyed this view during both stays.
After a long day that includes travel, we usually stay in on the first night. As fans of Mandarin Oriental in-room dining for Asian dishes we can’t whip up at home without substantial effort, my daughter and I opted for one Nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice) each though a kids menu is available. My husband was in the mood for pizza. We all settled into our plush beds early.
Day 2: Explore The Waterfront
Breakfast at Leisure
Opt for in-room dining or walk down to Brasserie S&P which opens for breakfast at 6:30 am. Try Dungeness Crab Benedict with chervil hollandaise, gluten-free french toast or international favorites (in-room dining). I, personally, think the housemade granola is fantastic.
Walk To The Ferry Building Marketplace
Time it right and you’ll hit the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday at various times) on the way to the Ferry Building Marketplace. Keep in mind that on the weekends, not everything in the building is open early, but a few breakfast and coffee spots that are. I love the shops, especially Heath Ceramics, Cowgirl Creamery and The Gardener.
Catch The Light Rail To Pier 39
This is totally walkable but with kids that aren’t in strollers, it may be best to ride public transportation to Pier 39 for seal gawking. They’re noisy, cute and fun to photograph.
Feeling hungry? A few minutes from the seals by foot is the flagship Boudin. Scrambled eggs in a sourdough round for a mid-morning snack? Well, OK. The extensive culinary store offerings make it an excellent place to find a souvenir.
It’s hard to believe we did all of this before 10:00 am, but my husband and daughter are 6:00 am risers. I dare say, it didn’t at all feel rushed, either.
An Hour Or Two At Aquarium Of The Bay
The perks of being near the first people in is the undivided attention of docents who explained wonders of the deep in extreme detail. Aquarium of the Bay is multiple levels with impressive sea tunnels that my daughter insisted on walking through time and time again.
Refer also to my list of things to do at Pier 39.
Cable Car To North Beach/Chinatown
My husband, a Stanford law school alumni and former Bay Area resident, misgauged the distance from the aquarium to the beginning of the Powell/Hyde cable car line in the direction of The Cannery. I think we may have walked 10 minutes but it felt shorter due to people watching and peering into shops along the way. Here, the cars turn around on the turntables which my daughter thought was neat. Away we went into North Beach.
While on the cable car, we called the concierge desk at Mandarin Oriental, San Francisco for a recommendation. After ruling out a long Saturday wait at our favorite Chinese spots, based on their suggestion, we landed at Calzone’s for a sun-drenched lunch of Dungeness crab pizza, salad and (of course) wine. It hit the spot. Again, the food came out quickly (a huge plus with kids at the table) and our server could not have been nicer.
Part of the reason why we stay at Mandarin Oriental hotels is because of our reliance on the concierge desk. Ditch the guidebooks and don’t be afraid to call them from wherever you are. I can honestly say that we’ve never been let down by a MO concierge on any continent.
Maybe it was the wine. Perhaps, it was the exercise. A nap along with TV and internet time was in order.
Dinner At Brasserie S&P Or Out
If there’s a restaurant you’ve been hankering to try, go for it. Alternatively, Brasserie S&P’s innovative gin cocktails (oh did we enjoy these during our prior stay!) and an approachable menu fit the bill. We LOVE the local albacore “poke” sashimi, grilled Korean-style short ribs and more.
A Food TV addict, my husband has a hankering for diners he’s seen featured on certain shows. Tommy’s Joynt, a local favorite since 1947, is one. We hopped on the California Street cable car line (remember, it’s a few feet from the hotel) all the way up to near Van Ness. We hopped off and walked a few blocks to where it is. It’s dive-like with huge, cheap, hearty portions of spaghetti and meatballs, BBQ brisket, corned beef, turkey and stuffing, and more. Despite the distance, I liked it.
Day 3: The Exploratorium, Favorite Chinese Restaurant, And Home
At breakfast, the same delicious options applied. This time, I opted for a continental breakfast (thinking my daughter and I could share it) and nearly hoovered the entire homemade pastry basket myself. Yum!
Science Love At The Exploratorium
Normally closed on Mondays, since it was Veteran’s Day, the Exploratorium was open. For a pick-me-up, stop into the TCHO Chocolate Factory next door. If it weren’t for the fact that my daughter doesn’t like chocolate (I know!), I would have arranged an hour-long private tour with a chocolate expert (book in advance). It’s delicious.
I believe the Exploratorium is at least a half-day adventure, but if you only have 90 minutes as we did, it is still worth the price of admission. What is more fun than learning while playing? I heard that San Diego’s Reuben H. Fleet Science Center was modeled after this San Francisco attraction and I can see why. It’s awesome. A cafe is on site for sips and snacks.
Back To Chinatown For Dim Sum
Maybe it’s because she considers herself Chinese. Maybe it’s because we told her Barack Obama had been there, but we walked about 15-20 minutes back into Chinatown to Great Eastern Restaurant, a favorite of ours because the menu offers a variety of Chinese cuisine. I love Cantonese dim sum and my husband prefers Szechuan. You can pair both with a Tsing Tao or glass of wine at Great Eastern. They do not take reservations so be prepared to wait or arrive early. It’s popular and was recommended to us by the concierge at Mandarin Oriental, San Francisco during our first stay.
Check-Out And BART To SFO
After the concierge printed our boarding passes, we sadly checked out of the hotel and headed to the airport.
About The Rooms
With 158 guest rooms, many with sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay, the hotel’s contemporary decor is a perfect combination of Asian zen and California cool. From Molton Brown amenities in the bathroom to barware in the bedroom, most needs are taken care of in the room itself, sort of like a home away from home.
It’s not a bad place to spend necessary downtime with kids, believe me. The hotel feels intimate… like if your kid wandered ahead a few more paces than usual, panic wouldn’t set in.
Good To Know
Mandarin Oriental, San Francisco is a very family-friendly hotel that can provide cribs, bathrobes and slippers, baby bath amenities, bottle sterilizers and warmers, DVDs and games by request (subject to availability). My daughter loved her chocolate-filled cable care welcome amenity.
There is a house car that is free for guests to use within a short radius of the hotel. During the time of our stay, the car was operating from 6:00 pm onward but should you not want to walk to and from dinner, this is a great option with kids in tow.
There isn’t in-room coffee. I suppose this would be my only complaint though my morning cup (or, carafe) arrived promptly with room service. Bottled water is provided in the room at check-in and turn down service. I’m sure it can be requested in between if you need it.
If you’d like to visit Alcatraz, which may be in view from your hotel room, book tickets through the concierge as soon as a date is identified. It was completely sold out during our stay.
If I were to throw out a disclaimer, it would be this. During this trip, we received a media rate but Mandarin Oriental is one of our favorite hotel brands. My daughter even associated fans with MO far before she knew they were used for cooling purposes. She’s been to the flagship hotel in Hong Kong hundreds of times because we lived nearby and frequented the shops and restaurants. We love the Asian flair and luxe experiences enjoyed at every MO we’ve stayed in. You get what you pay for.
Mandarin Oriental San Francisco
222 Sansome Street
San Francisco, CA 94104
+1 (415) 276 9888
What is your favorite thing to do in San Francisco with kids?