Making the best of a 12-hour layover in San Francisco with kids

When we were looking for flights for our family vacation to Portland, OR, one thing was clear right off the bat – there is no quick way to get there and back from Raleigh, NC. And while I firmly believe that the excitement of an impending vacation will carry one through any travel inconvenience (including multiple layovers), it’s on the way back home when even the tiniest of mishaps makes everything seem so dreadful and hard and depressing. I call it the end-of-vacation doldrums.

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This might seem counterintuitive to many, but to add one last mini adventure to our vacation before succumbing to the said doldrums, we chose a return flight with a 12-hour layover in the beautiful city of San Francisco, CA. Devang and I have been there a few times, but not the kids. It seemed worth it to opt for a super long layover that let us get out in a new-to-them city and explore, rather than the unavoidable 3 or 4 hours inside an airport which inevitably makes one dwell on the fact that the good times are over.

We left PDX at 6:30am and arrived at SFO by 8:00am. We thought of getting a hotel room for the day, but in the end, chose to rent a car instead. Even with the rental cost + gas + parking fees, the car was still cheaper and infinitely more convenient than getting a hotel room and then commuting with BART and Uber. It helps that Devang enjoys driving in new cities (I could do it but it intimates me for sure) and his internal GPS means we rarely ever get lost.

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Our first stop from the airport was the Golden Gate Park. It is absolutely massive with a list of things-to-do that could easily take a day or two. For our part, we basically parked near the Japanese Gardens and walked around bouncing from fountains to gardens to playgrounds. Then with a latte from Rise & Grind, we made our way to the Golden Gate Bridge in Presidio Park (home to beautiful mansions, a fort, a beach, Walt Disney Museum, Lucasfilm and the Yoda fountain, to name a few; another destination where one could easily spend an entire day). It was an amazing drive and while I know we missed a lot being in a car rather than on foot, it was the perfect way to tackle it on a short trip!

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We have the San Francisco 123 counting book, and Arjun was excited to see the Golden Gate bridge in reality. With so much enthusiasm, he kept repeating “MOM…ONE BRIDGE!!”. Our next stop was Lands End, one of the best parks in SF I think. We had to circle a few times to find parking, but since people come and go quickly, we eventually found a good spot. We hiked down and around, and loved spending 15-20 minutes just soaking in the view.

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The kids had been eating odds and ends that we brought with us during the entire morning. But now, we were all getting hungry, so I requested the indoor market at the Ferry Building. To get there, we drove via Chinatown and down Lombard Street (not crooked enough to impress the kids apparently…ha!) and easily found public parking on the street even though the area was so so so so, so, busy.

In spite of our best efforts, by the time we put the kids in the stroller and sling, they were ready to pass out without lunch, and they did for the next two hours. Meanwhile, Devang and I had wine, cheese, sandwich, and breads for lunch before making our way to the Giant’s baseball stadium with the hope that we could watch them practice for a game later that evening. I impressed Devang with my baseball knowledge when I casually mentioned “Oh yeah, this is the stadium where people try to catch the ball in their kayaks”. He was definitely speechless.

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The stadium was too packed for us to get an kind of access however, so we just walked around and back to our car. From there we drove to see an old college friend who was gracious enough to let us spend a couple of hours in her beautiful home. She has two kids and a gazillion toys and books, so needless to say it was the best part of the trip for our kids, and us!

It would past 6:00pm by now and so we bid farewell to our friends and headed back to the airport. After returning the car, we went straight to the American Express Centurion lounge to have dinner and unwind before hoping back on a very long red-eye to Raleigh. Needless to say, EVERYONE slept on that flight.

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We knew we were taking a chance with a 12-hour layover, but when it’s in a city like San Francisco, the choice seems like a no brainer. I hear about the crazy rents and the high cost of living here, but boy, it only took 12 hours to make me wish I lived here too.

Here is a chronological order of how we spent our 12 hours in San Francisco:

  • Rental car from Airport
  • Golden Gate Park
  • Golden Gate Bridge viewpoint and Presidio Park
  • Drive through Chinatown
  • Drive down Lombard Street
  • Ferry Building
  • A Walk to Bay Bridge and Giant’s AT&T baseball Park
  • A trip to see our friend’s home near the airport
  • Return rental car at airport
  • American Express Centurion Lounge

What made our 12-hour layover in San Francisco successful was definitely our can-do attitude, a rented car, and the beautiful weather which allowed us to walk around all day long! I hope this has inspired you to look at layovers a bit more fondly the next time you travel! And as always, I’d love to hear from you with your travel experiences.

Happy travels!

3 thoughts

  1. What a great way to spend a layover! My 12 hour layover in SFO was overnight so I was limited to what o could do. I’m glad you were able to explore and enjoy your time there. I’m keeping this itinerary for my trip to San Fran in November too.

    1. 12-years overnight would have definitely looked very different for us! I can’t wait to hear about your next time in SF. Is this on the way to Hawaii?