By Matt Villano, on August 12, 2016

Weekend at the Presidio

The olden days are everywhere at The Presidio of San Francisco. The sprawling area on the southern end of the Golden Gate Bridge was a U.S. Army base between 1848 and 1994, and was a base for the Spanish and Mexicans for about 75 years before that. Old fortifications and officers’ quarters are everywhere. Hike around enough in the hills and you’ll stumble upon rusty equipment from yesteryear.

At the same time, the National Park is one of the city’s newest treasures. After more than 10 years of redevelopment, the Presidio is now teeming with new restaurants, new museums, new office space and parks galore. I like to think of it as a base of awesome, especially for families with young kids.

And during one weekend earlier this summer, my wife, my three daughters, and I checked it out, spending two nights at the 22-room Inn at the Presidio, and fanning out on foot from there.

(If you’re looking for other hotels nearby, try one of these.)

Archaeology galore

I mentioned history is omnipresent at the Presidio, and there’s no better reflection of this than the on-site archaeological dig that’s taking place right outside the Presidio Officers’ Club on the Main Post (this is a fancy way of saying the “main quad;” it’s just down the street from the hotel).

The program’s primary research focus is the site of El Presidio de San Francisco, the original Spanish Colonial fort occupied by the Spanish and Mexicans from 1776-1846. Since the dig began in 2014, archaeologists have found thousands of artifacts, from pottery shards to old nails.


My wife is an archaeologist, so, naturally, this was our first stop when we visited. We spent about 30 minutes watching the excavation from beneath a shelter to protect us from the sun. When the kiddos got cranky, we wandered back behind the Officers’ Club to the lab to get up close and personal with some of the artifacts and meet some of the archaeologists themselves.

(Because my wife is a colleague, the researchers gave us a tour on a weekend; normally the lab is open to the public on Wednesdays and free guided tours are at 1 p.m.)

Fun on the beach

The Presidio also comprises more than one mile of beachfront property along San Francisco Bay. On those rare San Francisco days with more sunshine than fog, this area—dubbed Crissy Field—is a great spot to hang with kids, too, especially because the beach is in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge.

We went down in the morning, and the kids were delighted to get away for a few hours combing the sand for shells and other treasures. When we got hungry, we wandered over to the Warming Hut, a glorified deli in an old munitions building. When the kids wanted more of that history, we hoofed it over to Fort Point, an old fort under the bridge that has been converted to a museum.

Later in the day, when the girls had just about lost it, we walked back along the bluffs and stumbled upon an indoor trampoline arena named House of Air. The big girls jumped until their knees wobbled.


Stuffing our faces

In the olden days, when the place was an army base, the best food at the Presidio was served in a mess hall. Today, however, there are top-quality restaurants galore.

Our favorite of the bunch was definitely the Presidio Social Club, just inside the Lombard Street Gate (about a 10-minute walk from our hotel). The restaurant sits inside a building that dates back to 1903 and was erected as a military barracks. We went for brunch and the brown sugar cinnamon roll was larger than my 4-year-old daughter’s head.

Another restaurant we enjoyed was Arguello, just west of the Officers’ Club.

Viewfinder Tip: If you’re a Disney fan, be sure to visit the Walt Disney Family Museum on the Main Post. The facility spotlights the life and times of Walt Disney himself.

This place is great because it’s an upscale Mexican joint that’s also very family friendly. A spacious patio warmed with heat lamps makes for a fun spot to sit with kids, and invites them to be loud since they’re not confined in the tiny dining room.

The food, from Chef Traci des Jardins, is amazing; I practically spooned the guacamole straight into my mouth, and the poklanes, or Yucatan bean fritters, were addicting.

Other fun

Two other highlights of our weekend at the Presidio are worth mentioning here.

First, we thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the public art installations from Andy Goldsworthy. There are four works in all spread around the Presidio campus, including Spire, a 100-foot-tall tower made of the trunks of 37 Monterey cypress trees. Our girls in particular liked Wood Line, a serpentine line of cypress that snakes 1,200 feet through the Presidio’s largest eucalyptus grove. They walked on it like a balance beam and challenged each other to see who could stay up the longest. The two big kids had so much fun they didn’t even realize they were enjoying art.

Second, on our last day, we avoided the chilly fog by spending a few hours inside the Presidio Bowling Center. This place is the modernized version of the same facility that opened in the 1950s as a bowling alley for the officers. All 12 lanes have the option of bumpers, which means fun for adults and kids alike.

What are your favorite cities to visit and why?