What To Do In The San Francisco Bay Area

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In a few weeks we have a good friend from Ireland who will be coming to California for the first time. Ok, ok…she’s more than a friend. She’s my all-time favorite babysitter, and I’m kind of hoping she’ll fall in love with America and move here forever. And by “here” I mean the spare mattress in our guest room. And since I want her to love America, I thought I’d give her some ideas of top-notch destinations to see once she arrives.

I logged in to my blog to pull up a post on what she should do when she visits the Bay Area only to realize that I have never written that post! How have I lived here for 3 years and never given you all ideas of what to do when you come? Better late than never, so here are a few of my favorite things to do in the San Francisco Bay Area:

San Francisco:
If you are coming to the Bay Area, it’s likely because you want to visit the foggy city. Even though it’s only an hour away from our house, I don’t venture up to San Francisco that often. I have kids with small bladders and it’s a bit of a to-do…and it’s cold in The City (California has made me soft–so soft that minor temperature changes have become deterrents. I’m sorry.).

There are hop-on-hop-off tour buses in the city that will take you to many of the top landmarks, or you can buy a MUNI (bus) pass to get around quite easily. If you have your own car, you may want to just park it somewhere that doesn’t cost more than your mortgage and walk or take public transportation within The City because parking here is no bueno. San Francisco is only 7 miles x 7 miles, so it’s totally do-able to see most things by foot anyway.

Now, on to my favorite spots to visit in the city.

Golden Gate Bridge (duh)
I always start my venture over the bridge at the view point and visitor center on the San Francisco side of the bridge. If you’re driving your own car you can park for $1 per hour while you hop out to look around and shop for Golden Gate souvenirs. I always walk out on the bridge so I can look up at the copper spans and down into the deep blue water.

After stopping by the view point I like to drive over the bridge and up to the Marin Headlands. You park up by the old Army barracks and take a short walk out to the best view of the bridge anywhere–you’re slightly above the bridge looking down at it, and it’s absolutely breathtaking.

If you’re feeling more adventurous you can rent a bike on the city side and ride over the bridge on 2 wheels (there are several spots to rent bikes, but we got ours at the Sports Basement when we did this ride pre-kids). You can ride over the bridge and right back to where you started, or you can ride all the way to Tiburon and catch the ferry back to the city.

Fisherman’s Wharf
This is a fun area to explore. There are lots of (overpriced) shops and restaurants, and even a Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. Go check out the sea lions on the pier, eat some bread bowl clam chowder, or even charter a boat out around the San Francisco Bay (highly recommended). We like to walk up to the Buena Vista for an Irish Coffee and then over to Ghiradelli for free chocolate samples and ice cream.

Fisherman’s Wharf is also where you catch the boat out to the most infamous prison in America: Alcatraz. If you want to visit Alcatraz, plan ahead–the only way out there is by boat, and spots fill up quickly. Your best bet is to buy tickets ahead of time and reserve your spot online as soon as you know the day that you want to go out to the island.

Trolley Rides
Speaking of Fisherman’s Wharf, there’s a great spot to watch the trolleys turn around in front of the Buena Vista and, if you want to, go for a ride! Taking a trolley ride is a lot of fun and about as iconic as you can get! I like riding the route between Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square (shopping, hotels, restaurants, and more shopping). This route passes close to Lombard Street if you want to hop off and check out the twisty-turnies.

Golden Gate Park
Go for a walk on the gorgeous trails, rent a boat at the Stow Lake Boathouse, or check out some of the museums–the California Academy of Sciences (where you can walk through a 3-story rainforest biodome and view a myriad of sealife in the aquarium) is my fave.

Chinatown and Little Italy
There is so much to explore in these little neighborhoods of San Francisco. Eat your way through the streets, poke your head into the little shops, and enjoy the world-class people watching.

Catch a Giant’s Game
San Francisco loves their hometown heroes, the San Francisco Giants (Baseball, people. They’re a baseball team.). Head over to AT&T park for a game or, if you’re like me, just nosh on some garlic fries while enjoying the gorgeous views over San Francisco Bay.

San Francisco Zoo
I loooooooove zoos! Every time we travel I have to see the local zoo, and I love visiting the local zoos where we live. The San Francisco Zoo is a good-sized place with all of your favorite animals: giraffes, monkeys, penguins, polar bears, lions, and a tropical rain forest building. There’s also a cute little train ride that goes around part of the zoo and decent food in the cafes. It’s definitely worth checking out if you have an open day!

Bay Area Discovery Museum
This is more for those of you who are traveling with little companions aged 1-7 years old. Just over the Golden Gate Bridge in Sausalito, I love this children’s museum for its interactive exhibits, indoor/outdoor play spaces, and pirate ship playground overlooking San Francisco Bay. Insider pro tip: the first Wednesday every month has FREE admission!


Day Trips From San Francisco:
Outside of The City there is still plenty to do! Here are a few of my top picks:

Wine Country
Take a tour bus out to Napa or Sonoma for a day of wine tasting and soaking in the beautiful scenery. Or, if you still want to go wine tasting without the crowds, head south toward the Santa Cruz Mountains (where we live!) and sample dozens of local wineries in a single afternoon.

Beaches
From San Francisco your best bet is to head over to Half Moon Bay so you can dip your toes in the Pacific. Continue south to Santa Cruz if you want a day of amusement park fun at The Boardwalk: rides, fair food, and a giant wooden roller coaster await.

The Redwoods
Ummmm…some of the biggest, oldest living things ON EARTH. Need I say more? It’s worth a trip. Some forests to check out if you’re near San Francisco: Muir Woods (12 miles outside of the city), Big Basin, Portola Redwoods State Park, or Butano State Park.

Silicon Valley
Now, I’m partial to Silicon Valley because this is where we’ve been living for the last few years. It really is a unique spot to visit, especially if you’re into technology and tech companies. All of the big tech companies are based here, and many have visitor centers you can check out: Apple, Google, Facebook and Netflix to name a few.

Monterey and Carmel-By-The-Sea
These are some of my all-time favorite coastal towns. They’re just so quaint and beautiful and slow-paced that they make you feel a million miles away from any care in the world. If you make it to Monterey, be sure to check out the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, go sea kayaking with the marine life, or go out on a whale-watching tour. If you’re in Carmel, drop everything you’re doing (which is probably not much of anything if you’re in Carmel), and eat brunch at Mission Ranch. Just trust me on this one, and send me your thank you card later.

Now that you know what to do, all you have to do is come enjoy your own San Francisco treat!

Foods of Ireland

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you’ve probably realized a few things about me: I can’t wait for my next adventure, my kids are pretty rad, and I love food. I love eating food, I love cooking food (when my rad kids aren’t getting in the way), I love reading about food. I even love just looking at food. This is not a new thing. In fact, my mom has always joked with me that all of my memories in life are somehow tied to food–what we were eating at a certain pivotal point in my life, the restaurant we visited on a vacation, the food that was served at an event. It is no wonder, then, that the food of Ireland has enthralled me.

Much of the food in Ireland is similar to food available in America. There are a few culinary delights that stand out to me, though, and I’d like to share them with you. Some of these unique-to-Ireland foods are common throughout the country, and others are more indigenous to my “native” County Cork (which, by the way, produces the best food in the country. It’s a foodie’s dream, really). Now, here are some of my favorite Irish foods:

Potatoes: In the case of the Irish, the stereotype is true: they love potatoes. At the grocery store there are at least a dozen varieties of potatoes to choose from (and none of them are the basic Russet baking potato that is prevalent in America). Every meal is served with some form of potato: mashed, fried, baked, roasted, boiled, stewed. The humble potato still reigns supreme.

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Tayto Crisps: And, while we’re on the topic of potatoes, let’s not forget about Tayto crisps (a brand of potato chips). The traditional flavor is cheese and onion, although many varieties are available. These chips are so popular that one of the largest amusement parks in the country, Tayto Park, is named after them.

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Cottage Pie: This is also known as shepherd’s pie (although cottage pie is typically made with beef  and shepherd’s pie uses lamb). Meat, veg, and gravy topped with–you guessed it–potatoes. It’s easy to make, delicious, and one of my favorite ways to use up leftover mashed potatoes. Win, win, win.

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Lamb: I can not get my 3-year old to eat any meat, with one exception: Irish lamb. My son will quite literally eat a whole leg of Irish lamb if it is offered to him. It’s both interesting and completely disturbing. I don’t blame him, though. The lamb here is fresh and succulent (probably because the sheep here are so dang happy. They spend their days contentedly roaming the lush green rolling hills out in the countryside without a care in the world. Except perhaps the butcher. But I doubt they even notice he’s coming for their intent efforts at grazing all day. When one of their sheep friends go missing they probably just assume he’s wandered off to some other lusher greener pasture on the other side of the hill).

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Offal: Pig’s hooves. Yep. Pig feet. I see them every week in the butcher but I can not, will not bring myself to eat them. Offal actually refers to any bits of the animal that you would not find in your typical Michelin-Star restaurant: ears, eyes, internal organs and such. Scrumptious. Much of traditional Irish food originated in peasant cooking where it was not only practical, but absolutely necessary to eat “everything but the snout” (which, I understand, can be quite rubbery).

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Clonakilty Black Pudding: Don’t let the name deceive you. This “pudding” is not referring to a smooth and creamy dark chocolate dessert. No, this is blood sausage, generally made from pork blood and oatmeal (yummmmm….). It is a key component to the Full Irish Breakfast (see next entry):

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The Full Irish Breakfast: Mom always said that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. The Irish have taken this sentiment to heart, and the traditional Irish breakfast is enough food to put you in a coma (or gear you up for a day of hard labor on your farm). The “Full Irish” consists of black pudding, sausage, rashers (bacon), eggs, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, potatoes, baked beans, toast, and tea. You can go to any restaurant in the country and order a “Full Irish”–just bring your appetite!

Full Irish Breakfast

Fresh Seafood: Ireland is an island. Which means the country is literally surrounded by oceans teeming with seafood. There is not a single day that goes by and I don’t see a truck or a stand on the side of the road selling fresh Atlantic fish that was caught that morning. I’m a bit of a seafood-phobic so I don’t take advantage of the abundant offerings. But if I were a lover rather than a hater, I’d be spoiled for choice. Pollock, Cod, Hake, Plaice, Monkfish, Prawns, Mussels–all just sitting there in the water waiting for some hungry person to come eat them.

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Scotch Eggs: A hard-boiled egg, wrapped in sausage or black pudding, breaded, and fried. What’s not to love?

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Pies and Pasties: When someone refers to “pie” in Ireland, they are usually talking about a savory meat or vegetable pie rather than granny’s caramel apple pie. And when they refer to “pasties”, they are usually talking about hand-pies (think of a gourmet Hot Pocket), not the–ahem–little patches that women might wear in place of a brassiere.

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Rocket: It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…ROCKET! This leafy salad green (called Arugula back home) is the hip health food of the moment in Ireland. Restaurants and grocery stores advertise rocket as if it’s actually a rock star, not a piece of glorified lettuce. There’s even a guy at my farmer’s market called “The Rocket Man” who makes gourmet salads and juices with rocket. But The Rocket Man may actually be a rock star (I mean, check out that ‘stache!):

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Fresh Dairy Products: You do not have to go far in Ireland to find a farm. In fact, the majority of the land in Ireland is farm land. As a result, you do not have to go far to find good, fresh dairy. Big chain grocery stores stock dairy products from the local dairies, which is pretty awesome. Fresh-from-the-cow milk, country butter, natural yogurt, cream cheese, panna cotta, clotted cream–enough lactose to fuel a nation.

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Gubbeen Cheese: Made on a family farm in West Cork, this cheese is a local delicacy. It has a smooth, rich, savory taste, similar to white cheddar, and it is buttery soft. Gubbeen cheese is made from milk that comes from the family’s cows that graze in their seaside pastures on the farm. And it makes a darn good grilled cheese sandwich.

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Banoffee Pie: A dessert made from bananas, toffee (banana-toffee = banoffee) and cream piled high in a pastry crust. You can find this pie in any coffee shop, tea cafe, restaurant, or supermarket in Ireland. They even have banoffee-flavored yogurt and pudding.

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Scones: Perhaps the single most-consumed food in Ireland (after potatoes, of course), scones are an integral part of daily Irish cuisine. Every time you visit a friend or go to a cafe for a “cuppa” (tea, that is) it is expected that you will be offered freshly-baked scones. Some are plain, some are “fruited” (with raisins or sultanas), all are delicious. They are typically round, about 3 inches across, and about 2 inches high. Scones are typically served with butter, homemade jam (which you can buy in the supermarkets here) and, if you’re lucky, cream (whipped cream or clotted cream…yummmmmm):

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Barry’s Tea: Tea is the lifeblood of Irish culture. If you took tea away from the Irish, the Irish would simply cease to exist. True story. But not just any tea will do. No, you must drink “Gold Tea”, a black tea blend and, more specifically, you must drink Barry’s Gold Tea. None of that hoity-toity herbal stuff. I mean, sure, between cups of Barry’s you might try some Jasmine tea or some orange-spice Chai just to say you’ve done it once in your life, but the purists stick with the real tea. Barry’s tea.

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Elderflower: I think I had heard of Elderflower before we moved to Ireland, but I certainly had never heard of eating it. Turns out, Elderflower is downright delicious. In Ireland you can find Elderflower cordial (concentrate that you add to water to make juice), Elderflower syrup, Elderflower liqueur, and Elderflower tea. Elderflower is made from the flower of the elderberry (which grows plentifully in Ireland) and it has a sweet, aromatic flavor similar to lychee. It is the perfect refreshing summer drink.

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So, there you have it. Now you all know why my pants fit a bit more snugly now that I’ve been living here for a year–Ireland really is a food-lover’s dream come true. The whole idea of “eat local” was born here and, really, it’s the only way people have ever eaten here. With an abundance of fresh ingredients and regional treats, Irish food offers the perfect mix between comfort food and gourmet offerings. All I have to say is, if you’re coming to Ireland, come hungry!

Fun and Learning at the Farmer’s Market

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Today we went on a culinary adventure to our local farmer’s market. I’ve been wanting to visit this market ever since we moved here, and I’m so glad we finally made it! It’s a great farmer’s market with all locally-sourced food–and GOOD food, at that.

Farmer’s markets are really my dream come true: I love fresh produce, bread, cheeses and the like, but I have a hard enough time getting the kids fed and my teeth brushed each day to worry about things like gardening and baking (or cheese making, mind you. Although I can see cows from my kitchen window. Perhaps that’s in my future. We’ll see.). Thankfully there are plenty of people who enjoy doing those things and they gather together every week in the parking lot at my local shopping center so I can reap the benefits.

We had a lot of fun exploring the tents and tables of the farmer’s market…and sampling our way through the stalls. We all enjoyed this cheese (and by enjoyed, I mean the boys ate about 10 slices each) so I felt obligated to buy a round:

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It was getting close to lunch time and all of the food looked so yummy that I couldn’t resist getting a little something. We got some delicious pizza and raspberries–which David quickly smeared over his face like a clown with a bad face-paint job:

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And, since I’m always one to take the easy road for dinner-prep, too, I picked up some roasted chicken and veggies for tonight’s dinner:

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I would have been happy just camping out at a table in the center of the market and eating all day but, alas, my children had other agendas. Turns out 2-year old boys want to touch and smell and taste (read: lick) everything in sight. And babies who were forced to skip their nap so Mom could go to the farmer’s market get cranky.

Before we left, though, we made one last pass through the stalls to play a few quick “farmer’s market games”. The teacher in me couldn’t resist sneaking in a few teachable moments disguised as food-fun. For instance:

  • IMG_3341We compared the size, shape and colors of vegetables at one stand: What is the biggest veggie you can find? What is the longest veggie you can find? Can you find a red vegetable? Can you find a vegetable that is round like a ball?
  • We found vegetables that represented the different parts of a plant: Parsnips for the roots, celery for the stem, and broccoli for the flower.
  • We played farmer’s market bingo (print your own Bingo card here)
  • We played “5 senses”: we looked at, felt, smelled, tasted, and listened to the sounds different veggies made.
  • Together we came up with three questions to ask a farmer, and then we found an obliging farmer to “interview”IMG_3336
  • We counted: Can you put three apples in our bag? Which plate has more cookies on it? How many slices of pizza did Mommy just eat for lunch?
  • We voted for our favorites: after tasting three different cheeses we talked about which was our favorite and why
  • We learned about economics: Money is used to buy the things we want and need. See, Mommy stated with a wallet full of money and now it is empty. Now Mommy needs a second job to support her new-found market obsession.

With full tummies and a (truly) empty wallet, we left the market. Until next week, farmer friends!

Our Anniversary Weekend Getaway In Seattle

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Last week Jon and I got to do something that all parents dream of: we left our children. Overnight. For two whole days. It was…amazing. We had a lot to celebrate last week: my birthday, our anniversary–and the fact that we are about to move 5,000 miles away from grandparents who willingly take in our offspring when we need to get away for some Mommy-Daddy time.

So where did we go for our thrilling weekend “away”? Our own hometown of Seattle! This was our first time leaving baby Jacob overnight, so we decided to stay close to home in case he started freaking out and we needed to go back and rescue him (or if I started freaking out and needed to go back and see him). Plus, Jon and I were both feeling a bit nostalgic now that we know we’re actually leaving this place for the next 2 years. It ended up being a wonderful weekend getaway that we will always remember. Here’s our itinerary if you want to check out some of our favorite local spots for yourself!

Where We Stayed:
Since there were lots of things we wanted to do in the downtown area, we chose a hotel right in the middle of all the action. We stayed at the Sheraton Seattle, located at 6th and Pike. I’ve always wanted to stay there because at Christmas time every year they host a fancy gingerbread house showcase in the hotel lobby–I have many fond memories of wandering through the hotel looking at those gingerbread houses (and wondering if anybody would notice if I sneaked a bite off one!). The hotel was every bit as beautiful and comfortable as I imagined it would be. The staff was helpful and friendly–they even sent a complimentary bottle of wine up to our room when they found out we were there celebrating our anniversary.

Where We Played:
Our first afternoon was spent shopping downtown. We went to all of our (and by our, I mean my) favorite stores. I’d gotten a few gift cards and some cash for my birthday, so it was fun for me to be able to shop to my little heart’s content with no little voices whining at me from a stroller. After my shopping spree we dropped off our bags at the hotel then started walking toward Lake Union for dinner. It was a gorgeous day–and I knew we were about to stuff ourselves silly at dinner–so the mile walk was quite welcome.

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After dinner we flagged down a cab to get us back to the hotel (the walk to dinner was great–however, my choice in cute yet inappropriate-for-walking shoes was not the best idea). Then, after a quick shoe change, we were ready to go again. Time for a movie! We love going to movies but rarely have the opportunity to get out to an actual theater. The Meridian 16 movie theater was across the street from our hotel so we just walked over a few minutes before show time. We saw the new bank-heist movie Now You See Me–it was pretty entertaining, and such a treat to see it before it hit Red Box.

On Day 2 we slept in. Late. Really, that’s all either of us wanted to do for the whole weekend away from our kids. We even got a late check-out so we could sleep uninterrupted for as long as we wanted. It was glorious. I’d be happy if the whole weekend just ended there, but we did actually have more exciting things planned for later in the day.

After our late start, we headed down to Pioneer Square so we could go on the Seattle Underground Tour. Back in the 1800’s Seattle basically burnt to the ground and the residents decided to rebuild on top of the old city. There are still about 36 blocks of underground passage ways and old store entrances that you can visit on the tour.

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We used a brand new tour company called “Beneath The Streets”. They started about a week ago so they don’t have a website yet, but it was a great tour. I’ve been on the main underground tour before, but this one went to the same places and was half the price. Their office is located less than a block away from the other Underground Tour location on 1st and Cherry.

After our tour we headed back up the hill for our favorite treat: massages! There’s a great urban spa across the street from Westlake Center called Ummelina. They start every treatment with a foot bath, tea and relaxation in their “sanctuary”. I’ve been there probably half a dozen times, and they never disappoint. We were feeling great after our afternoon of pampering, so we decided to top off the day with a delicious pizza dinner down the street.

Then, it was time to go back to reality. We picked up fancy cupcakes (for us) and a coconut cream pie (for the babysitting-grandparents) at Dahlia Bakery–then we left our dreamy “vacation” to drive back to our children. It was an incredible two days away, but somehow we still missed those two little munchkins like crazy!

Where We Ate:
Pasta Freska
A great Italian restaurant recommended to us by my sister-in-law. There are no menus: the chef comes out and personally greets each customer to discover their food preferences. Then he goes back to his kitchen and prepares you a custom 7-course meal. Everything we ate was delicious and we’ll definitely be going back!

Specialty’s Bakery– We stopped by to pick up a late-morning breakfast on our way down to Pioneer Square. We both ordered warm ham and cheese stuffed croissants. I also bought a peanut butter chocolate chunk cookie to munch on after our tour.

Serious-Pie-in-SeattleSerious Pie-Tom Douglas’s iconic pizza kitchen in downtown Seattle. They had a great happy hour until 5:00 with personal-sized pizzas for only $6 (there were also drink and appetizer specials). We ended up getting three wood-fired pizzas and a ham terrine–all were fantastic.

Dahlia-Bakery-2Dahlia Bakery– Another Tom Douglas institution. They’re known for their coconut cream pies and fresh sandwiches. The “fancy cupcakes” weren’t half-bad either.