San Francisco: “This Place Smells Like Venice”

This summer we did a series of family mini trips instead of one big summer trip, and we found ourselves stopping in San Francisco for a few days. We arrived by overnight train from Seattle and took the Amtrak bus downtown, which deposited us practically right in front of our hotel, the Parc 55 on Union Square. We had lucked out with a smoking deal on the place, $189 per night, which had just shown up one day on the website so I booked it immediately. Then to top it off, our room wasn’t ready by 3pm, so they upgraded us to a 25th floor junior suite with a great view of the city and about twice as much space as a standard room. It was pretty sweet, I must say.


Anyway, when we arrived at about 9 am and dropped off our bags with the porter and asked him for directions to the nearby Children’s Museum he gave us a map and warned us not to go around the north or west side of the hotel. “You don’t want to be walking around there,” were his exact words I believe. We headed out of the hotel, walking in the “good” direction down Market Street and pretty quickly decided that if this was the good area we weren’t going to be going anywhere near the rough part of town. And I know I’m weird, but I had a truly proud parenting moment when my daughter took a good whiff of the morning air outside the flagship Old Navy store and declared, “This place smells like Venice!” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Now, don’t get me wrong. San Francisco isn’t some sort of disgusting hellhole that no one should ever visit. Overall we had a wonderful two days in the city, seeing beautiful sights and having a great time. There are some wonderful facilities for children in the city including great museums and playgrounds. And I’m really not one of those people who is too easily shocked or offended by poverty or mental illness. But my husband and I both agreed that we were a bit taken aback by the scale of the homelessness and obvious mental health issues that we saw everywhere in San Francisco, especially in the supposedly “touristy” parts of town like Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf.


One sight that really struck me was when we were taking a bus further up Market Street to the old historic mission. It went right through the area the hotel porter had warned us about and at one point it stopped across the plaza from the ornate, domed city hall. The entire plaza was filled with obviously destitute people, some pushing shopping carts, others sprawled out sleeping beside the fountains. It reminded me of an old European painting I had once seen, probably from the 17th or 18th century of a beautiful medieval church with beggars and ragged children clustered around the pillars and running around the aisles. The contrast of the glittering golden dome of the city hall and the sad scene of social breakdown spread out in front was just so stark.


Has San Francisco always been like this? I actually lived just outside of the city in Berkeley for three months  in 2004 while doing a temporary nursing assignment and I used to go into the city quite frequently. I remember it being rough; there was definitely an issue with homelessness even then, but on this trip I got the sense that it had definitely gotten a lot worse. I can remember going to the big public library right near city hall and the plaza was a bit dodgy even then, but not to the extent that a single woman would feel unsafe in broad daylight. I don’t know if I could say that now.

So, would I go back to San Francisco with my kids? I would have to say yes. We saw a lot of cool things and did a lot of fun activities, which I hope to describe in another post. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to expose young kids to things that may be a bit unsettling and uncomfortable. They had some questions about some of the things we saw and we did our best to answer them. But I’m also glad that we stayed in a nice hotel and I did my research beforehand on where to go and what to see. San Francisco is one place where I definitely would not want to compromise on accommodation or risk getting lost and wandering into the wrong area. But if you’re willing to brave a bit of discomfort the city rewards you with some amazing experiences.


I have to admit, I was a bit sad that the city that gave me such wonderful memories from my time there 11 years ago was looking so much scruffier and rough than I remembered it, but hopefully the kids will remember the fun things and maybe learn a bit about diversity and understanding along the way. And if nothing else, my family now has a new term for a malodorous place: “This place smells like Venice!”.


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