San Francisco's SoMa District - My Family Travels

Follow a family of movie buffs as they trace the steps of royalty from “The Princess Diaries” and find a little fun of their own in San Francisco, California

If my family hadn’t loved The Princess Diaries so much, we might never have decided to trail young Mia Thermopolis (played by Anne Hathaway) to her charmingly eccentric San Francisco neighborhood. Haven’t seen Disney’s film about a hip teen whose royal grandmother (Julie Andrews) comes to America to proclaim her the princess of Genovia? Order it from Netflix and study the locations. Your teens will appreciate that Ms. Hathaway’s 16-year-old Mia lives in scruffy SoMa, a funky, off beat, “up and coming” style zone. If you follow in the footsteps of this princess of San Francisco, you’ll find SoMa (the region south of Market Street) has already up and come.

SoMa’s streets, neatly wrapped around the Yerba Buena Gardens development, bustle with youth, black clothes, gelled hair and high tech boutiques. In dot-com fashion, urban billboards with Cesar Chavez advertising iMacs hang beside those claiming IBM cybernauts have cracked the Linux code.

Rather than down’n’out street people (this was once the Mission District), visitors today can focus on the jewel-like SFMoMA modern art museum (415/357-4000); the black glass, four-story Metreon mall; and Zeum (415/777-2800), a fascinating children’s technology museum designed for 8 to 18-year-olds.

Movie Magic Strikes Again

As in most feature films, several of The Princess Diaries locations which had enchanted our son were actually not in SoMa at all. Mia’s private school entrance was an apartment house on Russian Hill, the gym was at the Alverno High School in Sierra Madre, her cool loft apartment was a firehouse in the Excelsior district, the Queen’s altercation with a trolley took place on Russian Hill, the opulent Genovian Consulate was created within Los Angeles’ former Doheny Mansion, and the beach party where the newly outed Princess is double-crossed by her beau was actually filmed at Zuma Beach in Malibu, hundreds of miles away.

Though not in SoMa, we did love San Francisco’s Musée Mécanique (415/346-2000) where the Princess takes her regal grandma for an afternoon of fun. This vintage penny arcade used to be at the Cliff House (415/386-3330), a seaview restaurant and gift shop complex overlooking Point Lobos at the edge of Golden Gate Park. However, the Musée Mécanique moved to a new location at Pier 45, at the foot of Taylor Street at Fisherman’s Wharf after the film was made.

With handfuls of spare change, my whole family made boxers punch, ball players pivot on tiny hinges, enameled families whirl on carousels, fat rouged ladies giggle out loud, and turbaned gypsies hand out fortunes. From one scratched iron slot came my fortune: “A tidal wave of new experiences are fast coming your way. Don’t be swept away by them…” A fortune which might have served the young, reluctant princess as well.

Sleeping in Style

Our deluxe and soothing nest was the cool and collected Argent Hotel (888/238-0302, 415/974-6400), a contemporary but not overly hip ’boutique’ hotel. We loved our posh black and gilt room with brocade pillows and poofy duvet; not even Princess Mia could have felt a pea here. Family naps were followed by a bubbly soak in the deep bathtub and a cuddle in plush terry robes. The Argent’s comfortable lobby had oversized chairs for kids to hang out while parents sipped lattés in the black and red checked Jester Court lounge. Though we felt very privileged to be on the executive level floor with its private lounge and constant buffet of munchies, the promised ‘executive concierge’ and closet full of family boards games never materialized. No matter, the Argent’s heart-of-SoMa location had more than enough to keep our family busy day and night.

The Arts Days and Nights

As Mia’s artist mother would say, creativity should be a part of every SoMa day. Zeum is a surprising treat whose futuristic approach to kids’ learning takes creativity to a new level. Family together time can be spent with Jeff Koons’ white ceramic “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” sculpture, at one of the chic temporary shows, or even in the awesome bookshop of the strikingly modern San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, SoMa’s architectural landmark which seems ready to take flight. In its old home is the delightful Cartoon Art Museum (415/227-8666). Families can also add the Contemporary Jewish Museum (415/344-8800) and a Mexican Museum (415/202-9700) to their calendars. [Editor’s Note: In late Spring 2008, the CJM will be opening the doors to its newest facility in the Yerba Buena cultural district, on Mission Street between 3rd and 4th Streets in the downtown area).

When we wanted to get out and enjoy San Francisco’s unusual August sunshine, the Argent’s knowledgeable concierge sent us to Clouds (415/278-0432), a nearby cafe with a nouvelle California menu, some kids’ favorites like Asian noodles, and a wonderful open-air view of SoMa’s goings-ons. We could see works of fine and performing arts spilling out of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (415/978-2700). After the lunch break, we explored the $56 million rooftop development which brought civility to the stark Moscone Convention Center area. One free treat was watching “Urge,” Chico Macmurtrie’s skeletal metal figure who squats, rises and turns atop a globe on the nearby Zeum promenade.

Opposite, the historic Yerba Buena Gardens Carousel, which survived the 1911 fire at Seattle’s Luna Park to live at Playland-at-the-Beach for the next 60 years, has been restored and beautified. As part of the development, there is also a large instructional ice skating rink, bowling center, and an imaginative outdoor play garden for little ones.

Evenings, the Metreon is a reasonably-priced, safe and walkable dining destination for families staying in SoMa. We had good sushi under flourescent lights at Sanraku (415/369-6166) opposite the Sony Style Shop but there are cafes such as Firewood (415/369-6199), with its bountiful portions of pasta and beer which are quieter and more appealing. Metreon’s adorable “Where the Wild Things Are,” a perfect play area for little ones, was closed by 6pm during our visit. However, Sony has free Playstation 2 machines available, and there is a slightly rough, better-for-teens arcade, and other kid diversions throughout the complex.

The Princess Moves On

Just as Princess Mia discovered, there are moments in life when one obviously has to move on. Because it’s only a small part of one of America’s greatest cities, SoMa should be just one stop for families with royalty-in-the-making. But as frequent visitors who had already left their hearts behind in old San Francisco, and had only a weekend to spare, we were pleased to make the acquaintance of Princess Mia’s neighborhood.

Families with more time will enjoy the San Francisco Visitor Information Center (415/283-0177) at 900 Market Street, below street level at the corner of Powell. Pick up any of their hundreds of fascinating brochures, then move on.

Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.