I asked many questions and received invaluable help on the TA forums, so I will share my experience and hopefully help others by doing so. We are a family of 5(mom, dad, 17 yr. daughter, 16 yr son, and 12 yr son) . This was a fantastic trip for the most part (the not-fantastic parts had to do with the kids not getting along or not appreciating the sights). We flew into SFO and picked up our rental car (PT Cruiser -seemed like a fun family size car in which to tour CA) from Fox Car Rental. It took a little effort to get out there but didn't seem any more trouble than all the people we saw waiting in line in the car rental building at the airport. The personnel at Fox were efficient, friendly, and helpful with directions. We drove into San Francisco via Daly City and the Great Highway, heading for the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands. It was early afternoon and we couldn't check into our hotel until 3:00, so this seemed like a good use of time. As we drove out that way, the weather was becoming cloudy, windy, and foggy. We drove across the bridge (wonderful experience - just being on this seeemed surreal) and stopped on the other side at the Vista Point. Getting out of the car was a shock to the senses - cold, buffeting winds were blowing and the kids immediately pulled on sweatshirts and jackets (we were prepared for this change). We had to stifle laughs as we saw young women walking toward the viewing area in sundresses - they had to be FREEZING! We enjoyed the view in this (crowded) setting for a few minutes then drove on to visit Sausalito for a little while. We all found this to be a charming area and even my normally blase teens were excited by this find. The sun came out while we were driving, and we stopped for coffee at the Northpoint Coffee Co. and had our drinks outside with a view of the water. It was the perfect relaxing welcome to our vacation. Refreshed, we pressed on to explore the Marin Headlands Park, driving up a steep road until we stopped for a very different viewpoint on the GG Bridge (would have been a better view if the visibility were better). We drove on, along a one way road trying to reach the Point Bonita Lighthouse. It seemed like we would never get there, but the scenery was dramatic and wild to look out on. I casually mentioned to my "companions" that it would require a hike and crossing a bridge to get to the lighthouse when we got there and my plan was quickly voted down (wimps!) Just as well as we were anxious to get into the city and check into our hotel, and it was getting late. So we found our way back to the park exit and got onto the highway leading back onto the bridge. Traffic was much worse going this way (maybe had to do with having to slow down to pay the $5 toll). We drove back through the Marina area and got to our hotel, The Wharf Inn at Fishermans Wharf (a great place for us - I've posted a review on TA). BTW, the map the desk clerk here gave us turned out to be the best one I had for SF - we relied on it constantly. After unpacking and changing into even heavier clothing, we made our way to Fishermans Wharf to have a quick dinner before our 6:10 Alcatraz Tour. We chose Boudins right there at Beach Street because of the positive remarks made on TA and because it was close and warm soup sounded good. We ordered, picked up our food, and went outside to sit on the glass-enclosed patio. There is a fireplace out there but a group (non-eating) sat next to it the whole time. But it was an enjoyable meal and gave us energy to continue our day. We walked to Pier 33 where folks were lining up for the 6:10 departure for Alcatraz. The ferry ride across was fun, even though my family wanted to sit inside on the 2nd deck. [Just a note here, as I said, it was cold this day. A man and his kids were standing outside the front glass doors on the 2nd deck as we crossed. We hit some wake or something that caused a great wave to break across the front and these people got SOAKED - everyone inside went "OOOhhh" as they came in - and they had to walk around the island like this!] Alcatraz was dramatic - don't think I can add anything here that people don't already know or will find out for themselves. Just make sure that you try to keep up with the audio tour and pause when you want to - it is good for that. We took in the additional "Escape from Alcatraz" tour presented by a very knowledgeable park volunteer. There is a list inside that lets you see additional presentations made each day. We made it back to the dock for the 8:40 return ferry and enjoyed our stroll back to our hotel, passing Pier 39 and many street performers. We were done in after a long day, and sleep came easily.
I will post Day 2 report here soon - stay tuned for the dramatic "Cable Car Hysteria" story - people were truly having meltdowns trying to get on!
SF (and Coast) natives bear with me here as I re-emphasize the weather here for visitors who (like us) are not used to cold weather in July. Coming from the nation's interior, where July is hot, humid, and oppressive, it is just not imaginable that it can be so cold elsewhere at the same time (and I love cold weather!) Even though we wore jeans, sweatshirts, and jackets, I would not have felt funny putting on a hat and/or gloves if I had had them. My youngest son brought along a stocking cap as a joke and he was wearing it by sundown on Alcatraz (and his brother was fighting him for it!) It may have been unusual weather for the days we were there, but plan accordingly!