Now that winter is upon us (and how), it’s time to plan some indoor getaways to get everyone out of the house. So here’s a roundup of my favorite kid-friendly museums in Northern California, starting with FREE ADMISSION DAY at the Exploratorium in San Francisco.
As the author of the Frommer’s California guidebook for the past 15 years, I’ve been to just about every museum in the state, and below are my top picks for a great winter getaway. It’s the perfect excuse for an entertaining, educational, and affordable mini-vacation.
The New Exploratorium in San Francisco at Pier 15
Scientific American magazine rated the Exploratorium “the best science museum in the world” and I couldn’t agree more. Inside you’ll find hundreds of exhibits that explore everything from giant bubble-blowing to Einstein’s theory of relativity.
It’s like a mad scientist’s penny arcade, educational fun house, and experimental laboratory all rolled into one, and every exhibit is designed to be interactive, educational, and (most importantly) fun. And don’t think it’s just for kids; parents inevitably end up being the most reluctant to leave.
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Cable Car Museum & Musee Mecanique in San Francisco
If you’ve ever wondered how cable cars work, the nifty (and free) Cable Car Museum explains and demonstrates it all. Far more than a museum, it’s the living powerhouse, repair shop, and storage place of the cable car system and is in full operation, complete with exposed machinery that pulls the cables under San Francisco’s streets.
You and your kids will become mesmerized by the massive groaning and vibrating winches as they thread the cable that hauls the cars through a huge figure-eight and back into the system using slack-absorbing tension wheels.
Afterward, head over to the Musee Mecanique, a spectacular (and also free) penny arcade museum housing one of the largest privately owned collections of antique coin-operated mechanical musical instruments in the world—160 machines dating back from the 1880s through the present (and they still work!). Show the kids how their pre-Wii parents used to entertain themselves with Grand-Ma Fortune Teller and Laughing “Fat Lady” Sal.
Tech Museum of Innovation & Children’s Discovery Museum in San Jose
If there’s ever a reason to haul the family to San Jose, it’s to spend a day visiting the Tech Museum, a massive 132,000-square-foot facility that allows visitors to experience a world of science and technology: Create your own robots, survive an earthquake on a giant shake table, or insert real DNA into bacteria to learn how medicines like insulin are made. The museum also features an IMAX theater.
Also in San Jose is the Children’s Discovery Museum, housing more than 150 interactive exhibitions exploring the sciences, arts, and technology (my favorite is Bubbalogna, an exhibit that explores the chemistry and physics of bubbles). Smaller kids will love dressing up in costumes and playing on the fire truck.
Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito
If you just can’t stand the thought of one more trip to PIER 39 or Fisherman’s Wharf and are looking for something else to do with your wee ones (from infants to 8 years old), check out the wonderful Bay Area Discovery Museum near Sausalito.
Located on 7-1/2 acres in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area at Fort Baker, the museum offers the ultimate interactive kids’ adventure playhouse—your tots can easily spend the entire day here goofing around—as well as spectacular views of the city and Golden Gate Bridge. There’s even a small cafe that serves organic food far better than typical family-friendly fare.
California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento
With its 105 shiny antique locomotives and rail cars, the California State Railroad Museum is the highlight of Old Sacramento. Over half a million people visit each year, and even the hordes of children that typically mob this place shouldn’t dissuade you from visiting one of the largest and best railroad museums in the country (trust me—you’ll have to drag your kids away).
Allow about two hours to see it all, and be sure to come back in April when they fire up a real steam locomotive and take passengers on a 6-mile ride along the Sacramento River.
Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley
The Lawrence Hall of Science offers the kind of hands-on science exploration that’s entertaining for the entire family. While not as hip as the Exploratorium, it offers East Bay families a great way to spend the day playing with all sorts of science and technology exhibits ranging from their Ingenuity Lab, a sort of Legos on steroids, to weekend planetarium shows, an Animal Discovery Room, and a very fun outdoor science park. I used to LOVE coming here as a kid.
Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown
One of the Gold Country’s most popular attractions is the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, a train buff’s paradise featuring three Sierra steam locomotives. These massive machines were used in many a movie and television show, including High Noon, Little House on the Prairie, Bonanza, and My Little Chickadee.
The trains at the roundhouse are on display daily year-round, and from April through October they offer 40-minute weekend rides. When combined with a cavern tour, gold mine tour, and gold panning lessons, a trip to Railtown makes for the ideal family adventure getaway.
Seymour Marine Discovery Center, Santa Cruz
Here’s one you probably haven’t thought of: A trip to the Seymour Marine Discovery Center in Santa Cruz. UC Santa Cruz runs this highly entertaining and educational marine laboratory, where kids can observe actual marine scientists at work (note to parents: very career-inspiring) with aquatic species in tide-pool touch tanks and aquariums. An added bonus is that kids are encouraged to think like scientists and learn how marine research aids ocean conservation.
Chabot Space and Science Center, Oakland
I’m always surprised how many people who live in the Bay Area have never even heard about the Chabot Space and Science Center, an interactive learning center in the Oakland Hills. It is, by far, the best place in Northern California to take kids and get them interested in astronomy.
Among the Center’s fun and educational exhibits—including a huge telescope for viewing of the stars—is Bill Nye’s Climate Lab, which offers interactive ways to identify why climate change is needed and what needs to be done. It’s great for families because both children and adults are able to learn in a fun, hands-on way, and clips of Bill Nye will entertain visitors along the way. Chabot also has many ongoing exhibits as well, and they even host summer camps for kids too.