The Coolest Kid-Friendly Museums in Northern California

The Coolest Kid-Friendly Museums in Northern California

Who isn’t looking for some getaways to get everyone out of the house? We all are. With that in mind, 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 summer day trip. It’s the perfect excuse for an entertaining, educational, and affordable mini-vacation.

Featured Photo: Courtesy of California Academy of Sciences

The Exploratorium in San Francisco at Pier 15

A large white building labeled "Pier 15," one of the coolest kid-friendly museums in Northern California, features an arched glass entrance displaying a colorful, abstract design. The building boasts symmetrical columns and black banners on either side of the entrance under a clear blue sky.
Photo: Courtesy of the Exploratorium

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. Don’t think it’s just for kids; parents inevitably end up being the most reluctant to leave. The gift store at the Exploratorium is my favorite place to do my birthday shopping for my nieces and nephews (the educational toys here are amazing) and you don’t need an admission ticket to shop there.

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.,

California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco in Golden Gate Park

An albino alligator lies on a rock beside a body of water in its enclosure, with its mouth slightly open. The scene is dimly lit, surrounded by dark, naturalistic background elements and foliage—a top attraction at one of the coolest kid-friendly museums in Northern California.
Photo: Courtesy of Kathryn Whitney

The California Academy of Sciences hails all the way back to Californias gold rush era, so naturally it has a lot of history associated with it thats fun for kids to explore. Hidden Wonders, one of the museums newest exhibits, is proof of that — a saber tooth tiger, preserved giant tortoises from the Galapagos and a 100-year old Audubon bird book offer glimpses to bygone eras. Another summer exhibit gem, Bugs, is a fantastical look at all things creepy and crawly in oversized form. Then there are the perennial favorites, including the African penguins (dont miss the daily feedings!), the rainforest resplendent with tropical animals and fluttering butterflies, and of course, Claude, the famous albino alligator who rules the museums swamp.

Tech Museum of Innovation & Children's Discovery Museum in San Jose

A smiling young boy, wearing a striped shirt, enthusiastically holds a paintbrush with both hands. An adult, wearing glasses and a peach-colored shirt, sits beside him, also holding a paintbrush. They are seated at a table with painting materials—just like one might find at the coolest kid-friendly museums in Northern California.
Photo: Courtesy of Children's Discovery Museum

If there’s ever a reason to haul the family to San Jose, it’s to spend a day visiting the The Tech Interactive, (formerly the San Jose 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 the outdoor bubbles 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

Children are playing on an outdoor patio decorated with colorful triangular bunting. Some children are walking through colorful powders on the ground, while adults supervise. Beyond the fun, consider visiting some of the coolest kid-friendly museums Northern California has to offer for more family adventures.
Photo: Courtesy of Bay Area Discovery Museum

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 in 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 enjoy spectacular views of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge. There’s even a small cafe that serves organic food far better than the 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, including the delightful model train room full of vintage toy trains. From March through September, you can take an excursion on a real steam locomotive along the Sacramento River.

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown

For even more railroad fun, visit one of the Gold Country’s most popular attractions — the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in the old Gold Rush town of Jamestown. It’s a train buff’s paradise featuring Sierra steam locomotives and a working roundhouse. These massive machines have been used in many movies and television shows, 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 March through September 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.

Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley

A young man wearing glasses and a blue shirt is assisting two children with an educational activity at a science center, one of the coolest kid-friendly museums in Northern California. The children are focused on playing with colorful building blocks while surrounded by informational displays and interactive exhibits.
Photo: Courtesy of Lawrence Hall of Science

The Lawrence Hall of Science offers the kind of hands-on science exploration thats 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 paper airplane dynamics to Lego building, an Animal Discovery Zone, and a very fun outdoor science park that includes a new outdoor nature lab. I used to love coming here as a kid.

Seymour Marine Discovery Center in Santa Cruz

Marine Center, Santa Cruz
Photo: Courtesy of Seymour Marine Discovery Center

Heres one you probably havent 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 in ocean conservation.

Chabot Space and Science Center, Oakland

Telescope at Chabot Space and Science Center
Photo: Courtesy of Chabot Space and Science Center

Im 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 Centers fun and educational exhibits — including a huge telescope for viewing of the stars — is a NASA Discovery Center where you can step into the role of a NASA scientist through embarking on hands-on challenges. Chabot also hosts summer camps for kids.

Looking for more things to do in the area?

Visit our What to Do in Northern California page!

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