City Experiences Kids—and Adults—Will Enjoy

Explore San Francisco with your kids.

55 Music Concourse Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118, USA
The California Academy of Sciences is an unfortunately stuffy name for an institution that is anything but staid. The country’s largest natural-history museum includes an aquarium, a planetarium, an enormous rain-forest exhibit under a 27-meter-tall (90-foot-tall) dome, and a living roof that looks like a science-fiction fantasy. A visit here can feel like a trip to an amusement park, with a series of attractions to check out, but all of them are educational. The building itself is part of the appeal of the Academy. (Like the nearby de Young, the old home of the California Academy of Sciences was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and starchitect Renzo Piano designed its very environmentally friendly replacement.) It would be easy to spend an entire day or more seeing all of the Academy’s exhibits, so be prepared to pick and choose among them.

Pier 45, Fishermans Wharf, San Francisco, CA 94133, USA
Musée Mécanique, at Pier 45 in Fisherman’s Wharf, is one of the largest privately held collections of vintage mechanical arcade machines in the world. Displaying some 200 pieces from the more than 300 acquired by Edward G. Zelinsky throughout his life, the museum is still owned and managed by the philanthropist and historian’s family. But words like museum and display are misleading: The majority of these contraptions still work. Stock up on quarters and dust off your nostalgia, because this is a chance to introduce your kids to the PlayStation of the good old days. There are music boxes, barbershop quartets, peep shows, fortune-tellers, jerky dioramas (ranging from a colorful carnival to a dingy opium den), and more; many of the items are over a century old. There are also more modern arcade machines—still ancient by today’s standards—such as pinball, Pac-Man, and Street Fighter II; those with a competitive streak can play Skee-Ball or air hockey. Presiding over it all is the life-size Laffing Sal, whose full-blooded cackling is the only thing that cuts through the cacophony of beeping and buzzing and clanging and the riot of carnival tunes. As well as a cool place to play games with your kids, it’s a fun lens through which to teach them about life in the not-so-distant past, and perhaps about your own childhood. Entry is free, and there are plenty of change machines. Photo: Gary Stevens/Flickr
199 Museum Way
The Randal is a free children’s museum, and a small community museum. The Randal is perfect for a younger child or for a short outing with young school kids. There is a room of native and domestic live animals including rescued Owls, reptiles, rabbits, and this colony of honey bees (behind glass). There are Lego earthquake centers where children can build towers with Lego’s and test them by creating a Lego size earthquake. There is a replica of a 1906 earthquake refugee shack, a play house with a puppet stage for kids to play in, and a train room with a train car replica to climb in. This free little museum has been a blessing on rain days with the kids, or when we just want to go explore somewhere for an hour. On weekends there are also art classes available--check the website for current information.
Pier 15 The Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA 94111, USA
Ask anyone you know who grew up in the Bay Area about the Exploratorium, and they’ll likely be able to share stories of class trips and seeing their hair stand on end at an installation about electricity or fun-house mirrors that taught about optics and visual perception. This is not, however, a museum simply for kids—though curious kids will definitely be entertained while learning. Instead, its exhibits aim to raise the scientific literacy of visitors of all ages, by providing engaging, amusing, and hands-on experiences. Long housed at the Palace of Fine Arts, the Exploratorium opened in its current, and much larger, space on Piers 15 and 17 in 2013. One advantage of the new waterfront location is the North Gallery and its outdoor spaces, focused on environmental phenomena like the wind, rain, and tides. The completely dark Tactile Dome and the disorienting Monochromatic Room may prove not just the highlights of your visit to the Exploratorium but the most memorable, or at least strangest, moments of your time in San Francisco. Photo by Xavier Sandel/Flickr.
Tiburon, CA 94920, USA
Hop aboard the ferry at Pier 41 in San Francisco, or from the town of Tiburon, and spend a day on the largest and most beautiful island in the bay—Angel Island State Park. You can bring your own bike, or rent one when you arrive, and ride the paved perimeter trail around the 760-acre island. There are open-air tram tours, too, with guides recalling the island’s rich history, as well as guided hikes. Of course, you are free to roam the trails on your own, one of the best of which is the hike up to the top of 788-foot Mount Livermore, where 360-degree views take in the San Francisco skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge. Whatever your plan, know you’ll be immersing yourself in local history in a place that has been a fishing and hunting site for Coast Miwok Indians, a haven for Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala, and a U.S. Army post starting with the Civil War. From 1910 to 1940, hundreds of thousands of immigrants were processed here, and during World War II, Japanese and German POWs were held on the island. Several buildings and other relics remain as a reminder of the island’s varied history, including the United States Immigration Station museum (open March–October).
San Francisco, CA 94133, USA
Alcatraz—the very name conjures dark images of impregnable prisons, infamous criminals, and daring escape attempts. But the island is not all murder and mayhem. “The Rock,” set a few kilometers offshore in the San Francisco Bay, is designated a National Historic Landmark and managed by the National Park Service. It’s an important area for nesting seabirds and the site of the West Coast’s first lighthouse, and has hosted a military garrison and been occupied by American Indian activists. The main draw for visitors, of course, is the abandoned maximum-security state penitentiary. Between 1934 and 1963 this almost-mythical prison housed some of the country’s most dangerous and troublesome criminals, including Al Capone. The audio tour is fascinating. Narrated by former inmates and guards, the tour ushers you down dank corridors, into cramped cells, and through common areas and staff quarters. You hear stories about the prisoners’ daily routines, escape attempts, and riots, all set to an atmospheric prison life soundtrack of echoing footfalls, clanging doors, and jangling keys. The only way to reach the island is via an Alcatraz Cruises ferry from Pier 33. Advance booking is recommended; during peak times tickets can sell out weeks in advance. By day you can explore the island, or combine it with a trip to Angel Island; by night you get more broody views of the Rock.
500 Avenue N, San Francisco, CA 94130, USA
Along with a great view of San Francisco, Treasure Island is home to a popular flea market, formerly Treasure Island Flea, and now called TreasureFest. Each month around 400 curated vendors set up and peddle their wares. Stalls offer antiques, originally designed art and clothing, and vintage curiosities. You will also find about two dozen food trucks, live music, kids’ games and activities, and some local wine sellers to fuel your shopping fire. The two-day flea market takes place the last weekend of every month. Launched in 2011 to support local artists and entrepreneurs, Treasure Island Flea is now a must-do Bay Area event.
Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA, USA
Golden Gate Park was formed out of an expanse of sand dunes to the west of the city in the nineteenth century—a history that is still discernible in the rolling topography of much of the park’s more than 1,000 acres. Over 13 million people visit the array of gardens, lakes, trails, museums, and monuments each year. Some of the most popular attractions are clustered to the east, including the de Young art museum, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Japanese Tea Garden. A little farther on is Stow Lake, the largest body of water in the park and a good spot for boating and strolling. Just past Spreckels Lake is a bizarre sight: a herd of American bison. Generations of these iconic beasts have been kept in the park since 1892; they mostly stand around the paddock like idling, hairy bulldozers. Children enjoy seeing the Dutch Windmill at the west edge; they may not be so fussed about the nearby Tulip Garden, but they’ll like the waterfowl pond in the Botanical Garden and the carnivorous plants in the Conservatory of Flowers. There are three playgrounds, too; the Koret contains a colorful working carousel from 1914. Active visitors can tour the park by Segway or check out the golf course, the disc golf course, or the archery field. Festivals take place throughout the year, and the Music Concourse hosts free concerts on Sundays in the summer.
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