San Francisco, with its cable cars, steep rolling hills and the Golden Gate Bridge has a reputation as a first-class destination.
The city also has a number of world class museums, but what if you’re visiting with kids?
Although museums are usually not the first thing that comes to mind when you think about activities for children, there are many museums that kids can find interesting because of their unique approach.
Here are the museums we recommend in San Francisco if you have active kids.
If your kids have even the slightest interest in science, then you shouldn’t miss visiting the Exploratorium. They will find out how simple gadgets work and discover mind-blowing tricks of nature. It will make you question how you perceive the world around you.
In this interactive science museum, the installations require touching, building, playing and experimenting. Education is a major focus at the Exploratorium and the venue is well organized into different themes. Kids can learn how the eyes work, watch eggs explode, and find out how cacao beans become chocolate and why do people love it so much. You will also learn more about social interaction, light and sound, microscopic organisms, and have a chance to build something by themselves or with other visitors.
There are more than 650 interactive exhibits in this museum at Pier 15, that will entertain your children for three or four hours. Kids ages 3 and under don’t need a ticket.
The Exploratorium Tours
|Exploratorium General Admission
Experience the Exploratorium, a hands-on museum of science, art, and human perception that’s dedicated to the excitement of experimentation. Don’t miss the iconic Tactile Dome, where you can take an interactive excursion in total darkness using your sense of touch as your only guide.
|Viator Exclusive: San Francisco Hop-on Hop-off Plus Bike & Bay Cruise
Take in the highlights of San Francisco with a mix of a hop-on-hop-off tour, a bike ride, and finishing off with a Bay Cruise. See the Exploratorium, Golden Gate Park, Fisherman’s Wharf, and many other points of interest and customize your itinerary to your own preferences.
|San Francisco Explorer Pass
Save money on some of San Francisco’s best-known attractions with the San Francisco Explorer Pass. Choose four sights out of a list of 20 museums, boat tours, and other activities (including California Academy of Sciences, Exploratorium, San Francisco Dungeon, Madame Tussauds Wax Museum), and see them at your own pace anytime within a 30-day period.
If you can’t go to Disneyland, head to the San Francisco’s Presidio to visit the next best thing. While it focuses on the life of Walt Disney, it gives you the chance to explore stunning interactive displays, videos and animations of your favourite Disney characters.
Lose yourself in 40,000 square foot space (3,715 square meters), watching original Mickey Mouse drawings, and artefacts from Disney classics like Snow White and Pinocchio. Don’t miss the 12-foot diameter model of Disneyland, as Walt initially imagined it.
This one-of-a-kind exhibit at the Walt Disney Family Museum gives visitors a chance to glimpse into Walt Disney’s mind. There are ten permanent galleries, and the lobby displays all the awards Disney won during his career. Make sure to watch a Disney classic at the Fantasia-themed theatre.
This museum in Yerba Buena Gardens offers interactive art and technology experience for children ages 2-12 and their families. It has a wide range of engaging activities that allow children to imagine and create. Its educational approach encourages children to imagine, create and share the way they learn.
Rather than simply viewing the exhibits, Children’s Creativity Museum is participatory and a hands-on space. Kids can invent the new machine, bring clay to life in the animation studio, or record their own song in the music studio. There are activities for younger kids too: think sandboxes, a dress up area and a storybook space.
Children can also learn how to program a robot, or take a “mystery box challenge” and create a solution to a problem. Don’t forget to take a ride on the restored LeRoy King Carousel, the handcrafted machine from 1905.
The Cable Car Museum is the perfect place if your kid is machine-obsessed and wants to know how cable cars work. It contains historical and explanatory exhibits that will teach you about the most iconic mean of transportation in San Francisco.
All of the systems mechanical are on display, and you can learn when they were first developed. The Cable Car Museum is part of the complex that also houses the cable car powerhouse and the car depot. Although the car depot is not open to the public, you can see the powerhouse which drives the cables. Go underground and see the large wheels that still pull the cables today, in action.
Young conductors can check out three antique cars from the 1800s along with the gadgets. Located in the Nob Hill, this museum will take you a step back in time. The entrance is free.
This museum is home to more than 6,000 original pieces of cartoon and animation art. The collection includes comic books, graphic novels, as well as Sunday funnies.
You can find anything from Spiderman to the Economist, and cartoons encompass everything from humour to politics, from profoundly simple to exquisitely complex. It has something for everyone, and older kids will appreciate the visit. It is the only museum on the West Coast devoted solely to cartoon art.
The museum gained support from Charles Schultz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip. It’s located in Yerba Buena Gardens, and it also features a research library and the bookstore. Several major exhibitions are held each year. The Cartoon Art Museum hosts classes for children and adults as well as others educational events.
6. Randall Museum
The Randall Museum focuses on animals, plants, history and science. It offers hands-on science, live animals and bugs, as well as art experiences. Children are encouraged to be creative and explore. Kids can check out a full-size replica of an earthquake refugee shack, and visit native California wild animals.
It’s perfect for school-aged kids, although there is a toddler playroom too. The museum also has art and ceramics studio, science lab, woodshop, greenhouse, gardens and a theatre. The playground outside offers fun activities and amazing views.
Different classes are also available, including ceramics, woodworking and robotics. San Francisco Parks and Rec department run the Randall Museum. It’s located in Corona Heights, and open to the public.
7. Bay Area Discovery Museum
This children’s museum is located on the North Bay, near Sausalito, on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. There are plenty hands-on experiences indoor, as well as outdoor. It’s perfect for the kids aged 6 months to 10 years.
Your kids can discover how tall they are in apples, and build structures out of foam blocks. Everything here is designed to spark creativity and imagination. Younger children can explore outdoor tunnels.
The highlight is the Lookout Cove, a 2.5-acre interactive exploration area with tide pools, gravel pits, caves and spider web installations.
There is so much to see and do, that your child will be running from station to station and from lab to lab trying out everything they can. Although the Bay Area Discovery Museum is not actually in San Francisco, it will definitely be worth the trip.
Activities in this museum can peak the curiosity of kids of all ages. They can walk through a rainforest, be dazzled by galaxies and meet Claude, an albino alligator. Those who are younger than five can enjoy the Curiosity Grove, a play space with building blocks and dress up area.
California Academy of Sciences is a science museum located inside the Golden Gate Park. The museum also features an aquarium and natural history exhibits all under one roof. It holds a collection of 38,000 natural wonders of nature.
Kids can meet penguins and parrots, fly to Mars, take a virtual safari in African Hall or see a living eco-roof. Each part of this museum is engaging and entertaining. There is something for everyone, and it’s perfect not just for the kids, but for the whole family.
California Academy of Science Tours
|California Academy of Sciences Behind-the-Scenes Tour
Skip the line and go behind-the-scenes at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences. Learn how the museum workers care for animals that live in the building or explore a lab and see the collection of rare gems.
|San Francisco Hop-on Hop-off Ticket and Alcatraz Tour
See everything you need to see in San Francisco and at your own pace. From Alcatraz to modern San Francisco architecture, this tour covers the beauty and culture of the Bay Area.
This antique arcade is one of the world’s largest privately owned collection of arcade games. The museum is located on Pier 45, at Fisherman’s Wharf, one big tourist attraction. It will give you the chance to bring your kids back in time and show them an arcade game you played as a kid.
See your image distorted in trick mirrors, learn your fortune or listen to Laffing Sal cackle. There is also a collection of mechanically operated musical instruments. The Musee Mecanique owns over 300 mechanical machines including many rare and historical pieces. One of them is a steam-powered motorcycle that is believed to be the only one in the world. Don’t miss the collection of machines made out of toothpicks by prisoners at San Quentin.
Although the entrance to the museum is free, playing the games isn’t, so make sure to bring some extra coins.
While you’re at Fisherman’s Wharf, check out this as well. The San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park includes a maritime museum, research facility, visitors centre and a fleet of historic ships.
You and your kids will learn more about the fishermen that named this district, and how it’s like to live and work at sea. Exhibits tell the story of San Francisco’s history as a port and give context to nearby ships. Ships, schooners and tugboats docked at Hyde Street Pier are dating back to 1886.
One of the ships is USS Pampanito, the World War II ship. It now operates as a floating museum, and it can give you a glimpse into its naval history. See its original sleeping quarters, kitchen and dining room. Your kids will love it. It’s one of the most visited historic vessels in the US.
11. De Young Museum
Although this is a fine art museum, located in Golden Gate Park, it has something to appeal every visitor, including children. It is, actually, an incredible opportunity to bring your kids into one of the traditional art museums.
The museum offers programmes for kids all ages, including toddler tours, and art classes after school. There are free Saturday classes for kids aged 4 to 12 that offer a tour of the current exhibitions on display, and then creating a masterpiece of their own. The view of San Francisco from the museum’s top floor will leave your kids speechless.
It is also known as the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, and it showcases American art from the 17th to the 21st century, textiles, costumes, and the art from the Pacific and Africa. It has an unusual exterior, and the sculpture garden is a great experience for children.
De Young Museum Tours
|Renegade Group Tour at the San Francisco de Young Museum
Check out the amazing backstories of the incredible objects in the museum’s collection. Join this highly interactive, subversive, fun, non-traditional museum tour.
| The Original City Loop Electric Bicycle Tour
Explore areas off limits to tour buses on this truly authentic electric bicycle experience. Explore Golden Gate Park, among other locations, including the De Young Museum and Academy of Sciences.
However, this is not all. There are more museums that offer fun activities for kids, as well as adults. Just because they are called museums doesn’t mean it has to be boring.