There aren’t too many kids who get to ride a cable car, find ladybugs on a cliff overlooking the Pacific or ride a toy train in the Wine Country—but kids around here sure do.
While the city is filled with traditional places to mini-golf, climb, bowl and play other games, youngsters raised near San Francisco enjoy a wide variety of only-in-the-Bay-Area experiences—from obvious activities like visiting the Discovery Museum or the Exploratorium to lesser-known day trips to Adventure Playground and the Little Farm at Tilden Park.
Check out the map and list below to be sure you don’t deprive your kids of these unique family adventures.
Unique Things for Bay Area Kids To Do
Right on the bay, Adventure Playground is a free outdoor play space that allows children to build, cooperate and problem-solve while erecting forts, structures and towers using hammers, saws, paint and repurposed materials.
With exhibits like Mud Kitchen, How it Works, Paint My Ride and Try It Studio, the Bay Area Discovery Museum encourages children to learn by doing. Its location right on the bay in Fort Baker makes it a gorgeous spot to spend the day.
Get up close to a historical collection of cable cars and mechanical displays before hopping aboard a modern-day cable car to explore history in motion on the streets of SF on either the Powell-Mason or Powell-Hyde Cable Car lines—because there’s no better ride than standing on the footboard and heading up Nob Hill.
The vibrant pint-sized settings based on storybook favorites at Children's Fairyland help children walk right onto the pages of Jack and Jill, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Rabbit and more. Enjoy entertaining rides, farm animals, gardens and tasty food geared toward little ones.
With more than 600 inquiry-based scientific experiences to explore in the areas of art, math, data, engineering, environmental science, biology, chemistry and more, The Exploratorium certainly lives up to its name. Its relatively new location along the Embarcadero sets families up for a trip to the Ferry Building or Pier 39, depending on personal taste.
The tide pools at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve teem with life. Mind your step as you witness crabs, sponges, sea stars, mollusks and sea anemones aplenty thriving in the bustling intertidal zone at Moss Beach.
Wander down the pier into the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and board an early 20th century car ferry, a three-masted square-rigger or a steam tug. There’s no shortage of hands-on, feet-on experiences to be had, all surrounded by gorgeous views of the bay.
A destination for science fun for over 50 years, Lawrence Hall of Science has exciting hands-on exhibits, a 3D theater and a planetarium to satisfy even the most curious budding scientists.
Passionate about global conservation and marine biology? The Marine Mammal Center focuses on rescue, rehabilitation, research and education. Its exhibits and tours give visitors a glimpse into how to make a difference. Spend the rest of the day in the sand at Rodeo Lagoon.
Take a full day to learn about the 10 habitats featured at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Into the Deep is the aquarium's newest exhibition that takes visitors down to where deep-sea dwellers thrive. Yes, there are other aquariums, but no, there are none as good as this one.
Family-owned since 1933, Musée Mécanique is an authentic SF treasure. Once part of Playland at the Beach, the vintage arcade now provides a worthy destination for locals and tourists at Fisherman’s Wharf that’s open 365 days a year and is always free to enter. Bring some cash for the change machine so you can try out the coin-operated devices and say “hi” to Laffing Sal for us.
Gravity Hill's tilt-induced optical illusion at Santa Cruz's Mystery Spot is not to be missed. It's a uniquely mind-boggling experience you have to see to believe. And its bumper sticker is also a must-get.
The perfect combination of park, critters, local history and views awaits families atop Corona Heights in this favorite spot for younger city kids.
Whether you're interested in a day trip, a camping adventure or dining in the wild, Safari West has what you're looking for. Experience a bit of Africa right here in the Bay Area. And this year, visitors can see the first-ever white baby rhino born at the park.
A beachside amusement park with old-school charm, the Beach Boardwalk lets you stroll along the boardwalk taking in the sights, sounds and smells of fresh sea air and savory carnival fare. Saltwater taffy gets made from scratch right before your eyes at Marini's at the Beach.
With Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead as one of its first donors, Slide Ranch is obviously like a hippie camp for modern kids. The unique outdoor educational setting is determined to plant children in nature by focusing on farm life and food sources. Stop by anytime for a visit to the farm animals that get to reside in Slide Ranch’s incredible oceanside setting or check out the day camps on offer.
The Little Farm at Tilden Park gives young children the chance to visit with farm animals up close and for free. Visitors are welcome to bring lettuce and celery to share with the farm animals.
Spinning memories for over 100 years, the Tilden Park Merry-Go-Round's rich history and accompanying organ music will take its visitors back in time for a moment.
All aboard Thomas fans! TrainTown's 11-acre park has free admission and parking. Ride the 60-year-old miniature train through the park to a petting zoo and hop on other carnival-type rides for extremely reasonable prices. Head on to Sonoma Plaza for a picnic and, oh, maybe a taste of wine.
If you’ve never been to Winchester Mystery House, this is your year. The legendarily spooky home is celebrating its 100-year anniversary! Sign up for a regular tour or dare try the new “Walk With Spirits” tour—it’s creepy but not scary. Regardless of which you choose, everyone leaves amazed.
Shelley D. Fargo can be reached at [email protected]