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Wednesday 18 May 2022

25+ Bay Area Museums to Visit with Kids

Did you know that today is International Museum Day? It's always something, right? I had no idea about today's special day until I saw it on Instagram this morning but it got me thinking about all the amazing museums and galleries we used to visit when we lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

So in honor of International Museum Day today I'm sharing 29 of my favorite museums and galleries in the Bay Area.

Let's go check them out...

San Francisco 

One of San Francisco's most popular destinations is also one of the darkest part of the city's history, but that doesn't mean that it's not for kids! Alcatraz Island makes for a wonderful family outing. The ferry ride across is worth it on its own, but the island itself has so much to offer. Because Alcatraz is a National Park, kids can take part in the Junior Ranger program and earn themselves a badge. This is a great way to get kids learning about the site and it keeps them engaged. Tours of Alcatraz are self guided (with an audio tour) and include both inside and outside the historic prison. The views over San Francisco and the Bay area stunning. Make sure to dress in layers because it can get pretty chilly out in the Bay. You can find dedicated Alcatraz posts here and here

Cable Car Museum
Ever wondered how San Francisco's cable cars work? You can find out the Cable Car Museum! This free museum features all sorts of cable car related exhibits and best of all, you can see the actual cables that the cable cars run on in action! Of course, the best way to get to the Cable Car Museum is to take the cable car! The museum is located just a short walk from all three cable car lines. You can learn more and see our visit here.

California Academy of Sciences 
This sprawling museum located in Golden Gate Park is my favorite museum of all time. It's home to a fantastic Amazon exhibit that takes visitors up through the trees to the canopy of the rainforest where an elevator plunges you down to the flooded forest floor below. Giant fish swim above as you make your way through a glass tunnel to the museum's aquarium exhibits. Back on the ground floor you'll find a planetarium, dinosaurs, an earthquake exhibit, various temporary exhibits, and Claude, the museum's resident albino alligator. The museum features a living rooftop with plants and grasses growing all over it in mounds. It's pretty spectacular. You can see our visits here and here.  

Children's Creativity Museum
Got a budding animator in your family? At the Children's Creativity Museum in Yerba Buena Gardens you can make your very own stop motion masterpiece in their animation studio. Children's Creativity Museum is one of my favorite kids' museums. The kids always loved creating their own clay animations here but there's so much more to do. Younger kids will enjoy the DIY puppet theater and soft play areas. There is plenty of hands on creating with a large array of materials and creative prompts. Visitors can also ride the carousel outside the museum. You can see our visit here.

de Young Museum
The de Young Museum is a sprawling art gallery located in Golden Gate Park. Here you'll find a large range of art from varies mediums and periods including modern art, African art, textile art, photography, sculpture and so much more. de Young Museum's outdoor sculpture areas are open free of charge to the public and feature some pretty quirky artworks. As I mentioned above, the observation tower at the de Young Museum offers stunning views over Golden Gate Park and beyond. 

For science lovers the Exploratorium is a must see. This large museum is located on a pier over San Francisco Bay and is filled with hands on science fun. If you can imagine it, there's a good chance it's here! You'll find exhibits that use light, mirrors, sound, movement, electricity, air, bubbles, music, shadows and so much more to create endless fun. While most exhibits are housed inside the museum there are quite a few located outside on the wharf as well. You can see our visits here and here.

Hyde Street Pier
Hyde Street Pier is located just near Fisherman's Wharf and is a part of San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. That means that while you check out the historic boats on display the kids can also earn themselves a National Parks junior ranger badge! Hyde Street Pier was once part of Highway 101 and was the launching point for car ferries to the East Bay before the Bay Bridge was built. The pier is now home to many historical ships that visitors can explore. You'll find steam schooners, a steam tug boat and a paddle wheel tug boat among others. The ships date from the 1880s through to the 1910s. You can learn more here.

Mission Dolores
San Francisco's European history begins with the construction of California's 6th Mission run by Spanish Franciscan monks. Founded in 1776 as MisiĆ³n San Francisco de Asis, but more commonly known as Mission Dolores, this is the oldest intact building in all of San Francisco. Visitors can explore the original Mission building which features a chapel roof painted with local Ohlone designs, the adjoining cemetery and the 1918 Mission Dolores Basilica. There is also a small museum which showcases artifacts from the Mission era as well as the local indigenous Ohlone culture. You can learn more here.  

Musee Mechanique
So, this one isn't really a museum, per se, but it is filled with historical artifacts. And by historical artifacts I mean vintage pinball machines, vintage arcade games and vintage sideshow attractions. That's a museum, right? Oh, and did I mention that you can play them all? Musee Mechanique is located at Fisherman's Wharf and is a fantastic place to spend a rainy day - or any day really. 

San Francisco Railway Museum
The cable cars are San Francisco's most iconic form of public transportation, but did you know that they're not the only vintage rail transit transporting people around the city? San Francisco is also home to a fleet of vintage street cars from around the world. You can find these running along the Embarcadero and up Market Street. If you'd like to learn more about the street cars make sure to check out the San Francisco Railway Museum. This small museum is a great stop for train lovers and features hands on exhibits that show how the street cars work and shares a little of their history. 

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, or SFMOMA as it's more commonly known, is a world class museum in the heart of the city with an amazing collection of modern art. You'll find artworks from famous artists here including Andy Warhol, Henri Matisse, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O'Keefe, Alexander Calder and so many more. The artworks on display are sure to delight, but the building itself is a work of modern art. You can see some of our visits here and here

USS Pampanito
San Francisco has a strong maritime history, so it's no surprise that several of its historical sites include boats, ships and submarines. USS Pampanito is a former World War 2 submarine that can be found docked near Fisherman's Wharf. It is open to the public for a small fee and it's really interesting to explore. My kids loved seeing all the day to day logistics of living aboard a submarine such as the rows of bunkbeds. You can learn more about USS Pampanito here.

Walt Disney Family Museum
Did you know that there is a Disney museum in San Francisco? The Walt Disney Family Museum is located in the Presidio and features a wealth of Disney history. You find original Walt Disney drawings, original animation cells, original storyboards, vintage collectables, a miniature of Walt Disney's home and Disneyland, a theatre showing feature films, and so much more. It's a must for Disney fans. You'll also find stunning views over the Presidio and the Golden Gate Bridge. 

Wells Fargo History Museum
A history museum run by a bank may not sound like the most exciting place, but trust me, the Wells Fargo History Museum is an absolute gem. To sweeten the deal, it's free! You've go to love a free museum! Here you'll find all sorts of artifacts from the history of both San Francisco and Wells Fargo. There are several authentic stage coaches on display as well as hands on gadgets such as vintage phones, vintage check punching machines, Morse code machines and, for reasons I never worked out, a game of Pong! Plus there's so much more. It's a really interesting museum. You can see our visit here.

East Bay

BAMPFA, or Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, is a modern gallery and museum space in the heart of Downtown Berkeley, opposite the University of California. The museum features rotating displays of modern art, thought provoking films, hands on workshops and a space dedicated just to families to create together. The building itself is an architectural delight with a large staircase seating area in the entry a giant screen on the outside of the museum playing films and shorts. Kids under 18 are admitted free of charge, plus one adult escorting children under 13 gets in free too making it a great place for an affordable family day out. You can see our visit to BAMPFA here.

Chabot Space & Science Center
This one is for all the space lovers and budding astronauts! Chabot in the Oakland Hills is a fantastic place to visit for hands on exhibitions about all things space. You'll find replica space shuttle and rocket parts, exhibitions about planets and stars, a planetarium (with laser light shows on certain nights!), an observation deck, and some of the biggest telescopes around. On clear Friday and Saturday nights the telescopes are open to the public free of charge for viewing the night sky. You can learn more about Chabot here.

Lawrence Hall of Science
Not all the science fun is limited to San Francisco! Lawrence Hall of Science high up in the Berkeley Hills has long been a popular spot for budding scientists to explore and create. Visitors will find a wealth of hands on displays, a beloved life size whale sculpture outside, a planetarium and a 3D movie theatre. One of my favorite things about Lawrence Hall of Science is the views. If you happen to visit on a clear day you'll be met with stunning views over Berkeley, the Bay and San Francisco. You can see our visit to Lawrence Hall of Science here

Lindsay Wildlife Experience
Want to get up close and personal with some of the Bay Area's native fauna? Lindsay Wildlife Experience in Walnut Creek is the place for you. Part rescue, part animal hospital and part museum you never know just what you might find when you visit Lindsay Wildlife Experience. There are plenty of permanent hands on exhibitions and a fun play area but a visit may also feature a raptor show, watching surgery prep and animal rehabilitation, and maybe just meeting some of those rehabilitated furry, feathery or scaly friends. You can learn more about Lindsay Wildlife Experience here.

Museum of Children's Art (MOCHA)
Museum of Children's Art, or MOCHA, is a hands on museum for the youngest artists. Kids of all ages can get creative with a variety of materials at different stations throughout the museum. There is a painting wall, a clay table, magnetic poetry wall, tables with various drawing, stamping, cutting and pasting materials and even a chill out zone. It's a fun and creative place to spend a few hours.

Oakland Aviation Museum
Oakland Aviation Museum right by Oakland International Airport is a great place to visit if you've got kids who love planes, helicopters and anything that flies. You'll find a large range of aircraft on display here both inside the hangar and outside. There are former military aircraft, passenger planes and even the China Clipper floating plane from Indiana Jones. You'll also find memorabilia and training equipment from the Boeing School of Aeronautics. Open cockpit days are held throughout the year allowing visitors to explore the inside of many of the planes, including the one from Indiana Jones. You can see more from our visit to Oakland Aviation Museum here.

Oakland Museum of California
Oakland Museum of California is located on the shore on Lake Merritt and is filled with local treasures throughout the Bay Area's past and present. You'll find permanent exhibitions as well as traveling exhibitions all with a focus on local artists, important moments in local history, the local landscape and wildlife, and the people that make the Bay Area great. The OMCA Kids Nature Playspace will be opening in early June and features fun hands on exhibits that encourage the littlest visitors to learn about California's natural sciences through play. Friday nights at OMCA return in early June with entertainment and food trucks on site.  You can learn more about Oakland Museum of California here.

Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historic Park
The East Bay has a strong history of shipping, and during World War II it became a hub for shipbuilding. With many men off fighting on the war front the shipbuilding jobs fell to the women who stayed behind. The Kaiser shipyards in Richmond became famous as home of Rosie the Riveter. Now, Rosie the Riveter wasn't one particular person but rather a name given to the women who worked in the shipyards. To honor these brave women the former Kaiser Shipyards have become a national historic park with a museum dedicated to the hard work of not only the Rosies but the women who kept things running on the home front. It's a fascinating look at an important moment in history and the changes it brought about for so many women. A team of original Rosies work as volunteer docents and if you're lucky you just might get to meet one when you visit. You can see our visit to Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historic Park here.    

USS Hornet
USS Hornet is a decommissioned aircraft carrier docked at Alameda. The ship is set up as a museum with most parts open to visitors either on a docent lead or self guided tour. Checking out the crew quarters is always a favorite for my kids. It's a great way to imagine what it must've been like to live on board. There are quite a few planes on display and even a space capsule. Plus there are loads of buttons to press, and we all know kids love pressing buttons! From its location in Alameda, the Hornet offers amazing views over the bay towards San Francisco. You can see our visit to USS Hornet here.

South Bay

Children's Discovery Museum San Jose
Another fantastic children's museum worth the drive! Children's Discovery Museum is located in San Jose and is filled with fun hands on activities for kids of all ages. You'll find an outdoor nature playground, water play areas, emergency vehicles with dress ups, classic science experiments, toddler play areas and so much more. The building itself is worth seeing with it's purple geometric facade and murals. You can learn more about Childrens Discovery Museum here.

Curiodyssey is located in Coyote Point just south of San Francisco International Airport and is home to rescued native animals, a hands on science museum and some amazing views over the Bay! It's also a great spot for some plane watching if you've got plane obsessed kiddos! When we visited Curiodyssey we got to meet rescued coyotes, turkey vultures, opossums, tortoises, porcupines, otters, badgers, bobcats and raccoons. All of the animals at Curiodyssey are rehabilitated but unable to return to the wild for various reasons. Most of the science exhibits are nature based with a focus on the local environment. You can see our visit to Curiodyssey here.

Monterey Bay Aquarium
I know what you're thinking, Monterey isn't actually in the Bay Area, but it's so close by that we're going to say it is. I mean, how could I not include the amazing Monterey Bay Aquarium in a post about my favorite museums? If you're not familiar with Monterey Bay Aquarium, you just might be familiar with a little movie called Finding Dory. Monterey Bay Aquarium serves as the inspiration for the aquarium in Finding Dory and it does not disappoint. You'll find a wealth of sea life here both inside the aquarium and outside in the ocean  where sea otters and whales frolic. You can see our visits to Monterey Bay Aquarium here and here.  

Winchester Mystery House
If you enjoy touring historic homes and you're a little on the spooky side, then Winchester Mystery House in San Jose is a must see. This grand house, once home to the widowed heir of the Winchester rifle company is now a museum dedicated to the home's history, architecture and all of Mr Winchester's quirks - and there were a lot! You'll find all sorts of strange architectural features including a second floor door that leads outside to a drop, stairs that go nowhere, hidden rooms, and so much more. Why's it so quirky? Well, Mrs Winchester consulted with spirits through nightly seances rather than an architect when it came to the build and design. Yes, you read that correctly! You can see our visit to Winchester Mystery House here

North Bay

Bay Area Discovery Museum
What could be better than a museum with a Bay side location and Golden Gate Bridge views? Umm, not much! The Bay Area Discovery Museum has to have the most beautiful location you could possibly imagine. Look at that picture below. You can't get a location better than that, especially on a sunny day. This popular children's museum is full of fun hands on art and science activities for kids of all ages both indoors and outdoors, making it a great place to visit no matter the weather. It's also home to the playground with the best view ever! You can see our visit to Bay Area Discover Museum here.

Charles M Schulz Museum
Are your kids (or even you) a fan of Charlie Brown and Snoopy? If so, then the Charles M Schulz museum in Santa Rosa is a must see. Ok, so this one is not quite in the Bay Area, but it's close enough to visit for an afternoon so I'm counting it. Plus it's one of my favorite museums so how could I miss it? The museum features original drawings from Schulz's famous Peanuts comic strip, an art studio for hands on fun, a cinema, and lots of Peanuts sculptures (which can also be found in various locations around town). My girls loved tracking down as many of the sculptures as possible. You can see them here. Next to the museum is an ice skating rink, cafe and a large Peanuts themed gift shop.

Have you been to any of these museums? I'd love to hear which one is your favorite!

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