Suggested and sorted by month due to annual timing of some events.
- San Francisco Zoo (flat, has “cat” house to view feedings) or Oakland Zoo (hills, has elephants). (Want to see Pandas? San Diego zoo has them, but that is another post…)
- Winchester Mystery House (San Jose) if you’ve never gone, I suggest a day tour of the main house as the flashlight tour is fun, but for obvious reasons, you can’t see much within the house—as a second trip though, that is the tour to do! The house is unlike any historic home you’ve seen as superstition drove its construction. Be sure to go to the garden, where there is a picture of it before the 1906 earthquake showing a third story!
- Pacific Pinball Museum (Alameda): fear not, this is a touch and play museum! A flat rate gets you in for unlimited play on all the machines all day! Jukeboxes play favorites and there are five rooms of pinball machines going through the decades! If you really want to complete the blast from the past…follow this up with a trip to a 50’s style burger joint and ice-cream parlor at Fenton’s Creamery close by in Oakland. Let the kids run that sugar off at the Marina while parent’s tag team to go into the historic (built in 1880 from a whaling ship) Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon (featured on Atlas Obscura and where Jack London used to frequent). I’ve done this entire day and still have fond memories of it!
- Day or overnight trip to Sacramento: California State Railroad Museum is another AWESOME museum for families because you can go into the train cars! The cavernous building has real train cars from different time periods and exhibits about the railroad. Within this area is the Old Sacramento District by the river, with ferries, buildings and streets from the 1850s (Gold Rush era) and an old fashioned school house you can go into (often with a docent present and in costume). This area has some great restaurants (or just a pizza parlor with an arcade if the kids need to run off some energy before going to the next place). The California State Capital Building offers free tours to the public on the hour and has display cases for each state’s products and renowned features. The building itself is magnificent and has portraits of all past governors.
5. Silvercreek Mining Museum (San Jose) and hiking trails (with relics from San Jose’s mercury mines along the trail). If your kids love Minecraft, they will understand the exhibits of the small, but outstanding museum. Many different trails for different levels of hikers with “easter eggs” of old mining equipment and mines along different trails.
6. San Jose Tech Museum has STEM exhibits for both adults and kids that are all hand-on and interactive! This is a BofA free museum on select weekends. There is a “ride on” astronaut chair you can navigate, an earthquake simulator, and fun tot-to-adult mini activities at tables to practice the ideas of exhibits.
7. This week falls around the Winter “ski” break, so time to go play in the snow! A few hours or more of driving gives you many options for a snow park, sledding, or skiing and snowboarding at Dodge Ridge and Tahoe…BUT, some people don’t want to venture to the Sierra Nevada range, don’t like snow, or are low on cash…SO if you decide to forget about “ski week” you can go to the FREE and local NASA AMES Visitor Center right before the entrance to Moffett Field. It has a spectacular assortment of both hands-on exhibits of space craft (e.g. sit in a real cockpit of a space ship or a real part of the international space station!) and astronomy related exhibits that NASA has been working on—something for both adults and kids to get. Right next to it is Moffett Field, which has an outstanding museum, the Moffett Field Historical Society, of military and war artifacts that many young children also find fascinating. One part of the museum also has a jet cockpit kids can climb into and other vehicles on display. Still hungry for more space-themed activities? The De Anza College Planetarium is nearby and has both educational (for kids and adults) shows and laser shows played to famous musicians (e.g. Beatles, Pink Floyd, etc.).
8. Around the third or fourth week of February is the annual Chinese New Year parade in San Francisco, one of the oldest and largest parades on the West Coast! My kids have never enjoyed the market before the parade (crowded, not much interest for kids), but they do like (as do I) going into the historic China Town area for DELICIOUS food and kitsch tourist stores with plenty of “fire crackers” and other souvenirs! The dragons are truly worth the time of the parade and many children performers show choreographed routines of music, dance, and martial arts!
9. In Mill Valley is the world-famous Muir Woods (now by reservation only). Star Wars had scenes filmed here, but that is where “tech” ends because…no cell reception! Still, the towering redwoods is otherworldly and magical! There are easy trails that are paved or have boardwalk or “rough” hewn trails, some leading all the way to Mount Tamalpais State Park!
10. The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco shows Disney’s early start, post war, and development from Mickey Mouse to the movies of today. Better for older kids (or ones who can read) and are familiar with Disney—perhaps preface the trip with no rides there, but there are SF’s famous trolley cars to ride on afterwards!
11. Sort of a secret, the San Jose Bike Party, on the third Friday of each month (and free), will announce a flash-mob style of an evening/night bike ride in different parts of the city (bike route only posted the day before the ride). Each month has a fun theme that people dress up for and there is a food truck or two, plenty of music and a party at the rest stops. Lots of kids go with their families, but sometimes they also have special kid rides that are only a mile or so and during the day.
12. Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley starts hosting their Sunday Dollar Days ($1 for hotdogs, drinks, parking, entry, beer). Kids can watch the horses race and parents can do some betting on the horses! Big crazy hats are optional!
13. 5th weekend bonus is San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a STEAM wonderland with hands-on exhibits and activities for all age groups. From their website: Two adjacent lots offer our visitors discounted parking, we’ve got plenty of bike racks, and Muni’s historic F streetcar drops off right in front of the museum. Walking from the BART Embarcadero station with little ones? Bring your stroller—it’s an easy 15-minute walk—and enjoy the boats, bridge views, and sea birds along the way. For a playground stop, try the pirate-themed playground at Sue Bierman Park. Sometimes they have free days and reduced rates too!
14. Hidden Villa Farm in Los Altos is a fun place to visit at this time with many baby animals making their debut into the world. This is a working farm with public educational programs, hiking trails, and tours open to the public.
15. Your driving along and suddenly suburbia morphs into an area with ancient Egyptian buildings! My FAVORITE museum ever, the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose has all of its buildings and outdoor areas in Egyptian architecture, complete with papyrus plants, a water lily garden, Coptic style fountain, and an obelisk! Inside are authentic artifacts (with mummies! Even a child mummy!) and a life-size replica of an ancient Egyptian tomb! Each week has themed workshops and there is an oversize Senet game in the garden for you to play with your kids. (Starbucks right across the street!)
16. Around the third week of April is the annual Cal Day at U.C. Berkeley. Free and open to the public, kids will enjoy the insect and nature displays they can interact with, looking at real and replica dinosaur fossils (including a T-Rex and Triceratops), taking a free shuttle at the campus to the Lawrence Hall of Science or the huge U.C. Berkley Botanical Garden with plants form all over the world. Cal has an app to plan your activities and cater it to “kid friendly” events and activities. Don’t forget to take the elevator up the Campanile Bell Tower for views of the Bay!
17. Enjoy the spring flowers and emerging sunny weather on the back of a horse! If your kids are older than seven-years-old, horseback riding at Mt. Madonna with redwoods and waterfalls is offered for beginners to advanced riders: http://www.mtmadonnastables.com/horsebacktrailriding.html If you want something closer and have kids under eight years old, Garrod Farms in Saratoga offers half-hour pony rides in addition to guided trail rides for those eight or older, riding lessons, and horse camps: http://garrodfarms.com.
18. The San Jose Municipal Rose Garden is in full bloom with thousands of roses in hundred of varieties! Perfect place for a family picnic and game of hide-and-seek or tag (just don’t fall in the bushes!). If you prefer more open space for playing and some bbq, on the other side of the park is a giant field with redwoods along the perimeter and bbq picnic areas. A perfect place for flying a kite too! Free and open during daylight hours. Warning, it is super crowded on Mother’s Day weekend!
19. An annual May event, the Bay Area Maker Fair in San Mateo has an entire convention tent just for kids! Younger and older kids will also enjoy the outdoor exhibit area and other rooms like the dark room with glowing colors and the science convention area with robotics, technology, and science exhibits from NASA and Bay Area tech companies. Tons of food trucks offer greasy and overpriced festival foods, but look in other outdoor areas for healthier and tastier food trucks.
20. The Matsuri spring festival at the Japanese Hakone Gardens in Saratoga is in bloom, with waterfall, bamboo forest, koi pond, and traditional tea houses that offer demonstrations during the event. The garden is on the side of the foothills and is positively gorgeous! Food trucks offer Japanese food and there is live entertainment.
21. Every year during Memorial Day weekend, Roaring Camp in Felton hosts the Civil War Reenactment with authentic exhibits, camps you can wander through, battles (cannons can be distressingly loud for some young ones), panning for gold, and ice cream parlor and bbq “chuck wagon”, live music, and steam train rides through the Santa Cruz mountains. A silent-film show, blacksmith demonstration, and gift shop of pioneer toys will keep you busy for hours!
22. Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland (offering discounted entry on “First Fridays”) is an astronomy-based museum with an observation deck and telescope that is for both kids and adults. A variety of planetarium shows are shown in the 70-foot full dome.
23.Schools are out for the summer by the second week of June! Be sure to reserve your camping spot months in advance…especially for our local Big Basin camping in the Santa Cruz mountains, with tent sites, RV sites, day areas for picnicking, bonfire area with marshmallow roasting, guided trail tours, and group camping or hike-in camping for those who want a full immersion nature-experience. If you couldn’t get a spot in time, it is still great for a full-day of hiking through the forest on easy flat trails to more advanced trails with narrow and steep/uneven trails. Great place for a picnic!
24. A summer tradition in the Bay Area is the many Shakespeare festivals all around! Willow Glen and Cupertino Memorial park both host free “Shakespeare in the Park” plays. Wine is allowed at both parks! As are furry babies and your kids. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the 2019 play for Willow Glen.
25. The annual and highly-rated NorCal Pirate Festival is held in June in Vallejo (on Father’s Day weekend this year). Pirate themed bounce houses, cannon battles, face painting, and other kid friendly activities abound as mom and dad sip on some rum. 😉
26. Bonus 5th weekend! East of the Bay Area is Yosemite Valley and is best enjoyed in late June to avoid the seasonal fires of Northern California. We got smoked out last year and the ranger told me June or the first week of July has the best weather and running waterfalls. Alas…this requires you to be at your laptop, camp sites all picked out, ready the SECOND that registration opens for the three-month windows; for this time period, you would need to start in January for registration. Or you can throw caution to the wind and show-up for walk-in camp sites, which I’ve been lucky enough to get on occasion, but nothing I would try after a long car-ride with kids! Kids do love the swimming pool and natural swimming holes or streams. Lots of stroller-friendly areas to explore along with restaurants and coffee nooks if you are not the “roughing it” type of camper or just need a break. For a super “glamping” experience, you can stay at the Majestic Hotel (formerly-known-as Ahwahnee Hotel) right there in the valley.
27. Universal Studios or Disney Land. For Harry Potter fans, you will be delighted by Diagon Alley at Universal Studies. For Star Wars fans, be prepared for the new area of the Disney park for everything Star Wars! A four-to-five hour drive from the Bay Area on I5 or highway 101 for a straight shot to SoCal for a weekend trip.
28. Big Sur camping (or a day trip to hike around there) is a coastal escape from the summer heat and is also a quick trip from the Bay Area. There are so many camping options: lodges, RV, tents, and many different camp grounds—some with inflatable tubes for river fun!
29. A day at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a quintessential Bay Area experience that can be added to with spending the night at Seacliff state beach in Aptos (offers RV camping right on the beach front!) or beach camping at Manresa state beach in Watsonville.
30. Another way to escape the heat is taking a ferry to the famous island of Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco! I highly recommend the night tour as it makes the experience cooler and more ominous. They also open up special parts of the island prison for this tour like the hospital wing that looks like it is straight out of a horror movie. Kids will be delighted.
31. For the last couple weeks of summer, go all out with a trip to the enchanting Lake Tahoe area for camping, lodges and hotels, or an AirBnB. There is a castle near Emerald Bay, hiking and biking, fishing and swimming, and all things summer like smores and ice cream parlors! Don’t forget the iPads for the long (traffic) car ride back to the Bay Area.
32. End summer vacation with a bang: Want an African safari? Look no further than Safari West in Santa Rosa! There are tent cabins there to stay at or you can go for the day. Ride in a two-decker safari jeep through open spaces to view giraffes, zebras, grouchy oxen, ostrich, and many other animals. Their walk-through bird atrium is the best I have been to in California! If you want to make an adventure packed weekend out of this, you can also do Hot Air balloon rides and Canopy zip-lining and hike (on netted plank walks like the Ewoks had) around Sonoma and tour a working castle / winery with a dungeon filled with historic torture equipment in Napa (Castle Winery).
33. The Children’s Discovery Museum in San Jose is completely hands-on and dedicated to kids’ exploration of STEAM and history. The kids will be entertained for hours as they secretly learn (muhahahahah) and you will have lots of seating areas in the air conditioned museum that doesn’t mind messy, screaming children.
34. Local, free (if you park on the side streets), and fun, Natural Bridges state park and beach offers a way to cool off during the “Indian summer” of late August and early September. Tide pools have urchins, crabs, star fish, and shells within the rocks near the beach. There is a bbq picnic area and a boardwalk path near the marshy Eucalyptus forest where the monarchs will gather in October and November.
35. Late August is usually when the Italian Family Festival is held at Kelley Park in San Jose. The “old fashioned” buildings and homes from San Jose’s early history are the backdrop for Bocce ball, wine tasting, and Italian food (do try the cannoli!). Adjacent to Kelly Park is Happy Hollow Park and Zoo for the kids who probably only enjoyed the cannoli part of the Italian festival. Happy Hollow has a petting farmhouse of cows, sheep, and goats and a zoo with African animals. Inside is also a large park structure surrounded by rides for younger children.
36. Usually the first weekend of September, the Ohlone Gathering is an annual event at Coyote Hills Regional Park in Fremont for the Bay Area’s indigenous people—the Ohlone. Those of Ohlone heritage or the public who wish to learn about the culture are welcome to come for displays on food, medicine, crafts, a museum of Ohlone artifacts, and an archaeological site of a real 2,000 year-old Ohlone home on site. Taste acorn porridge, watch an arrowhead being made from obsidian, learn about the native plant medicines, and try your hand at starting a camp fire from sticks and dried leaves.
37. Travel back to England’s Renaissance era by traveling to Hollister. Right next to the Bay Area’s famous Casa de Fruta is a large area converted to an outdoor English village. The first weekend of the annual Renaissance Faire, usually the second weekend of September, is a two-for-one discount (kids are free). Watch an epic joust with knights on horseback, take a peak at Queen Elizabeth as she holds court, gnaw on a turkey leg while chugging some ale, give the kids some chocolate dipped strawberries or a meat pie, and explore the fun activities (ax throwing for adults, fencing lessons for the young ones). Learn how to make chain mail, build a fairy house, or leather stamping in the craft garden. Live music and theater performances are done throughout the day.
38. It’s still hot, so head down to Gilroy (no, really) to go to Gilroy Gardens, where there are plenty of water-play activities to cool off in like paddle-boats and pool/splash areas. Rides and a garden also provide hours of entertainment.
39. Harvest time is fast approaching, which you can experience at Emma Prusch Farm Park in San Jose. Classes on Saturdays for kids include gardening, cooking, animal care, and seasonal activities. There is also a community garden, a rare fruit orchard, and acres of open grass for to picnic at and for the kids to run around (and parents to rest) or they have a playground and an area for kids to feed the chickens and goats.
40. Santa Cruz offers a fun way to kick off the month leading up to Halloween! Bugs and tarantulas (okay…bugs meaning ladybugs and Monarchs) are migrating in droves that you can view in Santa Cruz and the mountains. Google each year for the best times and locations. If this is not your thing for whatever reason (when we were kids, my brother got two handfuls of lady bugs that he threw in my hair), you can also visit the Mystery Spot in the Santa Cruz mountains that offers “natural” optical illusions due to the way the cabin is positioned.
41. Ardenwood Historic Farm in Fremont host annual Harvest Festivals around this time, with old-fashioned farm games, crafts, and a tour of the mansion farm house. Kids can also interact with the farm animals and learn about farm chores in a fun, participatory way. They also have hay rides and a large pumpkin patch.
42. Trick or Treat? Older kids (at least eight or nine) can tolerate the “scary” tour down the “dark” history tour of San Francisco at the San Francisco Dungeon. Actors and themed rooms reenact scenes of plagues, being shanghaied, prison escapes, and other creepy but fascinating living history drama. A tourist spot locals will love! Right next door to the SF Dungeon (and they usually give you free tickets to it) is Madame Toussauds’ Wax Museum. Wax figures of famous people (they have E.T. there too) are interactive, so Instagram away next to your favorite celebrities! A short walk away is Ghirardelli Square with, you guessed it, a Ghirardelli chocolate factory and ice-cream shop. A large outdoor patio allows you to enjoy your ice-cream in the autumn weather.
43. Depending on the age of your kids, the last weekend of October is perfect for a corn maze or a haunted house! The corn maze at Swank Farms in Hollister is kid-friendly and has Halloween activities. For older kids (a stoic 10+ years old), Dead Time Dreams Haunted House in San Jose will whet their Halloween appetite.
44. Moaning Caverns (Vallecito) and Mercer Caverns (Murphys) —both near Angels Camp offers a dramatic autumn weekend continuing the Halloween spirit of spookiness as you descend deep underground (by stairwells or rappelling) with flowstone, crystals, stalactites and other geological formations. The caverns are not far from each other or from Angels Camp. Moaning Caverns also offers zip lining if the rush of rappelling deep in underground caves wasn’t enough.
45. The California Academy of Science in San Francisco really offers the full gamut: three-story rainforest with butterflies fluttering around you, an “underground” aquarium with an albino alligator, a planetarium and 3-D theater, natural history galleries full of life-size displays and amazing wildlife specimen collections, a mind-blowing gem and crystal collection, and revolving exhibits. Every three or four months they do a free day, but be prepared for a two-hour or so line to get in.
46. Want to make your own Christmas gifts? I have to mention the paint-your-own ceramics store Petroglyph (various locations) because it is kid-friendly, you can bring your own food and drink in, and it’s reasonably priced. Families can gather around a table and get creative with a selection of preformed ceramics—dishes, dragons, teapots, vases, gnomes, piggy banks, etc.). If you don’t finish, you can bring it home and come back to finish it at no charge. They will kiln-fire your pieces that you can pick up a few days later. This is a cheaper and kid-friendly version of an uninstructed “paint night”.
47. The Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cannery Row should now be “free” from most tourists. Kids can go nuts in the special child area to splash in water and frolic on the inside play structure. Need a little one to nap? Go to the Deep Sea exhibit with low lighting and the soft music of the deep ocean that will even lull you into a deep rest state. Kids also love the technical room pretending to be in a sub and watching the penguins and sea otters! A stroll along Cannery Row provides a lot of sweet treats and dinner options (Bubba Gumps is great for rambunctious children).
48. A fifth weekend bonus is full-immersion of the holidays with the “Great Dickens Christmas Fair” in Daly City at the Cow Palace. Go back to London in the Victorian era with Charles Dickens’ characters from A Christmas Carol. Dance at Fezziwigs, have roasted chestnuts and meat pies or a special holiday tea, try some mulled wine or absinthe as the kids sip on hot cocoa and watch the old fashioned Punch and Judy puppet show. Father Christmas is there for photos and there is a constant variety of live music and theater in multiple areas. Many people dress in Victorian costumes and the cheery holiday season is all around you!
49. Vasona Lake County Park in Los Gatos transforms in December for the “Festival of Lights”. There is a walk-through weekend or you can get tickets for a reserved time to drive through the park that has been filled with lit-up decorations (including an entire Jurassic area of dinosaurs) that is mainly Christmas themed. You can even tune in to a special station that plays Christmas music. Pro-tip: there is a restroom stop after the dinosaurs. I am one of the many unrepentant parents who let their kids hang out (partially of course) of the windows and sunroof to view everything.
50. The Nutcracker ballet, either at San Jose’s Center of the Performing Arts or at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco is a holiday favorite. Many matinee performances offer kids a chance to meet the performers and also offer kid-friendly performances.
51. Downtown San Jose has (1) Christmas in the Park – tons of trees decorated by various groups and organizations along with Christmas props (2) Winter Wonderland of child-friendly carnival rides, and (3) Downtown Ice – an iceskating rink under palm trees and next to an amazing hot cocoa stand.
52. Dell’Osso Family Farm snow park in Lathrop offers iceskating, snow tubing, a train, a zip-line, a snow “super” slide, pictures with Santa, a country bakery store, and a lot of kid-friendly activities
P.S. Whoa….yes, there are 52 things that you could technically do each week for one year…if you have the money and stamina, but this list was designed with a “choose your own adventure” attitude for spreading out your adventures over the years with pajama and Netflix weekends thrown in for healthy balance.
P.P.S. There are SO many more things to do in the Bay Area, especially for cultural and ethnic activities, of which are not listed above because that is for another post!
2 thoughts on “52 Family-Friendly Adventures In and Around the Bay Area”
Don’t forget spirit of 45 in August! Great learning for the kids! Much love and appreciation for the greatest generation!
True! This one is at Kelley Park too and offers a parade and classic cars. I haven’t been personally, but I heard from many people who went that they had a fun time with music and dancing as well. Thanks for mentioning this!