Ever wondered how to introduce children to the magic of museums without the expense? These museums are free for both kids and adults—all day, every day. Often staffed by volunteers, pick one and set out on a touristy mini adventure to learn all about trains, sake, space or even the tides in San Francisco Bay.

Justin Ennis via flikrphoto credit: Justin Ennis via flikr

San Francisco

Cable Car Barn and Museum
What a fun way to see how cable cars work! The museum has an elevated deck that overlooks the huge engines and winding machinery for the cable car cables as well as allows for a peak at where the actual cables leave the barn into the streets below. It’s full of cable car history, historic photos, gears, levers, wheels and of course a gift shop.

1201 Mason St., San Francisco, CA

San Francisco Fire Department Museum
This museum is full of pictures and history about the San Francisco Fire Department and is sure to delight. Fascinating displays include vintage helmets and a horse-drawn fire truck like the ones that battled the city-wide fires that broke out after the 1906 earthquake.

655 Presidio Ave, San Francisco, CA

photo: Kate Loweth

Randall Museum
This museum designed specifically for the shorter set recently re-opened after two years of major renovations and it is well worth the wait. Do some hands-on STEM exploration, make crafts with clay and learn all about how earthquakes wreck havoc on our landscape. Read all about what you can expect at the new Randall here.

199 Museum Way, San Francisco, CA

San Francisco Railway Museum
Who doesn’t love the cling-clang of the iconic streetcars. This museum features a full-sized exact replica of the motorman’s platform of a 1911 San Francisco streetcar, where you can actually experience what it is like to be at the controls. The museum celebrates the city’s rail transit history and highlights the positive impacts streetcars and cable cars have made on the quality of urban life.

77 Steuart Street, San Francisco, CA

photo: Kai Schreiber via flickr

East Bay

Takara Sake Museum
Attached to the Takara Sake factory, it is the only educational museum in the U.S. that outlines the origin of this beloved Japanese drink. Sake tasting is available for $5.

708 Addison St, Berkeley, CA


Dublin Heritage Park & Museum
The 10-acre Heritage Park has two museums on site, the Murray Schoolhouse and the Kolb House. The 1856 Murray Schoolhouse is a museum of local history tracing the journey of Dublin’s Irish founders.  The Kolb house is a 1911 craftsman bungalow featuring completely original period-style rooms and tells the story of an inspiring family. There is also a kid’s play-kitchen behind the picnic area, where kids can make mud pies and do laundry the old-fashioned way.

6600 Donlon Way, Dublin, CA

Museum on Main
This locally-focused museum provides a history of Pleasanton and the Dublin-Pleasanton-San Ramon Valley. The kids’ corner exhibit area is designed for preschool through early elementary ages with dress up, craft activities, books, old-time games and more. Activities change periodically throughout the year.

603 Main St., Pleasanton, CA

photo: Don DeBold via flickr

Peninsula/South Bay

Edward Peterman Museum of Railroad History
This railroad museum with a large collection of railroad models offers something for everyone. Ever-changing panoramas offer a glimpse of California’s history and various displays depict railroad eras and operations venues.

1005 Railroad Ave., Santa Clara, CA

Los Altos History Museum
Located in one of the few remaining apricot orchards of Santa Clara Valley, it’s a wonderful space for children and adults to learn about the community via interactive exhibits and hands-on activities. A working model of a train that runs against the backdrop of First Street in Downtown Los Altos in 1932 is a special delight for children of all ages.

51 S. San Antonio Road, Los Altos, CA

Museum of American Heritage
This is a museum that lets you take a walk through a century-old home and garden. With a combination of elements of history, technology and design, the museum illustrates the evolution of technology, how and why it has influenced society from inception to the current time and a glimpse of future expectations. There’s a small kids play space, too!

351 Homer Ave., Palo Alto, CA

photo: Bill T. via Yelp

Marin/North Bay

Bay Model Visitor Center
Administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, this center hosts a working hydraulic model of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta System. The model provides visitors interested in San Francisco Bay and the Bay-Delta Model a unique opportunity to view the complete bay-delta system at a glance.

2100 Bridgeway, Sausalito, CA
Online: spn.usace.army.mil

Bolinas Museum
The Bolinas museum focuses on art and history of the coastal Marin and includes five galleries and a beautiful courtyard. There are bi-monthly changing exhibits of contemporary art and history, diverse fine art photography, regional artists, and a permanent collection which includes a detailed history of the Bolinas area.

48 Wharf Rd., Bolinas, CA

The Space Station Museum
Best for ages 3 and up, this museum houses one of the largest private collections of U.S. and Russian space exploration objects. As if that was not cool enough, you can actually touch many of the artifacts. There’s also an extensive research library and on Sundays between 2 and 4 p.m. an arts and crafts table for kids ages 5-10.

464 Ignacio Blvd., Novato, CA

Which free local museums inspire you and your kids? Let us know in the comments below.

—Shruti Priya Bapna

Featured photo courtesy of The Randall Museum



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