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What to See, Do and Eat at the Palace of Fine Arts With Kids

Back when international exhibitions meant building a town within a town, the Palace of Fine Arts became one of 10 palaces at the 1915 Panama-Pacific World Exposition on the northern side of San Francisco. Built by the famous Californian architect Bernard Maybeck following ancient Greek and Roman designs, the palace offers a romantic outdoors promenade flanked by tall ionic columns of another time and a serene rotunda overlooking a lagoon that swans and ducks call home. Add to that a kid science museum, a theater, and manicured paths, and you’ll understand why the Palace of Fine Arts is a beloved city escape for parents.

When to go: The Palace of Fine Arts is a fantastic place to hang out for an hour or more throughout the year, from sunrise to sunset. Go the first Wednesday of each month and get in free at the Exploratorium, avoiding weekend crowds. Because of its large indoors exhibits, the Exploratorium is a favorite rainy day activity.

How to get there: The Palace of Fine Arts Theater is located at 3301 Lyon Street in San Francisco. For directions from different parts of the Bay Area, click here.

Where to park: Free parking is available along Palace Drive, Yacht Drive, and on Bay and Lyon streets but expect weekends to be crowded. If your visit includes the Exploratorium or the Palace of Fine Arts Theater, head to the free Exploratorium parking lot next to the St. Francis Yacht Club and cross Marina Blvd to get to the Palace of Fine Arts.

Public transportation: The Palace of Fine Arts is easily accessible by San Francisco Muni buses #30, #43, #28, and #29. Muni bus lines #22, #41, and #45 also stop in the vicinity. From Fisherman’s Wharf take the #30 Stockton bus. For more information, call Muni at 415-673-6864 or check the SFMTA trip planner.

What to bring and wear: A picnic is a nice addition to this artsy day. Pack up some food and drink and enjoy a day in the park with the kids. Because you’ll be going inside and out, you’ll want to bring layers to be prepared for all weather conditions. Snacks and a camera are also recommended.

What to do:

Run around: with its renovated paved paths and landscaped gardens, the Palace of Fine Arts offers an incredible setting for kids to shake their sillies out away from car and bike traffic. Expect would-be climbers to take the Greek revival columns for jungle gyms – though really, their beauty should inspire poetry more than physical prowess.

Picnic: the grassy lawns surrounding the lagoon are perfect picnic spots with a blow-your-mind view – and tumbling heaven.

Family photos: with its ancient ruin picturesque décor that still screams “only in San Francisco,” the Palace of Fine Arts is often chosen for formal or important photo shoots. Head there for your holiday cards this year. Your relatives across the country won’t believe it.

Museum: the Exploratorium is a unique museum that combines scientific exploration, art and the human body. While the museum is not specifically geared towards the younger set, toddlers and preschoolers love making giant bubbles, peeking through electricity exhibits, or moving magnetic sand. Check out more toddler-friendly activities on the Grab and Go! brochure for parents. Can’t afford the entrance? Besides the monthly free days, the Exploratorium partners with several libraries around the Bay Area to offer free museum passes. Check out the San Francisco Public Library Family Pass or the Mill Valley Borrow a Museum Pass. Simply go to your local library, pick up a pass, and come with children under age 18. Easy peasy!

Theater: home to many ethnic dance festivals, the Palace of Fine Arts Theater showcases several child-friendly programs such as the Nutcracker ballet. Check their upcoming events for more details.

Wave Organ: ever heard of a PVC pipe organ that makes sounds with the bay’s waters? The Wave Organ was built in 1986 as an Exploratorium art project on a jetty above the Small Harbor within walking distance from the Exploratorium. Toddlers love to hear the ocean talk to them. You can eat lunch in the small alcove with a stone bench where you can be surrounded by gurgling pipes. For the best sounds, go at high tide. Look for small crabs scurrying around on rocks closer to the water’s edge. Since the Wave Organ is surrounded by big rocks and water, bring another adult to channel the energy of more than one child.

Lunch spots: restaurants are in short supply around the Palace of Fine Arts but the Exploratorium café packs a neat selection of organic snacks and light meals. If the kids are dying for a treat (or say, you need some quiet time), head to Chestnut Street for a cup of frozen yogurt at Tutti Melon.

Cost: Cost is completely dependent on the activities you do and day you wish to come. For a more economical day, stick to picnics, parks, and free-entry days.

Little Known Fact: as the rest of the Panama Pacific Exposition, the Palace of Fine Arts was built on 635 acres reclaimed from the San Francisco Bay. Yes you are walking on water and it doesn’t even show.

Whether for an hour or for a day, you’ll be surprised at how peaceful the Palace of Fine Arts can be despite its proximity from the bustling Marina and Crissy Field scene. Enjoy!

– Laure Latham


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