It’s always the perfect time of year to plan a weekend in the San Francisco Bay Area. With the beach, the mountains and wine country all just a short drive from each other, you are bound to pack a ton of adventure into your next family vacation. Book your hotel and leave the planning to us as we researched the best options for every interest. Bonus: if you’re planning a vacation to the Bay Area this fall and winter, we uncovered must-do holiday events to really take your getaway to the next level. Read on and get inspired!
Day One: Visit the Iconic Spots
Where is your adventure going to take you today? Choose your destination and check out all of the iconic Bay Area hot spots while you're there.
Fisherman's Wharf is the place to be if you want to play tourist for the day in the City by the Bay. Make this your hub for the day's adventures. Walk along the water and follow your ears to find the world-famous Pier 39 sea lions. Swing by the sea lion center to learn more about these creatures and why they made their way to Pier 39 after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. No visit to Pier 39 is complete without a ride on the San Francisco Carousel. See if you can spot the local landmarks carved into its design. For additional recs of what to do when you visit Pier 39, click here.
Don't leave San Francisco without a ride on a cable car! The cable car turntable at Beach and Hyde near Ghirardelli Square will get you on the Powell/Hyde line. This will take you up Hyde Street to Lombard where you can hop off and explore the most crooked street in the city. Pedestrians can walk down the stairs on the side of the street to get the full view. When you are done exploring Lombard Street, get back on the cable car and continue to Powell and California. Walk a few blocks, and you will be in the heart of San Francisco's Chinatown. Grab some dim sum and then head to the Willie "Woo Woo" Wong Playground to give the kids time to run and climb.
Just because the kids are along for the ride doesn't mean that wine country should be crossed off your list. There are tons of family-friendly wineries that offer tastings for the adults and grassy areas for kids to run around. The gondola at Sterling Vineyards is an adventure for all ages, or visit the farm animals at wineries like Frog's Leap and Preston Farm and Winery.
Got a little train lover in your crew? Kids will love visiting TrainTown in Sonoma and riding the quarter-scale railroad. If you are looking for an even more epic train ride, the holiday season brings the Santa Train to town. Holiday elves transform the Napa Valley Wine Train into an enchanting holiday experience. Sip hot cocoa, munch freshly-baked cookies and join in games and sing-alongs with a jolly cast of characters headlined by Santa himself.
To hit the iconic spots in the East Bay, all you need to do is pick a neighborhood and go explore. For a sweet hike, book it to the Ice Cream Trail (yep, you read that right!) in the Tri-Valley region. Simply download your passport and hit up one of the participating ice cream shops. Get a stamp at each and if you get five stamps and mail your passport in, $5 will be donated to Valley Humane Society!
If you're looking for an interactive museum experience, beeline it to Oakland Museum of California, or OMCA for short. Their rotating exhibits bring together art, history and natural sciences. Psst...for our full list of the best kid-friendly museums in the East Bay click here. To get the wiggles out, visit Frog Park in Oakland's Temescal neighborhood. This local hot spot was built by over 1,300 volunteers and features a creek, playground and areas perfect for imaginative play—all set amongst towering redwood trees.
The quirky town of Berkeley is often on visitors' must-visit lists and, good news, it offers lots of activities for kids. Check out UC Berkeley and get a bird's-eye view of the happenings below when you visit the Campanile, or bell tower, in the middle of campus. A long elevator ride followed by 38 steps to the top (no strollers allowed) gets you to the epic view. The UC Botanical Garden is a gorgeous spot to spend the day out in nature.
One of the most lively spots in Berkeley is Fourth Street where you can shop, nosh and make art all in one afternoon. Our faves for your Berkeley visit: lemon ricotta pancakes at Bette's Oceanview Diner and a cup of hand-crafted tea from Teance.
Go back in time to see what life was like in Silicon Valley before all of the tech giants took over. At Moffett Federal Airfield you'll be amazed to see the massive size of Hangar 1, built during the Depression to house blimps. Stop by the Moffett Field Museum to see artifacts from the property's use as a naval air station and a collection of vintage air craft outside. Nearby NASA Ames Research Center also welcomes visitors to tour its visitor center and learn about the research center's involvement in space discovery.
Stay: No matter which part of the Bay Area you choose to stay for the night, we recommend a Marriott International hotel. They offer over 40 properties and 15 brands to choose from just in the Bay Area, which means there is an experience for everyone. Click here to learn more and save up to 15% on your stay this 2018 holiday season.
Day Two: Get Outdoors
One of the major things that draws visitors (and residents) to the Bay Area is its gorgeous landscape. You can get big city, ocean waves, redwood forests, mountains and the San Francisco Bay, all within a few hours drive of the city center. Pick your spot and get ready to breathe the fresh air!
Even if you had a full week to explore only Golden Gate Park you still would be left with items on your agenda. This 1,017-acre park right in the middle of the city will make you feel like you are worlds away from the hustle, bustle and traffic of the big city. You can travel to Japan when you visit the historical Japanese Tea Gardens and then head to the Netherlands when you swing by the tulip garden and windmill located on the western section of the park. Kids will love the recently-renovated Koret Children's Quarter (a massive playground with carousel) and also spotting the bison in the paddock.
The late November/early December days are often thought of as the best time to view the many colors at the Conservatory of Flowers. Make sure you are there in the evening to see the free, nightly illumination Photosynthesis.
If your weekend home base is in wine country, you are right in the middle of some of the most gorgeous land in all of California. Beyond the miles and miles of picturesque vineyards, you can spend a day exploring other unique features of the area like Calistoga's Petrified Forest. Be a witness to redwood trees that once grew in abundance here and were turned to stone 3.4 million years ago by a local volcano. Just down the road from the petrified forest you can find another geological marvel—Old Faithful Geyser of Calistoga. Learn about why the geyser erupts at regular intervals and is a good predictor of earthquakes. Another curious find on the same property as the geyser are the Tennessee fainting goats. Find out why they "faint" when you meet them up close.
One of our favorite things about Northern California is its generally temperate year-round weather. Hiking and biking in the fall and winter? Yes and yes! Grab your bikes, trikes and helmets, and head to Danville or Pleasanton/Dublin. Each locale offers a self-guided biking tour. Experience historic sites and stop for lunch along the way.
A day at Berkeley's Tilden Park is not one that the kids will soon forget. This larger-than-life spot has more opportunities for adventure than you could imagine. Start off by visiting Tilden's Little Farm. This working farm and petting zoo is home to cows, goats, sheep, chickens, geese, rabbits, pigs and more—and it’s totally free to visit. After meeting all the animals take a ride on the steam train and merry-go-round (both open only on the weekends). On a few weekends in December, the steam train gets decked out in lights and has evening rides to usher in the holiday cheer.
For kid-friendly eats, we love Rudy's Can't Fail Cafe in Emeryville. Here you'll find diner menu options and tables decorated with vintage toys.
If your Bay Area visit just isn't complete without a beach day, head to Half Moon Bay. After the morning fog burns off, you can spend your day splashing in the waves and flying your kites at one of the many beaches along Highway 1. Half Moon Bay is home to the James Fitzgerald Marine Reserve where you can find some of the area's best tide pools (check for the timing of low tide before you visit). Spend some time exploring the quaint downtown and the many farms in this area. October pumpkin season is a huge draw for this area as people flock from miles away to pick the perfect giant orange gourd. In November and December you can find holiday tree lightings, a lighted boat festival and tons of farms selling Christmas trees (check out all the holiday festivities here).
Day Three: Make It a Museum Day
With literally hundreds of museums and science centers making the Bay Area their home, you can learn about everything under the sun from textiles to cable cars to model trains to earthquakes. You can find all of the ones that offer free days here, or check out some of our faves below. (Note for out-of-town visitors: If you are a member of your own local children's museum, check to see if they offer reciprocal memberships to these Bay Area museums. Many will offer free or heavy-discounted admission to other network museums.)
Located right on the SF Bay at Pier 15, the Exploratorium is a mecca of hands-on exhibits that promises to teach you something. With six galleries to choose from, you'll be able to learn about everything from human behavior to weather. Another great spot for scientific discovery is the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. Part aquarium, part planetarium and part natural history museum, the Cal Academy will have you seeing the world around you in all new ways. Make some time to swing by and visit Clyde, the Academy's resident albino alligator.
Charlie Brown and Snoopy fans flock to the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa to learn all about the famous comic strip. Don't miss the Snoopy labyrinth at the entrance and Snoopy's Home Ice next door for some post-museum skating. Holiday visitors to wine country should put the Healdsburg Museum on their list as the museum will host a collection of over 2,000 Santas for their "A Season for Santas" holiday exhibit.
If art is your jam, head to the East Bay and explore one of the many kid-friendly museums. Arts and culture abound in the Tri-Valley area. Dublin's Heritage Park & Museums is a 10-acre park offering up preserved buildings from the 1850s. There are two museums on site, which are free during during regular hours. Don't forget to pack a picnic!
Wee ones will especially enjoy a visit to Habitot, a children's museum in Berkeley that promotes imaginative play through art, pretend play and more. MOCHA (Museum of Children's Arts) provides an environment where families can create, share and connect through art.
It's a no brainer that Silicon Valley is full of STEM-focused museums that are perfect for kids of all ages. The Intel Museum will give you a glimpse inside an ultra-clean, highly automated silicon chip factory and teach you how technologies give us new ways to work, learn, play and communicate. Downtown San Jose is home to the Tech Museum of Innovation and the Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose, both great spots for scientific learning. For more STEM-learning opportunities, check out this post.
Stay: After so much exploring you'll want a welcoming and comfortable place to return to. We recommend one of the many family-friendly Marriott International hotels located in the Bay Area. Many offer on-site restaurants, kid-friendly pools, double beds and cribs to make your stay enjoyable for everyone. Click here to learn more and save up to 15% on your stay this 2018 holiday season.
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