Let’s mix things up a bit this year and give the gift of experiences instead of more stuff. These Bay Area experience gifts will give the kids something to do over these months at home, or something to look forward to once things go back to “normal.” Bonus: we can show some love to our local businesses at the same time by sending support their way.

photo: Kate Loweth

For the Train-Obsessed

Plan a day out with your little train lover by heading over to one of these spots where the train is king. We especially like taking the F Market streetcars to visit the always-free SF Railway Museum that's right across from the Ferry Building. There's tons to do in the area and the views are unbeatable. 

Or, head south to ride the rails through the redwoods aboard the trains at Roaring Camp. In addition to their popular holiday trains, you can get passes to ride the rails with Thomas in the summer. 

For the ultimate train lovers destination, book at night at Railroad Park Resort where you can spend the night in a vintage caboose! Siskiyou County is full of train history and outdoor experiences for all ages. 

photo: Kate Loweth

For Adventure Junkies

If your little ones live life on a constant adrenaline high, you will definitely be their BFF when you give one of these gifts designed to get their hearts pumping.

Head past Sacramento to Rocklin and spend the day at Quarry Park Adventures. Soar across the ravine on the zipline, balance on the ropes course and test your strength on the rock wall. We have the full scoop here

These indoor adventures might not be currently open due to COVID-19 restrictions, but they are fun ideas for the future: 

Book some time to soar to new heights at iFLY Indoor Skydiving where kids ages three and up can experience the feeling of skydiving. Flights take place in an indoor wind tunnel with an instructor there to assist. While they aren't currently open due to COVID-19, this is a great option for something to look forward to when they do reopen. 

For the family that games today, try your luck solving the puzzle at The Escape Game SF. We especially like The Playground and Gold Rush for those bringing kids along. 

Experience the sport of indoor rock climbing at Planet Granite. Book an adult/child belay lesson where you can learn the skills required to man the rope for your child while they practice with staff. Then come together for the last portion of your lesson to work on your skills as partners. Bay Area locations are in San Francisco, Sunnyvale and Belmont.

photo: Marine Mammal Center/Adam Ratner

For Animal Lovers

Whether your pint-sized people prefer pandas or parakeets, they will be positively thrilled to explore any one of these spots from SF to Monterey that cater to those who love animals.

Memberships to the San Francisco ZooOakland Zoo and the California Academy of Sciences are a great way to teach kids about animals and support the work of these organizations. Memberships come with perks like early admission, free parking and discounts on special programs. 

Little ones will especially love a membership to CuriOdyssey in San Mateo. A family membership is $145 and will get you access to exclusive member nights, guest passes for friends and free parking when you visit. Qualifying families can take advantage of the Family Membership for All program, which includes free daily admission or a $35 membership for participants of Golden State Advantage EBT/CalFresh/SNAP, WIC, Medicaid, Medicare or Healthy Families. 

These animal adventures might not be currently open due to COVID-19 restrictions, but they are fun ideas for the future: 

A visit to the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito is always free and full of information about how the center rescues and rehabilitates marine mammals like harbor seals and sea lions. 45-minute docent tours and behind-the-scenes experiences are available (for a fee). Gift your little ones the good feelings that come with adopting one of the rescued animals at the center and supporting the center's mission to return these animals to their natural habitat. Your recipient will receive a personalized rescue certificate (downloadable for last-minute gifts) with the animal's rescue history. Add on a stuffed animal or book to go along with your gift. 

Head south to Monterey and treat the kids to a day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Meet the octopuses, squid, cuttlefishes and nautiluses in the Tentacles exhibit and then head over to the Kelp Forest exhibit for feeding time when a diver hand-feeds sharks and other animals that live there. Aquarium membership allows you to skip the lines and access the animals during special members-only hours.

Check out this list of other wildlife centers to find one near you that would be perfect for your experience gift.

photo: Kate Loweth

For History Buffs

For kids with constant questions about how life was like before they were born, pick one of these gifts and blow their minds.

Book your crew on an Alcatraz Cruise and enjoy a sail across the Bay to the legendary island that was a Civil War fort, a military prison and one of the most notorious federal penitentiaries in U.S. history. Tour the cellhouse, hear the stories of life inside from real prisoners and feel the intensity of a prison breakout from correctional officers who lived and worked on the Island. Spend as much time as you'd like on the island before you board the boat to sail back to Pier 33. 

The USS Hornet is a massive aircraft carrier docked in Alameda that is full of history. Bring the kids for a visit and tour the ship on your own and then go below deck with a docent guiding you. Add on a ride in the flight simulator to see what it was like for pilots to land on an aircraft carrier. For more historic ship and boat tour ideas, check out this post

These adventures might not be currently open due to COVID-19 restrictions, but they are fun ideas for the future: 

Learn about the City by the Bay as you tour downtown on a motorized cable car. Visit city landmarks like Fisherman's Wharf, Nob Hill and Alamo Square Park. There are three stops along the way where you can get out to explore and ask questions of your tour guide. The tour ends with a stop at the Golden Gate Bridge where you will learn how this engineering marvel was built across San Francisco Bay during the depression and opened in 1937.

Give a membership to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose and your mini mummy-lovers will go wild. Learn how the pharaohs lived and how their belief in the afterlife shaped their burial practices. Museum members 17 and younger can participate in the Junior Archaeologist training program for free, which includes behind-the-scenes training and hands-on learning experiences.

photo: Curiodyssey

For Curious Kids

If you are looking inspire creativity and innovation in your kids this holiday season, there are loads of museums that offer just that. Plan a day there or opt for a year-long membership to really get the creative juices flowing.

The peninsula is home to CuriOdyssey, a non-profit science museum and zoo where kids can explore scientific phenomena through play. Head farther south to San Jose where you can find the Children's Discovery Museum and their outdoor exhibit, Bill's Backyard.

Just across the Golden Gate Bridge is the Bay Area Discovery Museum where imaginations can run wild. With exhibit spaces specially-designed for kids 0-10 (and the Tot Spot limited to just crawlers through toddlers), the BADM is a particularly good choice for little ones. Kids of all ages will enjoy a visit to the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland. A visit to the Planetarium there will get kids thinking about life beyond our planet.

These indoor adventures might not be currently open due to COVID-19 restrictions, but they are fun ideas for the future: 

Older explorers will love spending a day at The Tech Interactive where you can experience an earthquake, see what you'd look like with someone else's eyes and control a real robot. Read more here.

In San Francisco, the Children's Creativity Museum offers an innovative art and technology experience for children ages 2-12 and their families. Pier 15 is home to The Exploratorium—a museum that will challenge your perception while you are engaging in scientific discovery. Check out their Curious Contraptions exhibit for some real "how did they do that?" inspiration. 

For a full list of STEM-inspired spots around the bay, look here

photo: MOCHA

For Little Artists

Foster a love of art and give the gift of a visit to a local art museum. Many offer special kids programs or, better yet, are designed just for kids!

Bring you crew to visit Golden Gate Park's de Young Museum where they have a free-to-everyone playspace: the de Youngsters Studio (currently closed). After visiting the museum, explore the other free offerings in Golden Gate Park

The Museum of Children's Arts in Oakland has been bringing the creative arts to East Bay kids for over 27 years. While they are currently closed, you can purchase their art kits for your at-home adventures. 

For some paint-all-over-your-hands art experiences, we love the Messy Art Lab. Not only does it keep the mess out of your house but it takes creativity to a whole other level. They are currently open for small groups. 

For more ideas for drop-in art experiences, check out this list

photo: Inn at the Presidio

For All Families

A staycation is a fun gift that kids will love as it gives them a break from their home environment. Whether you plan a trip to a cozy cabin nearby, a stay in a treehouse, or just a weekend at one of these nearby Airbnbs, you can get away without going too far.

If you are a suburban family, a holiday trip to San Francisco is a fun gift. Hotels are all decked out this time of year like the Inn at the Presidio and Lodge at the Presidio. Spend some time by the cozy fire and enjoy all that the city has to offer like the new Entwined light exhibit in Golden Gate Park and the annual Illuminate SF Festival of Lights exhibit throughout the city of San Francisco. 

—Kate Loweth

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