Let’s make 2019 the year of experience gifts instead of more toys! There are tons of things to do with kids in the Bay Area and these make perfect gifts for under the tree. Scroll through to find options for all the kids on your list!
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.
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.
Soar over San Francisco when you ride on The Flyer at PIER 39. This simulated flying experience will have you soaring to new heights! Make a day of it and visit some of our favorite PIER 39 spots while you are there!
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. Be sure to add on the high fly option for the full experience. Feeling extra generous? Flight School is a great option for kids 4-16 who want to hone their skills in the tunnel with one-on-one instruction.
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.
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.
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.
Memberships to the San Francisco Zoo, Oakland 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. For a fully-immersive experience, choose one of the overnight options offered at all three and see the animals after dark!
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.
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.
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. Bonus: Local residents can take advantage of their BOGO promotion on select dates.
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. Looking to really knock their socks off? Reserve a spot for your crew to sleep overnight on the ship's original enlisted sleeping quarters as part of their Live Aboard program. For more historic ship and boat tour ideas, check out this post.
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.
For Theater Lovers
If your little one is destined for a life on the stage or just enjoys a good musical, a day at the theater can be a fun gift option. Get dressed up, enjoy some hot chocolate at intermission and get swept away to a faraway land!
The hot ticket this holiday season is the two-part show Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Make it a day in the city with dinner in between the matinee and evening performances.
Bay Area Children's Theater caters to little ones with their shows that have meaningful themes and shorter run times. Grab tickets for upcoming shows like: A Year with Frog and Toad, Construction Site on Christmas Night and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. With performances in Berkeley, San Francisco and Sunnyvale, you can catch one near you!
There are tons of Nutcrackers and other holiday shows this time of year that make a great gift for kids.
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. 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.
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.
For a full list of STEM-inspired spots around the bay, look here.
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. Special family programming is available on Saturdays from 11 a.m.-4 p.m.. 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. Your mini Monet will love their weekday drop-in art program where they can explore the season's theme using many different mediums. Or make art with the whole family when the third Saturday of each month brings a new activity like dragon puppets and mask making.
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.
For more ideas for drop-in art experiences, check out this list.
For Kids Who Want to Learn a New Skill
An experience gift is a great opportunity to let kids try a new activity. Give a few months of lessons and they might never want to stop!
Cooking classes can be tons of fun and bonus, you get out of dinner duty! They expose kids to ingredients and foods they have never tried before and get them to go beyond chicken nuggets and pizza. A dance class can help kids to focus, work together and develop their listening skills. Gymnastics classes help build coordination and strength, plus they are great for tiring kids out!
For Any Bay Area Kid
An overnight on the town is pretty much the epitome of fun for kids of any age. Plan a staycation in San Francisco and the kids will go gaga at the idea.
Book a night at the Lodge at the Presidio and explore all that this area has to offer families. You'll enjoy complimentary wine and cheese in the evening and a cozy outdoor fire pit for roasting s'mores.
Spend some time in the heart of the city at the Westin St. Francis, the only hotel located right in Union Square. Holiday packages that include cable car rides and free dining for kids are available.
Take a walk through Chinatown to the historic Sentinel Building for lunch at the festive Cafe Zoetrope. You'll feel like you are in a quaint cafe in Italy at this Francis Ford Coppola gem that serves massive meatballs on bowls of spaghetti, thin-crust pizza with every topping under the sun and chocolate mousse that will send you over the edge.
The Hilton San Francisco Union Square and Parc 55 San Francisco hotels both offer Skate, Shop and Stay Packages for those looking to add ice skating and shopping to their staycation plan. This package gets you three ice rink tickets, free buffet breakfast for kids five and under, and 15% off at Bloomingdales. Take the kids to the Cityscape lounge for a Shirley Temple and an epic view of the city!
Fisherman's Wharf has a number of great hotels that allow you to stay right in the action. The Argonaut Hotel has the Neptune's Package with free breakfast for four, cable car passes for the full day, a PIER 39 gift pack and special gifts for kids. Hotel Zephyr offers a massive courtyard with games and fire pits to keep everyone busy.
Spend the day at the Exploratorium, eat some seafood at Fisherman's Wharf, ride the cable cars, visit PIER 39, indulge in a giant-sized sundae at Ghirardelli Square and watch the Bay Bridge light up the sky. It's a night the kids will never forget!