Ever wondered how to introduce children to the magic of museums without the expense? We’ve got the list for you! From ones that focus on trains and the Gold Rush, to more unique topics like bread, sake and even toilets seats, there’s something for every interest. Plan your free day today!
photo credit: Justin Ennis via flikr
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
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
Wells Fargo History Museum
Visit Wells Fargo’s flagship museum located at corporate headquarters in the heart of the financial district. Located at the site where Wells Fargo first opened for business in 1852, the museum tells the story of how Wells Fargo provided banking and express services to pioneers in Gold Rush San Francisco. You’ll find vintage bank machines and can learn how to send a telegraph.
420 Montgomery St., San Francisco, CA
photo: Kate Loweth
Head down to Fisherman’s Wharf for this stroll down memory lane. Here you’ll find over 300 vintage, coin-operated games, antique slot machines and animations. It’s free to walk around and check out these mechanical wonders and for little ones, watching others play will be enough. If you want to put some games into action, you’ll need to change some bills for quarters.
Pier 45, 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: Kate Loweth
Angel Island Museum
If you are spending the day on Angel Island, don’t miss the museum located near the large grass area at the dock. Here you can learn all about Angel Island’s history and view artifacts from its military days. It was once the hunting and fishing ground for the Coastal Miwok Indians. From 1910 to 1940, it served as the processing center for thousands of immigrants arriving in the U.S. Then the military used it as a Nike missle site in the 50s and 60s.
photo: Kate Loweth
Boudin Bakery Museum
Get a full out carb overload as you cruise through this museum devoted to the art of breadmaking. The museum can be found on the second floor of the Boudin at Fisherman’s Wharf and self-guided tours are always free. Learn about the history of sourdough and get a bird’s-eye view of bakers at work from the 40-foot long catwalk above the bakery. Kids will get a kick out of seeing loaves of bread shaped like bears and alligators fly through the air in baskets to get to the sales floor on the other side of the store.
160 Jefferson Street, San Francisco, CA
Toilet Seat Museum
This spot is more for those looking for comic relief than an educational opportunity. The Toilet Seat Museum is housed in Isotope, the Comic Book Lounge and features over 100 toilet seats that have been illustrated by comic book artists. Swing by and teach your kids that art can be found in many forms (but make sure they know it’s not okay to use Sharpies in your home bathroom).
326 Fell St., San Francisco, CA
photo: Kai Schreiber via flickr
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
African American Museum and Library at Oakland
This museum is dedicated to the discovery, preservation, interpretation and sharing of historical and cultural experiences of African Americans in California and the West for present and future generations. The second floor museum regularly hosts traveling and original exhibitions that highlight the art, history and culture of African Americans. It includes a reference library that supports the archives and museum with a special, non-circulating collection of materials designated for library use only.
659 14th St., Oakland, 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
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
photo: Cantor Arts Center
Cantor Arts Center
Stanford’s campus is home to this art museum that is open to the public. Check out the outdoor art in the Rodin Sculpture Garden before you head inside to see what’s on display. On the second Sunday of the month they host special family programming to get kids excited about art and art making.
328 Lomita Dr., Stanford, 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
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
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
—Kate Loweth & Shruti Priya Bapna