Best Family-Friendly Museums in San Francisco

San Francisco Museums for Kids of All Ages

With temperate weather year-round, San Francisco offers tons of outdoor activities for families. Rollicking through Golden Gate Park is always an option, as well as playing in the sands of the Bay Area's numerous beaches: Ocean Beach, Stinson Beach, and Muir Beach, just to name a few.

But if that infamous San Francisco fog has blown in, and you understand Mark Twain's famous quote firsthand ("The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco"), then it's time to find some indoor fun. Studies show that the earlier kids are exposed to art, the bigger the payoff down the road. If you want quality time that's both an fun and educational, check out our list of family friendly museums.

If your kids are bubbling with energy and need some real "hands-on learning," spend some hours at The Exploratorium, a place specifically designed for the endless curiosity of children. If you'd like to get some area-specific history, The Cable Car Museum not only reveals the intriguing mechanism behind the city's iconic transport, it also frames San Francisco's history in a way that even kids will enjoy. If all else fails, then head to the universal cure for the boredom of children: The Walt Disney Museum. If Uncle Walt can't make museums interesting, no one can.


Cartoon Art Museum
Photo courtesy of Cartoon Art Museum

First envisioned in 1984, this museum gained prominence following support from Charles M. Schulz, creator of the "Peanuts" comic strip. In 1987, the museum established a home in Yerba Buena Gardens, the city's art center. The facility now offers nearly 6,000 original items, including comic books, comic strips, and computer animation. It's also the only museum of its kind west of the Mississippi. Several major exhibitions are held each year, and a bookstore is available to visitors. The Cartoon Art Museum is conveniently located in central downtown, close to all kinds of public transportation as well as Yeurba Buena Park.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: The Cartoon Art Museum is right next to Yeurba Buena Park, which offers outdoor activities for those kids who can only take so much of museums.

Tom's expert tip: The Cartoon Art Museum may be closing its doors by the end of the 2015 summer season.

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Angel Island State Park
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

One of the great things about San Francisco is its treasure-filled bay. Angel Island, only a short ferry ride from San Francisco, Tiburon or Vallejo, is perfect for either a short or long excursion. Bring a picnic lunch and idle the time away amid cool breezes and great views. If you feel ambitious, Mount Livermore, the island's 781-foot anchor, provides plenty of opportunities for hiking, beginning with a five-mile perimeter trail. From April to October, enjoy the Cove Cafe, and rent a bike to get around more easily. Camping is available, too, but the sites fill up quickly, so book early.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: Angel Island offers a fun ferry ride, a lot of space to run around, and an engaging cultural education for the whole family.

Tom's expert tip: If you're up for a short ferry ride, this is a fantastic park.

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Perched right on the Pacific Ocean, The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a world-class facility that offers unforgettable experiences for the whole family. If you're coming from San Francisco, you'll enjoy a beautiful drive down the coast with plenty of picture opportunities or much-needed breaks on the drive. Be sure to give yourself a full day to enjoy everything this aquarium has to offer. Don't miss the Weedy Sea Dragons, ot of this world seahorses that you have to see with your won eyes to believe. Cannery Row, made famous by American legend John Steinbeck, is within walking distance, as well.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: Monterey offers wonderful adult activities, so the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a good trade-off for the kids.

Tom's expert tip: Be sure to check their website for group specials and events.

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Photo courtesy of iStock / MBPROJEKT_Maciej_Bledowski

During Alcatraz's 34 years as a prison, most of its inmates were simply high-risk escapees and troublemakers. Still, the prison plays strongly in national memory thanks to infamous residents like Al "Scarface" Capone and Robert "Birdman" Stroud. An average stay on "The Rock" lasted five years, and although liberties were abbreviated, prisoners were afforded magnificent views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. Tours of the island focus largely on the desolate prison itself, including cell blocks, the cafeteria and the prison yard. Spring for the audio version of the tour, and get tickets in advance if at all possible. Booking windows and departure docks can be found at Pier 33.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: Although Alcatraz is usually highlighted as a general tourist destination, it's a living history of San Francisco.

Tom's expert tip: Alcatraz offers a fantastic night tours for those up for something a bit more spooky.

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Come nose-to-beak with penguins and parrots, watch sharks and sting rays cruise beneath your feet, and feel the spray of the California coast. Fly to Mars (and beyond the Milky Way!) from the safety of your planetarium seat, take a virtual safari in African Hall, or climb into the canopy of a living rainforest. Face your fears and stare down an albino alligator inside the Swamp, and meet scientists as they return from research expeditions around the world. From the depths of a Philippine coral reef to the outer reaches of the Universe, it's all inside the California Academy of Sciences.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: For those kids (and adults) who enjoy live animals in their museums, The California Academy of Sciences is a great choice.

Tom's expert tip: The California Academy of Sciences is right across from the de Young, another top museum.

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Cable Car Museum
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

This museum has been called "one of the top 10 free attractions in the world" by travel guru Arthur Frommer. Watch the machinery that makes San Francisco's most famous form of transportation possible. Also go upstairs for photographs, memorabilia, and other displays related to the history of cable cars. Located at the intersection of Mason and Washington Streets, right by the Embarcadero, which offers a long, beautiful walk for the entire family. The kids can run out their energy to insure a good sleep that night at the hotel, and parents can keep an eye out for a good Happy Hour and a possible romantic evening excursion.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: The Cable Car Museum is free - which is always important for the budget when you're traveling with family.

Tom's expert tip: Check their websites for special presentations and talks.

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Walt Disney Family Museum
Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Museum

If you've tried all the other museums on this list, and you're absolutely desperate for a sure-fire museum experience, then bring out the big toy guns: The Walt Disney Family Museum. Like only Disney can, this museum combines fascinating personal and professional history for the adults with fun and interactive experiences for the kids. It's a comprehensive history of this American legend within the beautiful confines of the Presidio. So even if the interactive exhibits for the kids somehow fails, you've got the rolling hills of the Presidio and the charming strand of beach of Crissy Field for the little ones to run to their heart's delight.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: If Walt Disney can't come up with a museum that won't bore your kids, no one can.

Tom's expert tip: The museum is in the Presidio, which offers beautiful views of both the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge.

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Bay Model Museum
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

This one-of-a-kind model is a feat of US Army Corps engineering: the entire Bay Area set to a model. The Corps created this enormous indoor model to study the tides and currents of the Bay, and it was renovated and refurbished and made open to the public in recent years. Best part about the model: it's free. Since it costs a second home mortgage just to take the family to a ballgame nowadays, don't pass up the opportunity to explore this fascinating exhibit, free of charge. If you want a literal overview of the entire Bay Area, head to Sausalito and the Bay Model Museum.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: The Bay Module Museum offers a large space for kids to walk around and learn in an interactive way.

Tom's expert tip: Be sure to check the website to see if the model's "tide" function is working.

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If the kids have been on their very best behavior and deserve a real treat, take the time to cross the Golden Gate Bridge and visit the Bay Area Discovery Museum. This premium stretch of real estate just below Sausalito and right on the bay has been completely devoted to keeping the endless imagination of children engaged for a full day. The real highlight is "The Cove," a 2.5 acre interactive exploration area with five iconic structures of the Bay Area and art work for kids to clamber all over. If you want your kids to think you're the coolest parents on the planet, then take them to the Bay Area Discovery Museum.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: The Bay Area Discovery Museum is a good reward for kids who just got dragged around on a Sonoma or Napa wine tour.

Tom's expert tip: Taking the ferry to Sausalito and then hiking or cabbing to the Bay Area Discovery Museum is a fun way to see more of the beautiful Marin Headlands.

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The Exploratorium
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

The Exploratorium believes the fundamental childhood traits of being playful and curious should be fostered for a lifetime. Founder Frank Oppenheimer believed in intertwining art and science to make learning attractive and memorable through exhibits such as the Tactile Dome and Traits of Life. Be sure to check the websites for special shows and talks, since The Exploratorium is always rebranding and renewing its unique approach to museums. If you just happen to be walking by on the Embarcadero, make a detour around the building for its collection of free exhibits, such as the interactive "fog bridge." If you believe that families that learn together stay together, head to the Exploratorium for a lifetime of learning and togetherness in one day.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: The Exploratorium is built with the vast and beautiful expanse of a child's imagination in mind.

Tom's expert tip: Even if you don't have time to visit the inside of the museum, the 1.5 acres of free exhibit space outside is worth the trip.

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Meet Tom Molanphy

The only thing that Tom Molanphy loves more than the food, art, music, and culture of San Francisco is sharing it with others. San Francisco never gets old for Tom.

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