Take a playful spin to top family attractions in Sacramento, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Monterey.
Trip length: 7 days
Total distance: 308mi/496km
SACRAMENTO. In the restored Old Town area, take a train ride on a vintage locomotive, then tour the outstanding California State Railroad Museum . Pan for gold at Golden State History Museum , then visit Crocker Art Museum for hands-on family activities. (Insider tip: the museum café is excellent.) Learn about the region’s history at fascinating Sutter’s Fort . Take a riverboat cruise on the Sacramento River with Hornblower Cruises , then call it a night at the Sacramento Hyatt Regency . INFO Sacramento Conventions & Visitors Bureau ; 916/808-7777
SAN JOSE (120mi/193km; 1hr 54min). Drive west to the heart of the tech-savvy Silicon Valley to play with next-generation gadgetry at kid-favorite The Tech Museum of Innovation. Visit the critters and newly refurbished Happy Hollow Zoo then tour History San Jose’s kid-perfect 14-acre complex with fun ways to learn about the region’s cultures and agricultural legacy. Continue west to the coast, and check into Hotel Abrego , in Monterey. INFO Team San Jose ; 800/726-5673
MONTEREY (72mi/116km; 1hr12min). Watch playful sea otters, penguins, and more at the incomparable Monterey Bay Aquarium . Sign up for a kid-friendly “Feed the Fish” tour, then feed yourselves at the aquarium’s beautiful restaurant or adjacent cafe. Work off your meal with a stroll along Cannery Row to Fisherman’s Wharf. Return to Hotel Abrego for the night. INFO Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau ; 888/221-1010
MONTEREY. Begin your day with a guided kayak tour with Monterey Bay Kayaks . Visit kid-favorite MY Museum for hands-on exhibits. Rent a pedal-powered surrey (check Bay Bikes or Adventures By the Sea ) then ride along the waterfront. Drive north to Santa Cruz and check into the iconic Dream Inn . INFO Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau ; 888/221-1010
SANTA CRUZ (43mi/69km; 50min). Watch expert surfers carve the curl at Steamer Lane, then grab boogie boards and play in the gentler waves fronting the retro-fun Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk , with carnie rides and classic coasters. Power up on freshly squeezed juices and gourmet pastries at The Buttery , then head to the hills, strap in, and whiz through the trees on a zipline with Mount Hermon Adventures . Continue your journey up the coast to San Francisco and chec into the Hotel Union Square . INFO Santa Cruz County Conference and Visitors Council ; 800/833-3494
SAN FRANCISCO (73mi/117km; 1hr18min). Take turns doing ultra-hands-on experiments at the Exploratorium science-learning center, at its all-new Pier 15 location. Shop for souvenirs at touristy but fun PIER 39 . At Fisherman’s Wharf , sample fresh crab and sourdough bread. In lush Golden Gate Park, visit must-see California Academy of Sciences , with aquarium, living rainforest, living roof, and more. Have green tea and cookies in the Japanese Tea Garden . End with a twilight visit to the city’s bustling hub, Union Square, then return to Hotel Union Square for the night. INFO San Francisco Travel Association ; 415/391-2000
SAN FRANCISCO. Start your last day with Liège waffles at Tout Sweet Patisserie at Macy’s California at Union Square, then cross the Golden Gate Bridge to visit Marin County attractions, including family-focused Bay Area Discovery Museum . Hike through old-growth coast redwoods in Muir Woods National Monument , then have ice cream while you walk along the stunning waterfront in Sausalito. Drive to the top of the Marin Headlands to watch the sunset. INFO San Francisco Travel Association ; 415/391-2000
For special discounts at many of these and other attractions statewide, get a CityPass , which also includes great deals on local transportation.