There’s a certain magic to museums: Where else can you become an astronaut for a day, build race car prototypes, and walk with dinosaurs? California’s myriad family-friendly museums have multigenerational appeal and encourage hands-on exploration that brings history, science, and art to life. Listed from north to south, here are 10 institutions across the Golden State that are great for all ages.
1. California State Railroad Museum, Sacramento
All aboard! Highlighting the importance of rail lines in the Golden State’s history, Sacramento’s California State Railroad Museum collection includes 19 steam locomotives dating back to 1865 and other restored stock such as a refrigerator car for hauling California’s agricultural bounty and a Union Pacific caboose. After walking through a fine-dining car complete with 1940s-era china, visitors can ride the rails on the Sacramento Southern Railroad. From April through September, the 50-minute excursion also offers a scenic view of the Sacramento River.
Insider kid-tip: Don’t miss Small Wonders: The Magic of Toy Trains, a miniature city featuring 1,000 vintage toy trains that will captivate even the tiniest collectors.
2. California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco
Like four museums in one, the California Academy of Sciences is home to an aquarium, planetarium, rain forest, and natural history exhibits. Whether you want to walk under a canopy of butterflies, rely on your sense of touch to navigate a room filled with fog, or experience San Francisco’s infamous 1906 temblor in the earthquake simulator, the Golden Gate Park institution has no shortage of immersive ways to embark on a scientific adventure.
Insider kid-tip: See the museum come to life at night with an overnight stay in an exhibit area. Penguins + Pajamas Sleepovers, a special after-hours party for chaperoned children ages 5 to 17, are offered on select Friday and Saturday nights.
3. Exploratorium, San Francisco
This Embarcadero museum is a playground for curious minds. Six indoor and outdoor galleries at the San Francisco Exploratorium peel the curtain back on how the world works, with ever-rotating exhibits that allow visitors to create their own colored shadows, play optical tricks with a giant mirror, and capture water drops on film. Rest and recharge at Seaglass, the on-site restaurant and bar that offers craft cocktails for adults with views of Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge.
Insider kid-tip: There’s a dizzying array of hands-on activities so it’s easy to forget about Gallery 5, located out on Pier 15. Let kids burn off energy by playing jump rope with a bike-powered machine or yelling into an echo tube that teaches about the speed of sound.
4. Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
From birds and bears to a life-size 72-foot-long blue whale skeleton named Chad, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History highlights some of the world’s most interesting species and their surroundings. In addition to dioramas displaying mammals in their natural habitats, exhibits at the Santa Barbara institution include touchable objects such as bones and skulls. You can also take a walk through the Prehistoric Forest to see dinosaurs brought to life with animatronics. On weekends, visit the Gladwin Planetarium to catch a special night-sky presentation designed for children as young as 5.
Insider kid-tip: Dive into the vast depths of the deep blue sea at nearby Stearns Wharf. The museum’s off-site Sea Center explores the underwater world with opportunities for little ones to touch live creatures including sharks, sea anemones, and hermit crabs.
5. MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, Santa Barbara
Satisfy your need for speed by building your own race car to send flying down a test track. This is just one of dozens of hands-on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) exhibits at MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation in Santa Barbara. Spanning three floors, there are seven galleries dedicated to topics including speed, light, tech, fantastic forces, and interactive media. In the sound space, step inside a giant guitar to learn about different instruments or recreate audio effects from Fox Studios films in a professional-quality sound booth. There’s also an Innovation Workshop where visitors are invited to work on projects that range from upcycling to engineering challenges.
Insider kid-tip: Every Tuesday, MOXI hosts special hours for toddlers with fewer crowds, exhibit modifications, and age-appropriate themes focusing on topics such as light and sound.
6. Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)
For an intro to art, there’s no better place than LACMA. The largest art museum in the West, located on Museum Row in Los Angeles, offers a comprehensive education on everything from Impressionism to art of the ancient Americas. For a fast-paced alternative to gallery walls filled with famous works by Picasso and Matisse, head downstairs to see Metropolis II. This miniaturized installation faithfully recreates the buzz of a major city, complete with skyscrapers and toy cars that speed through criss-crossing roadways. Kids will also love to stretch their legs at outdoor exhibits like Urban Light and Levitated Mass, where they can walk below the 340-ton boulder sculpture.
Insider kid-tip: Boone Children’s Gallery hosts two guided workshops every month that teach the art of brush painting. The events are free for all ages.
7. La Brea Tar Pits & Museum, Los Angeles
In the middle of urban L.A., the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum offers a look back at some of the earliest Angelenos: Ice Age animals, plants, and insects ranging from giant ground sloths to saber-tooth cats. Trapped in asphalt, more than 3.5 million fossils have been excavated and put on display in the museum’s galleries. An interactive exhibit also invites visitors to pull on a handle to experience what it’s like to be trapped in tar. As you walk along the pits outside, stop by one of the few remaining excavation sites where animals including ancient bison, giant jaguars, and even an American mastodon have been found.
Insider kid-tip: Though the museum has an admission fee, it’s free to visit the tar pits and outdoor observation areas. Since it’s right next door to LACMA along Museum Row, let little ones take a break between art exhibitions and check out the bubbling tar.
8. Discovery Cube, Orange County
The Santa Ana–based Discovery Cube makes science fun with more than 100 interactive exhibits, including a gallery in partnership with the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks. Take the wheel of a Zamboni or play a game of virtual hockey before exploring other themed sections like the discovery market that teaches about sustainable shopping and food waste. From laser mazes inside a bank vault to a physics lab where you can build your own toy car, these experiences offer plenty of thrills—no matter your age.
Insider kid-tip: The museum has a second location in Los Angeles offering similar experiences, including a helicopter-inspired theater, tornado simulator, and science of hockey exhibit featuring the Los Angeles Kings.
9. USS Midway Museum, San Diego
Once the longest-serving aircraft carrier in the 20th century, the USS Midway Museum now features immersive exhibits that tell stories from its years of combat in the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm. Tour spaces at the San Diego museum include the captain’s and admirals’ cabins, sailors’ bunks, engine room, and chow line. You can also climb into the cockpit of various aircraft as part of the general admission fee, or upgrade to a flight simulator experience for an aviation adventure that will send you spiraling through combat rides and carrier launches.
Insider kid-tip: Kids get their own audio tour and can participate in a Junior Pilot Program scavenger hunt to earn their wings.
10. San Diego Air & Space Museum
Located in Balboa Park, San Diego Air & Space Museum features full-size original and replica aircraft, including one of the only Apollo command modules flown in space. View examples of World War I fighter aircraft and other reproductions, including Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. Thrill-seeking bigger kids can get an adrenaline rush from interactive flight simulators that dive, roll, spin, and spiral through the air while dodging fire from enemy aircraft.
Insider kid-tip: Every Wednesday, a ticketed event offers 60 minutes of private museum exploration, hands-on activities, and themed programming for children ages 2 to 5. Explore topics like how machines are powered and what it’s like to work in space.