While many museums ask visitors to look but not touch, the California Automobile Museum, in Sacramento, abides by the opposite policy. “We have, in each gallery, something that kids can touch or do, get their hands on, participate in,” says Karen McClaflin, the former executive director of the museum, which has been in operation since 1987. From the permanent exhibitions, which include cars driven by storied California car clubs and the rides of Hollywood celebrities, to special shows—Reel Cars pays tribute to the importance of cars in filmmaking—the museum offers something to do for all ages.
The museum’s permanent collection, a chronological display that tells the story of the automobile in America, offers an easy-to-digest history lesson as well as ample opportunities for play. Cars from the 1950s feature big backseats that children can pile into, McClaflin says, to “see what it used to feel like—no seatbelts, that kind of thing.” It also explores technologies of the future and their origins, with an electric car from 1911 parked next to a sleek new Tesla.
Depending on a visitor’s age and curiosity about cars, the museum offers a range of activities. “For the young ones, it might just be ‘Here’s a big tire to climb on,’” says McClaflin. “It’s tactile: ‘Can you match this button with the color of the car?’” For older kids, displays answer questions they may have about the mechanics of a car, like how the cylinder works and how gas gets from the gas tank to power a car. It goes all the way up to college age: Sacramento’s Universal Technical Institute brings classes to the museum as part of the curriculum.
Before planning a visit, it’s worth checking out the museum’s online calendar and listing of events. Every third Sunday, visitors have the opportunity to go on a Sunday drive in a vintage ride.
The museum has an area where families can break for a snack; chips, cookies, candy, granola bars, and other hold-me-overs can be purchased from the gift shop.
Admission is $8 for adults and $4 for students, and children age five and under are free. The museum offers reduced or free admission on certain holidays (moms get in free on Mother’s Day; dads reap the same benefit on Father’s Day).
The museum is open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and is closed on Tuesdays and major holidays.