With the diversity of experiences on this trip, kids might not even notice that they’ve been learning
Set amid San Francisco’s bustling Pier 15 , the crowd-pleasing Exploratorium invites guests to experience science in action—like standing in a fog cloud or walking into the totally dark Tactile Dome. Check out six unique galleries, like the hands-on Tinkering area, where you can watch museum staffers create wonders but also make your own. In the Living Systems gallery, look at fruit flies and stem cells under a powerful microscope, or let kids “pedal” the bike-powered machine outside that approximates a giant, squirting game of jump rope. Climb the stairs to the Fisher Bay Observatory Gallery for remarkable views of sailboats, freighters, and ferries, as well as the nearby Bay Bridge and Treasure and Yerba Buena Islands. And don’t miss the all-glass observation cube at the very tip of the pier.
Earth meets sky at California Academy of Sciences, a combination of natural history museum, planetarium, and aquarium located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Start at the domed, four-story rainforest exhibit, where you’ll spot free-flying birds, butterflies, amphibians, and even an Amazonian tree boa. Check the schedule at the Morrison Planetarium, which showcases films like Passport to the Universe, featuring footage from the Hubble Space Telescope, on its 75-foot-diameter screen. The CAS is a great place to eat too, from the house-made soups and salads at The Academy Café to the craft beer and locally-sourced dishes at The Terrace.
Your first impression of Silicon Valley, the Northern California brain trust south of the San Francisco Bay, may ironically be how pretty its landscape is, thanks to its lush green foothills. But the human-made wonders at Mountain View’s Computer History Museum will quickly grab your attention too. Learn about the birth of the computer, driverless cars, and tech heroes such as Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician. Another fascinating exhibit sheds light on the little-known story of Colossus, an electronic code-breaker device developed by British math whizzes and engineers, which helped win World War II.
In Silicon Valley’s San Jose, the interactive Tech Museum of Innovation (nicknamed The Tech) creates a fun laboratory and learning experience for curious people of all ages. Play cyber detective or build your own robot using sensors, actuators, and controllers. Check out the Reboot Reality exhibit and design a digital painting, or climb onto Birdly, the virtual-reality flying simulator. For another kind of thrill, stand on the Shake Platform, which creates the sensation of the eight levels of earthquakes.
Look for the distinctive purple building along San Jose’s Wozniak Way (a.k.a. “the Woz”), named after Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Here, at the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, kids get hands-on science lessons from 150 exhibits and an outdoor playground lab. Start by checking out Lupe, the replica of a woolly mammoth whose remains were found in Silicon Valley, then dig in the dirt to see how archeologists search for fossils. In other areas, kids can make art, climb trees, blow giant bubbles, and pump water out of a rain catchment system.
With its hybrid terrain of coastline, redwood forests, and mountains, the college town of Santa Cruz is a natural magnet for families thanks to an old-fashioned amusement park on the boardwalk. But it’s also home to the century-old Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, set above Seabright Beach. Stop in for the touch pool—with living, local inter-tidal plants and animals—and then visit the live honeybee exhibit or the Ohlone exhibit that shows life in the pre-colonial Central Coast. (Bonus: Admission is free for kids.)
The world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium is an essential stop in the Central Coast town of Monterey—an attraction on the same level as historic Cannery Row. You’ll see brilliantly colored jellyfish that resemble some kind of alien life form as they gracefully glide through the water. Go nose-to-nose with adorable sea otters and catch glimpses of leopard sharks and schools of sardine swimming through the kelp forest exhibit. After all, with 28-foot windows, it’s one of the world’s tallest aquariums. Check out tours, too, like the surface scuba diving or the behind-the-scenes fish feeding.
With a rich agricultural and literary history, the town of Salinas makes a fascinating stop. Start by exploring the world of author John Steinbeck: You can visit his boyhood home as well as the National Steinbeck Center. Even if the kids aren’t old enough yet to have read The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men, this engaging museum will give them a vivid introduction to the author, by way of films, artifacts, sound clips, and hands-on activities that illustrate how the people and landscape of the Salinas Valley informed Steinbeck’s classic American books. Come during August for the annual Steinbeck Festival, or during February for the annual birthday celebration.
The town of San Juan Bautista, located off Highway 101, makes for an excellent time capsule thanks to its downtown lined with Old West storefronts. The centerpiece of town, though, is Mission San Juan Bautista, a classic among the 21 Spanish missions built in California between 1769 and 1834. Learn about the Spanish era and note the interesting features of the mission, like the animal paw prints depicted in the floor tiles.Two fun facts: The mission sits next to the San Andreas Fault and it was featured in the Hitchcock thriller Vertigo.
The Santa Clara County town of Gilroy boasts of being the Garlic Capital of the World. That’s a title kids might not appreciate until you take them to them to Gilroy Gardens theme park, which celebrates the herb along with the other crops growing in the Central Coast farm country. Zoom and twirl on agriculturally-themed rides like the Artichoke Dip, the Mushroom Swing, and, of course, the Garlic Twirl. Be sure to check out the 25 incredible Circus Trees, grown in nature-defying shapes. For more garlic, even in ice cream, come to town in July for the Gilroy Garlic Festival.
What started as a humble cherry stand in 1908 is now a massive roadside attraction, welcoming more than 3 million visitors each year. Located 40 miles northeast of Monterey, Casa de Fruta in Hollister features a 10,000-square-foot market, 24-hour restaurant, sweetshop, RV park, 14-room inn, and playground. The market sells road-trip-friendly dried fruit, nuts, wine, and fresh produce from all over the state—visitors can try strawberries from Watsonville, pistachios from Fresno, garlic from Gilroy, and more. The family’s wine is offered in the traditional white, red, and blush, but visitors most often leave with a bottle of Casa de Fruta’s signature pomegranate wine.
Set along Highway 99, Fresno is the agricultural heart of the Central Valley—but it also offers gorgeous gardens, parks, and the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. The zoo has unique naturalistic enclosures such as the 13-acre, savannah-like African Adventure, and is home to almost 200 species of animals from around the globe, from red kangaroos and wildebeests to cheetahs and king cobras. Don’t miss the chance for the kids to feed giraffes and check out the behind-the-scenes experiences, like Breakfast with the Rhinos or sea lion training sessions.