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Asian Art Museum

200 Larkin St.
San Francisco, CA 94102

Unlike some museums, Asian Art incorporates both visual and interactive experiences. Not only will the kids be fascinated by the intricate Buddha statues, they can also take photographs without anyone pointing to printed-out rules of policy. Even the cafe is an interactive experience, and has more choices than just egg rolls and chicken salad. There's miso soup, there's Tokyo Ramen with tree ear mushrooms, there's Korean spicy beef....and Sake Sliders. Two of the only items you could get anywhere else would be the hot dog and french fries option, but it pays to have something that everyone recognizes. Of course, there are teas, and the kids may want to try them just for the names: Three Flower Celebration, Dragon Eyes, Plum Blossom. If you forget your water bottles, there are free cups and water abounding. Really, the cafe choices could describe the rest of the museum experiences, which range from pottery and painted postures to pork belly food samples. There are some standard calligraphy and painting exhibits, scrolls and sculptures, and Ming vases. However, since Asian territory covers many countries, you can view the similarities and differences between displays on Korea, China, Japan, and India – to name a few. Also, the yoga and Mandala cosmic center exhibits also have interactive classes for a reasonable fee. You and the kids can go through the gallery at a leisurely pace, learn postures and stretching, hear storytelling, and make some take-home modern art. Between the three floors, it would be almost impossible to be bored in this place of cultural learning. Most people recommend starting at the top third floor, with many of the standard exhibits, and then going down to the interactive first floor. This is especially important when taking a family tour, because the kids will probably be even more keen on doing their own art after seeing so many great examples.

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Bay Area Discovery Museum

557 McReynolds Rd
Sausalito, CA 94965

This Museum is more of a hands-on center for imagination and creative development, with a lot of Bay Area props, than a more classic outlay like the Asian Art Museum. It's like a huge playground for kids, but it would be hard to find a free playground with this mixture of inside amenities (puppets, full train station) and creative outside features (gravel pit with tow trucks, Golden Gate Bridge replica, toddler water zone with plastic fish). Children are offered objects outside to play with, from the natural elements of sand and water to larger versions of toys that already fascinates them (foam versions of Tinkertoys). The idea is that parents can ask their kids open-ended questions to get the kids involved in play, so that the kids are dreaming and creating things from their imagination rather than coming to a place to be entertained with digested information and ideas from multimedia. Inside at the Art Table, the kids are offered the ability to get more messy with paint and sand than at home – bring extra clothes or a smock. The simulated Bay Hall and Wave Workshop has representations of what they'd see at Fisherman's Wharf and in Oakland, along with trains and tunnels, so that they can start thinking about what they're seeing and how the ocean works. If kids get inspired and want to go outside again, no problem – take them to Lookout Cove where they can get on the Bonnie boat and pretend to be pirates on the sea. The shipwreck hull, the trail, and the sea cave can spark all sorts of survival questions, especially if you start reading Robinson Crusoe to them at night. Other reviewers have commented just as often on the stunning views of the actual Golden Gate Bridge, the number of activities and classes available, and the garden. Since the Discovery Museum is both indoors and outdoors, toddlers may love the streams of water, or they may want to go in and out of the reed maze, giant tree trunk, and climb all over the giant spider web. Themes and activities are geared toward the younger set, so you might not want to push the age limit of 8 years old.

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Cable Car Museum

1201 Mason St.
San Francisco, CA 94108

If you have an hour before dinner with the family near the Embarcadero, or you want to work in a science and engineering field trip for an hour after wandering through Chinatown or Fisherman's Wharf, go to the Cable Car Museum. If you're a San Francisco resident, you might have taken any number of Muni rides without really understanding the history of how cable cars and mass transit came to be, or the effect of the 1906 earthquake. Though it may not have the attractive sea power of the Aquarium of the Bay or the hands-on fascination of the nearby Pier 1 Exploratorium, you can't beat the price of the Cable Car Museum or its bathrooms: free. (Also, if you need more than an hour to occupy the kids on a Saturday, the outside exhibits at the Exploratorium are also free.) The upper level shows the cable wheels and working models, along with a video, and the lower levels let you see how the cables work close up. Engineers and small future engineers will be fascinated by the turbines and generators and drive wheels that all work together to move crowds of people from one area to the next. Future photographers will be fascinated by the black-and-white and tintype images that show San Francisco and the cable cars in their former glory. If you happen to be in the area in July, don't miss the annual Bell-Ringing Contest, dating back to 1949. Seven finalists are picked out of a group of bell-ringers who meet in the car barn (which shows the entry and exit of the cables underneath the street), and then they and non-profit organizers move to Union Square for a battle of the bells. Sometimes, just to change things up a little, bell-ringing happens in October too – so watch the website for further developments.

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California Academy of Sciences

55 Music Concourse Dr., San Francisco, CA 94118

While kids may never get excited about the periodic table of the elements or fulcrum formulas, they will get excited about science at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. At a certain age, kids need to explore important questions about life on Earth. The Academy of Sciences is a hands-on place for parents and kids to figure out how things work – and why. Spread out over 400,000 square feet, the Academy's three major attractions (aquarium, planetarium, and natural history museum) show great examples of the planet's natural resources, from the water reclamation system to the solar-powered 'Living Roof' with 2 acres of plant species. Animal-loving kids can see the past and the future, from the Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, to the tropical rain forest with a bat cave and an overhead freshwater fish tank (the Flooded Forest). Technology-loving kids may be glued to the digital planetarium and galaxy exploration tour. Penguin-loving kids should see the colony of waddling African penguins in the 25,000-gallon exhibit, complete with a rocky shore and naturalistic temperatures. Don't miss the feeding times and FAQ sessions (twice daily at 10:30 am and 3 pm), if your kids are the questioning type. Former visitors will hardly recognize the new facility; open between 9:30 am and 5:00 pm. Pirahnas at the Steinhart Aquarium are close (not too close), while fish and sharks weave through the Philippine Coral Reef. Small and great sea creatures at the California Coast Gallery range from the tiny tidepool anemone to the giant octopus. Each membership allows you to feed penguins, and gain access to the RSVP-only Holiday Nights show with live reindeer. There's as much all-ages activity at the Academy as in the on-site cafe. (Adults enjoy Thursday Nightlife shows, with earthquakes and alligators - and alcohol.) One Academy sleepover (Penguins + Pajamas) is the best mix of a safe outdoor family vacation. After planetarium shows and animal demos, park the family sleeping bags next to the aquarium (or swamp), wake up to a continental breakfast, and keep on exploring.

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Chabot Space & Science Center

10000 Skyline Blvd., Oakland, CA 94619

Two words: Planetarium and Observatory. That should get all sorts of ideas flowing for space travel, star gazing, and going home to watch re-runs of Star Trek episodes. First, go to the Chabot Space and Science Center so you can get some good ideas. If you can make time to go on a Friday or a Saturday and stay through the evening, you'll be able to use the telescopes in the Observatory. Fortunately, there's coffee at the new Bean Sprouts Café, so you'll have enough caffeine to stay up. The Planetarium has a 70-foot screen and can seat over 230 people, so there will be plenty of room for watching shows that could rival any IMAX theatre. There are astronauts and alien searches, there is space travel and constellation investigation, there is time travel back to the Mayan days. For a small extra fee, there are even psychedelic laser light shows including music from the Beatles to Pink Floyd. The Exhibits are for those who want to explore with their eyes and their fingers. The Bill Nye Climate Lab has an invention station and a climate-themed video game, as well as displays on emissions and keeping the ocean from becoming the world's largest landfill. Stars, nebulae, and black holes can be found in Destination Universe, while moon rocks and the Mercury space vehicle ride will certainly inspire the kids to stay for telescope time. If everyone wants more information on the Mayans after seeing the Planetarium video, there's an educational display on their calendar, reading, and writing. This can be a great way to sneak in more social studies and history lessons. Also, if you've ever told your kids not to look at the sun, you'll have to eat your words at the Touch the Sun display – especially if the kids find out that there's an available mobile app.

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Children's Creativity Museum

221 4th St., San Francisco, CA 94560

The Children's Creativity Museum is like a multimedia studio left open for the directors' kids to explore. From the Animation studio with clay critters, to the Music studio with a green screen, children and young adults can put their energy and talents to good use here. What you'll really have to worry about is that the children will get spoiled for any other museum. Since they're not only allowed, but encouraged, to touch all of the art....well, use your imagination. In fact, the Imagination Lab, the Movie Studio and the Do It Yourself studio are all very popular. The Mystery Box challenge changes frequently, and requires the kids to think their way around design problems. For a minor fee, you can even take a DVD home with you instead of worrying about capturing a video via iPhone, since the kids' activities, songs, and storytelling can be recorded. Also, the children are no longer restricted to an older age group (6-12). Since the facility got renovated, the younger children (3-5) can play on the train table and busy themselves with crafts, from painting to playing dress-up. (Warning - bring ear plugs for the music room because the drums are popular.) A few parents have said that the toddler toys are rather generic and a little grubby. However, the Early Birdies program is popular, especially with the members who get to go free. (It's $15 for non-members.) If the kids have any energy left, there's a great and free playground outside the museum with grass, a labyrinth, and a sandpit.

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