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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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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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Hiller Aviation Museum

601 Skyway Rd.
San Carlos, CA 94070

Planes, trains, and automobiles are some of the most fascinating things that kids can see, and Hiller Aviation provides plenty to see and do. While most of the exhibits center around planes, their history, and their photos, there are also special exhibits on model railroads and a weekly Gourmet Food Truck visit. Since the Museum is located at the San Carlos airport, the kids can see modern planes zooming in and out, while they investigate the cockpits and controls of the vintage models and prototypes. With forty exhibits and interactive displays, this is a great way to get your kids interested in the power of featherless flight. Don't forget the Atrium with the airplane models, which are kid-sized and fascinating for a whole host of reasons. You can point out the history of the Kitty Hawk flight with the Wright Brothers' older model, the San Francisco all-metal Argonaut of 1928, the Grumman Albatross that flew around the world, and the collapsible XROE Rotorcycle. There's also a restoration shop where planes are constantly being tinkered with. If you're able to drop by on the weekends before 2 pm, wait in line for the popular Flight Simulator and get the feel of swooping in and out of the clouds. If you can find it, there's even a small theatre with 35 seats. Some of the special events are especially kid-friendly, like the Easter Bunny that shows up in a helicopter. While the kids are waiting for Bunny's arrival or the coming of the New Year, there are bouncy houses to explore and face painting to be done, and occasional magic shows. If you sign up for membership, there are discounts on the planetarium Sky Show that explains constellations used for navigation, live bird shows, or various Merit Badge days. This is a perfect place to bring home-schooled kids or Civil Air Patrol cadets on discounted group rates. The museum is small, so the space is packed with exhibits. Even the parking lot has half of a 747 jet on display, which can be played with until the Simulator is ready. Just be prepared when you enter the gift shop, because the kids will be clamoring for Playmobil sets, model airplanes, and kites – or even the teddy bears with aviator glasses.

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Lindsay Wildlife Experience

1931 1st Ave.
Walnut Creek, CA 94597

Kids can learn anything animal-related here: nesting patterns of birds, how to do animal surgery, the experience of flight. Being able to view an operating room that restores damaged animals is a training ground in itself, but the more technologically-minded may have more fun with the flight simulator that lets their imagination soar with electronic wings. If the kids have been begging for a pet but don't know what's involved in caring for a rabbit or guinea pig, don't miss the Petting Circle and the feeding demonstrations. Once they master those techniques, kids might also want to know what it would be like to spend every day with animals – they should stick around until after 3 pm for Meet an Animal Keeper. The live birds of prey hands-on station is one of the most intriguing, but the handlers do allow for a closer look at other animals during the day. The Hive Alive exhibit would be the exception, but it'll probably be as close as you can get to a group of working honeybees without getting stung. The beekeeper equipment willl also show the honey can get 'farmed' while minimizing the risk of damage. The best and newest exhibit that's non-live is The Burrow, complete with animal models and puppets that show the importance of tunnels, and separation for the living space and bathrooms in the animal kingdom. If the toddlers get restless, there are animal exhibits and puzzles in the playroom, or you can take them to nearby Larkey Park. Lindsay Wildlife does help a range of animals to be patched up and re-released, from bats to raccoons to squirrels. However, some of the animals that are rescued can't be released back into the wild, like the 25-year-old bald eagle, on-site raptors, and a gray fox. If normal visiting hours aren't enough, consider signing up the kids or the whole family for an affordable four-week class on Animal Homes or Bugs ($36 - $45), a three-day mini-camp on Animal Habitats or Caretaking ($60 - $85), or a two-hour workshop on raptors or reptiles or owls ($14 - $45). Just as the volunteers frequently show new animals to the kids, new class and workshop options get added every few months.

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3 reviews

San Francisco Fire Department Museum

655 Presidio Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94115

Like many San Francisco attractions, the San Francisco Fire Department Museum has opened up new exhibits in the last year or two, so that even if you have visited in the past, it may be worth revisiting. The biggest share of the Fire Department Museum is dedicated to the destruction of the city of San Francisco in the huge fires of 1906. Parents can take their kids here as a good (and free) educational opportunity to show why fire safety is so important, and to bond with firefighters. The old photographs and equipment are eye-catching, but the outside of the building is not as impressive, so you may have to really pay attention while walking or driving to find the location. The volunteers have gotten good reviews as friendly and helpful, and you can either just look at the exhibits or hear a voice-over. Also, there is a working fire station that may be worth looking into if you have the time – the normal tour takes about 30 minutes. Just remember that all of the Museum displays and artifacts are in one room, which can get cramped fast. That's a big reason why guided tours of over eight people require a payment, though small groups and individuals can always come for free. The kids should be fascinated by the restored steam engines and horse-drawn fire trucks (though they'll have to use their imaginations for the horses). An old pump for drawing water, and the 1849 mandate on household emergency buckets of water, might be good lessons in water conservation. The glass fire extinguishers, helmets, and other artifacts are just plain good historical pointers that show some key differences in technology between then and now. Some reviewers have said that kids were allowed to ring the 100-year-old bell and take pictures with the staff, so the kids might get lucky if they ask nicely.

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USS Hornet

707 W Hornet Ave.
Alameda, CA 94501

For a 900-foot aircraft carrier, the location of the USS Hornet is more hidden than might be expected. Once you arrive at the parking lot, the signs make it easy to get on board. The workings of the engine room should fascinate any kids who like to know how things work, while the flight deck and jets are just as fascinating visually as they are once you find out how they work. Bringing children under the age of five might be a small challenge, as the ship is large and might be a little spooky, especially the sick bay. History buffs will love seeing the sleeping bunks where men rested until it was time for them to be on duty, the elevators for the fighter planes, and the popular Apollo 11 exhibit. Essentially, this is a walkable, tourable World War II documentary, with live guides to explain the workings of aircraft and people from another era. The Officers' Lounge shows the history of other ships named 'Hornet', Ready Room 4 shows photos of fighter planes, Hangar Bay 3 shows some of the Nisei soldiers' contributions in combat and intelligence, and the second deck has a room dedicated to one of the everyday crewmembers and his team. Don't miss the forecastle tour if you can work it in, because it shows a miniature version of Titanic-like damage done by a typhoon. The hangar deck exhibit on Apollo 11 and 12 adds in a peacetime element of education, and information about how people traveled to the moon to explore. The hand stamp at admission makes it easy to tour a little and then take breaks outside, which is ideal if you want to do more food tours than history tours. The flight simulator is worth a little extra charge for kids who really need some multimedia thrills. Everyone does need to arrive in sturdy walking shoes and tote along a windbreaker, because going up and down the narrow stairs can really be difficult without comfortable footwear – and there are some chilly areas. Also, bring a camera to take some shots of panoramic San Francisco views from the flight deck.

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