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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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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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CuriOdyssey

1651 Coyote Point Dr.
San Mateo, CA 94401

If you've explored the great open grasslands, magical Marina, and the dragon and castle playground of Coyote Point, you definitely have to take a peek at CuriOdyssey. This is what used to be Coyote Point Museum, just with a facelift, though parents with fond childhood memories will be relieved to know that there are still personable otters here – ready to entertain through the glass. On Saturdays at noon, the otters are even more entertaining at feeding time, and stick around for some facts and fun with the bobcat at 1 pm. The Animal Connections shows rotate every weekend. You could get introduced to a skunk one week, a hissing cockroach the next, and get lucky with the falcon getting fed on the third weekend. With 100 animals here, from the warm-blooded bobcat to the cold-blooded boa, there should be enough to get the kids excited about going to a zoo in the future. That's if you can tear them away from the butterflies and hummingbirds in the gardens, or the aviary with the majestic golden eagle and ugly turkey vulture. The hands-on exhibits can show the forces of nature, like the Riverbed Experiment that shows water flow and erosion, or backyard science experiments that expand your vision and hearing. Anyone who hasn't yet seen the Exploratorium will want to, after being able to blow the fog to and fro, and playing with the spinning gears. While there aren't a huge number of exhibits here, besides the rain panel and the echo chamber, it'll be enough to whet the kids' appetites for more. There are the same choices here for snacks as at the Marina, mainly chips and string cheese and granola bars. You may want to take along a picnic basket and eat in the general park area before coming to see the animals, especially if the kids need some real food. Just watch out for the gulls and geese, who can get very bold when begging.

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Exploratorium

698 The Embarcadero
San Francisco, CA 94111

Exploring is something that kids naturally do, and the Exploratorium is designed for questions and curious fingers. Ideally located only a mile away from the famous Fisherman's Wharf, there's always something fascinating to see on the Pier 1 waterfront near the Embarcadero business district – and the Exploratorium's Fisher Bay Observatory shows ships and tides and underwater creatures. Even if the foggy weather clears up near the Golden Gate Bridge, the Exploratorium's Fog Bridge can still wrap you in drifts of mystery every 30 minutes. With 150 new exhibits (formerly 'only' 450), there's plenty of room for art and science to coexist. If you're into algae and vibrant color, there's an air-pumping chandelier to play with. If you want to see your own reflection the way it looks from your eye's point of view (upside down) and hear your voice bounce off of a canyon wall, the Giant Mirror can help. The Tinkering Studio can help you put your invention ideas into practice. Kids who display unsual abilities in motion should check out the skateboard exibit and the sports science displays, which can range from baseball's popularity in Japan to the measurement of hockey collisions and your reaction time. More contemplative types might enjoy the gardening videos on carniverous plants and Antarctic greenhouses – or check out the effects of hybridization on seeds. (Older kids might want to know how coffee works and the process involved in making sparkling wine.) The microscopes at the Imaging Station show cells and fruit flies up close, and the activities and sculptures in the Geometry Playground can get kids interested in the science of shapes. Film and audio enthusiasts should find a home in the no-see-um Tactile Dome, Webcast Studio, or Kanbar Forum, with mix-and-match audio at Soundscapes (Tuesday and Friday) and “Off The Screen” showings of new film and live cinema performances (Wednesday and Saturday). Exploratorium, complete with a working Biology Lab, is the kind of place where both adults and kids can wander unrestrained, letting their curiosity guide them. (Nearly two acres of the new facility is dedicated to social and human behavior exhibits – outside and free to the public.) With programs for public and homeschooled kids alike, individual and group learning is encouraged without rules about what you can look at but not touch, with exhibits even at the eateries (including the Seaglass Restaurant's bay view and the made-to-order seismic joint café with sushi bar). Just remember to pack light sweaters in case of gusty weather, and strollers can be hard to get on weekends due to the first-come first-served basis.

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Habitot Children's Museum

2065 Kittredge St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
United States

This is definitely a place to bring the young ones, whether they want to operate the spaceships and ambulances, don an apron and splash paint around, or splash around in the Waterworks zone. This water zone is even more important in this indoor facility than at others, because the facility is in a basement. One of the only repeated complaints from reviewers was that the museum is smaller than the party area, and occasionally gets hot and stuffy. Staying near the water zone can help alleviate this issue, while the indoor bathroom helps alleviate calls of nature. Other parents had high praise for the arts and crafts area, from the hands-on instructors to the quality of the materials available, though the kids may want to just hang out at the Train Tables all day. Also, if you've ever had a great time at a park or museum, only to have the kids fall apart when they realize they can't take home the toys, this won't happen here. Habitot members can access the lending library for books and toys, and you can get ideas for what will keep them entertained at home. While street and lot parking are relatively inexpensive and easy to access, the facility is very accessible by public transport in downtown Berkeley. Habitot can also be used as a drop-off center every fourth Friday for the monthly Parents' Night Out – the kids get pizza and play while parents get to remember life before diapers. It's a win for everyone.

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