Must-See, Must-Do Northern California Museums for All Ages

Living less than an hour from San Francisco, my family has a long list of go-to favorites that can easily fill the occasion when spare time might actually sneak into the family calendar. Exploring the Presidio, getting clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf or exploring Golden Gate Park are just a few of the things that pop into my mind. But I leave room on the list for new finds like San Jose, California.

Where is San Jose?

San Jose is located about an hour south of San Francisco. The third largest city in California, it boasts the highest median household income in the nation and is home to more than 6,000 technology companies. Being tech savvy is a way of life in these parts, whether you’re 4 or 40.

Research San Jose Museum

Making medicine at the Life Tech Gallery

The Tech Museum

Just the mere thought of kids and museums is enough to make even the seasoned family traveler let out a little sigh. Breathe easy, this is not the case at The Tech Museum. There are hundreds of hands-on exhibits and interactive displays. I wouldn’t recommend planning anything else in the afternoon because chances are no one in the family will leave without a fight.

Take the Jet Pack Challenge. Parents, I’m talking to you too. It’s a simulated spacewalk that lets you get a feel for what it’s like to use an astronaut’s jet pack. You sit in a chair and move toward targets using blasts of compressed air.

Then head to the Upper Level and go straight to the Life Tech Gallery. Grab a pair of gloves and goggles and take a hands-on lesson in how scientists make medicine. Kids actually work in a lab-like setting and cross jellyfish protein with bacteria. A docent is on duty, but an impressive computer program walks them through the process step by step. They can even get online the next day and see how their samples are growing.

You won’t be able to cover the entire museum in one day. It’s easy to get involved in an exhibit, than realize half an hour or more has gone by. It simply takes time for kids to do things like design their own roller coaster and then go for a ride.

Don’t leave without seeing a show at the Hackworth IMAX® Dome Theater. The eight-story theater is the only domed IMAX® in Northern California. It seats 295 people and shows a variety of movies from inspirational and educational titles like Born to Be Wild to feature films like Harry Potter. There’s a snack bar where you can buy and even flavor your own popcorn. The kettle corn flavor was a hit with my family.

Part of The Tech Museum’s Mission is to engage people of all ages, but it resonates with that sometimes tough to please tween and teen set. That said I think any kid, kindergarten age and up will have a great day here.

San Jose Museum Mammoth

Mammoth play area at Children’s Discovery Museum

Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose

After raving success at The Tech Museum, I was a little concerned about our planned visit to the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose. It had big shoes to fill. Geared toward kids 10 and younger, I hoped my 10 year-old would have fun and my 13 year-old wouldn’t be bored to tears. I worried for nothing. Though the focus may be on younger ones, families with kids a range of ages will have no trouble here. With 150 interactive exhibits designed and built on-site, there’s something for everyone in the family.

Meet Lupe! In the summer of 2005, a San Jose resident walking his dog along the Guadalupe River, discovered the skull of a Columbian mammoth just a few miles from the Museum. The juvenile mammoth, affectionately named Lupe, would have roamed the area about 14,000 years ago, now she’s the center of attention at CDM. Lupe’s actual skull and femur are on display along with a full size replica of the now famous museum resident. There’s also mammoth bone dig pits and a great, but simple mammoth-style play area.

WaterWays is like a magnet that pulls kids from across the museum. Colorful plastic balls that are moved about by water that gushes, rushes and soaks busy hands. Smocks provided but not mandatory. If your kids are the type to work at getting soaked bring a change of clothes. There’s a drying rack in the garden for wet t-shirts if needed.

Who doesn’t like bubbles? Bubbalogna is a small area of the museum dedicated to making bubbles. Forget those little plastic wands. This is bubble making to the amazing extreme. Three fairly simple, but clever stations give kids the chance to make and pop bubbles of all shapes and sizes. My girls were setting bubbles airborne that were easily bigger than they are.

The Wonder Cabinet offers so many great things all rolled up into one. This area, complete with a closing door, gives infants, toddlers and preschoolers a place of their own. There’s a safe area designed just for crawlers who need some moving time and the carousel area is a great place to take a preschooler on the verge of a or recovering from a meltdown. Add in art, puppets and so much more, little ones could be ready for a nap before they’re ready to leave. Again, geared at the younger set, but older siblings are not turned away.

Overall, there is very little signage in the museum, the exhibits speak for themselves. By the way, my 13 year-old has already asked to go back.

San Jose Museum Mummy

Mummy smiling at The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum

Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum

This one-of-a-kind museum houses the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts on exhibit in western North America. There are more than 4,000 artifacts in the museum’s collection. Like many parents, I’ve taken my girls to the traveling King Tut Exhibition but nothing prepared me or them for what we saw on our visit to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum.

Have you ever seen a mummy smile? A real mummy, not the kind you see roaming the neighborhood on Halloween. The Rosicrucian has four human mummies on display. One with a nearly full set of teeth. There are also numerous mummified animals on display, but I’d bet the mummified bull’s head gets more attention than the cats and falcons and baby crocodiles.

When you enter the museum, pick up a Passport to Ancient Egypt for your kids. As you make your way through the museum, kids can collect stamps and write about things they learn, like why both Egyptian women and men wore eyeliner (I won’t give away the answer). The passport also contains a great chart that deciphers the Hieroglyphic Alphabet.

When you get the Passport be sure to ask what time you can go on a guided tour the full-scale rock tomb replica. If you have to change your schedule to do the tour, change your schedule. Your flashlight wielding guide will take you step by step through the chambers of a tomb. The lighting, the walls covered in hieroglyphs and the grand sarcophagus make you feel like you are actually inside a real tomb.

Older elementary school aged kids, tweens and teens will learn the most on a visit to the Rosicrucian. There’s a good amount of reading that needs to be done to explain the rare artifacts in front of you. Strollers and food and drink are not allowed. That doesn’t mean younger kids won’t enjoy the coolness factor that comes along with the Museum that has four mummies, it just means your visit will most likely be faster and convince you to come back again. The mummies aren’t going anywhere, and at least one will always greet you with a smile.

2 Comments

  1. Great post! I have lived in San Jose my whole life and haven’t been to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum yet. I loved the Children’s Discovery Museum though.

    You might want to check out the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo…kids tend to love that one. Here is a list of a few more museums in the Bay Area on LikeList: http://likeli.st/JTm5

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