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California vacation with the kids: a guide to unique family-friendly experiences


By Jessica Benavides Canepa, Jan 2020

Hot air balloon in California countryside


A family-friendly California vacation includes an array of attractions and outdoor activities, award-winning cuisine, mythical celebrity culture and, of course, endless summer sun. But what if you've already met the bears at the San Diego Zoo, sipped wine in Sonoma, toured Alcatraz and strolled the Hollywood Walk of Fame? Fortunately, the Golden State offers plenty more to see and do for those willing to take a less-traveled path.

Los Angeles

Bob Baker Marionette Theater

The Bob Baker Marionette Theater keeps the legacy of its pioneering puppeteer namesake alive. The museum, relocated in 2019, stars a vast collection of handmade puppets (some decades old) and respects the treasured traditions of puppetry by including kids-only seating near its stage and post-performance ice cream treats.

Historic Griffith Observatory in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles, California.

While in Griffith Park, visit the observatory, from which you can view downtown L.A., Hollywood and the Pacific Ocean.

Old Griffith Park Zoo

For an adventurous California vacation experience, hike to the northeast corner of Griffith Park and visit the remains of the park's old zoo. The zoo was shut down in 1966, but some of its oddball features, including the animal pens turned picnic areas and the vintage carousel, are still around.

Mosaic Tile House

Artists Cheri Pann and Gonzalo Duran transformed their home, once an ordinary 1940s house, into the vibrantly colorful Mosaic Tile House. Using scavenged tiles, shards of glass and donated knick-knacks, the couple has painstakingly created a whimsical, floor-to-ceiling masterpiece. Don't miss the kitchen, which has a Beanie Baby wall.

Napa and Sonoma Valleys

Hot air balloon ride

Enjoy a bird's-eye view of Napa Valley's rustic vineyards with Napa Valley Aloft. This FAA-approved, family-run business sends its vessels skyward from one of three meeting points: foodie favorite Yountville, hidden hideaway Pope Valley and rural Paradisa Ranch, depending on weather conditions. The entire adventure, which includes preflight snacks, a scenic one-hour balloon ride and a sit-down breakfast, lasts between three and four hours.

Horseback riding

A short drive from Sonoma Valley, Horse N Around leads its guests on a variety of horseback riding trails for beginner to expert riders ages 6 and up. Experienced guides accompany visitors through grassy plains and cattle herds, by ponds and over dunes and the sandy beaches along the coastline.

Olive oil tasting

Turn a typically adults-only experience into family fun at Long Meadow Ranch, a sprawling estate with three wineries, two eateries and a shop. After exploring the gardens and horseshoe pit, visit the general store at Farmstead for a tasting of three organic olive oils followed by an optional alfresco meal.

Balboa Park

Casa de Balboa in San Diego's Balboa Park, home to a history center and photography museum.

San Diego

Balboa Park

Once you've had your fill of the world-famous San Diego Zoo, scope out the rest of the surrounding Balboa Park and explore its myriad museums, craft fairs, street performances and green spaces, which were designed for the whole family to enjoy. Highlights include the interactive Fleet Science Center and the fragrant Rose Garden.

Whaley House Museum

One of the most famous haunted houses in America, the Whaley House Museum attracts many history enthusiasts. The onetime home of a prominent 19th-century family has also been a courthouse and a theater. Daytime tours are self-guided. If you dare, opt for a nighttime tour, complete with creepy sounds and unexplained sensations.

San Diego Botanic Garden

The San Diego Botanic Garden celebrates nature with dozens of gardens, trails and flora-related activities. Little ones can enjoy a miniature playhouse and railroad track at the Seeds of Wonder garden, while the Hamilton Children's Garden appeals to kids of all ages with its grass maze, jungle treehouse and life-size tic-tac-toe game.

San Francisco

Magowan's Infinite Mirror Maze

Though tiny, the neon-colored Magowan's Infinite Mirror Maze is an affordable family activity that offers an all-day ticket. Feel your way through the winding labyrinth of dazzling kaleidoscope light, and don't worry about smudging the mirrors, as you'll be given gloves.

Museum of Ice Cream

Nothing says sweet tooth like an upbeat, pink venue dedicated to the wonderful world of ice cream. With quirky technicolor photo opportunities at every turn, the interactive Museum of Ice Cream features themed activities (sprinkle pool, anyone?) and plenty of tasty samples for children (and adults) of all ages.

The Exploratorium

For a memorable excursion during your California vacation, spend an action-packed day at the Exploratorium. Featuring hundreds of science and art-related interactive exhibits, kids can take educational journeys on a fog bridge, discover microscopic life forms, crawl around a maze in total darkness or view themselves in a whole new way by way of mirrors, light tricks and assorted optical illusions.

Whether you decide to partake in just a few or all of these one-of-a-kind experiences with the kids in these California hot spots, you'll be seeing the Golden State from a new perspective.


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