Nine museums in three days. No wonder my 12-year-old daughter looked worn out. She was my "tester" on a trip to check out San Francisco's bountiful museums, from high-brow art...

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Nine museums in three days.

No wonder my 12-year-old daughter looked worn out.

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She was my “tester” on a trip to check out San Francisco’s bountiful museums, from high-brow art to high-tech fun.

“Up and at ’em,” I’d bellow, hauling Stephanie, bleary-eyed, out of the hotel so we could be on the doorstep when the day’s first museum opened.

Such a cultural blitz isn’t something a normal vacationing family should try. But if you’re considering a San Francisco trip — and want to see something beyond the tourist-trap shops of Fisherman’s Wharf — here’s a rundown on five museums that were our family-friendly favorites.

The winner: Zeum

Zeum is a small, but smartly designed, hands-on art and technology center for kids in Yerba Buena, a cultural and garden complex covering a couple square blocks in the heart of downtown San Francisco.

Children get a close-up look at Alcatraz during an evening tour of the gloomy prison buildings. Night tours are smaller-scale and less crowded than daytime tours, and visitors may get to see the sun set and the moon rise over the city.

At Zeum, children can make animated videos; do computer art; make a video of themselves singing karaoke; make their own music with big tubes; fool around with clay and more. It works equally well for preschoolers and young teens.

“I love it,” sighed Stephanie, as I dragged her away to the next museum.

Zeum is part of the Rooftop at Yerba Buena, a kid-centered area. To really make the kids’ day, treat them to a ride on the antique carousel in the plaza adjoining Zeum. (The century-old carousel graced Seattle’s long-gone Luna Park in the early 1900s. ) Or go play at Yerba Buena’s bowling alley or ice-skating rink, just steps away.

To give kids a techno fix of absolutely no redeeming cultural value, cross the street to Metreon, a 350,000-square-foot Sony complex of high-tech stores, movie theaters and the sprawling Portal 1 video-games arcade.

Info: Zeum, 415-777-2800 or; Yerba Buena general information,; Metreon, 800-METREON,

Hot tip: Zeum admission is free for the last half-hour of each day. Go then or right when it opens at 11 a.m. to beat the summer crowds.

Very close second: Exploratorium

If your kids like Seattle’s Pacific Science Center, they’ll love the Exploratorium, a cavernous hands-on museum near the Golden Gate Bridge. Children can roam among hundreds of interactive science exhibits, from how eyesight works to experiments with dry ice and bubbles.

The cable cars, which run on about nine miles of track along three city-center routes, and the small Cable Car Museum, are favorites for families. The museum, in the cable-car powerhouse, shows how the system works.

My daughter’s verdict: “Zeum was more fun. The Exploratorium is great, but it’s more learning.”

Still, we ended up spending hours in the Exploratorium, and one major exhibit, the Tactile Dome, got rave reviews from Stephanie and six other people exploring it with us. It’s a geodesic dome of utterly dark, twisting passageways and chambers.

Visitors feel their way through the hundreds-foot-long maze, crawling, bumping into padded walls, slipping down little slides and exploring by feel some objects scattered along the route, from shoes to words engraved in wood.

The Tactile Dome is designed to heighten appreciation of the sense of touch. It heightened my claustrophobia.

When I crawled into a dead-end, pitch-black, low passageway, I panicked. “Let me out,” I hollered to the attendant, who monitors an intercom and quickly popped open an escape door.

I was the only one to chicken out. Everyone else went through the Tactile Dome three times during our hourlong time slot, and loved it.

Info: 415-561-0360,

Hot tips: • The Tactile Dome is by reservation only: 415-561-0362. Book well in advance.

• Make a day out of an Exploratorium visit by strolling among the trendy shops and cafes on nearby Chestnut Street in the city’s Marina District. Or let kids romp in the parks near the Exploratorium — a bay-front park across the street or parkland surrounding the museum, which includes the grandiose remnants of a neo-classical building from a 1915 world’s fair.

• If you’re going to be a culture vulture and visit lots of museums, consider buying the San Francisco CityPass, which gives reduced-price admission to the Exploratorium and some other attractions, plus a seven-day public-transit pass. 888-330-5008 or

A different kind of winner: Alcatraz Island

Legendary Alcatraz prison sits on a windswept island in San Francisco Bay. Hundreds of incorrigible federal prisoners were held here in drafty cells until the closure of the maximum-security penitentiary in 1963. The prisoners could gaze from the cafeteria’s barred windows at the sparkling bay and city, seeing so clearly everything they were missing because of their crimes.

Tourists walk by the prison theater on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. The former prison is now run by the National Park Service and is one of the city’s most visited destinations.

The National Park Service runs Alcatraz. Visitors can take a self-guided audio tour of the grim cellblock, past the cells of gangster Al Capone and murderer Robert Stroud, better known as the Birdman of Alcatraz. Former prisoners narrate parts of the audio tour, in raspy voices and with a true insider’s knowledge. And some cells, including the tiny, dark isolation cells, are open to visitors.

Stephanie’s verdict: “Sad and awesome. The audio tour was so realistic, you really feel what the prisoners went through.”

Info: National Park Service: 415-561-4900,

The Blue and Gold Fleet provides passenger-ferry service to Alcatraz from Fisherman’s Wharf: 415-705-5555,

Hot tips: Alcatraz is very popular in summer, so book your boat trip (10 minutes each way) well in advance. Once on the island, you can explore at your own pace and take the self-guided audio tour; rangers loan each visitor a mini-cassette player with headphones.

For smaller crowds and more in-depth tours, take the night tour. It’s more structured, with historical narration on the boat ride plus ranger-guided tours on the island, including behind-the-scenes tours of the prison’s hospital, kitchen and more not often offered during the day.

• You can buy a souvenir piece of “The Rock” for $4.95. Small chunks of concrete from an Alcatraz reconstruction project are being sold to tourists as a fund-raiser:

The Cable Car Museum: A don’t-miss quick hit

You can’t go to San Francisco without taking the kids on a cable-car ride. Besides, they love making their parents nervous as they hang out the open sides of the cable cars that trundle up and down the city’s steep hills.

To show kids how the cable cars work, go to the Cable Car Museum, a 10-minute cable-car ride from downtown’s Union Square. The museum is inside the cable-car powerhouse, a cavernous room of clanking machinery and sheaves, or wheels, that wind the cable underneath the streets, pulling along the cars that grip the steel cable.

There’s not much to the museum besides the machinery, a few explanatory plaques and historic photos. But kids like all its moving parts — and the fact that it only takes 10 minutes to see it all.

Stephanie’s verdict: “Really interesting. It’s not a hands-on place, but I liked seeing it all and reading the plaques. Then when you ride a cable car, you know what’s going on underneath it.”

Info: 415-474-1887 or

Hot tips: Cable-car mechanics sometimes take a break on the sidewalk at the side of the museum. If you’re lucky, they’ll chat with you about how they inspect and fix the thousands-foot-long loops of cable to keep the system running.

California Academy of Sciences

Want to see tanks full of sharks and other sea creatures? A star show at a planetarium? Or life-size dioramas of African animals?

All those and more are at the California Academy of Sciences, a sprawling natural-history museum in Golden Gate Park.

“Really, really fun and it’s aimed at kids,” said Stephanie, relieved after spending hours at avant-garde and classical art museums.

A big hit for most children, to judge by the squeals, is the museum’s entertaining — and educational — film on San Francisco’s earthquakes, from the 1906 quake and fire that devastated the city to the 1989 quake that shook the city’s baseball stadium during the World Series.

During the film, special effects in the darkened auditorium mimic an earthquake, with ominous rumbling noises, simulated fires, and the quake-like shaking of a platform on which viewers can stand to watch the film.

Info: 415-750-7145,

Hot tip: Go early to beat the crowds and snag a table for lunch in the pleasant cafeteria. Then spend the afternoon in surrounding Golden Gate Park.

If you want to see a planetarium show, make a beeline for its ticket counter once you’re in the museum since the shows can fill up.

Kristin Jackson’s Family Matters column runs the third Sunday of each month. Contact her at 206-464-2271 or