21 Ways to Spend a Day in the SF South Bay (for less)

On a slow day around the San Francisco Bay, why not check out what the South Bay has to offer? Some offer free days and/or discounts, making them a little savvier to see, although they are all worth a look.

Here’s my diverse list of 22 amazing museums and attractions to visit, including my faves: The Tech Museum, Santa Cruz Boardwalk, Gilroy Gardens, CuriOdyssey, and Montalvo Arts Center. FYI: Wherever possible, you’ll see my referral links to available discounts.

1. California’s Great America Theme Park

WHAT: A 100-acre theme park that offers more water rides than any other park in Northern California. The new Patriot roller coaster just opened and it’s a huge hit. And the park is planning many upgrades this year. Boomerang Bay Waterpark is especially popular during the summer months. Open from early March through late November (or possibly December).

ADDRESS: California’s Great America Theme Park, 4701 Great America Pkwy, Santa Clara, CA 95052.

DISCOUNTS: Current options include …

  • Military Discount: Members of the military can usually get a discount on tickets at the front gate.
  • AAA Discount: Check with your local AAA office to see if they still offer a discount.

2. Cantor Arts Center

WHAT: Diverse collections span continents, cultures, and 4,000 years of art history all in one place. Exhibits include include the largest gathering of Rodin bronzes outside Paris. Closed on Tuesdays.

ADDRESS: Cantor Arts Center, 328 Lomita Drive at Museum Way, Stanford, CA 94305 (at Stanford University).

FREE: Always free admission. After 4 pm on weekdays, parking is free in visitor spaces and in A and C permit spaces. (Otherwise, parking is $2.50 per hour at the black boxes).

3. Children’s Discovery Museum

WHAT: An interactive learning and discovery center for children and families encompassing the broad themes of community, connections, and creativity. Housed in a striking 52,000 square foot purple building in San Jose.

ADDRESS: Children’s Discovery Museum, 180 Woz Way San Jose, CA 95110.

FREE: Babies under a year go free.

DISCOUNT: Senior 60+ years $1 off at the door.

4. Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia

WHAT: If you only have a short layover from SFO, stop in for a half hour and find out more than you ever wanted to know about the ubiquitous Pez dispenser. Next to the Classic Toy Museum (dubious details below), you might just remember your sense of childhood wonder. Closed Sundays and Mondays and major holidays.

ADDRESS: Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia, 214 California Dr, Burlingame, CA 94010 (just 5 minutes south of the San Francisco International Airport).

FREE: Free First Thursdays. Children Under 4 get in free. Free guided tour with ticket.

DISCOUNT: Children (4-10) and Seniors (65) $1 off. Regular tickets are only $3.

5. Classic Toy Museum

WHAT: Showcases the classic toys we all grew up with. On display are many childhood favorites that are still popular today. Closed Sundays, Mondays, and major holidays.

ADDRESS: Classic Toy Museum, 214 California Drive, Burlingame, California 94010 (just 10 minutes from San Francisco Airport, inside the Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia).

FREE: Free first Thursdays. Children Under 4 get in free. Free guided tour with ticket.

DISCOUNT: Children (4-10) and Seniors (65) $1 off. Regular tickets are only $3.

6. Curodyssey

WHAT: Provides a variety of programs and exhibits that help children and families appreciate the natural world. After your visit, see the real natural world right outside the door in the beautiful Coyote Point Park (the museum is inside the park).

ADDRESS: CuriOdyssey, 1651 Coyote Point Drive, San Mateo, CA 94401 (off Highway 101).

FREE: The museum offers a few free Community Days. Teachers always get in free with valid Teacher ID.

DISCOUNT: Participates in the Blue Star Museums program, which gives 50% off regular admission to military families from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Members of KQED/KTEH get 25% off regular adult admission. Groups of 10 or more may qualify for a discount.

7. Filoli Center

WHAT: Historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, this 650 acre estate is one of the finest remaining country estates of the early 20th century. A grand Georgian mansion with majestic gardens where hundreds of rare flowers, plants and trees flourish. Closed on Mondays.

ADDRESS: Filoli Center, 86 Cañada Road, Woodside, CA 94062 (30 miles south of San Francisco).FREE: Kids younger than 5 get in free. Parking is free at the Center.

DISCOUNT: Seniors (65 & older) $3 off. Children (ages 5–17) $10 off (50% off). Also $10 off for educators with employee ID from adjoining counties (San Francisco, Contra Costa, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda) and National Trust for Historic Preservation members.

8. Gilroy Gardens

WHAT: This unique theme park features more than 40 family rides, attractions, and exhibits set among six colorful gardens. Rides and attractions include the Coyote & Redwood Junctions Railroad Train Ride, the Quicksilver Express Mine Coaster, and Rainbow Garden Round Boat Ride. Kids like the Pit Stop Racers, Super Squirter Station, and Tubs-O-Fun. California tree huggers will like the world famous 50-year-old, one-of-a-kind Circus Trees rescued from Scotts Valley.

ADDRESS: Gilroy Gardens, 3050 Hecker Pass Hwy (Hwy 152), Gilroy, CA 95020.

BANG’ TIP: At Christmas time during Gilroy Gardens Holiday Lights, the gardens are transformed into a winter wonderland with twinkling lights, with holiday displays and activities that include A Charlie Brown Christmas Show, Santa’s Workshop, and Waterfall Illumination a choreographed light show dance and soundtrack of favorite Christmas Carols.

9. Hiller Aviation Museum

WHAT: A collection dedicated to man’s concept of flight. Our Museum exhibits highlight the many historic advancements native to Northern California, and show how technologies resident here today will shape the future of air transportation.

ADDRESS: Located at the San Carlos Airport.

FREE: Children (4 and under) get in free. Free parking.

DISCOUNT: You can get a $1 Off Coupon for Sunday Admission on the Hiller website. Youths (5-17) and Seniors (65+) $5 off. Discounted pricing is available for groups of 12 or more with advance reservations.

10. Intel Museum

WHAT: Presents the history and power of computer chips first hand, with more than 30 interactive exhibits, educational programs, docent-led tours, and family fun in a 10,000 square feet ultra-clean, highly automated space. Closed Sundays and occasionally for private events. The Silicon Valley stereotype in action.

ADDRESS: The Intel Museum and Intel Museum Store, 2200 Mission College Boulevard, Santa Clara, CA 95054 (in the Robert Noyce Building, near the Montague Expressway exit off Highway 101).

FREE: Always free admission (come on, the whole place is an advertisement for Intel). You can also book free Field Trips for Grades 2-12.

11. Hakone Japanese Gardens

WHAT: The oldest Asian and Japanese estate in the Western Hemisphere–eighteen acres of magnificent beauty tucked away in the verdant hills of Saratoga overlooking Silicon Valley. The gardens were originally the private estate of San Francisco philanthropists Isabel and Oliver Stine, and feature a Hill and Pond Garden, Zen Garden, Tea Garden, and Bamboo Garden.

ADDRESS: Hakone Estate and Gardens, 21000 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, CA 95070 (a 10th of a mile above the Village of Saratoga).

FREE: First Tuesday of every Month free for Saratoga Residents. Children (4 and younger) free.

DISCOUNT: Seniors, students, and Saratoga residents get $2 off. (Tickets are $10 for everyone else.)

12. Montalvo Arts Center

WHAT: A century-old, Mediterranean-style villa on 175 acres of the beautiful Saratoga foothills. Gallery exhibitions, concerts, literary readings, and special events take place throughout the year. Most shows and events require tickets. But you can visit the beautiful grounds and picnic on the front lawn for free. Or take a hike up the hillside (not too steep) for a great view of the valley. The trails are dog friendly. The historic Villa is not open to the public except during paid tours and events. Parking Lot 4 is closest to the trails. If you are going to the Villa, Garden Theatre, Carriage House, choose Lot 1 up the road past the Front Lawn.

ADDRESS: 15400 Montalvo Rd, Saratoga, California 95070.

FREE: Parking is free on the Montalvo grounds (theater parking is event specific). You can hike or picnic for free.

13. Museum of American Heritage

WHAT: If you’re in Palo Alto and looking for something fun to do, here’s a family-friendly idea for tech/history buffs and those who appreciate the value of vintage. The Museum of American Heritage showcases the historic technologies and inventions that shaped America, and displays in a century-old home and garden. You can wander around the venue free and enjoy both the new special exhibits and permanent exhibits depicting early 20th century life. MOAH is an interactive learning center whose mission is to create innovators of the future through inventions of the past. Open Friday, Saturday, Sunday from 11am to 4pm.

ADDRESS: The Museum of American Heritage (MOAH), 51 Homer Avenue, Palo Alto, California 94301.

FREE: Admission is always free.

14. Raging Waters

WHAT: The Bay Area’s largest water theme park with water slides, thrill rides and attractions, including an interactive family play structure and pint-sized attractions for the little ones. Open during the summer months.

ADDRESS: Raging Waters, 2333 S White Rd, San Jose, CA 95148 (inside Lake Cunningham Regional Park).

DISCOUNT: Season passes are the way to go. And you can often get discount tickets to Raging Waters via an ever changing list of promotional partners, including Costco and Albertsons.

15. Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum

WHAT: A stunning complex housing several Egyptian-style buildings on a five-acre park-like setting featuring broad lawns, palm trees, rose gardens, and exotic plants from around the world. Check out the Planetarium space films (included with admission). And you can download a free MP3 tour on your smartphone from their website. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

ADDRESS: Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, 1660 Park Ave, San Jose CA 95191.

FREE: Admission is free for children younger than 5.

DISCOUNT: Seniors (55+), students get $2 off. Children (ages 5-10) $4 off. Members of AAA, AAM, KQED, and Military get $1 off at the door. (Everyone else pays $9.)

16. Rosie the Riveter Wwii Home Front National Historical Park

WHAT: Located in the wartime boomtown of Richmond, California, the park highlights the stories and places of the US home front response to World War II, particularly the roles of women. Features the ship Red Oak Victory, Kaiser Richmond Shipyards, a tank factory, World War II housing developments and other facilities.

ADDRESS: Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park Visitor Center, 1414 Harbour Way South, Suite #3000/Oil House, Richmond, CA 94804.

FREE: Admission is always free.

17. San Jose Museum of Art

WHAT: San Jose’s premier art museum, with a focus on contemporary art in all media. The distinguished Silicon Valley museum features modern and contemporary art and related activities. Permanent and visiting exhibitions keep the museum interesting. The permanent collection alone includes some 2,500 modern and contemporary artworks. The Museum also offers a unique store and café. Closed Monday, and all Monday holidays.

ADDRESS: San Jose Museum of Art, 110 South Market Street, San Jose, California 95113.

FREE: You have a few ways to get in for free.

  • Free admission for children aged 6 and younger.
  • Admission is free on the first full weekend of every month for BofA and Merrill Lynch cardholders as part of the “Museums On Us” program. (Special exhibits are extra.)
  • With your admission tickets, free tours of exhibitions are offered Tuesday–Sunday at 1 pm and 2:30 pm.
  • Free admission to active members of the military and their families from Memorial Day weekend (May 26) to Labor Day weekend (September 7).
  • You can park free in downtown San Jose on Saturdays and Sundays from 6 am – 6 pm at the following parking lots and garages: First & St. James; Second & St. James; Central Place Lot (80 E. San Fernando Street); Pavilion Garage (150 S. Second St.); Third Street Garage (95 N. Third St.); Market/San Pedro Square Garage (45 N. Market St.); Fourth Street Garage (44 S. Fourth St.); Second & San Carlos Street Garage.

DISCOUNT: The options include:

  • College students are $6 off, kids 7-17 $5 off, and seniors 65+ $2 off.
  • Admission to the galleries is just $5 after 5 pm on the third Thursday of every month when the museum is open late, until 8 pm. (Regular tickets are $10).

18. San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles

WHAT: Exhibits and programs promoting the appreciation of quilts and textiles, highlighting the role in the lives of their makers in cultural traditions and as historical documents. closed Mondays, Tuesdays, and major holidays. Closed from 2pm to 2:30 pm on Saturdays and Sundays.

ADDRESS: San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles, 520 South First Street, San Jose, CA 95113.

FREE: First Friday of every month is free from 7 pm-9 pm (except January and July). Children 12 and younger always get in free.

DISCOUNT: Students and seniors get $1.50 off. The First Friday of every month is “pay what you can” from 12 noon-7 pm (except January and July). Regular admission is $8.

19. Santa Cruz Boardwalk

WHAT: Recently named the world’s “Best Seaside Amusement Park” by industry experts, the 102-year-old Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk features both modern and classic thrill rides, restaurants, miniature golf, video game arcades, and family bowling, all located on a mile of sandy beach.

ADDRESS: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, 400 Beach St., Santa Cruz, CA 95060.

FREE: The boardwalk is always free (but not the rides). Friday nights in the Summer you can go to the free Bands On The Beach Concerts. Also check out their free Movies On The Beach on Wednesdays, 9 pm.

20. Tech Museum of Innovation

WHAT: A hands-on technology museum with over 250 interactive high-tech exhibits in a 132,000-sq.-ft. museum. Includes Northern California’s only IMAX® Dome theater.

ADDRESS: Located in San Jose, CA.

FREE: Admission is free on the first full weekend of every month for BofA and Merrill Lynch cardholders as part of the “Museums On Us” program. (Special exhibits are extra.)

21. Winchester Mystery House

WHAT: Historic 160-room Victorian mansion built by rifle heiress Sarah Winchester. Beautiful details mixed in with bizarre oddities, such as doors opening onto walls and stairs going nowhere. Guided tours are offered daily.

ADDRESS: 525 South Winchester Boulevard, San Jose, CA 95128.

FREE: Children 5 and younger go free.

DISCOUNT: You can also save $1 to $3 on tickets including a youth discount.

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