San Francisco, CA
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San Francisco, CA

Computer-age attractions have turned Frisco into a laboratory for high-tech fun and games.

So Much to Do in SoMa

No visit to San Francisco would be complete without a cable car ride, a tour of Fisherman's Wharf, and a cruise down the world's crookedest street. But for kids, these attractions aren't nearly as cool as the high-tech hijinks going on in a funky industrial zone south of Market Street. (OK, maybe surfing Lombard Street is still cool).

"SoMa" (south of Market), as the natives call it, has become synonymous with cutting-edge fun and learning in this city by the bay. Maybe the scenery isn't as pretty as Nob Hill. But deep in the heart of San Francisco's dot-com district, you can make videos, crush monsters in a digital funhouse, and more important, play on computers that won't crash and burn like the ones at home.

Up On the Roof

Atop the Moscone Convention Center is San Francisco's answer to Rockefeller Center: the Yerba Buena Gardens. This $56 million, two-block oasis features an NHL-regulation-sized, indoor ice skating rink, (Wednesdays are "senior skate day," complete with big band music), and a 12-lane bowling alley, which hosts "Fog City Experience" every Friday and Saturday night on mist-shrouded lanes. There's also a serene children's garden and playground, as well as a 1906 vintage carousel.

Yerba Buena's latest newcomer -- Zeum -- is a 34,000-square-foot art and technology center where kids make clay figures for a cartoon or create computer-generated sound effects for their own live-action film. Highlights include:

Chinatown, copyright
SFCVB/Phil Coblentz

  • The Animator's Studio. Your children can create characters from clay and wire, then take pictures of them in different poses. The computer will print out their claymation creation, frame-by-frame. It can be assembled in an old-fashioned flip book to show kids at home, or saved onto a zip disk (bring your own).
  • The Production Lab. Get your family's 10 minutes of fame. Budding producers can make a short video, then have it screened at the Zeum. Depending on their show biz proclivities, your stars and starlets can don costumes and act -- or, if they prefer, work behind the scenes as a sound tech, camera operator, or director. Productions are free with admission and occur several times daily.
  • The Learning Lab. Your propellerheads will scramble for one of the 22 computers, on which they can do 3-D modeling, video editing, illustrating, and multimedia presentations.

Four Floors of Fun

Interactive exhibits, games, shops, dining, and movie theaters await families at Sony's Metreon, a popular multi-level entertainment zone, just steps from the Zeum. Some highlights:

  • Where the Wild Things Are. Huge monsters, mazes, caves, and magical forests come alive in this interactive bedtime story, based on the book by Maurice Sendak. Your kids can stomp on ghoul's heads as they pop up through the floor, move their eyes and mouths by pulling on ropes, or become monsters themselves by looking in the funhouse mirror. Voice-distorting microphones help them sound big and bad.
  • Air-Tight Garage. Perfect for teens, this huge video arcade on the second floor transports you to the edgy world of graphic novelist Jean "Moebius" Giraud. In this surreal and timeless setting, Giraud's art blends with technology in three spectacular interactive games. Savage Quest, the most popular, puts you at the controls of an on-screen tyrannosaur. The goal: to eat as many smaller dinosaurs as possible. Warning: Blood and gore flow freely here, so keep little tykes away.
  • Not Your Average Food Court. You won't find the usual fast food fare here. But not to worry -- the choices are practically endless. At "Taste of San Francisco" you can sample dishes from five white-hot Bay Area restaurants. At "In The Night Kitchen," a restaurant based on the Maurice Sendak book, kids can slap together their own PB&J sandwich. Other eateries serve up everything from California cuisine to Asian fare.
  • Hands-on Shopping. Forget about "look, don't touch." Metreon's shops want your kids to handle everything. At the PlayStation store, for example, they can test drive new games at one of 30 computer stations. There are also flagship stores for Sony, the Discovery Channel, and Microsoft (its first so far), where you can try out software before you buy, send e-mails, watch videos, and play with electronic toys.

On the Silver Screen. Film buffs can choose from 15 -- count 'em -- movie screens including a 600-seat IMAX Theater showing films in 3-D. Seats are equipped to hold trays for snacks or bigger meals.

Classic SF

Long before dot-com fever seized the Bay Area, generations of locals were playing high-tech games at The Exploratorium. This science museum, which opened in 1969, was the first to use interactive technology. And word has it that 90 percent of the nation's science museums have since borrowed its ideas. Step in and you'll see why.

More than 650 exhibits, including interactive games, focus on natural phenomena -- science, art, and human perception. You can manipulate the whirling winds of a fog "tornado," a seven-foot high swirl, or try to grope your way through the Tactile Dome, a room of total darkness that requires feeling your way out.

At the Shadow Box exhibit, you can "vogue" in a three-sided room with special light-sensitive walls that embed your shadow for up to a minute. Or swing by the Play Lab, where infants and toddlers play with blocks and on small climbing structures. It's also a great place for parents to take a breather.


Type of travel: Educational, entertainment Best ages: All ages Ideal trip length: Weekend Distance: Sacramento (80 miles); Monterey (115 miles); Los Angeles (356 miles) Best time to go: November through March for best rates and fewest people. June through October for the weather. Beware: Crowds are heavy (wall to wall!) on weekends and rainy days. Weather: 56/46 degrees in January, 69/56 in September. Least foggiest months: September and October. January is the wettest month with average rainfall of 4.5 inches. Always pack a sweater, no matter when you go. Lodging: Rates are highest from June to October. Beginning in November, you can find holiday shopping excursions and package deals. Squirm factor: None

If You Go...

Cable car, copyright
Jerry Lee Hayes

Yerba Buena Gardens On the roof of the Moscone Center, between 3rd and 4th Sts. and Mission and Folsom Sts. Phone: 415-543-1718

Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center On the roof of the Moscone Center South, 750 Folsom St. Phone: 415-777-3727

Zeum and carousel,
copyright Ken Friedman

Zeum 221 4th St. Phone: 415-777-2800 Note: Open weekends and most holidays


Metreon 101 4th St. Phone: 800-METREON Note: Plan to visit multiple attractions? You'll save by paying up front.


Exploratorium Palace of Fine Arts, 3601 Lyon St. Phone: 415-EXPLORE Note: Summer: Open 7 days a week. Winter: Closed Monday except holidays.


San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau Phone: 415-391-2000, hotel reservations, 888 STAY-N-SF


Side Trips

Tech Museum of Innovation

Build a web page, walk on the moon, or make a video at the Tech Museum of Innovation, a three-level monument to electronics in the heart of Silicon Valley. Located about 45 miles south in San Jose, the museum is a favorite of techies and technophobes alike.

The most popular activity for all ages? Creating a personalized page, then seeing it on the museum website. It stays there for three months.

At the Digital Studio, wannabe producers learn about the technology used for video production and animation, then try their hands at operating a simplified version of this equipment.

How about a walk on the moon? New technology allows you to insert yourself into a variety of scenes -- including a lunar backdrop. A digital producer then creates a 10-second video to take home.

Experience the true meaning of "information overload" at the Information Exhibit Portal. You'll be bombarded with a cacophony of sound, including 20 chattering television sets and computer monitors, as well as a lighted LED sign circling the space with fast moving news headlines from the Associated Press. 201 S. Market St., San Jose, 408-294-TECH.


The Inside Scoop

Favorite local spot: Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, 56 Ross Alley between Washington and Jackson Sts., 415-781-3956. Watch fortune cookies being made in downtown Chinatown. Take home a big bag of freshly folded ones for friends.

Best souvenir: A fog globe (shake it and the fabled SF mist swirls around a replica of the Palace of Fine Arts) and the Educational Electronic Robot Kit, an easy-to-build soccer robot with six kicking mechanisms. Both at the Exploratorium gift shop.

Annual events:

  • Carnaval, from 24th and Bryant streets to Harrison St., late May, San Francisco's Mardi Gras parade.
  • Ghirardelli Square Chocolate Festival, Ghirardelli Square, early September. 415-775-5500
  • Fleet Week, aerial performances by the Blue Angels, Embarcadero and Fisherman's Wharf, October. 415-705-5500
  • Pier 39 Tree Lighting Ceremony, Pier 39, November.
  • Reviewed April 2004.