The capital of Silicon Valley, California’s high tech sector, San Jose may be firmly rooted in the future of innovation, but it is also a city very much in touch with its rich history. Founded in the 1700s as El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe, the first civilian Spanish colony of Nueva California, it is now not only the largest city in the San Francisco Bay Area, but the largest in Northern California. Today San Jose is a vital metropolis brimming with culture, vitality, and character. Whether your family has artistic leanings, athletic energies, or simply loves to explore, there is something for everyone in your crew to enjoy in San Jose. Look no further for the top ten list of family friendly activities in San Jose than right here:
10. Visit Three Parks in One Stop
Kelly Park is full of surprises. Not only are there plenty of open spaces to play or relax amongst the shaded trees, there are three distinct and very different attractions you wouldn’t expect to find amid the picnic facilities and winding trails. Happy Hollow Park & Zoo offers educational opportunities to get up close and personal with its animals, enjoy a puppet show, or ride one of many park attractions like the classic Danny the Dragon. The Japanese Friendship Garden is a great place for a tranquil walk around its beautiful koi pond. And History Park allows visitors to step back in time to experience turn of the century San Jose. Comprised of 27 original and reproductions of homes, businesses, and landmarks complete with paved streets, running trolleys, and a cafe, visitors actually stroll through the streets of a bygone era.
9. Explore Winchester Mystery House
With staircases that lead to nowhere, miles of sinuous hallways, and doors that open into walls, the Winchester Mystery House is a baffling and extraordinary maze of Victorian craftsmanship. The intent of these architectural oddities was to cause confusion among the spirits and ghosts that might be following the resident, Sarah Winchester, wife of the Winchester rifle heir. Many believe her incessant home remodeling was fueled partly by grief, having lost her husband and only child, as well as superstition. She may also have been feeling a tremendous amount of guilt over the souls lost at the barrel of the Winchester rifle. Today the 160-room house is open for tours and visitors report experiencing spirit activity. Halloween and Christmas are very popular times to visit when a spooky flashlight tour is offered and the home is decked out with holiday lights. Recommended for kids in their teens or older.
8. Shop and Dine on Santana Row
San Jose’s upscale shopping district, Santana Row, offers a scene somewhere between a quaint village and a haute couture runway. Grab a table along the sidewalk at any of the cafes along this shopping mecca and you’ll soon notice that Santana Row offers some fine people watching. Kids love the Pinkberry Yogurt and burgers at the Counter. There’s also a nice playground complete with climbing structures. The area often plays host to kid-friendly events from the Easter Bunny’s visit in the springtime to Santa’s arrival during the holidays.
7. Soak in the SoFA District Arts Scene
Short for the South of First Area, the SoFA district is San Jose’s visual arts and entertainment hub. Visitors love the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Art Glass Institute, and the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles. For those with older kids who prefer a more DIY experience, Higher Fire offers parent/kid clay and wheel-throwing classes while the TechShop will walk you through activities like basic soldering and electronics. The gorgeous California Theater hosts performances such as Symphony Silicon Valley and Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley.
Street markets, art walks, and outdoor events featuring local indie bands and food trucks are among the lively events that take place in SoFA throughout the year. The SoFA District’s colorful atmosphere, creative spirit, and sense of free expression and fun permeate the area.
6. Hockey or Soccer? Go See Both
During hockey season, San Jose’s SAP Center transforms into what locals have nicknamed the Shark Tank, home of the National Hockey League team. The Sharks are six division title winners and their many fans fill up the venue with a sea of teal-colored jerseys. These fans are loyal, loud, and bring their boundless energy to make the games jovial and fun.
However, the Sharks are not the only major sports franchise who call San Jose home. Major Soccer League team, the Earthquakes, recently christened Avaya Stadium. They were put on a two-year hiatus not long ago after a fruitless search for a home base, so it was a day many fans feared would never come. This certainly made the 2-1 victory over the Chicago Fire during regular season opener in their new home so much sweeter. The team enjoys a large youth following and engages in outreach opportunities to bring soccer into the community.
5. Shop the San Jose Flea Market
The largest open-air market in the U.S., the San Jose Flea Market draws over four million visitors a year. There are over eight miles of aisles housing more than 2,000 vendors selling everything from jewelry, clothing, and furniture to produce, collectibles, and cars among other things.
Since shopping sure can make a family hungry, there are a variety of eating options. The Flea Market features restaurants selling both American and Mexican food as well as traveling food carts where beer, soda, and Churros can be purchased. The large Farmers Market on the property is also a popular stop.
While the attractions favored particularly by the kids include the vintage carousel, three playgrounds, and carnival rides, many families enjoy the live entertainment. Musical acts routinely play at the venue which has two stages, one of which is often occupied by Mexican Mariachi bands.
4. Embrace History
While San Jose may be a city at the forefront of futuristic innovation, it is a place that has not forgotten its history. Sites such as the Peralta Adobe, which perfectly illustrates the home life of many who lived in the outpost that would eventually become San Jose, have been carefully and painstakingly restored. While the adobe itself is now surrounded by high rises, school children and their families can still visit to learn about those who lived in Nueva California.
Emma Prusch Farm Park demonstrates the valley’s more recent agricultural past. Donated to the city, the 43.5 acre park in East San Jose includes a 4-H barn, community gardens, a rare fruit orchard as well as demonstration gardens. The purpose of the Farm Park is to give city kids an opportunity to experience farming practices and learn about gardens, fruit orchards, poultry, and livestock.
3. Spot Rising Star Giants
Baseball fans know all about the San Francisco Giants, the World Series Champion team that come from the metropolis sitting north of San Jose, but they may not know where many of their players are developed. San Jose’s Municipal Stadium has been home to the minor league San Jose Giants for 70 years. The team not only enjoys an enormous local fan following, but it has been affiliated with the San Francisco Giants since the late 80’s. Well known major leaguers like Brandon Belt, Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, and Travis Ishikawa all played on this field at one time or another.
Taking kids to a minor league ball game not only gives them the opportunity to see potential future major league players in action, it also provides a more down home experience and intimate look at the game itself. Visitors won’t find a vendor selling his homemade Churros at a major league game nor will the kids get multiple opportunities to hang out with the team mascot. Because the venue is smaller and up close and personal, little visitors may even be able to spy a row of scouts measuring the speed of a pitch with their arsenal of radar guns.
2. Experience Unique Museums
San Jose is home to some incredible interactive museums covering an array of subjects. The Tech Museum of Innovation, a hands-on technology and science museum, is a resource for innovation rather than a collector of it. Spaces are designed so that visitors will find the tools and materials to unleash the innovator in them and sponsored events like the Tech Challenge, a team-design competition, that give the youth an opportunity to showcase what they’ve learned.
Let’s face it. Little kids learn by touching everything and anything, and the Children’s Discovery Museum is set up to let them do just that. With tactile learning opportunities like water play, fun in the Sand Laboratory, or healthy eating role play in the imaginative Rainbow Market, this museum provides a perfect environment to let them touch it all without worry. The San Jose Museum of Art is home to an extensive collection of modern and contemporary art. The institution also hosts Community Days each year that are themed and geared toward connecting art and cultural events. The most unusual of all may be the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum and Planetarium. Inspired by an ancient Egyptian temple, it houses the largest collection of authentic Egyptian artifacts in western North America including four mummies on display.
1. Visit Vibrant Neighborhoods
San Jose’s culturally vibrant neighborhoods take on names that appropriately describe its surroundings. Take the Rose Garden, for instance, which features over five acres of more than 4,000 beautiful rose shrubs of 189 varieties. Or visit Little Saigon, home to the largest Vietnamese population of any city outside of Vietnam. In Japantown, a mom and pop joint known as Santo Market features Japanese and Hawaiian fare. It’s even possible to purchase homemade tofu and manju in this neighborhood of outstanding Japanese restaurants, martial arts schools, and more. Historic Willow Glen is a picturesque and walkable community of charming homes, cafes, and shops. Young literature lovers flock to Hicklebee’s, a local landmark children’s bookstore.
Downtown San Jose is the city’s nucleus. Children splash around the fountains in Plaza de César Chávez and families gather for Music in the Park or Outdoor Movies in the summer. In the wintertime, locals gather to enjoy acres of holiday lights and decorative trees for Christmas in the Park, a San Jose Holiday tradition. It also hosts unique festivals such as the Vietnamese Spring Festival, Japanese Obon Festival, the San Jose Mariachi and Mexican Festival, and the San Jose Jazz Festival. Downtown also has a family-friendly attraction you’d never expect to find – a giant Monopoly board game!
San Jose’s eateries range from fancy to casual to irresistibly irreverent. For an upscale experience, Il Fornaio boasts authentic Italian food located just off the lobby of The Historic Sainte Claire Hotel. Original Joe’s has been a San Jose institution for nearly 60 years where tuxedo clad waiters serve up main dishes with flair and fun. Shark fans fill up Billy Berk’s, a more casual dining experience, during hockey season. Guests can share small plates like the spicy ahi tuna tower and the fried zucchini before heading off to the Shark Tank. With donuts named Glazed and Confused, Crazy Face, and Dead Elvis, Psycho Donuts is not your typical parents’ donut shop. It irreverently bills itself as an asylum for wayward donuts! Stop by The Blue Chip and partake in 15 types of cheesesteaks. Enjoy one of their multiple arcades and play pinball while watching a sporting event on the restaurants’ 27 plasma flatscreens. Step into America in the ’50s where Peggy Sue’s serves up the tastiest cheeseburger and thickest shake around.
The Fairmont: Elegant, luxurious, and centrally located, the 20-story Fairmont Hotel is located just steps from the San Jose Museum of Art, across the street from Plaza de Cesar Chavez and the Tech Museum as well as short stroll from the SoFA District and many fantastic eateries. Staying here means never having to the move the car!
Hilton San Jose: Modern, contemporary, and sleek, the Hilton San Jose may see more business travelers due to its close proximity to many businesses and office buildings, and easy route to San Jose International Airport, but families will find spacious rooms here. The hotel is a short walk from the Children’s Discovery Museum, Guadalupe Park, and the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts.
The Sainte Claire Hotel: Like San Jose itself, The Sainte Claire embraces the splendor of yesteryear while staying at the forefront of innovation. The hotel, which is located in San Jose’s active downtown area, is known for its service that is as impressive as its detailed and gilded surroundings.
Hotel De Anza: Once the tallest hotel in downtown San Jose, this historic 10-story art deco Hotel De Anza is within walking distance of SAP Center (also known as the Shark Tank) and San Pedro Square Market, a public market including more than 25 vendors selling everything from sushi to crepes to tapas to home goods.
Read reviews of kid friendly San Jose lodging on Trekaroo.
Must Do Day Trips
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Located about 40 minutes from San Jose, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk harkens sunny summer days even in the middle of March where amusement park rides, cotton candy, fried treats, arcade games, and the beach are the order of the day. It is home to the fifth oldest rollercoaster in the United States, a wooden thrill ride known as the Giant Dipper, an attraction that had made appearances in movies and commercials.
A little more than a half hour south of San Jose, Gilroy is the Garlic Capital of the World. It celebrates this crop annually with a garlic festival where people line up to sample unusual fare like garlic ice cream. It is also home to Gilroy Gardens, a horticultural-themed amusement park for the under 10 set.
Shop Cannery Row, explore Fisherman’s Wharf, get close to marine life at the amazing Monterey Bay Aquarium, or run off steam at the Dennis the Menace Playground. There is so much for families to enjoy in picturesque Monterey.
The city by the Bay is about 55 miles north of San Jose. San Francisco is famous for its cable cars, Victorian homes, and hilly landscape as well as the splendid Golden Gate Bridge stretching to the Marin Headlands. Visitors will want to try the Dungeness Crab and sourdough here, play in Golden Gate Park, and tour the famous Alcatraz.
Want more kid-friendly fun in California? Check out our top ten things for families to do in California!