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Illustration for Fall activities for kids in L.A. and S.F.
(Jim Cooke / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)

18 fun fall things to do in SoCal and San Francisco with kids

Weekend plans taking shape? Thanksgiving itinerary in the works? You may want to factor in a few of these 18 family-friendly fall destinations in California.

In addition to a few in San Diego and the desert, most are clustered in Los Angeles County and San Francisco, with a couple of destinations in between. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, for example, is 113 miles south of San Francisco City Hall and 320 miles north of L.A. City Hall.

If you’re looking for other things to do this month, check here for a listing of more than a dozen October events and attractions in Greater Los Angeles tied to Halloween and Día de Los Muertos.

From a lighthouse in Crescent City, to trees changing colors in the Sierra, to funky art installations near the Salton Sea, these are the best things to do in the Golden State in the fall.

Note to families with students in the L.A. Unified School District: There are no classes on Thanksgiving or the day after (Nov. 26 and 27), and the holiday break will start Dec. 21 and end Jan. 8, 2022. Other school districts vary.


Also, as governments and businesses respond to the evolving threat of COVID-19, many locales are requiring proof of vaccination and masks for people to go inside, but rules can vary by business and county. It’s always wise to check websites for health information before visiting a spot.

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Academy Museum of Motion Pictures exhibit displaying characters from "Black Panther," "Star Wars," and "Dark Crystal."
(Joshua White, JWPictures / ©Academy Museum Foundation)

Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

Miracle Mile Museum

L.A’s newest and most highly anticipated (and debated) museum is a deep dive into everything cinematic. If you want a closer look at Hollywood (the industry, not the neighborhood), this is now the place to come. Just the architecture of the museum, which adjoins a signature domed theater designed by Renzo Piano, is worth a look, but you can get lost in all the behind-the-scenes exhibits such as “The Art of Moviemaking,” which breaks down the elements of MGM’s 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz,” from interoffice memos to Dorothy’s ruby slippers. You can find all kinds of artifacts, including Gregory Peck’s script for “To Kill a Mockingbird” covered with his handwritten notes, the blue typewriter Joseph Stefano used to write the script for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror classic “Psycho,” Okoye’s costume from “Black Panther,” “Star Wars’” R2-D2 and C-3PO, and the original E.T. You can also get face to face with the toothy Xenomorph monster from “Alien.” (Check out The Times’ museum opening coverage.)

In the museum, there’s a cafe for dining. And if all that’s not enough, pay $15 to experience what it feels like to hear your name announced for an Oscar and walk up to the stage to accept it in “The Oscars Experience.”

The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Admission by timed reservation is $25 for adults or $19 for seniors 62 and older; $15 for college students; and free for members and children 17 and younger. The Oscars Experience is $15 and only available with a general admission ticket.

Pro tip: The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, next door on Wilshire Boulevard, is half-open as work continues on its new main building, due to fully reopen in 2024.
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A rainbow over Alcatraz Island in a view from Crissy Field at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)


San Francisco Attraction
From 1934-1963, Alcatraz was our nation’s most dramatically sited penitentiary, home to gangsters from Al Capone to Whitey Bulger. But it has important civil rights history, too. You reach the island by Alcatraz Cruises ferry from San Francisco’s Pier 33, and the first thing you see on the island is graffiti from 1969-71, when Native American protesters occupied the island. The National Park Service opened the site to the public in 1973. Tours begin at $41 per adult and often sell out weeks in advance.

Pro tip: It doesn’t get massive crowds, but nearby Angel Island State Park (served Fridays-Sundays by the Blue & Gold ferry at Pier 41) is a key landmark in Asian American history. Today, many visit just to hike or ride bikes. But from 1910-40, this was the U.S. entry point for about 175,000 Chinese immigrants, who typically spent weeks or months locked up on Angel Island. Some etched poetry on walls in the Immigration Station and barracks, a 1.5-mile walk from the ferry landing. (As of late May, the interiors were still closed as a pandemic safety measure.)
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El Prado and the Lily Pond in Balboa Park
(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Balboa Park

San Diego County Park
Let’s start with the San Diego Zoo, which is, you’ll pardon the expression, the park’s 800-pound gorilla. It includes 3,700 animals on 100 acres and its fame is global for good reason. If you have kids, a visit is mandatory. New for this summer: komodo dragon and hummingbird habitats. The basic prices are more affordable than most theme parks — $62 for an adult, $52 for kids 3-11.

Now consider that the zoo is less than 10% of Balboa Park, which covers 1,200 acres. The park is also home to 17 museums featuring art, photography, natural history, science, flight, history, model railroading and more, with a new Comic-Con Museum (still gradually opening). The Old Globe theater complex includes three venues. Flop on the lawn by the big lily pond by the Botanical Building. Try lunch at the Prado restaurant, where the patio seats are best whether we’re in a pandemic or not.

Pro tip: Even if you’ve never had a train set, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum will knock you out.
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Visitors ride a cable car in San Francisco
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Cable Cars

San Francisco Public transportation
Nothing says San Francisco more clearly than a cable car climbing a hill. Since August, they’ve been at it again. The cable cars cover three routes: Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason and California Street. As a newbie, you want Powell-Hyde, beginning at Powell and Market streets, where there’s often a queue. Over hills and around corners you’ll ride to Fisherman’s Wharf. The brakes will squeal. Somebody over 50 will make a Rice-A-Roni joke.

On arrival, grab an Irish coffee at the Buena Vista or stroll two blocks to Ghirardelli Square. It has chocolate. Fare is $8 one way (in advance) or $13 for a one-day Muni Visitor Passport through the MuniMobile app. (For a mellower ride with more locals, try the California Street line.)

Pro tip: For maximum thrills, stand on the running board at the pole position on the right front of the car. Unless you give that spot to a bright-eyed kid.
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Kites fly along the shore at Carpenteria State Beach.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)


Welcome to Carpinteria (population about 13,000), southernmost city in Santa Barbara County. It has less obvious money and attitude than you might find in some neighborhoods to the north, but plenty to keep a family happy, including a strip of sand that the town has promoted for decades as “the world’s safest beach.”

That would be Carpinteria City Beach, which runs north from the foot of Linden Avenue, and Carpinteria State Beach, which runs south for a mile and features campgrounds that book up fast. Linden Avenue is lined with an unfussy collection of surf shops, antiques stores and eateries, including the Spot, a rustic burger stand, and Esau’s Cafe, which is all about breakfast, lunch and surfing. Rincon Beach Park, one of the state’s top surf spots, is three miles southeast of town.

Pro tip: If you take a long walk on the beach, you might find tar between your toes. That’s probably natural seepage from Santa Barbara’s offshore crude oil deposits. A little olive oil can help you clean up.
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Night view of Coit Tower lit up in blue
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Coit Tower

San Francisco Attraction
Coit Tower went up atop Telegraph Hill in 1933. Besides the city and bay views from the top of the 210-foot tower, the murals on its ground floor (free to see) are a witty, provocative window into the hard times and lefty politics of the ‘30s. Ask one of the guides for a story or two about Lillie Hitchcock Coit, the quirky, firefighter-loving philanthropist who donated the money that built that tower. And if you hear a shrieking sound? That’s probably one of the famous parrots of Telegraph Hill, subject of local lore for more than a century.

Pro tip: For a good workout, preface your visit by climbing the Filbert Steps, which start at Levi’s Plaza along the Embarcadero.
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The Natural History Museum is seen rising above the Exposition Park Rose Garden.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Exposition Park

Los Angeles County Park
Think of this USC-adjacent compound as a sampler, with all the culture, science and beauty you can absorb in the space of a few hours. Start with the California African American Museum, which wins praise for thoughtful, lively shows. On display through Jan. 17 is a survey of work by artist April Bey exploring “Black Americans’ historical embrace of space travel and extraterrestrial visioning.” Just a few steps away, the California Science Center awaits, with its kid-captivating display of the Space Shuttle Endeavour. There’s also the Natural History Museum of L.A. County, which (besides its skeletons, dioramas and butterfly pavilion) offers you spooky closeup views of spiky, hairy, shiny insects through April 1.

Pro tip: More than 300 Kobe Bryant murals have sprung up throughout Southern California since the 2020 helicopter crash that killed him and his daughter Gianna. Check out this mural map and you’ll find that Exposition Park is surrounded by them.
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A pond lined with artfully shaped trees in the Japanese Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Golden Gate Park

San Francisco Park
Golden Gate Park has all sorts of cultural, natural and not-so-natural wonders, including the waters of Stow Lake, the heights of Strawberry Hill, the Conservatory of Flowers, Japanese Tea Garden and San Francisco Botanical Garden. On the museum front it offers the California Academy of Sciences (the building with the undulating green roof) and the De Young Museum (with an art collection that includes a bit of everything). Explore the park and you’ll find a bison paddock, golf course and a network of paths and car-free roads that attracts walkers, runners, skaters, cyclists and Segway riders.

It’s hard to imagine this green expanse as sand dunes, but so it was when park construction began in the 1870s. Look closely at many rocks and you’ll realize they’re colored concrete, placed at the direction of pioneering park superintendent John McLaren, who also devised fake lakes and fake waterfalls.

Pro tip: Atop the De Young Museum‘s bold, angular building, you’ll find a 140-foot-high observation tower with glass walls and staggering wraparound views. It’s free.
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People wait in line outside the Walt Disney Concert Hall
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Grand Avenue

Los Angeles County Attraction
Downtown Los Angeles has slumbered, awakened, stumbled and now staggers toward prosperity (and full occupancy), but when it comes to culture, Grand Avenue leads the way. Walt Disney Concert Hall, home to the L.A. Philharmonic, shimmers. Catch a concert beginning Oct. 9 or do a self-guided tour. The Broad museum looms like a great white hive of contemporary art. (Admission is free but you must book in advance; closed Mondays and Tuesdays.)

Other arts organizations are close at hand, including the Music Center and Center Theatre Group, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Colburn School (a performing arts school). Across the street from Disney Hall, a pair of mixed-used skyscrapers are rising and are expected to bring more foot traffic with a hotel, apartments, retail and restaurants opening in 2022.

Pro tip: Recharge at Grand Park, a 12-acre green space that flows down Bunker Hill with a fountain near the top and City Hall at the bottom. For Día de los Muertos, the park is partnering with Self Help Graphics and artist Ofelia Esparza to present altars and activities Oct. 22- Nov. 2.
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Griffith Observatory, lighted at night, with the downtown Los Angeles skyline beyond.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Griffith Observatory

Los Angeles County Attraction
Without ever stepping inside the observatory on its perch in the Hollywood Hills, you can see Los Angeles as a tidy, twinkling grid of city lights, an epic view at dawn or sunset. And once we’re allowed inside, you can scan distant stars and check your weight on Mars.

Since 1935, Angelenos have embraced Griffith Observatory as “the hood ornament of Los Angeles,” in the words of observatory director E.C. Krupp. It’s the architectural star of 4,210-acre Griffith Park, with three green copper domes, prime views of the Hollywood sign and a bust of James Dean, who sulked here in the 1955 film “Rebel Without a Cause.” Parking is tough, so you might want to hike up from the Greek Theatre or Fern Dell or see about Dash shuttle bus service.

If the state sticks with plans to ease restrictions June 15, Krupp said the observatory should be able to reopen “well before the end of summer.”

Pro tip: Hike from the observatory to the Tom LaBonge Panorama atop Mt. Hollywood, a roughly 2.6-mile journey with big views of the Hollywood Hills and San Fernando Valley. And be sure to read up on the felon and philanthropist — felon-thropist? — who made this all possible, Griffith J. Griffith.
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Clouds surround the super flower moon rising above rocks and Joshua Trees at night
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Hidden Valley

San Bernardino County National Park
Hidden Valley in Joshua Tree National Park draws climbers, boulderers, desert campers and geology geeks from all over. The park includes about 500 campsites. Hidden Valley has 44 campsites and no water — but those rocks! And they look even more amazing when reflected in the water at nearby Barker Dam. There’s also prime stargazing and edgy art around the fringes of the park, courtesy of the late Noah Purifoy, High Desert Test Sites and others.

Pro tip: If you don’t know much about singer-songwriter Gram Parsons’ life and death, you could book the Joshua Tree Inn, where Parsons spent his last night in Room 8.
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In-N-Out sign in Baldwin Park
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

In-N-Out Burger

Los Angeles County Fast food
For certain carnivorous Californians, a visit to this burger chain is like church, but with more flexible hours. At the flagship location in Baldwin Park, you can drive through, as most customers do. But you can also eat inside, then browse mountains of merch at the company store and perhaps matriculate at In-N-Out University, where managers train.

If you’re selfie-hungry, you’ll head to the nearby replica of the chain’s first tiny, red-and-white burger shack, open for photo ops 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday through Sunday at 13752 Francisquito Ave., Baldwin Park.

Harry and Esther Snyder founded the first In-N-Out burger shack in 1948, which put them among the first to try a drive-through restaurant. To taste what the fuss is all about, order a “double-double, animal-style” — a double cheeseburger with the works, basically — which has fueled the company’s growth to more than 300 outlets.

Pro tip: About that Bible verse on the bottom of your cup: The In-N-Out chain is owned by its founders’ granddaughter, Lynsi Snyder-Ellingson, an evangelical Christian.
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Visitors relax on lounge chairs and explore the stacks at the Last Bookstore.
(Nicole Kagan / Los Angeles Times)

Get lost in the stacks at the Last Bookstore

Downtown L.A. Bookstore
Even if you’re more an e-reader type, you will be able to find something to love about this magical bookstore-emporium-museum.

You could spend an entire afternoon browsing the aisles, exploring the various book vaults, perusing the artisan galleries and trying to wrap your brain around the completely kooky and enchanting decor (e.g. the planters converted out of old record players and the famed archway made entirely of books).

You can pick out a Stephen King paperback for $10 in the horror annex upstairs, $1 vinyl from the store’s handpicked selection or a $14 logo mug while waiting in the checkout aisle.
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A giraffe stands on the green hillsides at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Living Desert

Palm Desert Zoo
There are more critters creeping (and flying and even swimming) in the world’s deserts than you realize, and this preserve proves the point. The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, opened in 1970, is a 1,200-acre zoo and botanical garden devoted to life in the world’s deserts. Animals include a tortoise, python, bobcats, foxes, Gila monsters and (due Nov. 12) a black rhino. There’s a reptile show, and there are jaguar, leopard and cheetah chats. You might spot an elusive bighorn sheep on the neighboring slopes. And you’ll see the model railroad. It’s not flora or fauna, but it’s epic, with more than 3,300 feet of track running through miniature historic scenes.

Pro tip: You can feed a giraffe for $8 October through May (warning: long tongue).
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Visitors watch divers clean the kelp forest habitat at the Monterey Aquarium
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey County Aquarium
Since opening in 1984, this has been the state’s foremost aquarium, with tanks that open on to Monterey Bay. Give your family several hours here among the sharks, otters, penguins, tuna and seabirds. This once-gritty neighborhood, now ultra-touristy, was the home and lab of Ed Ricketts, celebrated marine biologist and friend of John Steinbeck, who is featured in the author’s nonfiction “The Log From the Sea of Cortez” and fictionalized in “Cannery Row.”

Pro tip: Rent a bike from Adventures by the Sea and pedal along Ocean View Boulevard toward Lovers Point and Asilomar State Beach in Pacific Grove.
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Visitors sitting and eating at the Original Farmers Market
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Original Farmers Market

Los Angeles County Farmers' market
The Original Farmers Market, founded in 1934, is old-school Los Angeles, a place that holds its charm through daily tides of tourists from all over. It includes more than 100 eateries, markets and shops and just as many screenwriters schmoozing in its patios, or so it seems some days.

Hungry? For all things French, try Monsieur Marcel Gourmet Market. For tacos, Trejo’s. And for pie, Du-par’s (since 1938) is open around the clock. If you’re traveling with teens, they’ll probably head next door to the Grove, an upscale mall that opened in 2002 with about a dozen restaurants, 14 movie screens, a dancing fountain and occasional live music.

Pro tip: For more old/new contrasts, wander among the teen-seeking streetwear shops on Fairfax Avenue between Beverly Boulevard and Melrose Avenue — the Hundreds and Solestage, for instance — and you’ll find they’re neighbored by older kosher markets and restaurants, mostly notably Canter’s, which is open all hours and a few years older than the Farmers Market.
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A glider hovers above Torrey Pines Gliderport, with the ocean beyond.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Torrey Pines Gliderport

San Diego County Attraction
This is the place to see men and women jump off a cliff, then rise on the updraft. The gliderport sits between the UC San Diego campus and the Pacific, sending skyward a steady stream of paraglider pilots and the occasional model airplane. Grab breakfast or lunch at the Cliffhanger Cafe (nothing more than $9.49), settle in at a picnic table and watch the action in the air.

Sail planes were taking off here as early as the 1920s. In 1930, Charles Lindbergh glided on these winds. Hang gliders joined in the 1970s, then paragliders, then tandem paraglider flights ($175-$255). See the shoreline about 200 feet below? That’s Black’s Beach, accessible by a steep, half-mile trail. (It has a nude zone.)

Pro tip: For more visual stimulation, cross North Torrey Pines Road to explore the outdoor artworks of UCSD’s Stuart Collection and the brutally top-heavy geometry of its Geisel Library.
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A sculpture beside the USS Midway Museum
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

USS Midway Museum

San Diego County Museum
Who hasn’t wondered how it feels to stand on the deck of an aircraft carrier? The USS Midway Museum, a retired aircraft carrier, answers that question as it rests along San Diego’s waterfront, showcasing Navy history. This was home to more than 200,000 sailors between 1945 and 1992. Since opening as a floating museum in 2004, it has assembled a collection of more than 20 aircraft on the flight deck, many with accessible cockpits. Below deck, you’ll find flight simulators, roving docents and historical exhibits.

Pro tip: Just a mile south of the Midway, San Diego’s port and symphony officials in August inaugurated the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, an outdoor music venue that’s already hosting classical, pop and jazz performances. The sloped grass seating area is said to accommodate 10,000 people.
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