Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Do you know the way to San Jose?

Growing up in the South Bay suburbs, I rarely made my way to downtown San Jose. Yes, we'd visit for Christmas in the Park and occasionally for a school field trip, but for the most part, downtown was off my radar.

Now, living just a short distance from downtown, I visit frequently with my husband and Toddler X. I'm happy to report that we've discovered several toddler-friendly activities in the "Capital of Silicon Valley." For those of you who don't have downtown SJ on your radar, now is the time to give it a try. Check out this downtown calendar for listings of upcoming special events, or try one (or more) of these ongoing adventures:

The Children's Discovery Museum

This first idea is obvious. If you haven't visited the big purple building with your toddler yet, what are you waiting for? There is something for every child at this magical place, and you'll be amazed to see how your toddler learns and discovers something new with each visit.
What to See and Do
At the museum, enjoy the wonderful Curious George exhibit (here for a limited time; it's located to the right of the café), the water play area (roped-off section for toddlers is to the left of the main entrance -- safe from the boisterous big kids!), and the Wonder Cabinet, a special area that's limited to babies, toddlers and preschoolers (up the stairs, to the right). Or, if your kid is like Toddler X, you can spend your whole visit in the main atrium pushing the crosswalk buttons and crossing the "intersection" (with the light, of course) over and over and over again. (It's times like these that you have to remind yourself that you visited the museum for your child's entertainment, not your own.)
The Wonder Cabinet is the ultimate in toddler fun and discovery. There are tons of age-appropriate sensory experiences and experiments; an art room with a paint wall (use a smock!!) and special art activities (currently the focus is on weaving and wrapping); a section for pretend play; and a reading area, with storytimes at 12:00 and 2:00 every day. Best of all, the Wonder Cabinet has an actual door at the entrance/exit, making it a lot harder for a wily toddler to escape.

On the weekends, check out special shows in the theater, including live, interactive performances (currently it's a show about Potter the Otter and his love of water) and movie screenings (this month it's Sunday matinees of "Curious George Rides a Bike"). See the events calendar for the current schedule.

If your child likes gardening, you may want to check out the special experiences in the Kids' Garden, where children can help with garden chores during the first hour of the garden day (differs by day) and with watering the plants during the last hour of the garden day (3:00-4:00 pm). 
When to go: Here are the CDM's hours of operation. Note that once school resumes in September, the museum is closed on Mondays, and there is actually a full week of closure at the end of September. Also note that members get an extra hour on Sunday mornings before the museum opens.

What's the cost? Admission is $12 for kids and adults ages 1-59, $11 for seniors over 60, and free for infants under the age of one. We bought a membership 6 months ago on Toddler X's first birthday, and have absolutely gotten our money's worth. 

Where to park: There are various metered lots and street parking options near the CDM, but we like to park in the lot at Auzerais/Woz Way (under the Hwy 87 underpass). It's $5 for the day, with an attendant on duty, and it's just across the street from the museum. Bonus: the light rail train runs right by the lot, so if you have a train-obsessed kid like mine, you'll have a happy camper before you even set foot in the museum.

What to eat: Grab lunch at the Kids' Cafe (surprisingly good food!) or pack a picnic and sit in the shade in the sunken courtyard across from the museum's front entrance (plenty of benches -- no need for a picnic blanket). Toddler X loves chasing the pigeons around the courtyard; mommy loves the blessed silence after the chaos of the museum. 

What to bring: While many people bring strollers to the CDM, navigating with a stroller can be difficult in the crowded spaces, and certain places (most notably, the Wonder Cabinet) do not allow strollers inside. If you do bring a stroller, be prepared to park it in one of the designated parking areas (near the theater, near the café, or outside the Wonder Cabinet) and therefore don't pack it with valuables (we just bring an inexpensive umbrella stroller and leave almost nothing in it).

The food in the café is actually rather good, but you probably want to bring snacks for your kids. They ask that you not eat outside food in the café, but you can sit on the benches alongside the café or go out to the courtyard (see above) to eat. There are large ice water dispensers located on the condiment island at the Kids' Café for use by everybody, so need to buy an expensive and wasteful bottle of water. 
A final tip: Pack an extra set of clothes for your toddler if you're going to let him or her visit the water play area. Toddler X emerges drenched every time, even with the smock on, and a sodden ride home doesn't make for a very happy toddler. And if you'll be visiting the art room in the Wonder Cabinet, dress your child and yourself accordingly -- I have spent an afternoon with my white shirt covered in purple paint because I dared to lift Toddler X to the sink for a hand-washing after his painting adventure. Ever since, I've worn black.
For more information, visit the CDM's website at
San Pedro Square Market
This is one of my favorite finds in SJ in recent years -- exactly the type of thing downtown needs to become more of a destination for visitors of all ages. Make a trip out of it, or just visit for a meal before heading to one of the other activities listed here. 

What is it?
The Market consists of two converted warehouse-ish buildings that house a dozen yummy restaurant outlets (crepes, burgers, pizza, falafel, Vietnamese food, sushi, oysters, Mexican food and chocolate goodies, just to name a few); two full bars, plus a wine bar and a beer emporium of sorts; various shops and gourmet food vendors (cheeses, meats, etc.); and a large courtyard in between, which hosts live music every weekend. 
Why is it toddler-friendly?
We've found SPSM to be very toddler-friendly primarily because of the range of restaurants available -- food for every toddler's palate -- and the fact that you order at a counter and pick up your food (no slow servers or extended waits for the bill).
Toddler X has really enjoyed sharing Mommy's food from the Vietnamese place (teriyaki salmon and spring rolls have been a hit); the pizza place (the pizzas and the caprese salad are fantastic); and the falafel place. The crepe place sells Greek yogurt and Go Go Squeeze pouches if your toddler isn't into more exotic fare. One thing to note: while the taqueria has delicious food, much of it is SUPER hot, and not necessarily toddler-friendly. Toddler X loves spicy food, but this proved too much for him (okay, I'll admit it -- for Mommy too). 
Another toddler plus: while you wait for your food, there's space for a wiggly toddler to move around in the courtyard or in the large indoor open area adjacent to the main building (go through the entryway between the pizza place and the hot dog joint). This is obviously more true during less busy hours of the day -- if you come at dinnertime on a Saturday, open space may be hard to come by.
There are ample tables at the Market and we *usually* are able to find a high chair (big tip: high chairs are usually stacked in the courtyard outside the door nearest the pizza restaurant or inside the main building, to the right of the hot dog restaurant -- if you don't see one, ask a staff member). There is a tasty gourmet coffee place where they make drip coffee one cup at a time and the lattes are fantastic (and what toddler follower doesn't need some caffeine?). Best of all, there is a permanent version of the legendary TreatBot food truck ( If you haven't been there yet -- well, it's time to go. Try the 408 special. 

We've only taken Toddler X on a weekend music night once, but he really enjoyed it. While the hipster crowd is in full force, there are lots of families with kids too, and several kids were dancing around in the dirt area in front of the stage. It's a fun place to go with a couple of other families -- no bills to split, everyone gets the food they like, and you can take off when the various toddler bedtimes (or meltdowns) approach. 

The Market is catering to the toddler crowd with their weekly Music and Movement classes, facilitated by the kind folks from the King Public Library downtown (see below). The classes are for ages 1-5 and take place Tuesdays from 10:30-11:30. We like to go to the class, then grab lunch afterwards with our toddler buddies.

Hours: Most of the restaurants open at 11 am, 7 days a week. However, the crepe place and the coffee place open earlier (8 am and 7 am, respectively), so if you want to try the Market when it's relatively empty and there's lots of toddler space, visit for breakfast/brunch on Saturday or Sunday. And if you're particularly frazzled due to typical toddler behavior, good news -- the bar opens at 11, and the bloody marys look fantastic. What's a little tantrum after a mimosa or two?

The restaurants are open all day, with most closing at 9 pm or later, so lunch and dinner are great (but more crowded) options too. 

Parking: Park in the garage on San Pedro Street directly across from the Market. Parking is free with validation, and you don't actually need to buy anything to get validated. The little validation machine is located at the far right end of the bar in the main building -- just stick your ticket in (you can do it yourself) and you're all set! 

Tip: Wait until you're ready to leave before you validate. The validations only cover you for 10 or 15 minutes after you punch the ticket -- after that point, they start charging again (as I learned at my last visit when I ended up having to pay $1 upon exiting the garage). 
One more tip: Each restaurant in the main Market building has a water dispenser and cups on their front counter. They don't seem to mind if you fill up without ordering food at that particular restaurant. Several of the places have flavored waters -- the Vietnamese restaurant's is my favorite.

For more information, visit the Market's website at 
King Library
An easy (with a stroller, not on toddler feet) walk from the Market is the San Jose Public Library's flagship King branch, located at 150 E. San Fernando Street. When we visited a few months ago, I was shocked that I'd never even heard of it before. It's a big, beautiful building on the corner of the SJSU campus, and the kids' section (it has a door at the entryway -- less worry about toddler escapes!) is fantastic. 

There are story times, free craft projects and special events several days a week. You can see the full calendar here and the library's hours here.

For us, an early lunch at San Pedro Square Market, a stroll around downtown and SJSU's campus, then storytime at the library has been a delightful (and low cost, depending on what you get at the Market) Saturday family activity. 

And for those who have joined the cult of Philz Coffee, good news -- there's one just around the corner, with a toddler-friendly plaza out front while you wait. 

A big hint: if you park at San Pedro Square Market and walk over, be sure to return to the Market to validate your parking ticket right before departing the garage (see above for validation location). 


There you have it -- a few ideas and tips for fun activities in downtown San Jose. Have fun and toddle safely!

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