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Spend a Day at the California Academy of Sciences

Weekend in San Francisco 
Family Friendly Attractions - Part 1

The California Academy of Sciences is a one of a kind destination located in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.  It is a very unique place to visit for all ages and is the world's only aquarium-planetarium-rainforest-living museum all under one living roof.  It is a family friendly museum with lots of exhibits, programs, activities and things to see.  

The building was completely rebuilt in 2008 due to damage sustained during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the new building is a sight to see in and of itself.  It is an architectural marvel and is certified LEED Platinum for its sustainable design. 

Main Exhibits:
As you walk in, you'll be greeted by a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, with the information desk to your left and the academy store and photo services to your right.  

Keep in mind that some exhibits do not allow any photography to help protect and preserve the items in these exhibits.  A map of the museum will help guide you around all of the exhibits:

Steinhart Aquarium
The aquarium is found on the lower level and if you have kids with you it should definitely be the first stop on your trip through the museum.  

Exhibits here include:
  • The California Coast, which greets you as you step out of the elevator
  • The Philippine Coral Reef with thousands of colorful fish
  • The Amazon Flooded Forest where you get to walk through an underwater tunnel and watch the marine life swim overhead.

Morrison Planetarium
Travel through space and time, at the world's largest all-digital planetarium, during an immersive dome show.  This attraction is for ages 7 and up only and you have to pick up a pass for it.

Rainforests of the World
Travel through Costa Rica, Borneo, Madagascar and the Flooded Amazon by walking through a four-story rain forest filled with tropical trees, colorful birds and lots of butterflies.

Kimball Natural History Museum
The natural history museum covers the rest of the building outside of the aquarium, planetarium and rainforest.  

Exhibits include:

The Earthquake Simulator which is open through January 31, 2017.  It is a new exhibit near the cafe where you can see seismic science exhibits that have shaped Earth’s evolution and continues to impact our lives today.  There is also an earthquake simulator for ages 3 and up only.

The African Hall, where you can explore the evolution and future of life on Earth.  You can see diorama's of African landscapes with native animals and watch daily penguin feedings.

The Whales Exhibit on Level 2, where you can learn about whales and see whale skeletons.

The Color of Life exhibit, where you can explore the role of color in nature and see vibrant live animals.  This exhibit is sponsored by

The Swamp exhibit where you can see an albino alligator, freshwater fish and alligator snapping turtles.

There are also two other smaller exhibits that we did not visit including the Evolving Traditions exhibit and the Naturalist Center, both found on Level 3 of the building.

Living Roof 
At the very top of the museum is a 2.5 acre living roof planted with native grasses, trees and flowers, with one of the design ideas behind it to give an illusion that a small slice of the Earth had been lifted to install a museum underneath it.  Views of the rest of Golden Gate Park from the roof are impressive.

Tips on Maximizing your Experience Here:
Ticket options for visiting the museum include the following three options: 

Option 1:
Buy online directly at the California Academy of Sciences website, i.e. at retail prices:

Adult - $34.95
Child (4-11) - $24.95
Youth (12-17) - $29.95
Student (18+) or Senior (65+) with valid ID required - $29.95

If you are only planning on visiting the California Academy of Sciences, then the above option is likely your best bet.  However, if you are planning on visiting other big attractions in San Francisco, i.e., the Exploratorium, Aquarium of the Bay, taking a Boat Cruise, the de Young Museum or any other attractions in the city, I recommend using one of the options I describe below in Option 2 to save at minimum 20% and up to 50% depending on what attractions you plan on seeing.

Option 2: Buy Online if Planning on Going to Multiple Attractions
<Disclosure: The following two options I discuss below contain affiliate links and I may receive an affiliate commission if you click on a link and end up making a purchase.  I only recommend products/services that I personally use and believe are worth using.  Please refer to the site Privacy Policy for further information.>

For my recent trip to San francisco, I looked at both the Go City Card and CityPass and the various options they had available for attractions in San Francisco.  For this trip, I decided to go with the Go City Card, as I only planned on going to a few attractions with my family, which included the California Academy of Sciences, the Exploratorium, and the Aquarium of the Bay.  Both options are good and choosing between the Go City Card and CityPass will depend on what attractions you plan on visiting, the amount of time you plan on spending in San Francisco and the price you want to pay.  

Go City Card by Smart Destinations:
The Go City Card for San Francisco can be purchased as an 'all-inclusive pass', an 'explorer pass' or a 'build your own pass' and offers 30+ attractions in San Francisco.

The all-inclusive pass comes in 1, 2, 3, 5, and 7 day options and for a flat price allows you to visit as many attractions as you can in the time period.  The explorer pass allows you to visit any 4 attractions for one low price.  You can learn more by visiting their website. 

The San Francisco CityPass offers a booklet of admission tickets to the 5 must see attractions in the city and is also offered in other major cities.  You can learn more by visiting their website. 

As I described above and after researching the two options extensively, I ended up building my own pass with the Go City Card for San Francisco and was able to save 20% off the total purchase price of all the tickets, as shown below:

Option 3: 
You could also buy your tickets on site at the ticketing windows at each attraction, but you'll end up paying full retail price and depending on when you get there, you can expect long lines. 

Other Useful Tips:
  • Parking is available in the underground Music Concourse Garage and offers 800 spaces, but be warned that it will fill up fast on the weekends.  There is also street parking available throughout Golden Gate Park.  
    • We got lucky parking in the Music Concourse Garage, as we were the last car they let in to the parking garage, as it was at capacity.  We drove around for approximately 15-20 minutes before we luckily found a spot as someone was leaving.  
  • There is a cafe on site if you want to grab lunch or a quick snack.  There are a variety of food options, including sushi, salads, sandwiches, pizza and other hot items.
  • Souvenirs, clothing, snacks and other items are available at shops throughout the museum and at the academy store at the front of the museum.
  • Get your picture taken if offered at the entrance to the Rainforest or near the Whales exhibiit as they sell a book about the museum and incorporate the picture you took with various backgrounds.  It is a nice souvenir book that includes 4-5 pictures with various museum backgrounds and offers information about the museum and exhibits.  It sells for $30 as a package and kids will enjoy reading through it.
  • If you need to leave the museum but plan to return the same day, be sure to get your hand stamped at the exit for reentry later in the day.

In summary, I remember visiting the old museum as a kid for a school field trip, but as a first time visitor to the new museum building, I can honestly say I was very impressed and my family and I loved all of the exhibits.  I plan on visiting again soon and next time trying to avoid a busy Saturday afternoon like we had for this trip.