Thank you to the Cal Academy of Sciences, who generously provided my family with tickets for our visit. My family’s honest reviews and opinions are all our own.
The California Academy of Sciences is a truly impressive science museum for Bay Area families and it’s just a quick drive from the East Bay (quick being anywhere from 35-90 min depending on traffic). I recently took my four kids (ages 3-10) on a Saturday morning and I was pleasantly surprised that each one of them was highly engaged and excited for more than several hours. From the stunning Aquarium and fearsome new Sharks exhibit to Claude the albino alligator and the scary-cool Venom exhibit, there’s just so much to see and experience close up, which is exactly what curious kids want to do.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of everything to see at the Cal Academy of Sciences since that would take far too long. Instead, we’ve rounded up our top three areas to visit for little and big kids as a starting point for your family from which you can further explore. Let us know your top three in the comments!
Favorite Exhibits for Little Kids at the Cal Academy of Sciences
Upon arrival at 9:30 am, my three- and five-year-olds were already bursting with excitement. Being greeted by a (masked) T-Rex in the lobby only further intensified their enthusiasm to epic levels (I’m talking ice cream for breakfast levels). There are so many cool exhibits, but only so much time when you have little children in tow. So if you’re looking for the top three most impactful exhibits for kids five and under, these are our recommendations:
The Steinhart Aquarium (Lower Level)
We headed straight for the Aquarium on the lower level when we arrived. What’s so great about all the Aquarium exhibits is that most viewing windows are low enough to be accessible to small children. My kids darted all around looking at all the things, so it was hard to keep track of them at times. Highlights of the lower level Aquarium are: Claude the albino Alligator, the Venom area (spider and scorpions and jellyfish oh my!), and the Philippine Coral Reef. We even saw a scuba diver tidying up the reef and windows.
The Naturalist Center (Level 3)
The “realness” of it all is captivating for little kids. Getting their hands on real specimens, from insects to shark teeth to hawks, is amazing for little kids. My three-year-old couldn’t get enough of touching everything, while my five-year-old was able to see many of the insects we’ve read about in his bug books. Being in the Naturalist Center feels like being in a real lab, with all the trappings of a real scientist.
Don’t miss the cute little library nook full of tons of picture books and several toys to further entice children to sit and immerse themselves in a topic that they find interesting. The Naturalist Center wasn’t crowded when we were there, but they are limiting capacity at the moment due to it being a smaller enclosed space, so you may need to wait in line depending on crowds.
The New Shark Exhibit (Level 2)
Fair warning: the Shark Exhibit does not actually have any actual sharks in it. So be sure to warn your kiddos about that. I didn’t realize that, so my kids were a little disappointed at first. Luckily, the exhibit is still pretty darn cool, with life-sized shark models, humongous Megaladon jaws, and an immersive projection room gallery where your little kids can watch films about all sorts of different sharks. My little kids loved the novelty of the movie room, and after running around touching the walls and jumping around in the light, they actually sat wiggle-free for more than five minutes and watched (learned?) about sharks.
Pro tip: Before you visit, get your kiddos excited about the exhibit with some fun at-home activities and videos. And don’t get them hyped up to see real sharks.
A fave for me, but NOT the kids: The Osher Rainforest Dome
The Rainforest exhibit on the main floor is truly beautiful and teeming with life, and it was my personal favorite exhibit. My little kids quickly became loudly uncomfortable because of how hot and humid it is in there, and run-walked the whole way through the experience. Wearing masks surely intensified their restless whining, so unfortunately we didn’t linger in there long. I will say though that when a massive butterfly the size of my hand landed on my three-year-old’s arm, the whining ceased completely and the magic of the exhibit seemed to sink in, at least for a moment. So just be forewarned that with a mask, the Rainforest is tough for little kids.
Not Open Right Now: The Discovery Tidepool
Much like the Naturalist Center, the Discovery Tidepool encourages kids to interact and touch real animals — and my kids usually love it. Sadly, the Discovery Tidepool wasn’t open when we went due to Covid-19 restrictions. But we’ll be back again, and we can’t wait to give it a go!
Top 3 Exhibits for Big Kids at the Cal Academy of Sciences
Big kids will surely love the Aquarium, Naturalist Center, and Shark exhibit too, but there are several other attractions that’ll spark older kids’ imaginations more specifically.
The Planetarium (Level 1)
Children under four aren’t allowed in the Planetarium, and it’s not even recommended for children under seven (your call, though), so keep that in mind if you have children of different ages. We had to split up when we went, with my husband taking my bigger kids to the show while my five- and three-year-olds enjoyed the reef lagoon and Curiosity Grove with me. When you first arrive at the Academy, take a picture of the QR code for the Planetarium (there are signs at the entrance and near the Planetarium) to make a reservation for the next available show. Don’t sleep on this, the shows fill up quickly. My big kids said the show was “totally awesome” and asked when they could go again. I told them that there’s a brand new show called Living Worlds opening on November 5th that we could come back for. They are stoked!
The Kimball Natural History Museum (Level 1)
Older kids are better able to appreciate the types of exhibits in the Natural History History Museum area since they have more patience to read the information and take in the meaning of the exhibits. My big boys loved watching the 30-foot Foucault pendulum, counting the rings on the massive redwood cross-section, and using their feet to measure the whale dangling from the ceiling. There’s so much to interact with, your big kids will be thoroughly engaged.
The New Shark Exhibit (Level 2)
As I said above, there are not actual sharks in the Shark Exhibit. But that didn’t stop my older boys from diving into the engrossing exhibit head-first. Their favorite part was the movie room (screens, so obviously), where they happily sat watching about all the different types of sharks, their favorite being a short movie about swimming with Great White sharks at night (yikes!).
Get them excited about the exhibit with some at-home activities and videos before you go, catered to ages 8-11.
More to Like: The Aquarium, Living Roof, and Gift Shops
All my kids have been begging to go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium again, but we haven’t been able to get there yet because of the pandemic. Happily, the Aquarium at the Academy more than scratches the sea-creature itch, and then some. Between the big kids and little kids, we spent the majority of our time on the lower level enjoying all that the Aquarium and surrounding exhibits have to offer. The Venom area caught my big kids’ attention in particular.
The Living Roof is pretty darn cool too, but there’s not a whole lot to do up there. Bigger kids will appreciate the views and novelty of the ecosystem on the roof.
And lastly, of course, the gift shops, which are strategically placed throughout the museum. The one just outside the bathrooms on the lower level, as well as the one at the exit of the Shark exhibit, are particularly enticing to kids. In fairness, they are nicely curated, with plenty of learning toys and cool little knick-knacks that won’t break the bank.
Pro-tip: Always have a discussion before entering the museum about what you’re willing to spend at the gift shops, if at all, and when the shopping will occur.
Getting There and Parking
The Cal Academy has put together a super helpful page about how to get there and where to park, so I’ll direct you there >>
We arrived at 9 am on a Saturday morning and found ample four-hour free parking on Nancy Pelosi Drive next to a large grassy field, where we sat and had snacks before the Academy opened. A warning though, car break-ins are a reality in San Francisco, so make sure not to leave ANYTHING in your car. The Academy has lockers for $8 where you can store your stuff. If you prefer to park in a garage, the Music Concourse Garage is only steps away from the Academy’s main entrance and may feel more secure if you’re worried about a break-in. Garages fill up fast on weekends though, so keep that in mind. Your best bet is just to arrive early (9 am) to get parking and avoid traffic.
Cal Academy’s Covid-19 Safety Protocols, Rules & Restrictions
Advance reservations required (Thursday night NightLife is back if you’re looking for a cool date-night idea!) All guests ages 3 and up must wear a mask, inside and outside. As expected, there will be enhanced cleaning and disinfection throughout the day. Nice to know: they’ve improved the airflow and filtration with an updated HVAC system.
Proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of a scheduled museum visit is now required for all Academy guests ages 12+, along with photo ID for guests ages 18+.
Plan your Visit to Cal Academy:
- Monday–Saturday: 9:30 am–5 pm
- Sunday: 11 am–5 pm
What to Bring:
- stroller for little kids.
- snacks/lunch to eat outside (no food is allowed inside)
- blanket if you want to eat out on the grass
- magnifying glass
- good walking shoes as there’s a lot of ground to cover
- Bright clothes and/or glow bracelets to keep track of everyone
- Purchase tickets >
- Children 2 & under are free
- Website >
- Address: 55 Music Concourse Drive, San Francisco
- Phone: (415) 379-8000
The Bottom Line on the Cal Academy of Sciences
This place is an iconic landmark in the Bay Area for a reason. It’s located in the beautiful Golden Gate Park, it’s big and clean, and offers countless opportunities for you and your kids to learn and have fun, all within a relatively short drive from the East Bay. With the new reservation system and vaccination requirements, crowds are kept at a minimum and everything feels a lot safer. Yes, it’s expensive, so perhaps consider a membership if your kids are super into it. My littlest was so inspired by our visit that she created her own “lab” at home. That kind of excitement for science is worth the price of admission and then some. I know we’ll be back soon since there’s always so much to see and do.