I would venture to say there are a handful of exceptional Bay Area museums that truly delight both children, and adults alike. If you can venture into Golden Gate Park (ideally on a less-crowded weekday) to visit the The California Academy of Science, I promise you it will deliver.
Cal Academy not only has an aquarium, a planetarium, a natural history museum and a four-story rainforest, but they also have special seasonal exhibits and a padded play area for little ones. When we visited in January, they had real reindeer (my daughter asked if they were Rudolph), falling snow (yes, inside) and an ice exhibit. My (510) little kids were pretty pumped about the falling snow.
It’s nearly impossible to take in the whole museum in a day. But let’s get to it, here’s everything you need to know:
Planning your visit to Cal Academy of Sciences
- Rainforest: it is hot and humid! With the temperature of 85 degrees and humidity of 75% or above, as always with everywhere else in NorCal, we wore layers and removed jackets/sweaters as we ascended the levels of the rainforest. Bring snacks to distract little ones as there is usually a line to enter. The macaws are beautiful and both my girls were delighted by the butterflies. My 4 year old could have spent half an hour at the ant exhibit alone. The ant colonies are mesmerizing with so many tunnels and activity. Also those ants are HUGE! Pictures can be challenging here because the humidity fogs up camera lenses. So if you’re really wanting some butterfly pictures, bring a microfiber cloth to wipe your lens.
- Aquarium: The basement aquarium is very impressive, AND easy to lose children! It is seriously huge and winds around in all sorts of directions. After my daughter touched the starfish and urchins at the awesome Discovery Tidepool (bring wipes to clean hands!), things got a little dicey. I let my 1 year old run around with my 4 year old. It’s dark down there, with a bunch of running children, strollers and echos. So after I got overwhelmed solo chasing them both around, I strapped the little one in the stroller and headed back up to the main floor to visit Curiosity Grove. Note, you can access the aquarium without having already visited the rainforest via stairs, or elevator.
- Planetarium: Oops! No children under the age of 4. Actually the recommended age is 7+. Tickets are included with admission and are first come, first serve. You just need to sign up upon arrival to secure your place for the show.
- Natural history: fossils, skeletons, penguin feedings and biology, oh my! It’s a lot to take in, but the information is fun and fascinating. While I loved the 3D visuals of evolution, my daughter was pumped about the life sized T-Rex that she had been waiting to see for months, that greeted us at the entrance. That was her favorite part of the whole museum. We also saw the penguin feeding, which was also a highlight. (Check out their penguin sleepovers!)
- Curiosity Grove = a safe family play area: if your littles need a place to get their wiggles out, Curiosity Grove is a padded treasure of safe obstacles, books and toys to explore. There was no line to enter (as I’ve read happens in the past), but stroller parking was bonkers.
Tickets for California Academy of Sciences
- Free tickets:
- Children 2 & under are free.
- Discover and Go offers free tickets with your library membership. Just sign in with your library card and reserve your tickets in advance, as there are daily limits on ticket distribution. If you don’t have a library card, here’s a reason to get one!
- Discounted tickets: Buying tickets in advance also save you up to $7 per ticket
- Buy tickets at the door: The most expensive option, but if you plan to visit a couple times a year, it might be worth considering an annual membership. If we didn’t have tickets from the library, it would have cost the three of us a whopping $100 to visit– that includes my free toddler. Yikes!
Getting to California Academy of Sciences
- If your family enjoys walking, it’s possible to find free street parking in Golden Gate Park, just arrive early for better chances to score a spot
- Parking structure: located directly under the museum, be prepared to pay a small fortune. Arrive early, the lot gets very full because of all the other great stuff to do in Golden Gate Park.
- If you don’t have to pay for parking, and can BART, bike or walk, even better!
Eating at California Academy of Sciences
- The newly remodeled Academy Cafe is packed and expensive. They do have high chairs (*maybe). We couldn’t snag a high chair when we visited. So my 1 yr old sat on my lap while my 4 yr old sat next to me with our stroller snugly parked next to us, while several other families desperately vied for a spot at the table. We just bought a slice of pizza to supplement what I had brought for lunch. The line and cost was probably not worth it, had I brought a little more lunch.
- Bottom line: Bring your own food and drinks. Sit outside where it’s less crowded, if it’s not too cold.
What else to consider for California Academy of Sciences
- Changing tables are in all restrooms. It can be a tight squeeze with a stroller, the dedicated family restroom is by the swamp.
- If you don’t have littles who expire mid-day for naptime, wandering Golden Gate Park on a sunny day after the museum would be lovely. Or if it’s too cold to wander (which it often can be) you can head into the Inner Sunset/Inner Richmond for lunch. I recommend Burma Superstar. Want something faster? Check out Arizmendi.
- Compared to other children's museums that can get a little grimy, this place is sparkly clean- hooray!
- If you really want to win parent of the year, consider a Penguins + Pajamas sleepover!
If you can snag tickets from your library’s Discover & Go program, and pack lunch(es), this can be an affordable and very entertaining adventure. Cal Academy is neck to neck with The Exploratorium as one of the best museums in the Bay Area for my family and I!
California Academy of Sciences is located at 55 Music Concourse Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118
Telephone: (415) 379-8000
[All photos by Julia Gidwani]