San Francisco's Exploratorium with kids - 510 Families
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San Francisco’s Exploratorium with kids

San Francisco’s Exploratorium with kids is a ton of fun — hands-on science museum with lots to touch for kids of all ages and room to climb outside. And, don’t forget the views! Visiting grandparents will be impressed.

The Exploratorium, long a favorite destination for Bay Area families, is located on Pier 15 along the Embarcadero of San Francisco Bay.

What’s amazing about the Exploratorium.

The 330,000 square-foot indoor/outdoor project — nearly three times the size of the original museum at the Palace of Fine Arts — was designed and constructed with the goal of becoming the largest net-zero energy museum in the United States, if not the world. Dennis M. Bartels, executive director of the Exploratorium, commented “We have the opportunity to open on the front porch of San Francisco.”

The Exploratorium at Pier 15
The Exploratorium at Pier 15, view from the water. Image by Amy
Snyder © Exploratorium

Some old favorite exhibits made the trip from the old Exploratorium, but among the more than 600 pieces on display are 150 brand-new and rotating exhibits. The space is vast and inviting, and gives its many hands-on exhibits breathing room — plus a lot more places for parents to rest their tired feet.

A “tinkering room” is also set up for small hands to create science projects with expert help.

A spokesperson notes, “Designed for all ages, the Exploratorium is regarded as the world’s foremost interactive science museum, designed to make natural phenomena and the manufactured world around us both exciting and understandable.” Many of the Exploratorium’s outdoor displays are free to the public with no ticket required.

Plankton Populations at the Exploratorium
Plankton Populations is a table-sized interactive display created in collaboration
with MIT and the UC Davis Center for Visualization.

There is a gourmet cafeteria, the Seaglass restaurant, onsite with numerous options including Welsh rarebit (melted artisanal cheese on toast); prepared salads with grains and beans; pizzette and sandwiches; organic, free range spatchcocked chicken (the bird is flattened out and roasted); crispy polenta sticks with Gorgonzola dip; and roasted asparagus and other vegetable dishes.

Architect Marc L’Italien has designed the space to capture every ray of light from the bay (on its eastern end) and dazzling urban skyline to its west, and to artfully steer visitors through the myriad rooms and displays.

Exploratorium color shadows
Visitors create shadows with colored light, learning about
color mixing and the three color receptors in the retina of the human
eye. Image by Amy Snyder © Exploratorium

What we don’t love about the Exploratorium with kids.

The totally redesigned from the ground-up Exploratorium has kept the unforgiving concrete floors that used to torture parents’ feet in the old Exploratorium — I still recall my most recent five-hour visit there and wince.

And although the café’s offerings are admirable, they are indeed pricey, with the chicken dish at $12 half/$24 whole; roasted potatoes and asparagus offered separately at $4 apiece; and $11 for the pizzette. (C’mon!)

The biggest challenge occurs when a visitor contemplates a trip from the East Bay.

Gone is the beloved free parking at the Palace of Fine Arts. This new Exploratorium’s “net-zero energy” campaign is felt most strongly here, as guests must either park in city lots or at some of the city’s most expensive meters (Sundays are no longer free at San Francisco meters).

The closest BART station is at the Embarcadero, a 10-minute walk away: certainly do-able, but worth planning for if you’re bringing a brood. Similarly, there is ferry service from Alameda, Jack London Square in Oakland arriving at the Ferry Building, a 10-minute walk away.

You can purchase parking at a paid lot in advance, with help from online service, Spot Hero. Use code PARK510 to save $5 on your first pre-paid parking experience.

Admission to the Exploratorium.


Admission is $25 for adults, with lower rates for Bay Area residents, youth, seniors, students, teachers and the disabled. Advance ticket purchase is strongly recommended; in order to minimize lines and avoid overcrowding.

The Exploratorium is free to everyone 5 days each year effective Fall 2013. Free Days are: Groundhog Day (Feb. 2); Pi Day (Mar. 14); Mothers‘ Day (2nd Sunday in May, from 2014); Engineering Day (last Sunday in September); and Founder‘s Day (2nd Sunday in October). The popular Discover & Go program, which offers free tickets to library card holders from Oakland, Berkeley and other local cities, is due to take effect here in the future but when I checked at press time it had not yet been set up for The Exploratorium.

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2 thoughts on “San Francisco’s Exploratorium with kids”

  1. Can you comment on age-appropriateness? I know my 4 year old would probably love it, but what about a 2 year old?

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