The California Academy of Sciences is one of the most visited tourist sites in San Francisco. It’s really easy to understand why people want to see this museum.
For architecture buffs, the newly renovated building is a destination in San Francisco. Renowned Italian architect, Renzo Piano, designed the building with conservation in mind to house many important artifacts. It is one of the most respected science research facilities in the world. When it was re-inaugurated in 2008, the California Academy of Sciences had the highest Green Sustainable LEED Double Platinum Certification in the world for a museum.
There are three major attractions located in this compound: an aquarium, a planetarium, and a natural history museum. All of these three very different and intriguing elements are combined flawlessly into one integrated exhibit, and you can easily spend the whole day inside exploring.
The Steinhart Aquarium
This small aquarium is located in the basement of the California Academy of Sciences. It has an impressive collection of marine animals that are grouped into their respected original habitats in the world.
- The Philippine Coral Reef Exhibit. This is the largest coral reef exhibit in the world. For non divers, this bright and happy exhibit is a great place to observe closely and to learn more about the animals you can find in the tropics. Thousands of anemones, colorful fish, eels, rays, and sea stars live in this beautiful habitat. Be sure to check the dive show where a diver inside the exhibit will be able to answer questions from the audience.
- Shark Lagoon. This is located next to the Planetarium. You will be able to see several species of rays and sharks, along other bony fish, in a shallow body of water. Check their feeding times posted at the main information desk, or ask any of the staff or volunteers.
- Twilight Zone: Deep Reefs Revealed. As avid scuba divers, we’ve dove many sites and visited many aquariums around the world. So, this particular section of the aquarium impressed us the most. Many of the fish species here have never been displayed in any public aquarium in the world. You can find several living nautilus here, as well as some deep sea fish with eyes that glow in the dark. There is a comprehensive exhibit of scuba diving with a closed-circuit rebreather display, as well as information on deep marine exploration and scientific research in the deep ocean. The closed-circuit rebreather allows divers to be in water that is 500 feet deep (150 m) for 15 minutes before having to make their way up.
- California Coast. This is definitely an exciting exhibit in the Steinhart Aquarium. Everything in this habitat comes from the nearby coastline of the Bay. Be sure to spot the leopard sharks, which are native to the region. They’ll be swimming along the kelp leaves and rocky bottom of the exhibit.
- Water Planet. The distinctive water pattern on the wall brings together several different exhibits to showcase many other animals from around the world. You can find jellies, as well as other beautiful animals like the weedy sea dragon.
- Discovery Tidepool. This is an area where guests are invited to explore and learn some of the marine residents through touching and observing them closely. All with the help of staff and volunteers, of course. Kids will especially enjoy learning about our marine friends this way!
- Animal Attraction Gallery. A collection of photographs and information about unique animal mating habits – a very interesting and eye-opening exhibit!
- The Swamp. Located at the back of the museum, this indoor “swamp” is the home of a rare albino American alligator named Claude. This area occupies the original footprint of the old California Academy of Sciences before its renovation in mid-2000.
Don’t expect to find any telescopes or any physical displays here. The planetarium is a 75 foot dome that is designed to mimic the open universe above. Different programs and shows play at different times, so check the main information display for the schedules. You’ll also find out how to get your free ticket from the planetarium kiosk. Tickets are available on a first come first serve basis, so make sure to get yours immediately when you arrive at the California Academy of Sciences.
By the way, the seating is extremely comfortable, and many people are caught falling asleep during the show. You’ve been warned!
With a huge glass dome about four stories high, this structure and its lush content is the largest human-made rainforest of any kind in the world. The unique collection of rainforest plants and animals represents three distinct ecosystems: Borneo, Madagascar and Costa Rica rainforest. There is also a touch of the Amazon flooded forest floor at the bottom of the rainforest. You can follow the spiral path to explore a wonderful collection of flying birds, fluttering butterflies, and even silk orb-weaver spiders, in the midst of the lush vegetation.
The controlled environment is always set to about 85F (about 30C) and 75% humidity, so be sure to dress appropriately. If you’re dressed warm, dress in layers. You’ll likely want to remove some clothing here.
Also, make sure that you don’t unintentionally take some of the butterflies outside. They may land on you without your knowing and tag along to different parts of the center!
The Living Roof
All the way on top of the center, you can visit the roof platform to view the California Academy of Sciences architectural crown jewel: The Living Roof. When the newly renovated museum was completed in 2008, Renzo Piano designed the building to be sustainable. One of the biggest components for this is the roof design.
The entire surface is covered with living plants for insulation and uses a rainwater irrigation system. Portholes cover the seven domes in different sizes to allow natural light to penetrate though to the museum space below. Amongst the green grass and wildflowers on the top of the roof, sometimes you can find small projects happening here, such as naturally drying out whale bones under the sun!
There are always staff or volunteers stationed on the roof to answer any questions you may have. Ask away – they have gone through rigorous training to learn about science, and are always eager to find you an answer if they don’t know themselves!
Kimball Natural History Museum
The California Academy of Sciences is an important home for scientific research. Behind all those doors and windows, as well as everywhere in the field, there are scientists working on their projects and research. Many of the results and evidence are displayed here at the museum. Everything from early human evolution and minerals to African animals and earthquake science makes it to the display case. Here are some of the highlights.
- Tusher African Hall. This is the old school style taxidermy collection of African animals, displayed in a series of dioramas. At the end of the hall, you can see a group of living animals from Africa: the African penguins.
- Human Odyssey. A collection of ancient human skulls and information on evolution studies.
- Gem and Minerals Unearthed. You can view an amazing collection of colorful gems, most of them in the wonderful state and form of which they discovered. You will come out with a better appreciation of our underworld!
- The Foucault Pendulum. You won’t miss this huge swinging clock-like pendulum that is located in the middle of an open space, surrounded by low fence. It is a very showy demonstration of how the Earth rotates on its axis.
- Earthquake. If you want to learn more about earthquake science, and to experience a powerful earthquake, this is the place for you. The best stimulation is the Shake House, where you’re like an ice-cube inside a margarita shaker. You are being shaken in a mock-up of a Victorian house, mimicking the 1906 San Francisco great earthquake. You can even see the colorful Painted Ladies in the background! Hanging plates and cups start to clatter, a painting swings wildly on the wall. I’m glad that this is not the real thing!
Eats at the California Academy of Sciences
There are two cafes inside the museum: the Academy Café and the Terrace. Both highlight the important of sustainable food, with education about sourcing locally and nutrition. Admission to the Academy is required to access either of these restaurants.
California Academy of Sciences hours
- Monday to Saturday: 9:30am to 5pm. Last admission is at 4pm
- Sunday: 11am to 5pm. Last admission is at 4pm
- Thursday Night Life (age 21+ only, ID required): 6pm to 10pmCheck the official website for special opening times, if any.
Check their official page for ticket prices. They allow free visits four Sundays a year! You can save time and money by purchasing your tickets online.
California Academy of Sciences
Pin this for later
For More on the United States: When we travel, we use Lonely Planet. By buying a book at one of the Amazon.com links below, we get a small referral fee at no additional cost to you.