CA Academy of Sciences: A Family Must-Do Activity in San Francisco

For many families, a trip to a children’s museum while on vacation is typically a compromise of sorts. Mom and Dad sacrifice an afternoon to entertain the kids, when secretly there are other places they’d rather be exploring.

Factor in children that range in age from toddler to teen and the family dynamic gets even more complicated. In other words, it’s really hard to make everyone happy. Hard, but not impossible, for families who include the California Academy of Sciences in their San Francisco itinerary.

CA Academy of Sciences San Francisco
California Academy of Sciences

Rich in History

Founded in 1853, just three years after California joined the United States, the Academy is the oldest institution of its kind in the West. That said, this museum is anything but old. Over a three year period beginning in 2005, the Academy was completely rebuilt. Re-opened in 2008,  it’s the greenest museum in the world.

Walk on a Living Roof

It’s really a number of museums housed under one incredible Living Roof, home to more than 2 acres of native California plants. From the construction-design perspective, the Living Roof does amazing things like prevent water runoff and provide insulation, but it also creates a habitat for bees, birds, butterflies and other critters. And on a clear day, you get a great view of San Francisco’s amazing Golden Gate Park.

Out of this World Planetarium

The Morrison Planetarium is the largest all-digital dome in the world. My family was lucky enough to catch two shows during our visit, both equally impressive. Live presenters help you see the planet in a new light, and since the shows are live, no two are exactly the same. Presenters talk and adapt to their audience. For example, if they have a crowd full of families they can make the show more kid-friendly.

The Planetarium is very popular. Tickets are handed out first-come, first-served, at a cart just outside the Planetarium. Go grab tickets first thing when you arrive at the Academy, or run the risk of being disappointed.

Making the history of the universe kid-friendly isn’t an easy endeavor. The Academy recommends its shows for ages 7 and up. Children 3 and under are not allowed, so the family may need to divide and conquer.

Albino Alligator Claude at SF Academy of Sciences
Claude the albino alligator

Go on Safari

African Hall offers visitors a unique way to travel the African continent and get good look at some of the animals that call it home. More than a dozen displays use taxiderm specimens from the Academy’s vast collection, while others use live animals. I think the living, breathing and very playful colony of penguins is the show stealer.

Eight year-old Johara from Kentfield, California agrees with me. “It has all these penguins and they’re cute!”

Meet Claude

Claude the albino alligator is arguably the Academy’s most famous resident. In the wild, he’d be a goner, but in San Francisco he’s a celebrity of sorts. A couple years ago when he turned 15, he got quite the party, including cake and party hats. His soft and cushy costume character double is often seem in the Academy posing for pictures.

Butterfly CA Academy of Sciences
Happy butterflies in Rainforests of the World

Rainforests of the World

The academy’s living, four-story rainforest is housed in a 90-foot diameter glass dome. It’s incredible to look at from the outside and even more amazing once you’re inside. With average temperatures in the low 80’s it’s also nice place to warm up on a foggy San Francisco day.

Only so many folks are allowed to visit the rainforest at a time, so be prepared to wait in line.  If the family’s debating on what to next and there’s no line, consider yourself lucky and go for it.

Steinhart Aquarium CA Academy of Sciences
38,000 animals live in the Steinhart Aquarium

Steinhart Aquarium

When you leave the rainforest you’ll find yourself in my family’s favorite part of the Academy, the Steinhart Aquarium. It’s home to 38,000 live animals, every color of the rainbow, from around the world. Seadragons, jellyfish, and sharks just to name a few.

The Aquarium’s Philippine Coral Reef Gallery is one of the deepest exhibits of live corals in the world. The Northern California Coast Gallery shows what plays below the surface of San Francisco’s watery backyard.

Penguins and Pajamas at CA Academy of Sciences
Sleep with the fish at the Penguins + Pajamas sleepover

Penguins + Pajamas

As you might have already guessed the California Academy of Sciences is a pretty popular place. Anywhere from 2-5,000 people come to check it out everyday. You can escape the crowds if you’re willing to show off your pjs. About once a month the Academy hosts the Penguins + Pajamas sleepover.

Campers get full access to the Academy, plus extras like live animal demonstrations, crafts, late night cookies and milk and a special gift. (No, I’m not going to give away what it is)!

The night my family roughed it in the Aquarium, there were less than 400 people rolling out sleeping bags with us. Less is definitely more. And yes, we actually slept, but I highly recommend bringing an air mattress.

If you spend the night, you also get admittance to the Academy the following day. We spent a fair part of the next day exploring and taking a second look at some favorites, but we still didn’t see everything, so we’ll be back.

Photos courtesy of Dana Rebmann

Dana and her family received complimentary admission to the California Academy of Science’s Penguin’s & Pajamas Sleepover, but as always Dana’s thoughts and opinions are her own.

Relevant Links:

Ciao Bambino recommended San Francisco family hotels

Things to do in San Francisco with kids

Tips for checking out San Francisco’s tourist spots

Zeum San Francisco, a museum your kids will love

Things to do in the Presidio with children

Visiting Angel Island with kids

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  • we love the academy! one nice surprise, my son always wears a red baseball hat in the rainforest and every time a butterfly lands on his hat. so cool!

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