California Academy of Sciences, Ultimate Visitor’s Guide from a Local
The California Academy of Sciences is one of the best science museums on the West Coast and one of San Francisco’s best museums.
When I first moved to San Francisco in 2013, visiting the Cal Academy was one of the first items I checked off my SF bucket list. As a local, I’m now a museum member, and I still visit the California Academy of Sciences several times per year with my three kids.
If you’re planning a visit to San Francisco–or you’re just looking for a great rainy day activity in the city for your kids–the Cal Academy is a must-do.
Here’s my ultimate visitor’s guide to the California Academy of Sciences, based on 10+ visits.
Need California Academy tickets? You can get them at a discount on Viatour and skip the normal lines, or get them as part of a Citypass for 45% off.
Table of contents
- California Academy Basics
- What Does the Academy of Science Have? Top Attractions and Exhibits
- Food at the Cal Academy
- Special Events and Programs
- FAQ; A Local Answers Your Cal Academy Questions
California Academy Basics
The California Academy of Sciences is a world-class science museum and research institution in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. It’s across from the De Young Museum on the Music Concourse, towards the West end of the park.
The California Academy was founded in 1853, just a bit after San Francisco’s Gold Rush. Since then, it’s grown into one of the world’s largest science museums, with over 46 million specimens.
The entire museum has kept up with the times, too. It’s housed in a beautiful, LEED Platinum building with multiple stories, a large planetarium (the Morrison planetarium), an indoor rain forest exhibit, a full aquarium with a rare albino alligator, an earthquake exhibit with a quake simulator, several cafes, and a massive living roof.
The museum is geared towards kids (or at least is very kid friendly), but it also has enough to do–and enough connections to local California history and science–to appeal to visitors of all ages.
Hours and Location
The California Academy of Sciences is open Monday through Saturday from 9:30 am to 5 pm, and Sunday from 11am to 5 pm.
On Thursday night, the museum offers programming geared towards adults, with its NightLife program from 6pm to 10pm (you need to be 21 to attend).
Amazingly, the California Academy of Sciences is open 365 days per year–even on Christmas and New Year’s Day! That makes it a reliable stop for visitors and locals alike–no matter when you’re visiting San Francisco, the California Academy will be open!
If you’re navigating with a GPS, plug in 55 Music Concourse Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118 to get to the front of the museum. You’ll want to approach it from Music Concourse Drive, not Nancy Pelosi Drive, which leads to the back of the museum.
If you’re taking public transit, you can take the 44 O’Shaughnessy MUNI bus, which stops right in front of the museum. You don’t need a car to visit San Francisco, or to visit the Cal Academy!
California Academy of Sciences Tickets
Ticket prices for the California Academy of Sciences vary based on your time of entry, but are generally between $36 and $40 for an adult, and closer to $30 for children.
You can purchase tickets via Viatour.
One option if you’re visiting San Francisco is to get a City Pass. You can get admission to the California Academy, as well as several other great museums and attractions, for about 45% off.
Parking at the California Academy
Parking for attractions in San Francisco can be tough, but given its location in Golden Gate Park, parking for the California Academy of Sciences is pretty easy.
There are two main parking options. You can find free street parking on the streets around the museum. Be prepared to walk! Especially if you’re visiting with kids, street parking can be tough. But if you visit on a quiet day, it’s a great, free option.
The easier solution is to park in the Music Concourse parking garage. There’s an easy entrance to the parking garage off Music Concourse Drive. It’s pricey, at about $20 for a typical stay. But parking in the garage is the easiest option, and there’s an elevator right to the museum’s entrance.
Make sure to park on the California Academy side of the garage, not on the De Young Museum side.
What Does the Academy of Science Have? Top Attractions and Exhibits
The California Academy of Sciences has a wide variety of great attractions and exhibits, ranging from old-school to Disney-like.
Kimball Natural History Museum
The California Academy of Sciences was originally founded in the mid-1800s. Although most of the museum is modern, they’ve also kept some much older diorama-style exhibits.
If you love the old-school style of natural history museum and want to show your kids what science museums look like when you were growing up, this is a great section to visit.
At the end of the Tusher African Hall section, the museum has a cool surprise; a colony of live penguins!
You can view the penguins through glass so that you can see their nesting area, as well as an underwater area, where they swim and play. It’s a super cool addition to what would otherwise be a pretty traditional section of the museum.
Osher Rainforest, an Indoor Rainforest
This is my favorite section of the museum. A giant glass-encased dome fills almost an entire half of the museum, where you’ll find a multi-story indoor rainforest.
The dome keeps the rainforest toasty and also contains free-flying butterflies and other flora and fauna that you’ll find inside. It’s a USDA-registered biocontainment facility, meaning they can have species you wouldn’t find in the wild in North America.
When you enter the dome through a special airlock, you can meander up a ramp that winds around the dome, slowly climbing through the rainforest canopy.
Even on grey days in the winter, the interior is warm and brightly lit. You’ll see all kinds of species, as well as birds and butterflies. There are also exhibits with a range of rainforest bugs and critters.
Steinhart Aquarium, a Full Aquarium
When you finish walking up the ramp in the rainforest, a treat awaits you. You get into an elevator and it descends back through the canopy, and then under the water at the bottom of the exhibit.
There you’ll find a full aquarium on the lower level of the museum. Although it’s not quite on the level of something like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, you’ll still find massive displays of fish, beautiful jellyfish, deep reefs including a Philippine coral reef, and much more.
One of the stars of the museum is a rare albino alligator, Claude. The alligator mostly hangs out sunning himself, so it’s quite easy to get a nice photo of him!
The aquarium is awesome and would be worth a visit on its own. If you visit the Cal Academy on the City Pass, you can add to your aquarium experience by visiting the Aquarium of the Bay over at the Embarcadero, too.
One note: the California Academy of Sciences aquarium is a bit dark. Your kids will love running around, but make sure to keep an eye on them, especially if it’s crowded.
Across from the rainforest exhibit is another large sphere, which contains a full planetarium. You can see a variety of shows about science and the other kinds of topics you’d expect at a natural history museum.
This is geared more towards older kids and adults, so the littlest kids won’t get much from it. But if you love planetarium shows or you just want a comfortable spot to sit and relax for a bit during your visit, the planetarium is a great option.
California Natural History Exhibits, and the Shake House!
Like many places in California, the California Academy of Sciences celebrates the state’s biodiversity. The California Academy has a large exhibit about California’s natural history, its climate, and some of its well-known geological forces.
In this section, you’ll find a giant slice of a redwood tree, info on the California coast, a special fog room that you can walk through which stimulates the Bay Area’s famous fog, and even an earthquake simulator. Kids and adults alike will love this one.
The earthquake simulator is set up as a Disney-like ride. You wait in line and then enter a small room meant to look like the room in a San Francisco Victorian home. The room then shakes in a way meant to simulate the 1989 and 1906 San Francisco earthquakes.
Backdrops in the room show the city as it shakes, with buildings falling, smashing and a chandelier wobbling “dangerously”. It’s a fun way for kids to engage with the idea of an earthquake and a sobering reminder for locals to buy an earthquake bag and be ready for the big one!
In addition to the permanent exhibits, the California Academy of Sciences also features rotating exhibits on various topics. During my last visit, there was an exhibit on bugs. They also have other natural history exhibits on space, geology, gems, and much more.
The California Academy of Sciences was designed by famed architect Renzo Piano. One of the key architectural elements of the building is a massive living roof. This is one living roof among many in San Francicso, but it’s one of the biggest and most dramatic.
The living roof has over 1 million plants growing on it and is ringed with solar panels. This is one of the biggest and most dramatic living roofs in the world, and you can take the elevator up to a special observation deck to check it out.
It’s a beautiful and meditative spot with a great view of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. On clear days, you can see all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Previously, much of the California Academy of Sciences was located indoors, which is a shame when San Francisco is known for its pleasant climate.
To add an outdoor component, the California Academy recently opened Wanderwoods. This new museum exhibit is located outdoors where little ones can build structures with sticks and other natural materials, play outside, and climb through an actual forest.
Wanderwoods is a great place for the littlest ones to let some energy out!
On the top floor of the museum, you’ll find a special room dedicated to helping kids explore natural history. There are fossils and animal skulls to touch, microscopes to look through, and library books.
Volunteer staff this area and keep things interesting for the littlest kids. The section is set up to mimic a Victorian Cabinet of Curiosities and looks like something out of a movie set. This is a little-known section of the museum, but it’s a great place to take your kids.
Food at the Cal Academy
Like many Bay Area destinations, the California Academy has great food options, including two cafes that feature local food items.
Here are just a few of the local providers they work work:
Frog Hollow Farms
California Endive Co
The Academy Cafe is a casual, cafeteria-style eatery located inside the museum. It has multiple stations, including a grill, sandwich area, grab and go options, a Mexican food section, and more.
It also has a great little espresso bar and coffee shop, if you need bit of caffeine to make it through your visit!
The cafe is a great option if you want to grab a quick bite to eat, or you’re visiting with kids. Because this is California, everything is very classy, healthy, and often local. That said, there are things like pizza, mac and cheese, and other basics for your kids.
The coolest thing is that when you sit down to eat, there’s a huge aquarium with fish lining the wall of the seating area. Giant fish stare down at you while you munch. This definitely keeps kids occupied during mealtimes.
Another great dining option at the California Academy of Sciences is the Terrace Restaurant. This is a more upscale dining experience located on the museum’s outdoor terrace.
It’s a counter-service restaurant, so we’re not talking white tablecloths or anything, but it makes a great place to grab more adult fare, like sandwiches, salads, and beer or wine.
Special Events and Programs
In addition to the normal offerings at the California Academy of Sciences, you can also visit for a variety of special events and programs.
NightLife is a special event the California Academy of Sciences holds every Thursday evening. It’s an adults-only, 21+ event where people can come and visit the museum after dark.
There food, wine and beer available for purchase, and you can mingle with young professionals. It also makes a great date night for people who want to explore the museum without the school groups and kids running around.
You’ll need tickets for NightLife, which typically run between $15 and $25.
On select nights, the California Academy of Sciences offers sleepovers for kids ages 5-17, accompanied by an adult guardian.
I haven’t tried this personally, but it’s supposed to be an awesome and exciting way for younger kids to engage with the museum and its exhibits. When you wake up the next day, you then get admission to the museum included.
The museum offers options for private events, ranging from corporate parties to kids’ birthday parties. They also offer virtual experiences, which include virtual visits from a museum scientist.
FAQ; A Local Answers Your Cal Academy Questions
I get a lot of questions about the California Academy of Sciences. Here are a few common ones.
I’d budget between 2-4 hours for a visit to the California Academy of Sciences. Two hours would be the very low end; that’s enough time to visit the rainforest exhibit, pop into the aquarium, get some lunch, and head out.
I’ve definitely spent way longer at the museum, though. Four hours is totally reasonable, and you could spend a whole day there if you wanted to.
It depends on the show, but they’re typically 15-30 minutes. They’re free with admission, but you do need to reserve tickets on a first come, first served basis.
Like many San Francisco museums, the California Academy of Sciences used to offer free visits on selected Sundays. As I write this, the program is currently on hold due to capacity restrictions.
No word on when it will resume again.
The California Academy of Sciences is the best natural history museum in San Francisco, and one of the best in the world.
If you’re traveling to the City By the Bay and want to learn about the natural world, biodiversity science, or California’s unique plant and animal life, the Cal Academdy is a fantastic place to visit.
Again, consider getting a CityPass if you’re going to visit the museum. It’s a great deal, and you can visit several other awesome San Francisco attractions, from the zoo to the Exploratoreum. You can also purchase tickets on Viatour.