The California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco

Jocelyn Murray January 11, 2012 No Comments



California Academy of Sciences

Close-up of the front of the building (photo © Tim Griffith)

The California Academy of Sciences is one of the best family museums in San Francisco, a prominent research institution, and the world’s greenest museum with its commitment to sustainability and a domed roof that is alive with lush plant and floral species native to California. It is comprised of a natural history museum, an aquarium, a planetarium, and a four-story rainforest, and includes about 40,000 live animals and hundreds of fantastic exhibits.


California Academy of Sciences

This T-Rex welcomes guests with open jaws in the Academy's spacious entry

I had the privilege of visiting this amazing museum with my family during the holiday season. Despite this being a large museum, it is so well designed and organized that one never feels overwhelmed by its size or the diversity of its exhibits. The seamless integration of its galleries and exhibits reflects the interdependence and unity within our world’s diverse life and ecosystems. Although we came at a busy time of year, we were able to see most of the museum at a very comfortable and unhurried pace within about a 2-3 hour time frame.


The centrally located piazza was our first stop, where we visited the ’Tis the Season for Science exhibit. Here we smelled all the sweet holiday spices in the Spice Forest, danced in the snow flurries, studied the taxidermy birds in the Twelve Days of Christmas song, and then wandered outside to say hello to the reindeer in the corral. My children each brought their own cameras and enjoyed snapping photos of the reindeer.


California Academy of Sciences - zebra diorama

Realistic dioramas fill the African Hall

We then explored the Kimball Natural History Museum which includes the spacious African Hall with stunning lifelike dioramas portraying a variety of animal species in their natural habitats. There we saw zebras, baboons, lions, gorillas, antelopes, cheetahs, and hunting dogs.


California Academy of Sciences - penguins

The three feathered tenors? These playful penguins are adorable

Several live animal dioramas are also showcased and include the African Penguin colony where these delightful birds frolic in a 25,000-gallon tank among realistic waves and lighting to create simulated days and nights.


Other natural history exhibits can be found throughout the museum, such as the Islands of Evolution that highlight the Academy’s expeditions in the Galapagos Islands and Madagascar. A large map of the Galapagos with a collection of tortoise shells heralds the entrance to the Galapagos exhibit. Many interesting displays with live animals and research specimens abound and include beetles, spiders, elephant birds, snails, geckos, as well as plants. Photographs, interactive exhibits and video footage enrich the experiences of guests.


Steinhart Aquarium Discovery Tidepool

Children can touch and observe colorful starfish and other creatures in the Discovery Tidepool

The Steinhart Aquarium was our next stop. About 38,000 live animals from around the globe live here, from penguins to sharks, stingrays, jellies, eels, piranhas, delicate leafy sea dragons and so much more. There are tidepools, a vibrant and colorful coral reef, a kelp forest, mangroves teeming with aquatic life, and numerous tanks of various sizes with an immense variety of fish, amphibians, reptiles and insects, as well as interactive media that engages and informs visitors.


California Academy of Sciences sea jellies

The sea jellies are soothing to behold

My children loved touching the starfish in the Discovery Tidepool touch tank. They were also particularly intrigued by the giant anaconda and gold-speckled piranhas. We saw a dive show presentation which was very popular with the children. They looked amazed to see a human being swimming among the fish and other sea life in the giant tank.

Two of my favorite exhibits at the aquarium were the sea jellies and sea nettles. They seemed to pulsate with an otherworldly grace that simply captivates and mesmerizes.  The changing lights above the jellies’ tank illuminate these creatures in stunning hues of blue, violet, orange, pink and green. It had a very soothing effect on those watching.


Claude at the California Academy of Sciences

Meet Claude: a 16 year old albino alligator

Next to the aquarium was Claude – the museum’s albino alligator – who was lounging on an obliging heated rock in the Swamp tank, basking in the admiration of onlookers while fish and snapping turtles swam about by the roots of a large simulated tree. Claude is 16 years old and quite amazing to observe, especially given that white alligators do not survive in the wild due to their inability to be camouflaged.


Rainforests of the World

This four-story rainforest is a lush sanctuary to many birds, amphibians, reptiles, insects and spiders

The Rainforests of the World is a lush and symphonic natural sanctuary that is home to free-flying birds, butterflies, chameleons, fish, reptiles, amphibians and tropical plants. We even saw spiders, including orb weavers, with their beautiful and intricate webs. Two colorful male macaws were among the birds we saw, and seemed to eye us with as much interest as we did them. They are very intelligent, playful parrots with their own unique personalities.


The Morrison Planetarium boasts the world’s largest all-digital planetarium with a high-tech projector and software technologies that produce an exquisitely accurate digital Universe. A variety of shows and presentations are featured including Life: A Cosmic Story. Planetarium shows are offered hourly on the half-hour. Due to their popularity, it’s good to reserve a place early upon arrival at the California Academy of Sciences.


Morrison Planetarium interior

The 75-foot-diameter planetarium screen, made of perforated aluminum panels, matches the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles as the largest planetarium screen in North America (photo © Tim Griffith)

This fantastic museum also has two restaurants, a 3D theater, a lecture hall, a Naturalist Center, a roof terrace, an adjacent garden and aviary, and an Academy store. The science labs and library have an extensive archive of over 26 million specimens. Sleepover programs, weekly nightlife events, lectures, presentations, penguin feedings, stories, nature crafts and more add to the wonders of this outstanding Academy.


The California Academy of Sciences is located at 55 Music Concourse Drive in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA 94118 (415) 379-8000. For more information visit their website at


avatarAbout the Author:

Jocelyn Murray is a travel writer and historical fiction novelist. She holds two university master's degrees in both English and Education, along with a bachelor's degree in Economics and European Studies. She also has a teaching credential and taught at the elementary school level.

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