San Francisco’s magnificent California Academy of Sciences is one of the city’s most famous and unique museums. Visit for an exciting combination of creative exhibits including a four-story indoor rainforest aflutter with free-flying birds and butterflies, a state-of-the-art planetarium, a comprehensive natural history museum, and a captivating aquarium all housed under a living roof. With so many exhibits to enjoy it’s worth showing up prepared in order to maximize your time. Here’s a simple guide to help you plan your day at the CA Academy of Sciences.
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Exhibits at the Academy of Sciences
This four-story indoor rainforest is one of the most famous exhibits at the Academy. Guests step inside a lush 90-foot-diameter glass dome filled with 1,600+ live plants and animals including 250+ free-flying birds and butterflies. You can come face-to-face with two blue-and-yellow macaws, poison-dart frogs, sun beetles, leafcutter ants, brilliant blue morpho butterflies and more exciting species. Descend four floors down via elevator to the Flooded Forest tunnel, where you’ll walk through a 100,000-gallon freshwater tank filled with tropical fish.
- What to know: Osher Rainforest opens 30 minutes after the museum opens and you can enter from the Main Floor. The climate inside the dome is about 75% humidity with temps between 82-85°F/28-30°C.
Morrison Planetarium is one of the largest all-digital domes in the world, giving guests an unparalleled perspective at the depths of our universe. Many of the jaw-dropping shows on view are created right here in San Francisco, by the Academy’s own in-house visualization studio who uses cutting-edge data and technology to transport you to the furthest reaches of the cosmos. Planetarium shows range from deep dives on dark matter to expeditions of the deep sea led by knowledgeable and witty planetarium presenters. One of the more popular shows is Tour of the Universe, a custom show that uses open source software to cruise through the universe depending on where the audience wants to go.
- What to know: You must make a reservation upon arrival at the Academy to attend a Planetarium show, and it’s worth doing so as soon as you get there. Scan the QR code posted in the lobby or planetarium entrance and then choose from the shows available that day. Reservations are first-come, first-served, but if there are no showtimes available, keep checking back throughout your visit because more may be released. There are usually 6 shows per day, one every hour starting at 11:30am. Planetarium shows may not be appropriate for children under 7 and they do not admit children under 4.
Discover 60,000 live plants and animals from over 1,000 species at one of the most biologically diverse and interactive aquariums in the world. Steinhart Aquarium has a series of exciting exhibits including a close look at the California coastal ecosystem; a swamp inhabited by the Academy’s famous albino alligator Claude; the fascinating Venom exhibit featuring creatures with stingers, fangs, and spines; and the colorful Philippine Coral Reef, the world’s largest and deepest indoor living coral reef.
- What to know: If you time it right, you can catch a few demonstrations during your Aquarium visit. Watch daily penguin feedings at the penguin habitat in the African Hall at 10:30am and 3pm (look for the Academy’s two juvenile penguins which recently hatched), catch “Swamp Talk” with Claude the albino alligator at 1:30pm, and a Coral Reef Feeding at the Philippine Coral Reef at 2pm.
Explore an exciting array of comprehensive natural history exhibits drawing on 170+ years of Academy research. This in-depth natural history museum at the Academy of Sciences has a diverse collection of hands-on exhibits for guests of all ages ranging from nearly 400 gem and mineral specimens to an immersive fog room.
Be sure to visit the groundbreaking and underrated Hidden Wonders exhibition across from the rainforest, which displays some scientific collections for the very first time from the Academy’s expansive research vaults. Look for a Smilodon (saber-toothed cat) skeleton from the La Brea Tar Pits, a giant Galapagos tortoise, Quechan figurines that survived SF’s 1906 earthquake, and more. It’s a little chilly in there to preserve the collections, so bring a jacket.
- What to know: Add to your visit by engaging with one of the Academy’s knowledgeable volunteer docents, who can provide valuable insights into the natural history museum’s displays. You should also head upstairs to the Naturalist Center where you can touch specimens for yourself.
The Academy’s living roof is a marvel of building design that has influenced countless other such roofs over the years. Not only does it insulate the building below and capture 100% of excess stormwater, but the beautiful canopy of 1.7 million plants plays home to local birds and insects from the surrounding park. In fact, this is the densest concentration of native wildflowers in San Francisco.
- What to know: The Living Roof hosts periodic events including outdoor learning programs, stargazing and eclipse watches, and more.
In addition to the expansive exhibition spaces at the CA Academy of Sciences, you can amp up your visit with some special events and experiences.
- NightLife: A popular adults-only Thursday night event with live DJs and music, outdoor bars, and ambience lighting. Keep your eye out for rotating themes, many of which feature fantastic local community partners and a variety of activations. Activities include hands-on crafting, science talks, silent discos in the aquarium, fashion shows, and more.
- Penguins + Pajamas sleepovers: An overnight experience where families can enjoy milk and cookies, late-night Planetarium showings, and more before rolling out their sleeping bag and tucking in right next to the Academy’s exhibits.
- Lectures and workshops: The Academy hosts ongoing workshops, classes, and lectures meant for both teachers and the general public. One best-kept secret is the Benjamin Dean Astronomy Lecture Series, where you can learn from great minds out of NASA, Cornell, the Asteroid Institute, and more.
Tickets, hours, location, and more
The California Academy of Sciences is located at 55 Music Concourse Drive in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. It’s open 9:30am-5pm Monday-Saturday, 11am-5pm Sunday, and 6-10pm for the Thursday NightLife events.