San Francisco: California Academy of Sciences


By October of last year, I’d already read five articles about the newly revamped California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park; overkill, to be sure, as I had been hooked from the first glance.  

Housing a four-story rainforest lit by skylights on a “living roof” — an undulating field of California native plants — this incredible science museum is also home to coral reef aquariums, African penguins, a rare albino alligator, a hall full of gorgeous wildlife dioramas, and the largest digital planetarium dome on Earth. It’s like a trip around the entire universe.

But none of the press prepares you for the huge crowds, long lines and odor of cafeteria food…and feet.  So, here’s how to have a better time than I did.

Designed by Renzo Piano (the Pritzer Prize-winning Italian architect behind the trippy Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, as well as my local art museum, LACMA), the greener-than-green Calacademy building is LEED-rated, glass-walled and stunning. Unfortunately, the entrance Piazza features a central cafeteria, and the smell of hot dogs and gumbo wafts out in all directions; there is nowhere to hide.


And with crowds like these — 4,000 human beings on the April day I visited — you wish you could hide. A bummer, to be sure, as this could easily be a very romantic place to explore. Instead, you have to be on constant alert for elbows, purses, camera bags, toddlers, and blocking the view of immovable people spaced out in wonder.

My least favorite moment was being told that, after waiting 45 minutes in a late-morning ticket line, I would have to wait in another line for a solid hour to enter the rainforest I’d come to see. (Fortunately, the rainforest is housed in a see-through dome, so at least you can peek in at every level.) The line is inexplicably arranged across the middle of the museum, so that anyone who’d like to see most of what Calacademy has to offer must excuse their way across the line and back.


All of this said, this is a gorgeous and fascinating place and fully worth your time — which is why planning is vital.

Up to six months before you go, you can:

Order General Admission tickets ahead of time and arrive when the museum opens (9:30-10am), and preferably, mid-week.  Your AAA card gets you a few dollars off the $24.95 price.

Reserve a Behind-the-Scenes Tour : For about $89 US apiece, this tour is 2.5 hours long, designed for groups of 16 people or less, and allows you special access to the museum’s incredible collection of biological specimens. It gets you express service to the Rainforest and Planetarium, private access to staff-only areas, a chance to meet Academy scientists, and a private viewing of the Academy’s most secured collections.

No matter how you choose to see the museum, avoid the central cafeteria in favor of lunch at the museum’s Moss Room, tucked away in a downstairs grotto with low lighting and a Mediterranean menu. Education, after all, deserves reward.



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  1. Yikes. I feel lucky I got to explore it on a much less crowded evening!

  2. Fantastic tips – and I can’t imagine visiting without knowing this!


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