On our last trip to SF, C was old enough to really engage with some of the great museums and galleries, and, more importantly, to ask to go. We took full advantage and made sure to hit two of the big guns – California Academy of Sciences, the Exploratorium, and SF MOMA.
California Academy of Sciences
What is it? Possibly the highlight of our SF visit, the California Academy of Sciences (Academy) is a research institute and natural history museum which houses over 46 million specimens. This means there is a LOT of material to curate – this is masterfully done by separating the space into an Aquarium, Planetarium, Rainforest, Natural History Museum and associated exhibits. There is also a large roof area with a view and outside dining areas downstairs if you want some fresh air.
We arrived just after opening and spent about 4 hours wandering around, including a crafts session (we made face mite headbands, as you do); with a slightly older child you would also have the option of attending a show in the Planetarium. If you wanted to come and go, make sure you get a stamp on exit so you can get back in later.
Key info? The Academy is located inside the very famous Golden Gate Park, easily accessible by BART or bus (we took BART there and bus back) and close to downtown. It is open 9:30-5 daily (11-5 Sundays). Tickets are around $35, so not cheap. It’s worth making a solid morning or even whole day out of this one – or if you live in the area, getting an annual membership. Exhibits change regularly and there is always something new to see.
Facilities – Very family friendly, with good bathroom/baby changing facilities on each floor. Buggy-friendly though some areas will get crowded (especially the Aquarium downstairs) so be prepared to queue or consider leaving the buggy in coat check if you prefer.
When hunger strikes, the Academy Cafe and Terrace Restaurant will cover all bases – soup to sushi, sandwiches to pizza, chips to curry. Beer and wine for the grownups including some California-brewed options if you’re a casual beer tourist. Gets crowded, but lots of high chairs and room to wheel in buggies. Space to picnic outside if you’d prefer.
Highlights? It’s huge, all encompassing and amazing.
Lowlights? It’s huge, sometimes a bit frenetic and overwhelming. Definitely somewhere to just pace yourself, choose a few galleries to really enjoy, and not try to see everything.
Would we return? Yes – the Academy will be on our list for many years to come as C gets older and enjoys different aspects of the museum.
What is it? A real delightful surprise, the Exploratorium is a museum on Pier 15 that allows visitors “inquiry-based experiences that transform learning worldwide”. It is oddly difficult to explain what this is like; the best I can say is that it is like carrying out more than 1000 somewhat directed science experiments at your own pace in a cool warehouse space. The space is loosely organised into areas including space, light and sound, marine, SF environment and more. We could have spent a whole day here and had to drag C away for dinner. Highly recommend.
There is also an online archive and The Exploratorium Cookbook that allow you to recreate your experience at home.
We really loved (and were actually able to get close to, unlike at the Natural History Museum which also hosted a Luke Jerram moon sculpture), Museum of the Moon by Luke Jerram which was a 16-foot photorealistic sculpture of the moon featuring high-resolution NASA imagery. Beautiful and tied in perfectly with a storytime session about the phases of the moon (running each Saturday for 40 minutes at the time of posting).
Key info? The Exploratorium is located on Pier 15 at The Embarcadero – easily accessible by various forms of transport and close to many hotels and downtown. It is open 10-5 daily. Tickets are between $20 and $30, with 0-3 free. It’s worth making a solid morning or even whole day out of this one too – if we lived in SF we would definitely get an annual membership here as there is so much to do.
Facilities – Very family friendly, with good bathroom/baby changing facilities. Buggy-friendly and we never felt that it got crowded even though it was a Saturday in the middle of the summer school holidays. There is a coat check if you don’t fancy pushing your buggy around, but we had no need to do this. The Seaglass Restaurant which overlooks the bay is expensive but has a good range of healthy (and less nutritious but vacation-friendly) options and a surprisingly extensive coffee/beer/wine selection. The restaurant makes a real effort to reduce its plastic use and feature organic locally-sourced options. Lots of high chairs etc.
Highlights? This place is unique, low-tech in a good way, accessible for kids and adults of all ages, stimulates creativity (C still talks about it months later). Storytime session with Viv – a new activity which I hope they keep doing.
Lowlights? It’s huge, so can be hard to decide where to start…. otherwise I really don’t have a bad thing to say about it.
Would we return? Yes – definitely.
What is it? Does what it says on the tin – a modern museum holding a collection of modern and contemporary art, and the first museum on the West Coast of the USA devoted solely to 20th century art. Worth getting a map and choosing one floor to focus on, and then adding more if you have time. Check out the website for suggested itineraries and ‘must-see’ things, including a guide to the parts you can see for free.
Key info? SF MOMA is located at 151 3rd Street, SF – extremely central and in downtown. It is open 10-5 daily (except Wednesday). Tickets are between $0 and $25, with 0-4 free.
Facilities – Somewhat family friendly, with good bathroom/baby changing facilities and staff who were surprisingly accommodating (I have low expectations in galleries, tbh). Buggy-friendly and we never felt that it got crowded. There is a coat check if you don’t fancy pushing your buggy around, but we had no need to do this. The restaurant (Cafe 5) we visited was beautiful – lovely setting and small but delicious menu. The children’s menu was thoughtful and had some healthy options which C enjoyed more than I expected.
Highlights? The holdings are huge, beautiful and intriguingly curated. The shop – as always, I just want to buy all the things!
Lowlights? So expensive, from the entrance fees to the special exhibit fees to the cafe. Makes you feel grateful for all of our amazing FREE London galleries and museums. With kids, there are some great areas to run around (including a large upstairs balcony) but it has the usual ‘don’t touch’ limitations of all galleries and museums. Not one for a cranky day, but C had a good time as she’s used to galleries, basically.
Would we return? Yes – definitely, but I won’t be paying for another Andy Warhol exhibition in the next 20 years!