The California Academy of Sciences- Ultimate Guide from a Local Mama

The California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park is one of the many amazing places that help make San Francisco such a special place to raise kids. The amount of question inspiring, awareness raising, interesting life science STUFF packed inside the award winning Green Building keeps us coming back again and again. From the state of the art aquarium on the bottom floor to the living roof on the top, there is so much to be enjoyed here. 

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After many (like 50+) trips to the museum with a preschooler and a toddler in tow I have worked out a system which saves me money and increases the amount of fun we have each time we visit. Without further ado, below are my tips and tricks for navigating the California Academy of Sciences with littles:

Note: For up to date information about museum hours and COVID-19 safety protocol, visit their website here.

The California Academy of Sciences

The California Academy of Sciences for kids.

WHEN TO GO

Our favorite time to be at the California Academy of Sciences is the early-to-mid afternoon on weekdays.  Around 1:30 pm most of the field trippers are loading back onto the buses and many of the babies have gone home to have lunch and a nap. While the mornings tend to be a little hectic no matter what day it is, the afternoons are far less crowded. 

WHERE TO PARK (IF YOU DRIVE)

There is a parking garage connected to the museum but parking rates are a bit pricey (weekdays it’s $5 per hour with a max of $29, weekends it’s $6 per hour with a max of $33.) If you’re a little more frugally minded (raises hand) there is free 4 hour street parking along MLK, jr. drive and Nancy Pelosi drive. We usually can find a spot on MLK, jr. drive near the botanical garden north Friend gate. It’s a short 3-5 minute stroll through beautiful Golden Gate park to the museum entrance. 

Where to park in Golden Gate Park.
Stars indicate street parking available. Be sure to read all posted signs and look out for curbs painted red.

Remember when you street park to never leave any valuable belongings in sight in your vehicle.

WHAT TO BRING

Come prepared with refillable water bottles. You can fill up at the multiple water filling stations located around the museum (and give yourself a pat on the back for being so eco-friendly.) I always bring sippy cups that lock closed. That way I have a drink on hand for the kids that won’t get the backpack and stroller wet.

The Academy of Sciences is also now serving my favorite local coffee company ANDYTOWN coffee roasters in the cafe. I bring my own thermos and use it for water first, then hit up the cafe for a cup of joe which I ask them to put in the thermos. That way I can have a delicious caffeinated beverage sealed up in a eco-wise (and spill proof) container while I chase my active kids through the exhibits. 

And while the Academy cafe has many tasty food options, we always pack lots of snacks to cut down on costs. There is no restrictions for bringing your own food into the museum and plenty of fun places to stop and enjoy lunch or a snack. 

Things to do at the California Academy of Sciences.
Snacking while waiting for Claude the alligator to move.

HOW TO SAVE MONEY ON TICKETS (AND HOW TO GO FOR FREE!) 

You can save money on admission just by planning ahead. If you buy your tickets in advance you can save up to $5 on adult tickets vs. paying at the door on the day of. Find out more here: https://www.calacademy.org/hours-admission.

If you do buy your tickets for full price at the door, you can still save money if you got to the museum in an earth friendly way! You can get $3 off your ticket when you take muni, ride your bike or walk to the museum. Just mention your mode of transportation to the ticketing agent.

Bundle experiences and save

If you are visiting and looking to bundle your San Francisco experiences, take advantage of CityPASS. One ticket includes admission to the California Academy of Sciences, Blue and Gold Fleet Bay Cruise, Aquarium of the Bay, the San Francisco Zoo, and The Walt Disney Family Museum. Save 44% on San Francisco’s top attractions with CityPASS. Shop Now.

Science Hop (incl. 1-Day Hop-On Hop-Off Tour + California Academy of Sciences)


Grab admission to the Museum and a 24 hour ticket on the hop-on, hop-off double decker bus. Save Money and disembark at any of the stops to check out attractions at your own pace. Science Hop (incl. 1-Day Hop-On Hop-Off Tour + California Academy of Sciences)

If you are a San Francisco resident it is quite possible for you to visit the museum for zero dollars and zero cents. There are two ways to do this: 

  1. Check out the neighborhood free weekends calendar here: https://www.calacademy.org/neighborhood-free-weekends. If the zip code listed matches the zip code on your drivers license, you and your kids are in! 
  2. Check the Discover and Go calendar through the San Francisco Library. Every year, San Francisco residents with a library card are eligible for a free trip to the Academy of Sciences for one adult and one child! Passes to the Academy of Sciences are not always available on the website, so check often (especially towards the beginning of the month) to make sure you grab an available reservation. Learn more here: https://sfpl.org/services/discover-go.

Remember that all children under 2 get in free! 

WHAT TO DO THERE (ACCORDING TO A PRESCHOOLER AND A TODDLER)

You will surely find everything fascinating there, but here are a couple of my kid’s favorite spots to check out during your visit:

Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences.

Scuba divers in the Philippine Coral Reef

Twice a day real live people plunge into the water in this breathtaking exhibit and talk to the audience via a microphone in their mask. It’s magical and not to be missed! 

Toddler Play Area at the Academy of Sciences

Curiosity Grove toddler play area

This is a really sweet and fun space designed for kids 5 and under to play in. My kids love running over the little bridge and playing with the stuffed animals and puppets. If you’re looking to strike up a conversation with a fellow parent while your kids play, this is the spot. 

Penguins at the California Academy of Sciences

Penguin feedings

Twice daily penguin expert biologists go into the penguin exhibit and feed the penguins and give a talk about penguins. The penguins are very cute, and you can learn a lot about them during this 20 minute presentation. 

Outdoor space

Outdoor space located in the East Wing

Often times there is a special exhibit in the East Wing. During the winter there is an ice skating rink! Even when there isn’t anything fancy going on here my kids love going outside to run around. When the weather is great outside, this is a really peaceful spot to breathe in the clean coastal air.

Butterflies

Butterflies in the Rainforest

As you walk up the stroller friendly ramp in the rainforest dome more and more butterflies start to appear. At the very top you will find many different species of butterflies and their chrysalises and cocoons on display. My kids love watching the butterflies flit around the space. Once in a while a butterfly will actually LAND on them or me, and that makes our entire week. 

Puppet Theatre

Children’s Puppet Theatre

The puppet theatre shows at the Academy of Sciences have been delighting my son since he was a baby. Now that he is 4 it’s so fun to watch him shout out answers and interact with the story. Not only is it entertaining and educational, it’s a great low pressure way to introduce your children to live theatre. 

Be sure to check the daily schedule to see event times and locations.

It’s exciting for me to watch my kids discover new things every time we go to the museum. The California Academy of Sciences meets them at their developmental stage wherever they are at. There is something for everyone and always more to learn, even for me, the wise all-knowing Mama. A few days ago we were there and my preschooler discovered the interactive tablets in the aquarium that describe the species living there. He absorbed so many new facts about the different animals we saw. The only thing is now he won’t stop asking me questions about Snapping Alligator Turtles. When I don’t know the answer I simply tell him, “let’s find out the next time we visit!”

Things to do at the Academy of Sciences

The California Academy of Sciences- Ultimate Guide

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1 thought on “The California Academy of Sciences- Ultimate Guide from a Local Mama”

  1. Thank you for all the great information! I love taking my grandchildren out to museums and other fun learning environments!!

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