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Family-Favorite Science Centers & Museums

From cool ways for your kids to learn about wildlife, to an insider’s look at a space station, to a chance to walk through a rain forest or learn about the night sky, there’s a bumper crop of cutting-edge science centers and museums all over the Golden State. Many have special hands-on exhibits for children, plus special programs and experiences just for them, or, if you’re lucky, you grownups can tag along too.

Courtesy of the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose

Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose

Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose
Get hands-on while learning about everything from prehistoric mammals to modern gardening

Kids get to learn about science in real-life ways—from fossil-digging to bubble-blowing and gardening—at the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose. The location alone offers some serious Silicon Valley street cred: The distinctive purple building sits on downtown San Jose’s Wozniak Way—known by locals as “the Woz,” and named after Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

First opened in 1990, the museum houses roughly 150 exhibits, ranging from classic displays to interactive real-world applications, and geared to kids as young as infants (the sweet spot, though, may be elementary-school age). Start by checking out Lupe, the replica of a woolly mammoth—whose real fossils were found in Silicon Valley—then take to the neighboring dig pits to learn how archeologists search for fossils. In other areas, kids can make art, blow giant bubbles with bubble rings, play with worms to learn about composting, and explore the mathematical magic of circles.

Parents love the opportunities that the museum provides for family learning, whether it’s seeing who can create the biggest bubble, sparking scientific inquiry in Mammoth Discovery, or unleashing a misty cloud of fog in WaterWays,” says museum spokesperson Cecilia Clark. And reflecting the diverse community of Silicon Valley, the exhibits feature trilingual signage: English, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

As of fall 2017, the museum is stretching outdoors. Its half-acre “Bill’s Backyard: Bridge to Nature” invites kids to get their hands dirty, whether they’re digging in the dirt and planting seeds, tree-climbing, or pumping water out of a rain catchment system.

Regardless of ability, age, or access, adults love that their children take the lead in exploring in a safe, welcoming, and enriching environment,” says Clark. Snack time is rewarding too: The museum’s FoodShed offers fresh and minimally processed foods—like sweet potato quesadillas, whole-grain-bread sandwiches, and German apple cake—all low in sugar with no additives or preservatives. 

Bay Area Discovery Museum
Courtesy of the Bay Area Discovery Museum

Bay Area Discovery Museum

Bay Area Discovery Museum
Let your child (and your own inner child) explore this interactive museum in Sausalito

Located at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge on the Sausalito side, the Bay Area Discovery Museum prides itself on its scientific credentials, with its STEM exhibits (science, technology, engineering, and math) that are “inquiry-driven and backed by research. But the family-friendly museum in Marin County also offers a lot of fun: Set on 7.5 acres in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the museum features interactive experiences geared toward kids as young as six months and as old as 10 years.

The museum houses seven different zones, including the 2.5-acre outdoor Lookout Cove (with tide pools, hiking trails, caves, and spider web installations), the creation-ready Art Studio, and the indoor Fab Lab, where kids can play with 3-D printers and laser cutters. “We believe children are capable of the kinds of complex learning that people often reserve for middle school, high school, or even college kids,” says Massimo Pacchione, the senior manager of Museum Experience. “The Fab Lab, in a way, symbolizes this belief more than any other.” The museum also hosts six daily drop-in activities, such as the Toddler Circle Time and the hands-on Maker Labs, where kids can cultivate their engineering and building skills.

Check the museum’s calendar to see the ever-changing offerings, which reveal creative spins on classic science-museum fun. “One winter, we transformed one of our exhibit halls into an iceless skating rink—we covered the ground of the hall in a synthetic ice and gave visitors real ice skates—and we had different programs exploring friction, the nature of how ice melts, and the scientific properties of snow,” says Pacchione. “Every week we are thinking of new things and doing new things. I am not aware of another museum space that is so dedicated to constant change.”

Rex Boggs/Flickr

California Academy of Sciences: Nightlife

California Academy of Sciences: Nightlife
Weekly after-hours party heats up the park

Stilettos, short skirts, craft cocktails—and an albino alligator. San Francisco tends to push the envelope, but this Thursday night event has its own unique twist. The city’s premier science museum presents themed Nightlife events, ultra-popular with the city’s young and hip. Each week, the Academy’s savvy staff figures out new ways to shed light on cool topics, such as the secrets of animal migration, or how creatures see in the inky dark of night. Exhibits give you a rare chance to chat with academy scientists or see animals up close. Live music keeps things thumping, and designer drinks that are matched to the theme are served at different locations.  As for that alligator, that’s Claude, a natural albino morph who lives in the Academy’s swamp exhibit. 

Courtesy of Team San Jose/ Tech Museum

The Tech

The Tech
A workout for your head, hands, and imagination

So much of the magic of the modern era happens invisibly and at nano scale, but The Tech Museum of Innovation—or simply “The Tech”—does a great job of creating a fun laboratory and learning experience for curious people of all ages. Dive into interactive exhibits showing the power of technologies ranging from robots to gene-splicing to alternative energy. Let virtual butterflies alight on your arm, and let the kids play with the ultimate video games—you’ll probably want to play too. Another highlight is the Silicon Valley Innovation Gallery, showcasing the machines that revolutionize human thought, creativity, and communication. Man does not live by bits and bytes alone—so relax in the café, the peruse tech-and-science-y items in the gift shop (especially great for holidays and birthdays). 

Oakland's Chabot Space & Science Center
Jon Konrath/Flickr

Oakland's Chabot Space & Science Center

Oakland's Chabot Space & Science Center
Discover views to the stars

Hands-on exhibits are the name of the game at this space-centric science center perched in the Oakland Hills, in the East Bay. Give a moon landing a try, get cool insights into climate change, and learn about plasma--the matter that makes up the sun. Then head to Chabot’s piece de resistance—a trio of spectacularly powerful telescopes (named Nellie, Leah, and Rachel), all aimed skyward to peer at stars and track celestial objects such as asteroids and comets. You and your kids can gaze and track as well—not through Nellie and her sister scopes but through smaller, on-site telescopes—a real plus if you time your visit for evening hours. The observation deck also offers sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay region 

Get a great look at the stars—even if you visit during daylight—by catching a show in the center’s 70-foot full-dome planetarium, outfitted with a cutting-edge digital projection system. (Or go retro and catch one of Chabot’s old-school laser shows.)

Insider’s tip: Check Chabot’s calendar for special astral events, such partial eclipses and meteor showers; join astronomers to look at and learn about these amazing natural light shows.

The Exploratorium

The Exploratorium

The Exploratorium
Science becomes play overlooking San Francisco Bay

This remarkable “hands-on” museum, dedicated to the science of learning, fills a former waterfront pier with hundreds of innovative exhibits and demonstrations. The cavernous space is ideal for kids with lots of energy, who love to dash from one clever exhibit to the next—from learning about sound waves, to playing with prisms, figuring out magic tricks, and learning how fog is formed. Exhibits change regularly, so there is always something cool and new to discover. There’s also a small theater; check the calendar for special films and presentations.

The fun continues outside, too, with assorted free exhibits, like stationary bikes that help teach about energy and unusual climbing structures in fantastical shapes. And don’t miss the all-glass observation cube at the very tip of the pier; climb the stairs for remarkable views of sailboats, freighter, and ferries, as well as the nearby Bay Bridge and Treasure and Yerba Buena Islands.

Insider’s tip: Sign up in advance to crawl and bump your way through total darkness in the Tactile Dome.

Tai Power Seeff

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey Bay Aquarium
Come nose to nose with otters and more

The only way to get closer to swirling sea life is to tug on a wetsuit and dive in. This unparalleled facility, with soaring, glass-walled tanks letting you feel as if you’re truly under the sea, defines the standard for aquariums. It’s also one of the best makeovers on the planet: in the early 1900s, the main building was a bustling canning facility for sardines, all chronicled in fascinating historical exhibits near the entrance. (Excellent behind-the-scenes tours shed more light on the aquarium’s history, as well as its remarkable inner workings.)

Intriguing history or not, this is one big wow of a place. Mesmerizing tanks and exhibits showcase more than 35,000 animals and plants representing over 550 species—a large number of them California natives. Watch a giant Pacific octopus unfurl its tentacles, stand in the center of a swirling school of sardines, have hammerhead sharks swim inches away from your face, and see how trainers do daily health checks of the aquarium’s cutest inhabitants, California sea otters. A host of special activities, including junior diving programs, sleepovers, and custom romance tours (nothing like a little undersea light to make things dreamy) are also available. Insider tip: Get tickets online in advance to skip long lines.

California Dream Eater visits Mundaka in Carmel
Peter Alfred Hess/FlickrPlay at Redding’s 300-acre museum, arboretum, sculpture park, and forest camp

Turtle Bay Exploration Park

Turtle Bay Exploration Park
Play at Redding’s 300-acre museum, arboretum, sculpture park, and forest camp

Turtle Bay Exploration Park is exactly that—a mostly outdoor institution built alongside the shady Sacramento River, with creative ways for kids to learn about Native American and pioneer history, plants and wildlife. Indoor exhibits shed light on the region’s natural attributes. Outside, Paul Bunyan’s Forest Camp lets kids learn about what it was like to be an early logger in the region; there are also re-creations of a traditional Native American bark house. 

You can also meet some of the park’s orphaned animals, like Loki, the red fox. And stand in the seasonal North American butterfly exhibit as 32 different varieties flutter overhead. Or take a stroll through the lorikeet aviary. One of the multicolored Australian birds might just land on your head, but springing for a cup of nectar for them to eat—it’s only a dollar—will up the chances of close encounters.

This 300-acre nature complex is located in Redding, in the heart of Shasta County, and proves you don’t need theme park rides to give kids a thrill. The most arresting feature here is the pedestrian-only Sundial Bridge, which crosses the Sacramento River and connects the two campuses. You and your kids will be mesmerized by the working sundial’s glistening floor made from 200 tons of tinted green glass and granite.

On the far side of the bridge, opposite the museum, is the 200-acre/81-hectare McConnell Arboretum & Gardens, with displays of native California plants and trees—which is especially pretty in spring. 

Fleet Science Center

Fleet Science Center
Learn about science and stars in Balboa Park

Located in San Diego’s vast Balboa Park, this planetarium/IMAX theater/science center specializes in exhibits that tempt—and even require—visitor participation. Permanent exhibits—especially suitable for older kids—cover subjects as wide ranging as cellular biology (including a look into stem cells and the evolving science around medical cures), human aging with a program that predicts how you may look as you age, and a look at the science behind San Diego’s water system.

Keep everyone busy in the “Tinkering Workshop.” Monthly planetarium shows of the night sky include free outdoor telescope viewings. And the center’s 76-foot wraparound IMAX screen shows a variety of films daily.

Tristram Biggs/Flickr

Exposition Park

Exposition Park
Play at the City of Angels’ all-purpose park

With green spaces and gardens, museums, and assorted playing fields, Exposition Park is a place for playing, learning, and being entertained.

Most of its museums and attractions are free. A quick stroll takes you to the impressive California Science Center, with hands-on exhibits and a dramatic centerpiece—the space shuttle Endeavour, which completed 25 space missions, including ones to the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station. (Keep in mind that you often need timed reservations to see the shuttle on weekends.) Or, check out paintings, sculpture, photography, and video exhibits at the excellent California African American Museum.

Visit the park anytime between April and December, and you can stop and smell the roses for free—roughly 16,000 of them—at the adjacent Exposition Park Rose Garden.

Dino-fans, meanwhile, flock to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles Count (which offers Free Tuesdays about a dozen times a year) to see the impressive collection of prehistoric creatures, especially a remarkable trio of complete T. rex skeletons of various ages and sizes. Other notable sites include the Becoming L.A. permanent exhibit, a 14,000-square-foot/1,300-square-meter masterpiece that tells the history of the city in six expansive sections. Learn about Spanish padres during the Mission Era in the 1700s, to Mexican ranchos, on to water wars, the Great Depression, and Tinseltown.

Marcin Wichary/Flickr

Sacramento Discovery Museum

Sacramento Discovery Museum
Check out dinosaur digs, stars, and the space shuttle

It’s all about hands-on at this local favorite. Kids love the chance to see what it’s like to be on a real archeological dig. Let them romp in the butterfly garden, and learn about the vastness of the universe. The museum’s centerpiece is the Challenger Learning Center, where kids take part in simulated space shuttle flights that include a chance to experience the kinds of things real astronauts do when they’re on a mission—conduct experiments, use a robotic arm, and navigate around the moon. There’s also a planetarium with 20-minute night-sky shows on weekends.

The Discovery Museum also offers special family-friendly programs throughout the year, including presentations about local wildlife. Check the calendar to see what’s happening when you’re in town.