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.
Construct a miniature race car and watch it speed down a four-lane track, or step inside a private studio to create sound effects for a famous movie scene. You’ll find these interactive experiences and so much more at Santa Barbara’s MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, where thinkers of all ages expand their minds through hands-on play.
A relatively recent addition to lower State Street, MOXI opened in February 2017 and has quickly become a must-go family destination along California’s Central Coast. USA Today named MOXI one of the top 10 best new attractions in the United States, while Fodor’s Travel listed it as one of the 10 best new museums in the world.
So what’s all the fuss about? Visit MOXI, and you’ll get a sense of the unforgettable experience to come even before stepping through the door. The stunning building, designed by the late Barry Berkus, mimics the structure of a sandcastle, paying homage to Santa Barbara’s beautiful beaches and paralleling the concept of building something from scratch. It’s also the county’s first LEED Gold-Certified museum.
Once inside the three-story building, guests are invited to explore more than 17,000 square feet of thought-provoking space. MOXI is divided into seven themed areas: technology, sound, natural forces (think gravity, magnetism, etc.), speed, light, interactive media, and a rooftop garden.
Martha Swanson, director of marketing and communications at MOXI, says every activity is designed to “inspire for jobs of the future” and to “ignite learning through interactive experiences.” Swanson cites the Roll It Wall and the Maker’s Workshop as two of the most popular stops. At the former, visitors are challenged to redesign a giant wooden pegboard to create a new path for a dropped ball to follow. “I’ve seen people spend a few hours there,” Swanson says. The workshop hosts themed activities where makers-in-training can build anything from electric circuitry to embossed stationery.
Families love MOXI not only because it makes learning enjoyable, but also because the space is appropriate for kids of every age. Little ones can crawl inside the giant guitar while older siblings learn how strumming sounds are made. The museum also hosts regular adults-only evenings complete with music, dancing, and a bar on every floor.
MOXI is open every day of the year outside of Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas. Visit and you might just discover a life-changing hidden talent—or at the very least, you’ll learn a little something and have fun doing it.
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.
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) and the creation-ready Art Studio, where kids can play with 3-D printers and laser cutters. The studio and its programs were developed with a belief that children are capable of the kinds of complex learning that people often reserve for middle school, high school, or even college kids. Of course, the younger ones love the result. The museum also hosts museum educator-led Pop-Up Programs, six daily drop-in activities, such as the hands-on Maker Labs, where kids can cultivate their engineering and building skills. Toddlers age 0–3 have their own series of Pop-Up Programs.
Check the museum’s calendar to see the ever-changing offerings, which reveal creative spins on classic science-museum fun. For example, one winter, the floor of one of the exhibit halls was transformed into an iceless skating rink, using a synthetic ice. Visitors were provided with real ice skates—and different programs were presented exploring friction, the nature of how ice melts, and the scientific properties of snow.
Recurring events include the annual STEM Superhero Festival, which promotes how STEM skills can be used solve everyday challenges. And every Halloween, the museum throws its Goblin Jamboree festival that features an Inventors’ Workshop, Pumpkin Operations, and more.
Insider tip: The museum is closed on Mondays, and the hours of operation on other days varies.
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.
So much of the magic of the modern era happens invisibly and at nano scale, but The Tech Interactive—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).
Hands-on exhibits are the name of the game at the Chabot Space and Science Center, the largest public telescope facility in the country, perched in the redwood-cloaked Oakland Hills. Originally called the Oakland Observatory, it’s been wowing visitors since 1883, first with its world-class telescopes, and more recently, with immersive exhibits to both spark the imagination and inform.
At the interactive science center, give a moon landing a try, get cool insights into climate change, and learn about cutting-edge technologies, including solar-powered cars and what it’s like to be on a mission to Mars. Then head to Chabot’s pièce 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 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 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.
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.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium, an unparalleled facility with soaring, glass-walled tanks that make you feel as if you’re truly under the sea, defines the standard for modern marine exhibits. The only way to get closer to swirling sea life is to tug on a wetsuit and dive in. 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 displays 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 administer daily health checks to the aquarium’s cutest inhabitants, southern sea otters. The furry mammals get the spotlight on a special experience led by experts; learn how these endangered animals are cared for at the aquarium, and about the aquarium’s ongoing research to protect otters in the wild.
The aquarium’s vibrant undersea world is as close to a real-life Finding Dory as little kids can get. You’ll want to park it for a while in the Splash Zone & Penguins area. Here, they’ll spy Nemo’s cousins in the tropical fish tank, watch African penguins feeding, and explore hands-on educational exhibits. It’s the Splash Zone’s Coral Reef Kingdom, though, that really sets this aquarium apart. The soft safe zone (even the floor is padded!) gives little kids—under 34 inches tall—exclusive access to a waterbed for making waves, interactive exhibits at eye level, a block area, and a touch pool. There are also special family sleepovers, and a chance for kids to become underwater explorers by donning specially designed gear and swimming in the protected Great Tide Pool fronting the aquarium. Behind-the-scenes tours offer the opportunity to learn more about sharks or jellies, and grownups can book customized experiences for two, where you can create your own romantic rendezvous—perhaps champagne and dinner?—with an underwater glow.
Insider tip: Get tickets online in advance to skip long lines.
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.
Located in San Diego’s Balboa Park, the Fleet Science Center combines serious learning with hands-on fun. The center is part-museum and part-theater/planetarium, both of which offer immersive experiences tailored to explorers of every age. With a motto of “please touch,” the Fleet Science Center uses tactical techniques to help visitors better understand our world and how it works.
When the center’s Giant Dome Theater opened in 1973, it was the first IMAX Dome (or OMNIMAX) in the world. Today, the theater continues to transport viewers with films about nature, technology, and more. For a special experience, head to the Fleet Science Center on the first Wednesday of every month for The Sky Tonight show and listen to astronomers as they lead you through a journey to infinity and beyond.
The museum features a mix of roughly a dozen permanent and visiting exhibitions. The permanent areas include “Nano,” which breaks down the field of nanoscience from the visible to the unseen, and “Kid City,” a play-place dedicated to children age 5 and under, complete with firetruck and ball wall. Each exhibit challenges children (and adults) to master difficult concepts like electricity and the power of air flow by balancing power grids and creating miniature tornados.
Browse the North Star Science Store for quirky, science-themed souvenirs and books, while hungry future-astronauts can try the outer space ice-cream sandwiches. For a more down-to-earth option, the museum's attached café Craveology serves fresh options like five-grain salad, yogurt parfaits, and turkey lasagna.
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.
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.