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.
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 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).
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.
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 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.
Turtle Bay Exploration Park is exactly that—a mostly outdoor institution build alongside the shady Sacramento River, with creative ways for kids to learn about Native American and pioneer history, as well as plants and wildlife. Indoor exhibits shed light on the region’s natural world. 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 recreations of a traditional Native American bark house.
The park also lets kids experience some pretty classy outdoor art, most notably Redding’s striking Sundial Bridge Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Kids love to stare down through the glass tiles that pave this remarkable pedestrian-only bridge spanning the Sacramento River. 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—especially pretty in spring.
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.
With green spaces and gardens, museums, and assorted playing fields, Exposition Park is a place for playing, learning, and being entertained. Dino-fans flock to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County 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.
A quick stroll takes you to the impressive California Science Center, with hands-on exhibits and a dramatic centerpiece—the space shuttle Endeavour. See more displays and artwork at the excellent California African American Museum.
If you need to give your brain a break from checking out all this cool stuff, stroll through the adjacent Rose Garden (open April through December, with blooms from nearly 16,000 rose bushes scenting the air.
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.