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8 Family-Favorite Science Centers & Museums

8 Family-Favorite Science Centers & Museums

Go where kids get an inside look at wildlife, space, and more

Forget dusty, silent, do-not-touch museums. The Golden State is home to a bumper crop of hands-on, cutting-edge science centers that engage the curious and entertain all ages. Encounter wildlife, get an insider’s look at a space station, take a techie challenge, walk through a rainforest, learn about the night sky, and much more.

Turtle Bay Exploration Park, Redding

Absorb the wonders of nature, wildlife, and history with a stroll through this 300-acre complex—museum, arboretum, sculpture park, and forest camp—located in Redding. At Turtle Bay Exploration Park, learn about Native American and pioneer history, meet orphaned animals, and wander through the lorikeet aviary. Be sure to cross the Sundial Bridge, spanning the Sacramento River, to the vast McConnell Arboretum & Gardens. (More: Turtle Bay Exploration Park)

Bay Area Discovery Museum, Sausalito

Located on 7.5 acres of land at the picturesque foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, this interactive, STEM-centric, indoor-outdoor museum caters to the younger set (age 10 and under). Your pint-sized explorer may beeline for Lookout Cove’s  tide pools, hiking trails, caves, and spider-web, the creation-ready Art Studio’s 3-D printers and laser cutters, or perhaps the Mud Kitchen is the big draw. Beyond the seven exhibits, keep an eye out for educator-led Pop-Up Programs, such as the engineering/building-inspired Maker Labs. (More: Bay Area Discovery Museum)

Chabot Space and Science Center, Oakland

Prepare to be star-struck. Since 1883, Chabot Space and Science Center, the largest public telescope facility in the country, has given visitors an awe-inspiring glimpse of the cosmos. Perched in the redwood-cloaked hills of Oakland, the center’s planetarium and immersive exhibits—ranging from an interactive moon landing to solar-powered cars—are outshone by a trio of spectacularly powerful telescopes (named Nellie, Leah, and Rachel) all aimed skyward to peer at stars, planets, asteroids, and comets. Plan an evening visit to take in the night skies via smaller versions of the big three, or simply take in the observation deck’s sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay region. (More: Oakland's Chabot Space & Science Center)

The Exploratorium, San Francisco

The brainchild of Frank Oppenheimer—a professor, high school teacher, cattle rancher, experimental physicist and brother of Robert (the “father” of the atomic bomb), this remarkable, hands-on museum has hundreds of ever-evolving exhibits. Located at San Francisco’s Pier 15, The Exploratorium delves into everything from learning how fog is formed to figuring out magic tricks. Outside, free exhibits—like stationary bikes that help teach about energy—are flanked by the all-glass, view-laden observation cube at the very tip of the pier. Questions are welcomed by the on-staff “explainers,” the museum’s enlightened version of docents. (More: The Exploratorium)

The Tech Interactive, San Jose

Dive into mind-bending exhibits at San Jose’s The Tech Interactive, aka “The Tech,” which cleverly reveals the power of technologies, ranging from robots to gene-splicing to alternative energy. Create a creature in the BioDesign Lab, play with augmented reality, become a “cyber sleuth,” build a robot, or let virtual butterflies alight on your arm. IMAX flicks round out the quintessentially Silicon Valley experience. (More: The Tech Interactive)

Children’s Discovery Museum, San Jose

From fossil-digging and climbing to bubble-blowing and gardening, the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose houses 150 indoor and outdoor exhibits—all 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, mosey to the nearby dig pits to uncover how archeologists search for fossils. Continue the adventure by making art, shaping bubbles, and playing with worms (to learn about composting). Don’t miss Bill’s Backyard: Bridge to Nature where budding naturalists dig in the dirt, plant seeds, climb trees, and pump water out of a rain catchment system. (More: Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose)

MOXI Museum pool

MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation Santa Barbara

The imagination-sparking fun at Santa Barbara’s MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation spans 17,000 square-feet of thought-provoking, delightfully interactive space, divided by themes: technology, sound, natural forces (think gravity and magnetism), speed, light, interactive media, and a rooftop garden. How you and your brood explore this top-ranked, LEED Gold–certified museum is up to you. Curate effects for a popular movie clip in the sound studio, strum the giant guitar, build your own mini race car to zoom down the track, launch an air rocket, enlist the wind and sun in a symphony, and simply get lost in the tech-meets-creativity experience. (More: MOXI Museum)

Fleet Science Center & Planetarium, San Diego

With a motto of “please touch,” the Fleet Science Center, located in San Diego’s Balboa Park, uses tactile techniques to help visitors better understand our world and how it works. Each exhibit challenges children (and adults) to master difficult concepts, such as electricity and the power of air flow by balancing power grids and creating miniature tornados. Little ones love “Kid City” and everyone basks in the wonder of the world’s first IMAX Dome, built in 1973. (More: Fleet Science Center & Planetarium)

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