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California Academy of Sciences

See three museums in one at this San Francisco institution in Golden Gate Park

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Expand your worldview at Golden Gate Park's innovative bastion of science. The California Academy of Sciences doesn't contain just one museum. It holds three: the Kimball Natural History Museum, Steinhart Aquarium, and Morrison Planetarium. Together they make up the West's oldest scientific institution and a vast storehouse for Mother Nature's superlatives—like the skeletons of an 87-foot-long blue whale and a 66-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus Rex.

The California Academy of Sciences was formed in 1853 in an effort to document the state's remarkable natural resources. Since 2008, its collections have been housed in a futuristic, Renzo Piano–designed building that makes it one of the world's most eco-friendly museums. Don't miss a trip to the rooftop observation deck, from which you can view the structure's 2.5-acre living roof covered in 1.7 million California native plants. Each one helps to absorb rainwater, decrease runoff, and create natural insulation.

Underneath that green roof, you can visit with San Francisco's beloved reptile, a 26-year-old albino alligator named Claude, plus multi-colored Gouldian finches, a colony of adorable African penguins, and dozens of orange Nemo lookalikes (clown anemonefish). Hundreds of butterflies flit through the Osher Rainforest, a tropical environment that spans across four stories inside a giant glass bubble. As you walk up a ramp that curves to the dome's top, you'll see free-flying macaws, strange-looking lizards, colorful frogs, and an array of orchids and exotic plants that represent three different rainforests—Borneo, Madagascar, and Costa Rica. In this steamy-green world, the temperature is always 85 degrees and the humidity 75 percent or higher.

Beneath the rainforest, Steinhart Aquarium showcases a 25-foot-deep coral reef. The Philippine Coral Reef tank is one of the world's largest indoor displays of living coral, home to more than 4,000 tropical fish darting and gliding around the polychromatic reef. During daily dive shows, a scuba diver with an underwater microphone swims among the eels, giant rays, and anemones, and the audience asks him or her questions about the fragile ecosystem.

In the aquarium's smaller galleries, you'll gaze at golden sea dragons, luminous jellyfish, and long-snouted paddlefish. You can even walk though an acrylic tunnel to see piranhas swimming in the simulated Amazon River. But be sure to save some time for a mind-expanding journey around the galaxy or a time-travel trip through the solar system's history—catch a stellar show in the Morrison Planetarium's digital projection dome (advance reservations required).

It's also worth planning your trip around special Academy events like the adults-only NightLife on Thursday evenings, when DJs spin music, the museum lights are dimmed, and outdoor bars serve rainforest-themed cocktails. Families can bring their sleeping bags and spend the night at the museum during regularly scheduled Penguins+Pajamas Sleepovers.

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