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 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 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 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.