From cool ways for your children 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 centres and museums all over the Golden State. Many have special hands-on exhibits for children, plus special programmes and experiences just for them, or, if you are lucky, you grown-ups can tag along too.
Stilettos, craft cocktails- and an albino alligator. San Francisco tends to push everything to the limit, 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 figure 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, his name is 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 and 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 revolutionise human thought, creativity and communication. Man does not live by bits and bytes alone—so relax in the café, the peruse tech-and-science 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 centre perched in the Berkeley 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 children 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 water front pier with hundreds of innovative exhibits and demonstrations. The cavernous space is ideal for children 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’s always something excitingand new to discover. There’s also a small cinema. 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 sailing boats, freighters 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, sets 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. Mesmerising 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 centre of a swirling school of sardines, let 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 programmes, 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 children 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 children learn about what it was like to be an early logger in the region. There is also a recreation of a traditional Native American bark house.
The park also lets children experience some pretty classy outdoor art, most notably Redding’s striking Sundial Bridge Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Children 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 McConnell Arboretum & Gardens, with displays of native California plants and trees that are especially pretty in spring.
Located in San Diego’s Balboa Park, the Fleet Science Center combines serious learning with hands-on fun. The centre is part-museum and part-theatre/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 centre’s Giant Dome Theater opened in 1973, it was the first IMAX Dome (or OMNIMAX) in the world. Today, the theatre 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 fire truck 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 Gift Shop 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 kale salad, yogurt parfaits and turkey lasagne.
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 timedreservations 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 County (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, a1,300-square-metre masterpiece that tells the history of the city. Learn about Spanish padres and their missions during the 1700s, the era of Mexican ranchos, the water wars, the Great Depression, and, of course, 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.
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 primary-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 neighbouring dig pits to learn how archaeologists 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. Additionally, reflecting the diverse community of Silicon Valley, the exhibits feature trilingual signage: English, Spanish and Vietnamese.
As of summer, 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.