A crown jewel of Golden Gate Park, and a premier destination for all ages, the Academy of Sciences is a stunning 400,000 square foot structure housing an aquarium, a planetarium, a natural history museum, and a 4-story rainforest all under one roof. Each year, the Academy’s team of nearly 50 scientists, as well as docents and teachers, share their passion for the natural sciences with tens of thousands of children, teens, and life-long learners. Fun fact: The Academy is the oldest institution of its kind in the West, and boasts 26 million specimens in its collections.

Go: Best times to plan an Academy of Sciences trip are in the middle of the week (Tuesday – Thursday) for right when doors open at 9:30 am or after 2:00 pm.

Getting there: When you walk, bike, or take public transportation, you can save $3 on admission (honor system). When you take public transit, you’ll be asked to show a ticket, pass, or transfer. There is a parking garage underneath the Music Concourse in front of the Academy. Space can fill up fast on busy days, so arrive as early as possible. For additional help getting to and from the Academy, visit Bay Area 511 or Google Transit.

What to see: Visit the Snakes & Lizards exhibit, which houses more than 60 live reptiles, a 15-foot-long albino python and a 20-foot-long Burmese python.

For the under-five set, consider a visit to the permanent area called the Early Explorers Cove. Themed play areas focus on California backyard, life on a ship, and the underwater realm. “Animal Tales” and “Little Learners Lab” programs are offered regularly in this area. New programs “Children of the World” and “Toddler Treks” started rolling out this month. A family friendly bathroom is located right outside this area.

The perennially popular Aquarium is where you’ll see all ages agog over the sea life; notably the jellyfish, seahorses, a coral reef, rainforest, penguins, and a touch-tidepool.

For the technophiles, the Academy’s interactive exhibit map is a fun way to plan your day: http://www.calacademy.org/map/www/

What to skip: The Planetarium is not appropriate for ages 6 and under.  The exhibits Islands of Evolution and Altered State: Climate Change in California are also not appropriate for the 5-and-under set.

Possible lunch spots:  You’re also likely to skip the upscale Moss Room beneath the Academy Café. With a full bar, a swanky atmosphere and a menu featuring local organic foods (ie: Housemade Gravlax Salad $18) it’s probably more fun for a date night destination. Stick with the Academy Café, where for about $10/person, you can choose from a bowl of steaming noodles and some dim sum or go the other direction and build your own tostada. The luscious chocolate and caramel pots de crème will entice the pickier eater to finish her sandwich or soup. On warmer days, the Academy Garden, just outside the Café is a wonderful spot to enjoy al fresco lunch.

How to dress: Wear layers to prepare for those few minutes up on the terrace of the groundbreaking “living roof” where the wind is known to suddenly pick up.

Double Secret Bonus Tips: The Naturalist Center on Level 3 is a great place to seek refuge for a few minutes of down time. Lounge in the beanbag chairs while gazing at the awe-inspiring collection of specimens, including an orca skull, a taxidermy bobcat, and a replica of a gorilla hand! Browse through the library, and enjoy the collection science-y games/puzzles. The center is open to all visitors, but members can use a Naturalist Center card to check out DVDs and books.

Planning a trip to the California Academy of Sciences with your Girl Scout Troop? Brownies and Juniors can earn the fun “Rainforest Expedition” patch while they explore the exhibits. By completing the Expedition Challenges, scouts can take a closer look at tropical rainforests, the biodiversity found within them, and the important roles they play in the global ecosystem.

Bathrooms: You will find a family–friendly bathroom near the Swamp exhibit.

 

Stroller parking: Navigating the Aquarium with a stroller could be challenging on busy days. Park that bad boy in the Aquarium by the elevators.

Cost : Children ages 3 and under get in free. It’s $19.95 for children ages 4-11, $24.95 for ages 12-17 and seniors 65+, and $29.95 for adults 18+. Admission fees include all exhibits and shows. There may be a $5 surcharge during peak periods, such as holiday weekends.  Check http://www.calacademy.org/visit/ for specific peak periods. Purchasing tickets online in advance is encouraged. Admission is free on the third Wednesday of the month.

Online: www.calacademy.org

—Jennie Rose