When it comes to exploration and interactive exhibits, there’s really no other place in the Bay Area quite like the Exploratorium. With its new Pier 15 address, the 330,000 square-foot indoor/outdoor museum encourages visitors of all ages to poke around and play, all set against the backdrop of the gorgeous bay on one side and the cityscape on the other. If you’re planning on heading to the Exploratorium with kids in tow, take note of our tips below so you can maximize your time within this curiosity playhouse and scientific laboratory.
When to go:
If you’re coming with kids, head to the Exploratorium right when it opens at 10:00am. And if you have a brood of night owls, visit on Wednesday nights when the museum is open until 10:00p.m. and welcomes all ages.
Getting there:Muni’s F-line and San Francisco’s streetcars stop right in front of the new Exploratorium at the Embarcadero (and Green Street). Bus lines (2, 6, 14, 21, 31) and metro rail lines (J, K, L, M, T, N) all stop within walking distance of the museum. Ferry terminals, the MUNI and BART all stop at the Ferry Building, which is an easy 10-minute walk away. If you’re lucky, you can find street parking in the surrounding area, but there are plenty of slots in the hourly lot across the street and in The Embarcadero Center parking lot (discounted flat rate of $10 on weekdays from 4:00pm to midnight and all day on weekends). Visitors arriving on bikes can park on site.
In addition to free access for field trips from San Francisco Title I schools, the Exploratorium is free to everyone on Groundhog Day (February 2); Pi Day (March 14); Mothers’ Day (2nd Sunday in May); Engineering Day; and Founder’s Day (2nd Sunday in October).
Children 5 and under are free; $25 for adults; $19 for teachers, students and kids ages 6-17.
Exploratorium by Numbers:
3: This newly opened Exploratorium has 3 times more overall space than the original museum at the Palace of Fine Arts
300: That’s how many ‘explainers’ (museum guides) are employed by demonstrating exhibits to visitors
Net-0: The Exploratorium aims to be the largest net-zero energy museum in the U.S., if not the world
What to see:
An homage to the city’s infamous fog, the Fog Bridge covers a 150-foot-long pedestrian bridge between Piers 15 and 17 in a fog blanket. High-pressure nozzles lining the bridge cover pedestrians in mist. If you don’t feel like crossing the foot bridge while pushing a stroller or you’re afraid you’ll lose track of the kids, go ahead and observe from a few feet away — the installation is still equally impressive from a distance. If you only have 20-30 minutes to spare on a sunny day, it might be best to hang out with the little ones outside of the museum. There’s plenty of room to run around, no will mind at all if they use their outside voice, and you’ll be surrounded with striking views.
Older kids will like Team Pac-Man (new exhibit), which encourages visitors to play a classic, beloved video game. Each player can only move the Pac-Man in one direction and in many ways, you become part of the exhibit!
With the supervision of an adult, the Tinkering Studio can easily be your little one’s favorite spot at the Exploratorium. You can build and invent things with the use of real tools and open-ended materials. Construct flying objects and see them rise to new heights over the Wind Table and Wind Tubes (new exhibit), which is made up of columns of moving air. Build marble tracks and runs using common objects and parts found at the hardware store in the Marble Machines Build area and wall. And jump around to make the coolest shadow to capture in the Shadow Box.
Check out The Tree Experience (new), which has been created from a fallen 330-year-old Douglas Fir tree that is split down the center to reveal its rings immersing visitors in a fascinating study of dendrochronology. The wood of the tree creates the walls of an intimate, contemplative space with a center bench — the best place for little ones to appreciate the massive scale of the tree. Little fingers that are used to navigating touch screens will delight in the Plankton Populations interactive display. The exhibit shows a simulation of the world’s phytoplankton populations; visitors use a special encoded glass lens to magnify the four major types of plankton living throughout the oceans.
Bechtel Central Gallery
Everyone in the family will enjoy the Giant Mirror (new exhibit), where you can interact with a giant upside-down image of yourself and explore an image of the museum where even the smallest faraway object appears in perfect focus and detail. Calm hyperactive minds in the Out-Quiet Yourself exhibit, where you walk over gravel, trying to stay as quiet as possible. Microphones pick up any noises and a score is given when you reach the end.
The different high and low tech exhibits at the Observatory may be a bit too sophisticated for young kids, but the expansive views of the bay and the city that flank this space can be appreciated by all ages. At the very least, the Observatory makes a great vantage point from which to watch pilot boats and tug boats cruising by.
Where to eat:
Pick up milk cartons and other to-go sandwiches and plates at Seismic Joint, located at the front/bulkhead of the museum. Located directly underneath the Observatory, the Seaglass Restaurant seats up to 200 visitors and serves specialty fare (pickled rainbow vegetables, Monterey Bay black cod, local king salmon, sashimi platters). Pick a table right by the water and wow the kids with the stunning view of the Bay Bridge. For quick bites and slurps, step up to one of the food trikes along the outdoor gallery.
Where to shop:
The 2,800-square-foot main Exploratorium store faces on the Embarcadero and is open to pedestrian traffic from the street or from inside the bulkhead. Another smaller store is located in the heart of the museum, right at the crossroads. Pick up Zoob bots, a Rubics cube, world bugs laser pegs, or a green calcite souvenir (just for a dollar).
Bathrooms: Restrooms are located at the east gallery (2nd fl), at the cross roads, and right by the Seismic Joint Cafe.
- Breastfeeding moms and/or tired caregivers can sit on the rocking chairs facing the bay on the first floor.
- Don’t feel like eating your food at the restaurant or cafe? Have it packed to-go and sit on one of the sundial benches in the Observatory terrace.
- There are no docents at the Exploratorium, just Explainers who, well, explain stuff. Go ahead and ask them a question or two. They’re more than happy to help you out and share their insight.
What are some of your favorite exhibits at the newly opened Exploratorium at Pier 15? Share them in a comment below.
Written by: Cathy Lara