When it comes to exploration and interactive exhibits, there’s really no other place in the Bay Area quite like the Exploratorium. The 330,000 square-foot spot at Pier 15 includes some of the most mind-bending exhibits that we’ve ever seen. Spend some time checking it out with these tips in mind!
What to See
The Exploratorium is broken up into six galleries. Gallery 1: Human Phenomena lets you experiment with social behavior by working together with others and predicting how people will behave. Kids love building the Catenary Arch, which if done properly stands on its own due to forces pressing on the curve. Another kid fave is the Tornado—a misty vapor that swirls into a tornado shape where you will be forced to run in circles to see if you can get it to grow even bigger. This gallery is also where you can explore total darkness in the Tactile Dome (for an additional $15 fee).
To the left when you enter is Gallery 2: Tinkering. If you visit in the winter months this is where you’ll find the seasonal Curious Contraptions exhibit. Try and visit this gallery on the hour so that you can see the 22-foot tall Tinkerer’s Clock in motion. If you are lucky, you might get to ask questions of Scott Weaver, the creator of the 100,000 toothpick sculpture that is along the windows. Spend some time making your own art project in the Tinkering Studio or watch artists design new exhibits in the Exhibit Development Shop.
Seeing and Listening is the theme of Gallery 3 where you can make colored shadows and then see what it’s like when all color is taken away in the monochromatic room. Don’t miss the LEGO Batman with Diving Penguins (next to the water droplet exhibit). See if you can figure out how these inanimate objects come to life when they are spun at the right speed.
The Living Systems in Gallery 4 include microscopic creatures and plants that retract their leaves when you touch them. Plug your nose and see how bugs work to decompose rats in the exhibit along the windows. This gallery hosts live demonstrations like cow eye dissections so find out what’s on deck when you visit to learn more about living things.
Gallery 5 brings you outdoors to explore wind, tides and natural phenomena. Cool off on a hot day under the Remote Rains exhibit where you can select from different types of rainstorms. Check out models of the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge to see how they were built.
Head upstairs above Gallery 5 to the Fisher Bay Observatory Gallery 6: Observing Landscapes. Here you can learn all about the Bay Area while you view Alcatraz, Treasure Island and both bridges. The observation deck is a good place to grab some sun and enjoy a snack break.
Where to Eat
Pick up milk cartons and other to-go sandwiches and plates at Seismic Joint, located at the front 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. If you are at the Exploratorium in the evening when these two spots aren’t open, the Ferry Building is just a short walk or pedicab ride away.
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. Another smaller store is located in the heart of the museum, right at the crossroads. Pick up Zoob bots, a Rubik’s cube, world bugs laser pegs or a green calcite souvenir (just a dollar!).
For Grown-Ups Only
Every Thursday night, the Exploratorium goes 18+ with a special theme each week during their After Dark series. Book a sitter and leave the kids at home and see the exhibits like you’ve never seen them before. Many of the events include special food and drink tastings to go along with the night’s theme. Tickets are $19.95 each or you can become an After Dark member for only $45/person or $85/couple to attend as many Thursday night events as you wish.
Restrooms are located at the east gallery by the Sea Glass Restaurant and at the cross roads (look for the toilet drinking fountain!). There are also bathrooms right by the Seismic Joint Cafe before you enter the Exploratorium.
Summer hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily through Sept. 3
Extended Friday hours: until 9 p.m. through Aug. 31
After Dark Thursdays: 6-10 p.m. (18+ only)
Tickets: $29.95/adults; $24.95/seniors, teachers and youth 13-17; $19.95/youth 4-12; 3 and under are free
Community Pay-What-You-Wish Days: Details can be found here.
San Francisco, CA
Photos by the author except where noted.