There is no shortage of spectacular sea-life-viewing facilities in the Bay Area, most notably the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
But don’t count out the humble Aquarium of the Bay. Its smaller size makes for minimal schlepping, while its series of connecting undersea tunnels, explored on foot or via moving sidewalk, makes for an unmatched practically-swimming-with-the-fishes experience.
Also noteworthy, its petting pools offer ample space and step stools so little bodies can climb up, and little arms can reach in to touch starfish, anemones, rays, and even small sharks.
Go: Because it is located in Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf, every day is a busy day in the neighborhood. Better times to plan an Aquarium of the Bay trip are in the middle of the week (Monday – Thursday).
Getting there: Free two-hour spots may be found on nearby streets if you are lucky. Public transit is your best bet (show your stub or transfer for $1 off admission for kids and $2 off for seniors/adults). Visitors traveling from the East Bay can make a day trip of it by riding the Blue and Gold Ferry across the Bay from Jack London Square straight to Pier 41.
The multi-level parking lot across the street from the Aquarium charges $8/hour, with 1-hour validation from many Pier 39 restaurants available. For a longer visit, the Academy of Art College parking lot offers $15 flat rates (until 4:00 pm). For additional help getting to and from the Aquarium, visit Bay Area 511 or Google Transit.
What to see: Once the little ones know about the tunnels, they barely pause at the tanks of colorful reef fish stationed at the entrance. Expect to spend a lot of time looping around the paths under the water while sevengill, tiger, and spiny dogfish sharks and whirling schools of glittering fish glide overhead. Above water, in addition to the petting pools, there’s a glassed-in working beehive and a naturalist station with reptiles and amphibians offered for petting at intervals throughout the day.
For an extra $10, kids (ages 5 and up) and adults can tour the catwalks above the tanks (1:00 pm and 4:00 pm daily). Reservations required and space is limited. Call at least one week in advance to book your spots: 415-623-5333.
What to skip: Unfortunately, for those uninterested in shark masks and furry purple sea horse stuffies, there is no avoiding the gift shops. You have to walk through the retail areas in order to view the exhibits, so plan your souvenir-negotiating strategies accordingly.
Possible lunch spots: There is no café inside the Aquarium itself. Across the pier, the loud and festive Wipeout Bar and Grill offers a variety of burgers (featuring Neiman Ranch meat), tacos, burritos, pastas, sandwiches, salads, and fried seafood options for adults with a great $5.95 smaller-plates menu for kids. Your little shark may love sinking his teeth into his own pile of crunchy calamari and shrimp, but adults should opt for the fried fish instead—the light, crispy batter being far more crunchy and delicious.
How to dress: The winds off the bay can chill on even the sunniest days, but the Aquarium is warm inside, so layers are your best bet.
Double Secret Bonus Tip: How to score half-price or even free tickets: At the base of the stairs/escalator to the entrance, across the sidewalk, there is a giant sculpture of a shark jaw under an awning. Behind the jaw is a table with smaller jaws and teeth—that kids can touch. There is also an Aquarium employee holding a set of quiz questions about bay animal life, and running a tabletop roulette wheel. Answer a question correctly and spin the wheel. Prizes include discount and free tickets to the Aquarium as well as other kid-friendly local attractions.
Not-So-Secret Bonus Tips: Be sure to wander over to the other side of Pier 39, through the double doors, and out to the docks where dozens of sea lions loll, bark, and play for your viewing pleasure.
While you’re at it, the double-decker carousel at the end of the Pier is also worth a look and a ride ($3 per token).
Bathrooms: You will find family–friendly bathrooms on every level, near the gift shops.
Stroller parking: The aquarium is fully wheelchair and stroller accessible, and small enough that you aren’t likely to need to park your stroller. There really isn’t a designated or desirable spot to leave one, inside the facility or out.
Cost: Children ages 3 and under get in free. It’s $10 for children ages 3-11 and for seniors 65+, and $16.95 for kids 12+ and adults. A Special Family Rate of $46 covers 2 children and 2 Adults. Purchasing tickets online in advance is encouraged.
– Julie Feinstein Adams