Delivering the wonders of land, space, and water in one exquisitely wrapped package, the California Academy of Sciences brings the above, below, and beyond of the entire world to life.

Serving as one of the largest, innovative, and most eco-friendly natural history museums in the world, this Golden Gate Park jewel glistens with the promise of prehistoric sensations, astronomical exploits, dazzling gems and minerals, and living examples of extraordinary plants and animals.

california academy of science

Inside the Academy of Sciences

With recent cutting-edge renovations, the Academy of Sciences now serves as a dynamic arrangement of planetary, aquatic, and historic specimens and exhibits that showcase a harmonious existence between earth, space, and the oceans. Visitors are treated to a unique journey into the past, present, and future of the world – one that lasts a lifetime.

Pushing the envelope of sustainable architecture, the new Academy of Sciences uses the ingenious creativity of designer Renzo Piano – a Pritzker Prize-winning architect behind the designs of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and New York Times Headquarters Building in Manhattan. Housed within a single structure, the new Academy offers many nooks and crannies to explore, including an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum, 3D theater, lecture hall, two restaurants, gift shop, and relaxing adjacent garden and aviary. There is also a scientific archive boasting more than 20 million specimens, which accompanies an impressive library.

The History of the Academy of Sciences

The makings of this natural history playground started in 1853 where it first served as an original research center. Since the state of California had joined the United States only three years previous, the Academy was deemed the first association of its kind to prosper within the western part of the U.S. At first, the society, which aimed to collect an assortment of common and unusual items about the region, was called the California Academy of Natural Sciences, and later renamed the California Academy of Sciences in 1868.

Throughout the years, the Academy has been attached to many great firsts, such as leading the way in providing advanced positions within the science world for women, who were typically limited to taking cataloging and filing jobs. The Academy began to branch out from research and constructed the first official museum in 1874, positioning their building on the corner of California and Dupont Streets. Each year, about 80,000 visitors journeyed to the site.

The demand was so great to explore the finds within the Academy that a newer, larger building was erected in 1891, which was situated on Market Street to accommodate the masses. Unfortunately, an earthquake in 1906 destroyed parts of the library and specimen collections, forcing the eventual move to Golden Gate Park in 1916. Making the transition to the North American Hall of Birds and Mammals allowed future expansions to unfold. In 1923, the colorful Steinhart Aquarium blossomed, while the Simson African Hall found a home in 1934.

frogDuring the post-World War II era, the Academy underwent additional changes and received the Science Hall in 1951, followed by a gateway to the stars with the Morrison Planetarium in 1952. The Eastwood Hall of Botany was added in 1959, which preceded the rapid growth of numerous specimen collections, regarding subjects such as molecular biology. More buildings were added throughout the 60s and 70s, including new galleries.

It wasn’t until the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that the initial plans to reconstruct the Academy of today began to take shape. At that time, the Bird Hall had to be closed and the Steinhart Aquarium suffered extensive damage.

Eco-Friendly Winds of Change

Today, the damage of old is but a memory as renovations for a newer, better, more ecologically sound California Academy of Sciences began in 2005 with a grand re-opening taking place on September 27th, 2008.

To date, this makes the Academy one of the greenest museums in the world from top to bottom – equipped with energy-generating solar panels that prevent the release of greenhouse gas emissions) and radiant sub-floor heating. Floor-to-ceiling glass walls allow interior offices to reap the benefits of natural light. Recycled steel and sustainable lumber resources were also used to create the building that now uses 30% less energy consumption than federal code requirements.

Things to Do

Since one of the main goals of the Academy is to explore the various realms of science and then educate the public, there are plenty of interesting exhibits to investigate. One moment you’re viewing the latest changes concerning botany, geology, or biodiversity, while the next is spent analyzing prehistoric toothed birds or coming face to face with live anacondas in the Amazonian Flooded Rainforest exhibit. Specimens from across the globe decorate the inside of the Academy of Sciences, including an impressive display of aquatic treasures. Some of the things that guests can now enjoy at the Academy of Sciences include:

a) Tour Rainforests of the World: Enclosed within a 90-foot diameter dome, this slice of tropical paradise surrounds visitors with floating butterflies and lively birds. Travel the spiraling pathway, which leads to three distinct rainforest habitats – Costa Rica, Borneo, and Madagascar.

b) Hands-On Exploration: Stop by the Discovery Tidepool, where hermit crabs, sea stars and other creatures deliver interactive education regarding the California terrain.

c) See the Stars: A state-of-the-art digital projection system accompanies a 180-degree screen at the Planetarium, which presents an enhanced terrestrial experience through real-time data provided by NASA.

d) Visit the Naturalist Center: The Academy allows guests to research exhibits and examine specimens at their Naturalist Center, which also provides a venue for lectures and small public programs.

e) Attend a Lecture: A variety of key speakers make appearances at the Academy, including sold-out functions that showcase global warming wisdom from the likes of the 45th vice president of the United States, Al Gore.

f) Swamp-Sightseeing: Head for the Swamp, where turtles, subtropical fish, and the rare white alligator provide snapshots into a prehistoric past.

white alligator

g) Discover the Latest in “Green” Design: Promoting a better relationship between humans and their natural surroundings, a vegetation-covered roof helps increase biodiversity. An open-air observation deck conveniently places guests in the thick of the “Living Roof.”

h) Spend the Night: The Academy offers unforgettable overnight stays for young visitors and their families on Fridays and Saturdays called Penguins + Pajamas Sleepovers. These packages entertain with live animal presentations, planetarium showings, late-night snacks, access to the rainforest until 8 p.m., and early morning breakfast. Next-day admission to the Academy is also included.

Available sleepover dates and prices are listed here.

i) Party on Thursday Nights: Nearly every Thursday night from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., the Academy opens its doors to the 21+ crowd to provide themed get-togethers, such as SF Beer Week NightLife, Tropical NightLife, and Sharktober NightLife. The evening is filled with live music, DJ tunes, critters, cocktails and all sorts of science excitement. Enjoy after-hours access to special activities and exhibits, including the planetarium and Coral Reef.

Contact Details

Location: 55 Music Concourse Drive (located right between Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and JFK Drive).

Phone Number: (415) 379-8000

Hours: Monday to Saturday (9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.); Sunday (11 a.m. to 5 p.m.)

Admission Price: The price of admission is based upon a visitor’s age, status (such as college student), and day of the week.

For exact price information and to purchase tickets, please visit the Academy’s page on Hours and Admission.

The California Academy of Sciences offers free entry through neighborhood-specific promotions sorted by ZIP code on certain weekends. Note: Admission grants you access to all museum and aquarium exhibits, rainforest, living roof, and planetarium shows.

Interesting Fact: Recycled blue jeans are responsible for 68% of the California Academy of Sciences’ insulation.

Map: California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park