California Academy of Sciences

Located in Golden Gate Park, the California Academy of Sciences is an immeasurably important resource for feeding the minds, hearts and souls of Bay Area residents and the millions of visitors who come here every year. Occupying one whole side of the park, the Academy is a massive 400,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art building that opened in 2008. It is home to the Steinhart Aquarium, the Morrison Planetarium, the Kimball Natural History Museum and several other extraordinary exhibits. A visitor could try to see and experience everything that the Academy has to offer in one day, but a better approach would be to focus on one or two institutions within the facility and savor the exhibits at a leisurely pace.

Walk in the front doors of the Academy, and there is a wealth of things to draw the eye and delight the senses. Straight ahead, a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton leers at new arrivals, as if to decide who would be the tastiest morsel to sample first. Tracking right, a huge 90-foot diameter glass dome encloses the Rainforests of the World exhibit, where visitors can stroll a spiral path inside the dome and see, hear and smell thousands of different animals living at different strata of this dynamic living system. Advance a few steps farther, and visitors cannot miss the walkway over the uppermost pools of a 212,000-gallon coral reef exhibit. This is the world’s largest indoor reef system, which is home to many thousands of different fishes and invertebrates. For a better view, walk down a short flight of stairs, where you can sit on tiered benches and view the reef from below.

Make sure to walk across to the other side of the great hall and look down at the swamp exhibit, complete with a huge albino alligator named Claude. Born in 1995, Claude is now around nine feet long and over 200 pounds, with a very impressive set of no less than 76 teeth set in a permanent reptilian grin. He doesn’t move often or quickly, but then again, he doesn’t have to.

The massive lobby also features a gift shop, food court, the top of the Planetarium’s 360-degree digital projection dome and an array of temporary and permanent exhibits that reflect the mission and scope of this extraordinary facility. Don’t forget to take the stairs or elevator up to the Observation Deck, where you can enjoy a panoramic view of the other buildings and features of the park, along with a close look at the building’s Living Roof. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily and 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Sundays, but your best bet to avoid the crowds may be most Thursday nights, when the facility offers NightLife At the Academy with live music, food and drinks along with special presentations. The Academy is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. If you live in the Bay Area, a modest investment in an annual membership will be the best way to experience and support this marvelous resource. If you’re visiting, plan on setting aside at least two days to enjoy the Academy and experience all that this world-class facility has to offer.

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