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San Francisco Bay Area Overview


Museums, Zoos, and Science Centers

  • Exploratorium, San Francisco - This is one of the best and most innovative science museums in the country. Its hands-on approach to science education has been copied in museums all over the world. Unlike many of the other major Bay Area museums, the Exploratorium is primarily private-funded. It was the brainchild of scientist Frank Oppenheimer, brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. He founded the museum in 1969, with the goal of developing an educational institution where people could experience nature and science directly. The museum encourages visitors to touch, operate, play, and interact with the exhibits to learn more about science. It brings fun to science learning. Its exhibits are designed to be interesting and enjoyable, as well as educational. It also combines science with art, and some of the exhibits are actually works of art. It depends on the skills of talented volunteers, and the exhibits reflect individual creative touches that you don't see as much in other more traditional museums. It has permanent exhibits on all areas of science, with frequent special exhibitions. It is housed in one of the most beautiful locations in San Francisco - The Palace of Fine Arts.
  • Tech Museum of Innovation, San Jose - This huge new multi-million dollar museum in downtown San Jose is dedicated to the driving force of Silicon Valley: technology. Unlike the Exploratorium, which concentrates on pure science, the Tech focuses on applied science. It has interactive exhibits on electronics, communications, space exploration, biotechnology, robotics, computers, and integrated circuit chips. Its Hackworth Theater is an 8-story-tall state-of-the-art domed theater that shows wrap-around Imax movies. The museum is easily reached by the VTA Light Rail. It is within easy walking distance of several downtown attractions, including the Children's Discovery Museum.
  • Academy of Sciences, San Francisco - One of the oldest and most respected science museums in the country, this museum has been a fixture and major attraction in Golden Gate Park for decades. It contains the Steinhart Aquarium, which has a huge collection of exotic fish and other aquatic animals from all over the world. The Morrison Planetarium,  gives star and space shows. There are interactive exhibits and models on dinosaurs and prehistoric life. There is a room where kids can handle and examine real scientific specimens. Other areas have exhibits on African and California wildlife and habitats, gems and minerals, earthquakes, human cultures, and insects. The Academy is a traditional destination for school field trips. Education is an important part of its mission. Note: the Academy of Sciences is undergoing a major reconstruction program at its Golden Gate Park site. Currently, it is operating out of a temporary location in downtown San Francisco at 875 Howard Street, between 4th and 5th Streets. It is scheduled to re-open at Golden Gate Park in fall of 2008.

  • The Lawrence Hall of Science, Berkeley - One of the major science museums in the Bay Area, the Lawrence Hall of Science is located in the Berkeley Hills above the UC Berkeley main campus and is actually part of the University. Its location gives it spectacular views of the Bay Area. Its inexpensive Small Planet Cafe has one of the best views of any eatery in the Bay Area. The museum building is a massive futuristic concrete structure that looks like something from a science fiction movie. In front is a whale model and giant DNA molecule that kids can climb on. In the back is a full-size walk-through mock-up of the space shuttle Challenger's cabin. The Hall is dedicated towards science education. It has extensive educational programs and workshops. It has computer labs, a biology lab, and a planetarium. It has permanent interactive exhibits on science as well as frequent special exhibits. The Hall, as well as the nearby Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, is named after pioneering atomic researcher and Nobel Laureate Ernest Lawrence. His invention of the cyclotron was a critical development in particle physics. An early cyclotron is on display inside the museum, and a much larger one is on display outside.
  • Oakland Museum of California, Oakland - The Oakland Museum, located in downtown Oakland, is dedicated to the art, history, and natural sciences of California. It is housed on 3 floors of a unique building with beautiful gardens, ponds, and outdoor patios. It has permanent and temporary exhibits. Its permanent exhibits include the Gallery of California Art, which has displays of California paintings, photography, sculpture, and crafts from the 1800's to today. The Cowell Hall of California History has displays and artifacts on California's history and people, from the Native Americans to the modern age. The Natural Sciences Gallery has displays and dioramas of the different natural habitats in California.

  • Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey - The Monterey Bay Aquarium, which opened in 1984, has become one of the world's finest aquariums and one of the most popular destinations in California. It is a private non-profit institution whose construction was financed by David and Lucile Packard. It is located on Monterey's Cannery Row on the site of the former Hovden Cannery. The aquarium's architecture reflects its cannery heritage. Unlike San Francisco's Steinhart Aquarium, which has specimens from all over the world, the MBA's focus is on the aquatic environments in and around nearby Monterey Bay. Huge full-size whale and dolphin models are suspended over visitors as they enter the museum. Sea otters can be seen frolicking in the sea otter tank. Wild otters, as well as other sea mammals, can often be seen outdoors behind the aquarium in the beautiful Monterey Bay waters. The towering multi-story Kelp Forest Exhibit gives a diver's-eye-view of a living kelp grove, filled with a wide variety of fish and creatures that live in the kelp forest. The kelp stalks waves gently back and forth with the motion of simulated ocean swells. The most awesome exhibit is the new Outer Bay tank in the Open Waters Exhibits. This enormous tank, which holds a million gallons of water, allows visitors to see open ocean creatures, such as tuna and barracuda, through the largest window in the world.

  • Coyote Point Museum for Environmental Education, San Mateo - This museum is located in a beautiful setting - Coyote Point Recreation Area on San Francisco Bay. It is perched on a rocky promontory overlooking the Bay, surrounded by eucalyptus and pine trees. Its primary purpose is educating the public on natural habitats, wildlife, and how to protect them. The main museum building contains 4 levels, with interactive exhbits on different environmental habitats. It has models, films, computer displays, and aquariums. Outside are aviaries, wildlife habitats, and gardens.

  • Chabot Space & Science Center, Oakland Hills - This science center opened in the summer of 2000, but it has a history that stretches back to 1883, when it began as the Oakland Observatory, with a gift from Anthony Chabot. It later moved up into the Oakland Hills and recently underwent an expansion and renovation. It now consists of an 86,000 square foot facility on 13 acres. Dedicated to education in astronomy, space, and related sciences, the center has an observatory, planetarium, and science exhibits. In the evenings, it has public telescope viewing through the observatory's telescopes. Its 20" refractor is the largest of its type open to the public.
  • Seymour Marine Discovery Center at Long Marine Lab, Santa Cruz - The Long Marine Lab has long been a marine research facility of the University of California at Santa Cruz and is the only research lab in California open to the public. It is located on coastal bluffs in Santa Cruz next to Natural Bridges State Beach. The multi-million dollar Seymour Center opened in March of 2000. It is dedicated to educating the public on marine scientific research. It has science exhibits, classrooms, and aquariums.
  • Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, San Jose - Sitting in a quiet suburban San Jose neighborhood, a couple of blocks from the Municipal Rose Garden is a startling sight - an Egyptian temple. Actually this is the Egyptian Museum, and it is just part of Rosicrucian Park. The Rosicrucians are an old mystical philosophical order that traces its roots to the Egyptians. They established the Egyptian Museum to preserve and study Egyptian culture. It houses the largest collection of Egyptian, Babylonian, and Assyrian artifacts on public display in the West. Its displays include Egyptian mummies, sculpture, tools, and models. Its most spectacular exhibit is a full-size walk-through replica of an Egyptian tomb.

  • NASA-Ames Research Center's Exploration Center, Mountain View  - Housed in a tent-like building at the entrance to Moffett Field that was once a US Space Camp, NASA's exploration center has exhibits on space and aeronautical research. Visitors can experience exploring Mars, seeing transmissions from Mars probes, see meteorites from Mars, and control exploratory robots. A Mercury space capsule is on display, as well as an actual moon rock. There's an airport simulator that allows users to act as air traffic controllers. The immersive theater has a 16 by 36-foot screen that shows Mars flyovers and scientific missions. Admission is free.
  • Baylands Nature Preserve, Palo Alto - Palo Alto has over 2000 acres of open space along the Bay. It has miles of trails, a duck pond, a boat launching ramp, and picnic areas. It also includes Byxbee Park, a converted landfill whose hills are covered with large works of environmental art. It has huge pickleweed marshes and sloughs, which are the feeding grounds of countless birds and the home of several endangered species. The Lucy Evans Baylands Nature Interpretive Center is here. The building housing the center is perched on piers above a salt marsh. A long boardwalk leads through the marsh to an observation platform on the shores of the Bay. Inside the center are interactive exhibits and displays on the plants and animals of the Bay. There is a laboratory with microscopes and specimens for students to observe and study. A theater shows movies and slides on nature.

  • Bay Model, Sausalito - in a huge building in the city of Sausalito, the Army Corps of Engineers has a working 3D hydraulic scale model of the Bay. It covers over 1.5 acres and includes the entire San Francisco Bay and parts of the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta. Students can see the geography and topography of the Bay Area and can observe the actions of the tides and currents in the Bay. There are also interactive exhibits and special interpretive programs.

Created by Ronald Horii 10/97
Updated 11/9/07, 5/29/12

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Museums, Zoo, Science Centers

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