by Chelsea Low
As a Northern Californian who lives two hours away from a weekend in San Francisco, I, like many of our readers, am no stranger to the tried-and-true cliché tourist traps that are the Golden Gate Bridge, Union Square, and Fisherman’s Wharf (though if you haven’t been scared by The Bush Man, you really haven’t lived).
While they’re fun if you’re a tourist, after one too many long weekends in San Francisco in my life, it doesn’t feel like I’m much of a tourist at these places anymore. I long for a more unique, but not too obscure destination (this IS San Francisco—obscure is a loaded word) for the inevitable weekend getaway
The Academy of Sciences is located in an iconic San Francisco location, Golden Gate Park. Site of everything from the de Young Museum to the Outsidelands Music Festival, Golden Gate Park itself is not necessarily unique. But I was surprised to find how many Bay Areaians (Bay Areaites?) had never been to perhaps the greatest attraction in San Francisco’s answer to Central Park.
It began as an alternative to the perpetually sold-out de Young Museum. While mopping my tears from the news that I would not be able to see the Girl with the Pearl Earring exhibit, I decided to spend my weekend in San Francisco at the Academy of Sciences instead.
BARTing and MUNIing my way from UC Berkeley campus to San Francisco, I clutched my student ID and public transportation tickets in hopes of a discount to the pricey science museum.
It is expensive. With a student discount, the steep $30 ticket price goes down to $25. The discount is also available if you’re between the ages of 12 and 17 or over 65, and is even better if you’re under 12. Otherwise, you’re stuck paying the $30. What the website doesn’t tell you is a $3 discount is available with proof of public transportation. The so-called student discount is available ONLY if you buy online. (Caution: I, as well as many other students in line, hastily attempted to buy tickets online via our Smartphones, but the orders wouldn’t go through. The people at the ticket office did not offer any of the angry students discounted tickets, regardless of their faulty website.)
Is it worth it? Absolutely.
The museum features a number of varied exhibits including a planetarium, a simulated rainforest (did you know it’s a felony to abduct their butterflies?), a rooftop garden, a friendly albino alligator named Clyde, and an aquarium, just to name a few. It’s unlike any museum I’ve ever been to, starting with its initial atmosphere: the museum is bright, airy, and open, with a fun rather than a stuffy, scientists-only vibe.
I started out near the planetarium in an area mostly dedicated to animals, but completed by a gold pendulum that knocked down bullets surrounding it in a circular formation as it swung back and forth. The bullets were knocked down like dominoes over the year, caused by the rotation of the earth—the pendulum never moved. Overheard were comments such as “this is mesmerizing,” “I never want to stop looking at it,” and “I’M TRYING TO FIGURE OUT HOW IT WORKS.”
The informational animal exhibits are pleasant enough, but the true gems of the museum are elsewhere, starting on the bottom floor at the aquarium. The aquarium takes you on an aquatic journey from the coral reefs of Australia to the rivers and lakes in our very own backyard. The highlights of the exhibit are the tunnel inside the aquarium, in which you can sit and gaze at the fish swimming above and around you as if you’re underwater with them—incredible and strangely tranquilizing. On the other end of the spectrum, the coral reef exhibits are spectacular, a colorful array of fish and teeming plant life. My favorite was a cylinder of jellyfish lit underneath by a color-changing light so the jellyfish transformed from neon pink to turquoise to lime.
Once you’ve experienced the ethereal life under the sea, travel back to shore and into the humid butterfly-filled rainforest exhibit. While this four-story tropical extravaganza advertises the butterflies as the stars of the show, the other animals certainly vie for the spotlight. On display are also tiny neon frogs, slithering reptiles, and spindly spiders. Beware of friendly butterflies landing on your back, shoulders, hands, or, yes—even face (I didn’t believe it either until I saw it).
Don’t forget to say hi to Clyde the albino alligator smack in the center of the museum. He is accompanied by a few giant prehistoric tortoises, and is equally entertaining whether he’s lazing around the swamp or smacking his jowls at guests.
I, however, did avoid the planetarium. Had there been an astronomy show, I’d have attended without a doubt. An earthquake show, however, was currently playing, and since I was not interested in forking over even more money, nor am I an earthquake aficionado, I decided to skip it. I’d recommend it only if you’re interested in California’s history of earthquakes, and of course, if you don’t mind paying extra money to see the show.
I finished off my visit with a trip to the roof of the museum, which looked like a sort of post-apocalyptic Teletubbies: hills covered in flowers and circular windows, creating a bizarre yet magical world atop San Francisco. Luckily, the weather couldn’t have been better: sunny, too warm for a jacket, and barely a breeze. Since it was San Francisco, I expected to be cold, but the setting sun warmed me and other roof dwellers. Even if it was a blizzard outside, it couldn’t have ruined the views overlooking Golden Gate Park, the Music Concourse, the architectural de Young Museum, and even Golden Gate Bridge itself.
For a weekend in San Francisco, the California Academy of Sciences is at the top of my list of recommendations. Pricey even for a museum, yes, but the experience is not one you’ll find anywhere else. Even if science is not your thing, the unique exhibits and atmosphere evokes a love for science in everyone at the museum, from the babies, to the college students, to the senior citizens. Not to mention the surrounding areas of Golden Gate Park will keep you occupied for the rest of the day (or the rest of the weekend, for that matter). So the choice is yours: you could spend the day strolling along Fisherman’s Wharf again…or you could spend the day exploring at the Academy of Sciences.
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