Museum Hack: Your Best Day at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences
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Museum Hack: Your Best Day at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences

Tim Griffith

Venture from the chaos of downtown San Francisco to the greenery of Golden Gate Park, where you’ll find some of city’s best museums, including the California Academy of Sciences. Part natural history museum, part planetarium, and part aquarium, the California Academy of Sciences covers a broad reach, blending innovative and interactive exhibits that make this a local favorite. Beyond the museum, there’s a trove of other options that make the area its own destination.

Getting there

From downtown, the most direct way to get there is the N Judah train, which runs every 10 minutes during normal operating hours, or the 7 MUNI bus, running about every 12 minutes. Otherwise, it’s a 5-mile drive or Uber ride.

Warm-up

For a well-rounded day, start during late morning in Golden Gate Park, at the Conservatory of Flowers, where you can meander dozens of rare flowers beneath a stunning wood-and-glass latticed Victorian dome. This veritable terrarium houses a lush array of highland and lowland tropical flowers, as well as aquatic plants and exotic flora.

Don’t Miss

Just west of the conservatory, is the oldest Japanese tea garden in the U.S., simply called the Japanese Tea Garden. Stroll the serene stepping stone paths, zen garden, and arched drum bridge, then refuel with a pot of Sencha at the garden’s traditional tea house that overlooks the koi pond.

Eat

Briefly venture outside the park to the Inner Sunset, the neighborhood that borders the south side. Just across the street from the park lies beloved local spot, Nopalito, where you’ll want to grab a pre-museum meal of tacos and Mexican-spiced hot chocolate.

At the Museum

It’s open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Sunday, when it opens at 11 a.m. But to truly reap the benefits of this dynamic landmark, you’ll want to go after hours on Thursday evenings, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., for the weekly event NightLife. Tickets are $12 (compared with the standard $35 rate), it’s 21 and over, and typically filled with locals. Each Thursday is a little different, but you can expect DJs to transform the museum into a musical wonderland, setting the mood for exploring the butterfly-filled four-story rainforest (which you’ll want to hit first; last entry is early, at 7:45 p.m.) with a craft cocktail, made by a local mixologist on site, in hand.

Go VIP

Kick it up a notch with the little-known VIP NightLife Tour ($59 per person), which includes express entry (you’ll be thankful for this when you approach the lengthy queue), open bar access, and a one-hour behind-the-scenes tour of the museum’s vault, which houses the mineral and gem collection, among a few other perks.

Eat (Again)

It’s only fitting that a museum that emphasizes nature and ecosystems would offer local and seasonal ingredients in its dining option. There are two within the museum, but you’ll find the best at the Academy Cafe, where the menu has an international slant, serving sushi using fish caught in the neighboring Pacific, and Mexican street food-style tacos made with local organic chicken. The city’s contingent of gourmet food trucks have also been known to make guest appearances on special nights.

Explore at Will

Spend the last hour of the evening scoping out the property’s 40,000 live animals, including quite a few natives, at the tide pool touch tank. Don’t overlook the eerie swamp section, where a rare albino alligator named Claude lurks beneath the surface.

Last Word

Special themes change weekly, so check out the museum’s calendar before going—topics range from how-to demos on ninja moves to cider making, as well as interactive crash courses on being a DJ or learning circus skills. Don’t forget to download the museum app to use as your personal, in-palm docent.

Jenna Scatena is on the San Francisco Bay Area beat for Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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