The Exploratorium, an award-winning, science-meets-art museum in San Francisco, checks off a lot of boxes on visitors’ wish lists. It’s one of the best places to go with kids in San Francisco, yet the museum is equally fun and engaging for all ages. Designed as a public learning laboratory for science, art and human perception, this superb science museum in San Francisco is educational and interactive. It’s also really fun, with almost every exhibit touchable and toy-like.
The 600-plus exhibits at the Exploratorium reward curiosity. All visitors are encouraged to take a hands-on approach with a sense of open enquiry. The resulting experience combines the unfurling of magic with new scientific understanding. Dancing particles, eye-tricking pendulums and warped sound waves become even more captivating when you learn the scientific phenomena behind them.
What makes the Exploratorium one of the best museums in San Francisco (a city with some serious competition) is its universal appeal. From babies to elders and across an entire spectrum of prior knowledge of science and art, the museum remains just as interesting and enjoyable. What more could you need in a day out?
Some big names agree that the Exploratorium is one of the best places to go in San Francisco, with or without kids. Travel + Leisure called it one of the “27 Best Museums in the U.S.” in 2022 and San Francisco Magazine named it “Best Interactive Museum” in 2021. In 2018, the New York Times gave the Exploratorium the No. 2 spot on its list of the “10 Coolest Museums in the World.” These are just a few of a long list of accolades.
Where is the Exploratorium?
The Exploratorium is on the Embarcadero at Pier 15, making it accessible from anywhere in San Francisco by foot, car or local transit.
The museum’s location on the waterfront means you get outstanding views of the Bay Bridge, Alcatraz and other landmarks from its outdoor spaces. Plus, you can easily combine other major attractions along the Embarcadero into the same day out. The Ferry Building is a stone’s throw from the museum. Other top things to do in San Francisco with kids, including Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square, are less than a 30-minute walk away from the Exploratorium.
Tip: The Exploratorium offers re-entry stamps should you wish to leave and return later the same day. This is great for handling San Francisco’s notoriously changeable weather – explore the indoor galleries when it’s rainy or cold, head out to other local destinations when it brightens, and return to the museum whenever you’re ready for more.
What to See at the Exploratorium, San Francisco
The Exploratorium was founded in 1969 by Frank Oppenheimer, a professor who developed a “library of experiments” for his students. The idea was for the students to follow their sense of curiosity and explore scientific discoveries at their own pace. The museum has evolved immensely, and now comprises six interconnected indoor and outdoor galleries with hundreds of exhibits. There’s even more to explore online before, after or instead of an in-person visit to the Exploratorium.
The six galleries at the top children’s museum in San Francisco are:
Explore thoughts, feelings and social behavior. Peer into a parabolic mirror and see your own eyeballs, duplicated over and over and looking right back at you. An anti-gravity mirror gives the appearance of growing and dissolving limbs. Kids love trying to balance a beach ball in a jet of air.
In the Tinkering Gallery, make, build and explore creativity via electricity, magnetism and other remarkable forces. Here, you can build electric circuits, discover how mechanical systems become kinetic art, and admire the 22-foot tall Tinkerer’s Clock with its whimsical knobs, numerals and cartoon creatures.
A visual treat in this gallery is “Rolling Through the Bay” by local artist Scott Weaver. The model of San Francisco, complete with landmarks like the Palace of Fine Arts, Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown and Lombard Street, took Weaver more than 40 years – and 118,000 toothpicks – to create. Ping-pong balls roll through the model city like clockwork.
Seeing and Reflections
This gallery is dedicated to light, mirrors and sound. Just a few of the fun exhibits here include a giant tuning fork, and colored shadows and circles representing the CMYK and RBG color systems. Don’t miss the colossal convex lens that warps the appearance of the world around you.
Explore life from its origins in DNA and cells to complex organisms and ecosystems. Investigate bacteria, feel the force of a spinning bicycle wheel gyroscope, sense your pulse through your eyes, and see how miniature geysers respond to changes in water temperature and pressure. Also learn about the fascinating lives of self-cloning plants.
Outdoor Exhibits at the Exploratorium
Winds, tides and natural phenomena are the subjects of the Exploratorium’s outdoor exhibits. Especially notable is the Aeolian Harp, a 27-foot wind-powered harp producing orchestral chords. Lower a mechanism of rings into the bay and see how far down it can drop before sediment obscures your view – it’s how scientists determine water clarity. Learn how the Golden Gate Bridge’s construction allows for significant movement, and talk to a friend or sibling on the other side of the terrace via the Echo Tube.
At the Fisher Bay Observatory Gallery and Terrace, find out all about the history, geography and ecology of the Bay Area. This includes illuminated fog, a native oyster colony and a seismograph ready to record the next earthquake.
Planning to visit the Exploratorium on your next trip to San Francisco? Check out our story: How to Be The Savviest Tourist in San Francisco.
Pier 15 (Embarcadero @ Green St), San Francisco, CA 94111
Closed on Mondays