Enjoying the “Nightlife” of the California Academy of Sciences

California Academy of Sciences at Night
California Academy of Sciences at Night

I had barely been in San Francisco 15 minutes before I was given my first recommendation for a place I had to visit. I like to ask locals about their favorite off-the-beaten-path things to do. I met a girl from San Francisco on the BART (public transportation) leaving the airport, and she told me I absolutely had to visit the California Academy of Sciences, preferably on a Thursday night if I could swing it.

I had actually never heard of this place before—it’s not one of the typical tourist traps—but once she told me a bit about it, I was intrigued. I love a good museum—I should; I work at one!—but this place is no ordinary museum. This place has a natural history museum complete with Tyrannosaurus Rex, an aquarium where you can find much more than Nemo, a four-story indoor rainforest, and the largest all-digital planetarium in the world. The museum’s tagline is, “Let the Wonder Begin.” And wow, do they have that right! This place is incredible.

Located in Golden Gate Park, The California Academy of Sciences sees a lot of people in a day. It’s a stop on the Big Bus hop-on, hop-off tour I did. Typically, the museum closes at 5 p.m., but every Thursday night, it takes on a whole new life—“Nightlife” to be exact.

I was quite familiar with the idea of an after-hours, 21+ party-style experience at a museum. The Corning Museum of Glass where I work does this during the off season with what we call 2300°. One Thursday a month (six times a year), we throw a big themed shindig, complete with live music, Finger Lakes wine and beer, and, of course, a few special glassblowing demos. So, needless to say, I was expecting great things from California Academy of Sciences’ Nightlife—especially when I heard the theme was “Sharktober!”

I have a love/hate relationship with the predators of the sea. I basically don’t go in the ocean for fear of losing a limb, but I can’t get enough of Shark Week! The evening’s schedule of events included a special planetarium show called “Lost Sharks,” where ocean experts and scientists took control of the “sky” to zoom in on areas of the world where they are out researching brand new shark species, many of which were featured on this year’s Alien Shark: Return to the Abyss” during Shark Week. Dr. David Ebert with the Pacific Shark Research Center told us all about his work in remote locations across the globe, and how he’s found so many new species of sharks, he’s started naming them for people. He even named a shark after his niece as a graduation gift! I found it ironic to be sitting in a planetarium talking about naming sharks for people, the same way you can name a star.

The Ocean Research Foundation conducted a lively game of shark trivia in the aquarium, shark-themed balloons were set up in the outdoor biergarten, and slightly sloshed adults were fashioning shark fin headdresses out of foam and plastic beads. And yes, I have photographic evidence to prove it!

There were tons of shark-themed drinks available (at an extra cost, of course), but considering admission is only $12 for Nightlife instead of the typical $34.95, I didn’t feel badly paying an extra $12 for a pretty drink.

In another area of the museum, a shark attack survivor gave a presentation about his ordeal. It always amazes me to hear their stories—especially when they say they aren’t hesitant to jump back in the ocean, and many of them are actively involved in organizations that work to protect sharks.

When I wasn’t having shark-themed fun, I took some time to explore the main exhibits of the museum. The four-story rainforest was extremely impressive—this soaring glass cylinder in the middle of the building. Each level featured trees and plants from different tropical locations, like Costa Rica, which I paid particular attention to because of our upcoming Christmas trip! Butterflies floated about the entire exhibit. There was something very calming about walking through it.

The aquarium had exhibits of sea life from all over the planet, but there was an exceptional exhibit on the creatures of the California Coast.

I also went back to the planetarium to catch a regular show that is run on any given day, called Dark Universe, which detailed two cosmic mysteries: dark matter and dark energy. I enjoyed it, since I’ve always been fascinated with planetariums, but there was something about being part of the first shark-themed experience that seemed much cooler. That was a live, special show. This was a narrated program, that while excellent, seemed much less intimate. I guess that’s a perk of attending a Nightlife event. I highly recommend seeing whatever the custom show for that week is—but the trick to seeing planetarium shows on these nights is to get there early and wait in line for passes. It’s a first-come, first-served basis, and there is no additional cost for the programs.

I also got to check out the roof, which is an exhibit in itself. They call it the “Living Roof,” this open-air observation terrace that gives you a bird’s eye view of the canopy of plants growing above the incredible displays below, which are lighted by skylights in the building’s domes that open and close throughout the day. This is one green building, both in color and the environmental sense. It really was very cool!

Even if you can’t make a Thursday evening event, make sure to add a stop at the California Academy of Sciences on your next visit to San Francisco. I can see how it would be a perfect way for families to spend the afternoon, and I know it would make a good date for couples—Kyle was pretty jealous of the pictures I kept sending him!

All that fun from a recommendation from someone I met on public transportation. Engage with locals if you get the chance. Ask them what they like to do. This museum is a relatively large attraction in San Francisco, but I probably wouldn’t have found out about it wandering around Fisherman’s Wharf. I can’t thank that girl enough, first, for telling me when to get off the train, and for pointing me in the direction of a true gem in a great city.


California Academy of Sciences

California Academy of Sciences, Music Concourse Drive, San Francisco, CA, United States

California Academy of Sciences

California Academy of Sciences, Music Concourse Drive, San Francisco, CA, United States

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