Of all the tourist traps in San Francisco, my favorite is, hands down, the California Academy of Sciences. Granted, I’m not much into historical sight-seeing and I’ve still never stepped foot on Alcatraz Island. All the same, I can’t see very many places offering quite as fascinating an experience as this beloved museum — especially at night.
Each Thursday evening, the Academy opens its doors to the 21 and over crowd. Admission is heavily discounted (from $35 to $10), though you could easily negate the savings by purchasing food and drink, developed by Charles Phan and offered throughout the building. NightLife isn’t just a cash cow, however. The Academy thoughtfully curates their events calendar, offering a new theme each week and often including musical performances, film screenings, interactive games, live animals and even robots. I’ve seen Jens Lekman play in its outdoor patio and danced to Nosaj Thing’s beats in its hallways. It’s so, so much fun.
This month, my sister N was determined to introduce D to the cornucopia of real-life magic within the walls of the California Academy of Sciences. We arrived punctually, half an hour after doors opened, to ensure we’d have time to visit the two most popular exhibits: the Morrison Planetarium (which has limited seating for its showings) and the four-story rainforest biodome (which closes by 7:45pm). After making a beeline to grab tickets at the former, we headed to the latter.
Once you enter the carefully controlled, glass-enclosed rainforest habitat, you’re free to wander up a winding staircase and observe the flora and fauna around you. As you climb, the miniature exhibits and temperature change as well; you’re effectively traveling through the ecosystems of Borneo, Madagascar, Costa Rica and the Amazon. At the end of the journey, you’re checked for stray butterflies (try not to smuggle one of these free-flying creatures out!) and checked into an elevator, which releases you into the innermost bowels of the building.
The Steinhart Aquarium is a sprawling underground space, featuring many different aquatic habitats. It’s an amazing living collection with thousands of diverse creatures: prehistoric-looking sharks, brilliantly-colored fish, graceful jellyfish, poisonous plants, whimsical seahorses. There’s even a tidepool where you can touch the tough spines of a sea star or pet a bristly sea anemone.
N, D and I made good time through the aquarium, resurfacing just in time for our planetarium showtime. The current feature, “Dark Universe,” was narrated by Neil Degrasse Tyson (who else?!) and supplemented with hilarious live commentary. While N fell asleep, D and I thoroughly enjoyed the immersive experience — though I’ll admit that the concept of dark matter largely went over my head. For some real life astronomy afterward, we headed to the museum’s Living Roof, landscaped with vegetation and outfitted with telescopes.
Throughout the night, screenings, panels, and film-related games and activities were hosted in honor of cinema. Halfway through the night, we attended a screening, though were disappointed to find a promotional call-to-arms for prospective filmmakers. I’d definitely recommend checking the night’s special programming ahead of time. Regardless, our folly was but a blip in an incredibly fun night.
We finished our time there by walking around the flanks of the museum. The Kimball Natural History Museum contains multitudes of exhibits, including an African hall full of diaramas, a live penguin habitat, exhibits on evolution, a T-Rex skeleton, and an earthquake exhibit, complete with a “Shake House.” Yeah, there’s a lot to explore. While NightLife can occasionally get crowded, it’s still the best way for the adult set to enjoy the California Academy of Sciences — plus cocktails, minus kids. At the end of the night, a very inspired N and D shared my opinion, pronouncing NightLife their favorite out-of-towner attraction.
NightLife at the California Academy of Sciences
55 Music Concourse Dr
San Francisco, CA 94118