Music For years we had a membership to the Academy of Science in Golden Gate Park. It's been a lifelong favorite of mine, although I miss a lot of what the old museum had to offer. We've been dozens of times, and up until a few years ago, we maintained a membership. In order for the membership to work out financially, you have to go at least 3-4 times a year in order to break even. We ended up having other things to do more often, so eventually, I let our membership lapse.
Occasionally I'll keep my eye open for a free day. There are neighborhood free days and a general free day. We went to the general free day just to see if it was something we wanted to spend more time doing in the future. A free day typically means the place is going to be a zoo, so keep this in mind if you plan on attending.
Get There Early
For parking, we entered at the 9th Avenue entrance and took the first right onto Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. I usually have the best luck finding parking here, and it leaves you options for leaving in a sane way.
We arrived at 10:30, half an hour before the door opened. The line was already completely down Music Concourse Drive, wrapped around Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, and almost wrapping back around Nancy Pelosi Drive at the back of the museum. Ten minutes after arriving I could no longer make out the back of the line.
Usually entering a museum I'll drop off our bags at the coat check. Often time it's free, and even if it costs a little it's worth every penny. However this time I found out you couldn't check a bag if it had food inside - new rule to me. They said that they had "sensitive exhibits closeby and couldn't allow food in the coat check room." I wasn't really buying it, but I didn't push the matter.
Grab Planetarium Passes
As long as you don't have kids under 6 with you, grabbing planetarium passes is a great idea. They are included with admission but will sell out early on most days, especially free days. The line for passes wrapped around to the penguin side of the African Hall. So basically from 10:30 to 11:30 we waited in one line or another. We got passes for the 12:30 show.
The kids wanted to do the earthquake exhibit first this time. If you haven't been, basically you wait in line to watch a short film on earthquakes in the Bay Area then go stand in a room build on a shake table which will simulate the 1989 and 1906 earthquakes. It's fun but can take some time to wait in line. I wouldn't wait more than 30 minutes (the line has markers with time estimates).
Following our temblor, we headed straight outside (on the west side) to have a quick bite. I had packed sandwiches and some crackers, so we skipped the cafeteria lines. I'm not as keen on the food offerings currently. The long lines, the drop in quality (from when the originally opened), and the price are all kind of a turn off for me at this point. Typically I'll take the kids here for a snack in the afternoon and save a few bucks bringing my own lunch.
We had to kind of rush lunch a little in order to get to the Planetarium in time, they close the door at the time of the show and advise you get there 15 minutes early. We barely made it in time, whew!
Getting there late meant we got seats close to the bottom, which isn't optimal, but it's fine. You still see the whole screen and it can be a little less crowded as everyone else is sitting higher up. Planetarium shows are usually pretty awesome, and this one was cool as it was mostly conversational with the guide walking us through "our place in the universe".
Following the show, you climb the stairs to exit the top of the planetarium so you don't collide with the next group entering. Once you leave, you have some nice options to either visit the living roof or head down to either the rainforest, basement aquarium, or the African Hall (with the penguins). We were running a little short on time, so we opted to go straight down to visit the touch pools in the aquarium. Given a bit more time, we would have headed through the rainforest first as it exits through the aquarium.
Aquarium LevelYou can head downstairs by the albino alligator pit, and once you are downstairs you can head to the back left corner to visit the touch pool and pet all kinds of invertebrates and learn more about them. Plus you can catch some nifty jellyfish and sand dollars nearby. And if you are really lucky there is a pretty awesome octopus that comes out of hiding on occasion. There is quite a lot to see down here. Some favorites are the tunnel under the rainforest, the flashlight fish in the dark area, and the coral reefs.
Don't leave without visiting the Penguins!
These guys are wonderful to see. Feeding time can be a nice visit, but it's usually mobbed. Give yourself some time and space to see this one. Be sure to check out the Pierre the Penguin book in the gift shop, and keep your eye open for his little wet suite which is on a rotating display around the museum. It's a delightful story.
We love to see the dioramas in the African Hall, and the replica of the Lucy skeleton.
We left a little after 2 PM this day, and there was still a substantial line waiting for entry going all the way down Music Concourse Drive. Basically, once the museum reaches capacity, entry is delayed till people leave.
Free day isn't the day I would like to be visiting here, however with the right attitude, an early start, and a little bit of luck you can have a pretty successful visit. Don't expect to visit everything, and remain flexible as the day progresses.
If you have friends who live in the city, look for the other "Neighborhood" Free days where all you have to do is have someone in your group prove their residence in that neighborhood. I wish I still worked downtown so I could use a bill sent to that address as proof. These types of free days are less crowded.
This was a good opportunity to try the museum out again in order to see if we wanted to start our membership back up. A nice way to test the waters.