Exploratorium At Pier 15 On San Francisco’s Embarcadero

Exploratorium San Francisco Pier 15

The Exploratorium is one of my favorite family-friendly activities in San Francisco. I have fond memories of visiting the interactive science museum with my family several times, as it was tradition to spend the day in San Francisco for my birthday every year. My sisters and I would dance in front of screens and see our images frozen on the wall, we’d experiment with light and sound, and were fascinated with everything we were allowed to touch.

As soon as my own children were old enough, we took them to the Exploratorium for the same hands-on learning experience and we all had a blast.

Back then the museum and learning laboratory was at the Palace of Fine Arts. When the announcement came that the Exploratorium would be closing and relocating to a new, larger space on the Embarcadero, I was excited for what would come, but sad at the same time because so many memories were tied to the old location.

Today the Exploratorium continues to be so much more than a museum. It is an ongoing exploration of science, art and human perception, and a fascinating place for kids and adults alike to discover how the world works. We recently visited the Exploratorium at Pier 15, and I love the new location, it’s proximity to The Ferry Building, Alcatraz Tours, Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Ghiradelli Square, and the ability to hop on the trolley cars right outside.

Visiting the Exploratorium at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco
Carter, Brian, and Natalie outside the old San Francisco Exploratorium at The Palace of Fine Arts.

The San Francisco Exploratorium

The Exploratorium was founded by physicist and educator Frank Oppenheimer. It opened in 1969 at the Palace of Fine Arts, in San Francisco’s Marina District — a space it eventually outgrew because the historic space made it impossible to expand.

After years of searching, the Exploratorium identified the twin piers 15 and 17, available on a 66-year lease from the port, as a site that could be adapted for reuse, although one that required extensive investment. As a result, a highly successful $300 million capital campaign was completed to relocate and expand the museum, as well as to add new exhibits and increase endowment.

The Exploratorium closed its doors at the Palace of Fine Arts on January 2, 2013, and on April 17 of the same year, reopened to the public at Pier 15 on San Francisco’s Embarcadero.

The historic interior and exterior of Pier 15 was renovated extensively prior to the move. The solar-powered space, constructed in concert with scientific agencies, sits on a nine acre pier that is hard-wired with sensors that deliver real-time data on weather, wind, tides, and the bay. The data can been seen in the Observatory Gallery, a glass-enclosed lookout and exhibit where you can make your own observations about sea, land and sky.

Brian and Carter Experimenting with bubbles at the Exploratorium
Brian and Carter Experimenting with bubbles at one of the Exploratorium science exhibits. This museum has some of the best science activities for families in the Bay Area.

Visiting The Exploratorium

The new 330,000 square foot, indoor-outdoor museum space includes a 200-seat theater, life sciences laboratory, wired classrooms and labs, a webcast studio for live events, and machine, wood, and electronics shops in view of the public.

There are also six exhibit galleries, including:

  • Bechtel Central Gallery: Seeing And Listening, focusing on light, vision, sound, and hearing
  • Osher West Gallery: Human Phenomena, focusing on thoughts, feelings, and social behavior
  • East Gallery: Living Systems, focusing on the living world
  • South Gallery: Tinkering, focusing on electricity and magnetism
  • North Gallery: Outdoor Exhibits, focusing on winds, tides, and natural phenomena
  • Fisher Bay Observatory Gallery: Observing Landscapes, focusing on the history, geography, and ecology of the Bay Area

As you move through the different galleries, or areas of the Exploratorium, you’ll find approximately 670 exhibits on display at Pier 15. The exhibits, created by staff scientists, artists, and designers, actually encourage you to touch and interact with them.

There are no docents at the museum. Everyone on the floor is an Explainer, available to explain the exhibits, experiments, and displays, and answer your questions. Try to stump them. Go ahead. Every Explainer we talked to knew their stuff and I was impressed with how much they could share with us.

Everyone Feels Like A Kid At The Exploratorium

This isn’t a dumbed down version of a museum for kids, but a sophisticated science center for kids and adults alike. With levers to pull, buttons to push, dials to turn, pendulums to swing, you and your kids will be playing with and touching everything in sight, learning in a hands-on, sensory-rich environment, and indulging in curiosity and discovery. It’s a great place to visit on a rainy day too!

Definitely one of the funniest exhibits is the toilet drinking fountain — the kids were cracking up drinking from a dirty toilet bowl (well, at least it looks dirty). We loved the giant cityscapes made of toothpicks, the huge upside down mirrors, the human-size shadow box, the illuminated fog exhibit, and the giant tornado machine they could stand inside.

With the best science exhibits in the Bay Area, Brian and I had just as much fun as the kids checking out and trying all of the experiments at the San Francisco Exploratorium. We didn’t plan on being at the museum as long as we were, but we all wanted turns and of course, we had to do everything!

Science Experiments for Kids in San Francisco at The Exploratorium

Hours, Tickets, And Community Days

The Exploratorium is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. Tickets for adults are $29.95 and youth tickets are $19.95. Tickets to go inside the Tactile Dome are an additional $15.00 per person.

If that’s a little steep for you, don’t worry, the museum offers several free community days throughout the year. Just be sure to get there early because entry is subject to capacity and admission is not guaranteed.

The dates for this year include:

  • Free Community Day: January 22, 2017
  • Pi Day: March 14, 2017
  • Mother’s Day: May 14, 2017
  • Free Community Night: After 5:00 p.m., June 23, 2017
  • Free Community Day: September 23, 2017
  • Free Community Day: October 22, 2017

No Kids, No Problem

If you love science, or are interested at all in how the world works, San Francisco’s Exploratorium is a fantastic place, and you don’t even have to have kids. In fact, if you want to come play with all the exhibits without any kids around, their “After Hours Program” is perfect for you.

Exploratorium After Dark Tickets are only $15 and give you access to the Exploratorium from 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm on Thursdays, during a special 18+, adult only session… and I hear they even have a cash bar so you can sip cocktails while you browse the exhibits.

Know Before You Go

  • The Exploratorium is located at Pier 15, at the intersection of The Embarcadero and Green Street, San Francisco, CA 94111.
  • The Exploratorium property includes a 1.5 acre urban park on the water that is free to the public for biking, jogging, strolling, and playing with outdoor exhibits.
  • Your kids will want to try everything. Plan at least half a day to explore the museum — we were there for a good solid, four hours.
  • Download a PDF map of the Exploratorium.
  • Visit during the week, when the Exploratorium opens, or the late in the afternoon to avoid the largest crowds. In the middle of the day, long lines form at the exhibits, you’ll feel rushed, and your kids will get frustrated. The best way to experience the museum is to do so with freedom.
  • Pack snacks! While you can’t eat inside by the exhibits, you can take a break outside and have a bite while enjoying the gorgeous San Francisco bay views.
  • There are two museum dining areas — the Seismic Joint Café, which faces the outdoor plaza, and the SeaGlass Restaurant in the Bay Observatory. Both feature seasonable and sustainable cuisine and do not require museum admission. If you don’t want to eat in the restaurant or cafe, order your meals to go and eat outside — this is a fantastic idea if you want to eat in peace while the kids run around and work out some energy!
  • The Observatory Gallery is upstairs and has beautiful views of the Financial District, Coit Tower, and the Bay Bridge — and it is a great place to take a family photo.
  • You can buy tickets at the museum or online. If you buy tickets online, you can print the tickets or simply open the PDF ticket on your mobile device and show it at the door. Discount tickets are available with a San Francisco City Pass.
  • The Exploratorium exhibition spaces, store, café, and all public restrooms are wheelchair accessible and wheelchairs are available for no charge. Tactile maps are available for blind and visually impaired visitors at the Information Desk.
  • Pets are not allowed, but service animals welcome.

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