What to see at the San Francisco Exploratorium

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If you’ve already hit up the big name attractions — the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, Golden Gate Park — and are now looking for something a little bit different to do in San Francisco, the Exploratorium is the perfect place to spend an afternoon. San Francisco’s Exploratorium is one of the coolest, most innovative, and most inspiring places to go in the city.

Goodies in the Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium | Photo by Fabrice Florin, Flickr Creative Commons

Goodies in the Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium | Photo by Fabrice Florin, Flickr Creative Commons

Whether you are looking for something awesome to do with the whole family, or just something fun that you won’t find anywhere else, the Exploratorium is a one-of-a-kind attraction that is well worth a visit while you are in town. We love spending the day getting inspired by their interactive exhibits, or the evening socialising at one of their Thursday Night After Dark events.

How the museum came to be is a story as interesting as the museum itself, and follows a true San Franciscan pattern of innovation, boldness, and following a vision. The Exploratorium is the brainchild of Frank Oppenheimer, brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer of Manhattan Project fame. After being blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and forced to work on a cattle ranch for 10 years, Oppenheimer eventually began teaching science at a small local high school.

His creative teaching efforts — including going to local junkyards for science project components — earned him recognition. Eventually he re-entered the mainstream of science, and was offered a lucrative position managing one of the Smithsonians. He turned it down to come to San Francisco and work on a lifelong dream project of his: creating an interactive museum to inspire, educate, and bring out the joy in learning. Since its opening in 1969, the Exploratorium has lived up to Oppenheimer’s dream, eventually expanding out of its original home and into its new, much larger, location on Pier 15.

The Exploratorium has way more to see and do than you could possibly get to in a day. Although everything there is fantastic and worth getting to, here are the exhibits that you definitely should work into your schedule.

The Tactile Dome

The Tactile Dome is an absolute must. It’s one of the museum’s most popular permanent exhibits. Absorbed in complete darkness, you find your way through a room full of obstacle courses and mazes purely by feel. It might not seem like a very long time that you are in the dome, but you’ll find that your entire way of perceiving the world changes dramatically in that time. And to make it even cooler, it was created by August Coppola, brother of Francis Ford Coppola, and father of Nicolas Cage.

The Kanbar Forum

Kanbar Forum is one of the most technologically advanced music venues and sound studios in the world. Using almost 100 speakers and cutting edge technology, the entire acoustics of the room can be changed with the touch of a button. Live performances take on an entirely new dimension, whether the room is configured as an intimate venue or a grand concert hall.

The series of interactive art works

The Exploratorium is all about making learning hands-on, and their art on display is no different. The artwork combines multimedia and multidisciplinary concepts to create works of sound, colour, and touch that you can directly interact with. Scrapple is one of our favorites — you can place just about any object on a specially designed table, and its shape is converted to a notation in a music score, allowing you to hear the music as you are creating it. The Simply Smashing work is a great way to make your head spin — 900 wine glasses aligned along the wall create a kaleidoscope of colour and shapes as you walk past, as though you are walking through a miniature house of mirrors.

Exhibits that are all about the senses

The Exploratorium’s central gallery focuses on the theme of seeing and listening. Since these are senses that we normally take for granted, having a chance to explore the details of just how we see and hear gives you a fascinating perspective on your day to day life. In the monochromatic room, sodium vapor lights strip all of the colours away, leaving only a yellowish hue and allowing you to experience what a world without colour looks like. The Out Quiet Yourself exhibit gives you a chance to examine just how much noise you make while walking, and to look at the minute details of how you can walk to make yourself quieter.

Aeolian Harp

Don’t miss the outdoor exhibits, including the 27-foot-tall harp played by the wind. Between Pier 15 and Pier 17, winds tend to blow in a very predictable pattern. Around mid-afternoon, they pick up, and this is when the harp sings its loudest. Each of its seven strings is moved by the wind to strike various notes, which are then amplified by metal plates. The resulting sound is haunting and eerily beautiful.

Remote Rains

Even if its a rainy day, this exhibit is still awesome. Experience the intensity and unpredictability of rainstorms from around the world, from the safety of underneath the exhibit’s giant orange umbrella.

Toothpick Sculpture

Think San Francisco’s a cool-looking city? It’s even cooler made entirely of toothpicks. The Exploratorium’s toothpick sculpture was created by local San Franciscan artist Scott Weaver, and contains intricate replicas of some of the city’s most famous landmarks. At over 100,000 toothpicks, it’s an impressive masterpiece. What’s even more impressive is that it’s designed to functional, as well — the Rolling Through the Bay sculpture is actually a track that ping pong balls can be rolled down.

Thursday Night After Dark

Worried that museums are just for kids? The Exploratorium’s Thursday Night After Dark extended hours will prove you wrong. San Francisco’s Exploratorium does an amazing job of inspiring a passion for learning and discovery in all ages. Every Thursday night, the museum extends its hours, from 6pm to 10pm, to anyone over the age of 18. The topic is different each time, but they explore cutting edge, fascinating subjects from music to sex to memory, using presentations, interactive exhibits, works from local artists, and open discussions. A cash bar makes the evening even better. Where else can you mingle with some of San Francisco’s top creative minds, while enjoying some cocktails, mind-expanding discussions, and fun interactive exhibits? This is by far the best combination of fun and intellectually engaging activities that you’ll find in San Francisco.

How to plan your visit

The Exploratorium’s new location on Pier 15 is much easier to get to than its old location at the Palace of Fine Arts. The F Market street car has a stop right in front of the museum. It’s also within easy walking distance of the Ferry building, which is a hub for ferries, busses, and BART trains. If you’re driving, check out the Embarcadero Center for parking — the museum offers discounted, validated parking with same-day admissions purchase.

The Exploratorium is open every day except Mondays, from 10am to 5pm. Every Thursday, they have extended hours for 18 and older, from 6pm to 10pm.

If you’re looking to save some cash, you might consider visiting on one of the Exploratorium’s free days. On six select days every year, they waive the entrance fee. Be warned, though, that crowds can be intense. If you really want to experience everything that the Exploratorium has to offer, we recommend skipping the free days (it’s worth it for the full admission price) and avoiding weekends if possible.

Regardless of when you choose to go, or how you choose to experience the Exploratorium, it’s one of the coolest things to do in San Francisco. It’s the sort of place that, whether you are a kid or an adult, inspires and rekindles a passion for learning and exploring.

Still looking for more things to do in San Francisco? Our local guides can help you make the most of your time in town!

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