California Academy of Sciences (generally referred to as Cal Academy) is a nature and science exhibition/museum in San Francisco. It is a single big building located at the center of Golden Gate Park.
The main exhibit or experience areas are the aquarium, planetarium, rainforest and the natural history museum. They have spaces for a few traveling/temporary exhibits too. A few (not many) of the experience sections (like tidepool) were closed due to COVID.
Reservations: When we visited reservations were required to visit the planetarium and rainforest. There is a set number of shows at the planetarium and it has ~150 seats inside, so that is why it is the most contended. The rainforest allows only a certain number of people inside in batches. So, it is recommended that you scan the QR codes for these reservations placed inside the building as soon as you arrive to grab a spot at both these places. Though we arrived at 11 AM, we could not get a spot at the planetarium - after talking with a guard, we stood in the standby line before a show for an hour and were able to get in that way.
Planetarium: Inside is a big spherical dome on which is projected the movie or rendering of space they want to show. There were a couple of shows at the time of our visit and the one we attended was a Trip through space. The show was performed and narrated live by the host using Open Space software to show us Earth, Moon, planets, the solar system, our galaxy, the Milky Way and finally the vast endless space. It had been decades since my visit to the Nehru Planetarium in Bangalore and I was reminded myself of how awesome it is to view the sky full of stars siting in the dark planetarium. This exhibit should not be missed.
Rainforest: This is an enclosed biosphere where they have maintained the humidity and temperature of a tropical rainforest. There are birds, plants and glass-enclosed display boxes (with all sorts of live snakes, frogs, reptiles and insects). This seemed like a mini version of the spectacularly huge Cloud Forest in Singapore. Our son loved this exhibit - finding out where the creature was hiding in each of the boxes became an adventure and he would note its name down in the notebook given by the academy.
Aquarium: This is the biggest exhibit at the academy and the one with the most number of creatures. Housed in the basement, there is a seemingly endless number of glass displays of fishes, ranging from the tiny to building-sized ones filled with thousands of fishes from different oceans, ecosystems and depths of the ocean. There are seats in front of many of the floor-to-floor aquariums and it is very relaxing to sit and watch the fishes. There did a feeding session for one of those and the feeding frenzy of the fishes was quite something to watch.
Natural History Museum: This is a smaller exhibit of stuffed animals from Africa. There were a surprising number of them from the plains whose names I had never heard of before.
Other than these three, there are other smaller exhibits scattered around the academy, like the fantastic T-Rex skeleton at the entrance.
The main terrace restaurant of the academy was closed when we visited due to COVID.
A small cafe which sells drinks and snacks was open.
Since we knew about the restaurant closure (from the website), we had brought snacks from home which we had at lunch time in the East Garden.
There is a play area in the East Garden filled with some innovative nature-based play structures. Our son loved playing there for an hour with other visiting kids (and wouldn’t leave).
The academy is open 9AM to 4PM, that is 7 hours.
When we bought the tickets, they were given for certain entry times. Ours was 10AM, but we got delayed a bit and only entered at 11AM. We found that our son was fully engaged until 4PM and in fact we walked out when the doors were shuttered.
If you factor in the time required for the main exhibits, plus food and play with kids, and some rest, I think you’d need anywhere from 5 to 6 hours to fully enjoy the academy.
The reason we had not visited the academy for so long was that weekend tickets are almost sold out many weeks in advance. Or only the tickets for late entry (like at 3PM) would be available. The only reason we were able to visit the academy this time was visiting on a weekday and buying tickets a week in advance.
The academy has no parking of its own.
There is street side parking on any of the roads inside the Golden State Park, but that is sure to be all taken and SF is known for car crimes (so this is highly ill advised).
We parked at the Music Concourse Garage which is a paid parking area that is right under the ground in front of the academy. It was $29 for 10AM-5PM parking that we did. I felt that as long as you arrive in the morning for the academy (before 11 or 12), you should be fine. Else you might not find a spot even in this paid parking area during weekends, since this is meant for all Golden State Park visitors.
There are a couple of stores in the academy. Besides clothing, there are a number of interesting toys and science kits for kids in these stores. I have found this to be true for all types of museums in the US - and they are almost impossible to find online. So I recommend going through what is available and the prices are quite reasonable and so a great find for kids.
Since the parking area is open until 7PM, the academy visit can also be a chance to go around the Golden State Park a bit. The Music Concourse structure is very beautiful and is walking distance to the left from the academy entrance. The SkyStar Wheel ferris wheel ride is to the right.
In conclusion, I think a visit to the academy is a must if you have kids. With kids, this is a full day experience and if you take breaks during lunch and at the many sitting areas, it can be relaxing and pleasurable. The academy is also very interesting for adults and can probably be done in 4 or 5 hours.