San Francisco is lucky to be home to not one, but two excellent marine life attractions in the California Academy of Sciences and the Aquarium of the Bay.
If you’re trying to compare the California Academy of Sciences vs the Aquarium of the Bay, we’ve put together a handy guide to help you consider which attraction appeals to you the most. Visit one, or check them both out.
Both attractions are located in San Francisco proper, and each offers a world-class aquarium experience, although the California Academy of Sciences also includes a rainforest, a living roof, a digital planetarium, and more.
For your convenience, we’ve put together a list of the more nuanced differences and similarities between the two attractions, arranged by:
- What’s Included with General Admission
- Comparing Exhibits
- Tips for Visiting
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What’s Included with General Admission
California Academy of Sciences General Admission
- Access to the Steinhart Aquarium
- Access to the Morrison Planetarium
- Access to the Osher Rainforest
- Access to the Kimball Natural History Museum
Aquarium of the Bay General Admission
Access to all regular exhibits, including:
- Discover the Bay
- Go With the Flow
- Under the Bay
- Touch the Bay
- River Otters
California Academy of Sciences: Located in the east end of Golden Gate Park, near the de Young Museum, the Conservatory of Flowers, and the San Francisco Botanical Garden.
Aquarium of the Bay: Located in the Embarcadero area, on Pier 39, near a number of restaurants, several shops, and departure points for selected cruises.
At the most basic level, the California Academy of Sciences offers more exhibits than the Aquarium of the Bay, and on more diverse topics. This means that their primary focus is not aquatic or marine life, but this isn’t to say that they aren’t experts on the subject.
In fact, while the Steinhart Aquarium is only one portion of the California Academy of Sciences, it still encompasses more marine specimens than the Aquarium of the Bay overall. (A current estimate puts the number of marine specimens in the Steinhart Aquarium at around 40,000 – from 900 different species – while the number of marine specimens in the Aquarium of the Bay comes to a bit over 20,000.)
The other major difference, as you might guess, is that the Aquarium of the Bay focuses exclusively on marine life that can be naturally found in the San Francisco Bay. This limits their focus a bit, but it also allows for more depth for visitors specifically interested in the flora and fauna of the region.
California Academy of Sciences Exhibits
Steinhart Aquarium Highlights
- Philippine Coral Reef: one of the deepest and largest displays of live coral in the entire world. This features a fun new “Hidden Reef” section that showcases tiny reef inhabitants.
- Discovery Tidepool: Part of the larger California Coast exhibit, this interactive section showcases a very changeable environment that’s only home to the hardiest, most adaptable creatures.
- Northern California Coast: A 100,000-gallon tank that is designed to recreate the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Here you can peer in from a surface walkway above or look into the tank from below the surface.
- African Penguins: This thriving penguin colony is one of the California Academy of Sciences’ most popular exhibits. If you adore them after your visit, you can also check them out on one of three live penguin cams.
- Water Planet: A fascinating exhibition combining shifting collections of marine critters that have adapted to unique environments through distinctive biological shifts. You’ll see jellies, seahorse, pythons, and more.
Morrison Planetarium Highlights
- Periodically changing films that are projected on the digital planetarium roof.
- A “virtual cosmos” that highlights the latest findings in the scientific world.
Osher Rainforest Highlights
- Located inside a dome, the rainforest stretches 90 feet above ground level.
- An elevator will take you from the canopy to four stories below to the Amazon flooded rainforest.
- Highlights include vibrant butterflies and striking tropical flora.
Kimball Natural History Museum Highlights
- Tusher African Hall: See striking dioramas that recreate grand African landscapes while retelling the early history of the human race.
- Giants of Land and Sea: This exciting, interactive exhibit showcases massive natural phenomena, including redwoods and marine mammals.
- Gems and Minerals Unearthed: Featuring more than 400 gorgeous specimens from the Academy’s collections, this exhibit is visually inspiring.
- Foucault Pendulum: A unique invention that indicates the rotation of the earth through its own mechanical movement, the Foucault pendulum has been a part of the collection since the original Academy.
Aquarium of the Bay Exhibits
- Discover the Bay: The first introduction to the San Francisco Bay ecosystem, this exhibit features seven different themed habitats, including the “Beauties of the Bay,” which showcases the most visually appealing and colorful specimens. You’ll also see “Bay Babies,” which features little newborns beneath the waves.
- Go With the Flow: This marks the transition to Under the Bay, and is comprised of two massive tanks: a 725-gallon tank that showcases moon jellies and a 740-gallon tank displaying Pacific Sea Nettles. You’ll learn all about the weird and wonderful jellies, of which there are more than 200 different species worldwide!
- Under the Bay: Comprised of 300 feet of acrylic tunnels filled with water, this exhibit makes you feel like you’re walking underneath the waves. You’ll see different tunnels featuring various marine creatures, such as the Near Shore Tunnel, which includes sea animals that in the shallow depths of the Bay. Then, the Alcatraz Tunnel is filled with sharks!
- Touch the Bay: This interactive area of the aquarium provides visitors with the opportunity to touch and feel various creatures. In the Touchpools, you’ll find sea stars, sea cucumbers, skates, and even small sharks. Then, in the Bay Labs, visitors can see land animals whose environments are being impacted by climate change.
- River Otters: Home to four playful river otters – Shasta, Ryer, Baxter, and Tahoe – this exhibit highlights their distinctive behaviors and unique environments.
Tips for Visiting Each Attraction
Tips for Visiting the California Academy of Sciences
- The California Academy of Sciences offers two dining options: the casual Academy Café and the more elevated Terrace Restaurant. Both require paid admission to the attraction to dine at.
- You also have the option of exploring the Academy Store, which offers a wide selection of apparel, toys & games, books, figurines, scientific content, and much more.
- They also offer periodic talks on accessible and exciting scientific topics. These talks are sometimes ticketed, and sometimes open to the public, but all are inspiring.
- Visitors can also choose to update to a specialty tour, like a Behind-The-Scenes tour, a NightLife VIP Tour, or an Animal Encounter. These options offer personalized, hands-on experiences to guests.
- It takes about 3 hours to cover the entire Academy, but maybe an hour and a half to cover just the Aquarium portion.
Tips for Aquarium of the Bay
- Did you know that the Aquarium of the Bay is located right near a rare urban sea lion colony? Check them out by visiting the Sea Lion Center by K-Dock.
- There’s no parking provided at the Aquarium of the Bay, so be prepared to pay for street or off-street public parking. Or, you can take public transit to avoid the bad traffic and expensive parking fees.
- It takes approximately 90 minutes to walk through all exhibits, so plan accordingly.
- Outside food is not permitted in the aquarium, but you can bring bottled water, etc.
- The Aquarium of the Bay also hosts frequent special events that you might want to check out during your visit. Although not typically included in general admission, these events can make a vacation truly special.
In Summary (The Biggest Differences)
Essentially, you’ll find that the differences between the two attractions are pretty straightforward.
The Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences is only one part of what it has to offer, but it is a significant focus. It’s also larger with more animals than the Aquarium of the Bay.
Conversely, the Aquarium of the Bay has a local focus that the Academy lacks, making a visit there a handy learning experience for those looking to really explore the San Francisco Bay marine life.
Visit the California Academy of Sciences and the Aquarium of the Bay and Save on Admission
If you’re an aquarium lover, then you’ll for sure want to check out one (or both!) of these amazing attractions.
Each of these aquariums has plenty to offer for fans of marine life, although they have important differences between them, too.
Don’t forget to save on admission to the California Academy of Sciences and the Aquarium of the Bay with an all-inclusive Go San Francisco® Card. Save up to 60% on combined admission vs. paying at the gate.