Now that winter is upon us (and how), it’s time to plan some indoor (and warm) getaways to get you out of the house. So this week’s travel topic is about my favorite museums in Northern California. As the author of the Frommer’s California guidebook for the past 15 years, I’ve been to just about every museum in Northern California, and below are my top picks for a great winter getaway. Believe me, all of these museums are a must-visit mind-blowing experience, and the perfect excuse for an entertaining, educational, and affordable mini-vacation with friends and family.
California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco
San Francisco’s newly opened California Academy of Sciences is the only institution in the world to combine an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum, and scientific research program under one roof. More than 38,000 live animals fill the Academy’s aquarium and natural history exhibits. My favorite is the Philippine Coral Reef, the world’s deepest living coral reef tank, where 4,000 sharks, rays, sea turtles, giant clams, and other aquatic creatures coexist in a Technicolor forest of living coral. It’s so entertaining that you could easily spend the entire day here.
Combined with a visit to the spectacular de Young Museum across the street, a trip to the Academy makes for a very entertaining and educational day in Golden Gate Park. Tip: Arrive early to get a first-come, first-serve free ticket to the amazing Planetarium Show, which takes viewers on a jaw-dropping ride to the far reaches of the universe every hour on the half-hour from 11:30am to 4:30pm.
de Young Museum, San Francisco
After closing for several years, the magnificent de Young Museum reopened in late 2005 in its state-of-the-art Golden Gate Park facility, and if you haven’t seen it yet you’re in for a pleasant surprise. The striking facade consists of 950,000 pounds of textured and perforated copper, while the northeast corner of the building features a 144-foot tower that slowly spirals from the ground floor and culminates with an observation floor offering panoramic views of the entire Bay Area (from a distance it has the surreal look of a rusty aircraft carrier cruising through the park).
The museum’s vast holdings include one of the finest collections of American paintings in the United States, from Colonial times through the 20th century. Combined with a visit to the nearby California Academy of Sciences, it makes for a very entertaining and educational day in Golden Gate Park.
The Exploratorium, San Francisco
Scientific American magazine rated the Exploratorium “the best science museum in the world” and I couldn’t agree more. Inside you’ll find hundreds of exhibits that explore everything from giant-bubble blowing to Einstein’s theory of relativity. It’s like a mad scientist’s penny arcade, educational fun house, and experimental laboratory all rolled into one, and every exhibit is designed to be interactive, educational, and (most importantly) fun.
And don’t think the Exploratorium is just for kids; I went here recently and spent 3 hours in just one small section of the museum, marveling at all the mind-blowing hands-on exhibits related to light and eyesight. Be sure to spend an extra $3 to take a sensory journey through the Tactile Dome (call 415/561-0362, ext. 4 to make advance reservations), and on the way out stop in the museum’s wonderful gift store, which is chock-full of affordable brain candy.
Tech Museum of Innovation & Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, San Jose
If there’s ever a reason to spend the day in San Jose, it’s to visit the Tech Museum of Innovation, a massive 132,000-square-foot facility that allows visitors to experience a world of science and technology: Create your own virtual roller-coaster ride, survive an earthquake on a giant shake table, or insert real DNA into bacteria to learn how medicines like insulin are made. The museum even features an IMAX theater.
And since you’re already in San Jose, stop by the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum & Planetarium (408/947-3636) as well to check out the human and animal mummies, funerary boats, and a replica of a noble Egyptian’s tomb. And be sure to take in the Planetarium show, featured at 2pm daily with a second show on Saturday and Sunday at 3:30pm. 408/294-TECH; www.thetech.org
Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey
If you’ve never been to the Monterey Bay Aquarium you simply must go. Ranked one of the nation’s top family attractions, it’s the Disneyland of aquariums, housing one of finest collections of sea creatures on the planet. It’s like strolling through an aquatic dream where more than 350,000 marine animals and plants coexist in a magical setting.
The highlight of the aquarium is a three-story, 335,000-gallon tank with clear acrylic walls offering stunning views of leopard sharks, sardines, anchovies, and other creatures—all swimming together through a towering kelp forest. The 1.2-million-gallon Outer Bay tank houses open-ocean life, including yellowfin tuna, large green sea turtles, sharks, giant ocean sunfish, and schools of bonito. And everyone falls in love with the adorable sea otters playing in their two-story exhibit. Tip: Avoid lines at the gate by ordering tickets by calling 800/756-3737 in advance.
Columbia State Historic Park, Gold Country
A museum of a different sort is Columbia State Historic Park, the best-maintained Gold Rush town in the Mother Lode. At one point, this boisterous mining town was the state’s second-largest city and only two votes shy of becoming the state capital. When gold mining no longer panned out in the late 1850s, most of the town’s 15,000 residents departed, leaving much of the mining equipment and buildings in place, and in 1945 the entire town was turned into a historic park.
As a result, Columbia has been preserved and functions much as it did in the 1850s, with stagecoach rides, Western-style Victorian hotels and saloons, a newspaper office, a blacksmith’s forge, a Wells Fargo express office, and numerous other relics of California’s early mining days. Cars are banned from its streets, giving the town an authentic feel that’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. When combined with a visit to nearby Railtown 1897 State Historic Park—a train buff’s paradise—a trip to Columbia State Historic Park makes for the ideal Gold Country getaway.
And if you have your own tips and recommendations on your favorite museums in Northern California that you’d like to share, feel free to add your own comments to our blog below. We’d love to hear from you.