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For a hands-on look at science, language, art, and humanity in general, no San Francisco attraction is more appropriate than the Exploratorium. Featuring over 600 exhibits dedicated to learning first-hand as well as offering seminars and other outside learning opportunities, this is a great trip for adults interested in science and culture as well as families looking for a unique place to bring children of all ages.


The Exploratorium is a ground-breaking museum which seeks to fuse the interrelated worlds of science and art in an interactive manner that allows participants to “feel” their way to knowledge. Considered by many to be the prototype for what is known as participatory museum learning, the Exploratorium was the brainchild of physicist and university professor Frank Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer was well-known in the middle of the 20th century for his work on the Manhattan Project. However, he subsequently was accused of un-American activities (i.e. communism) and banned from academic life for more than a decade in 1949. Still dedicated to science and teaching, however, Oppenheimer was able to secure a job teaching high school students in Colorado. Without the onus of academic research hanging over his head, Oppenheimer dedicated himself wholly to his students, developing a series of field trips and other hands-on learning experiences which would later prove to be integral in his development of the Exploratorium in the 1960s.

Eventually, Oppenheimer was absolved of his accusations and able to take a university position once again. He was hired by the University of Colorado and immediately received a grant from the National Science Foundation to further develop his hands-on experiments. He called this is “Library of Experiments” and used it as a launching point for exploring science museums worldwide (thanks to a Guggenheim Fellowship) with an eye to opening his own. In 1967 that dream became a reality as he and his wife travelled to San Francisco with the express intention of developing their own science museum.

The Oppenheimers literally went door-to-door soliciting support for their project. They took along a handful of travelling experiments which served to highlight the unique focus of their museum. They quickly received the funding they needed and opened the doors to the Exploratorium at the Palace of Fine Arts in 1969. True to the participatory structure of Oppenheimer’s method, the public was free to visit the museum even in its initial stages of development, to literally watch the exhibits as they were built.

Oppenheimer then remained at the Exploratorium as its director until his death in 1985. Since then, three subsequent directors have been able to see an exponential development of the size and outreach of this institution. This most notably includes branching into online endeavors such as websites, webinars, and online communities, as well as playing an intimate role in the development of science education.

Most recently, in January of 2013, the Exploratorium moved from its location in the Palace of Fine Arts to a brand-new purpose-built site at Piers 15 and 17 along San Francisco’s Embarcadero. The new campus cost a total of $300 million to build and includes space equal to three times that of the old location. Most notably, this includes the construction of an 800-foot long structure over San Francisco Bay which is designed to house indoor and outdoor exhibits as well as offer the public an additional 1.5 acres of accessible waterfront space.

Main Attraction

The new location for the Exploratorium at Piers 15 and 17 allowed for a massive expansion in their offerings to the public in terms of hands-on exhibits and experiences. The total available activities now numbers above 600 and includes indoor and outdoor attractions. The museum consists of six separate galleries, South, Central, East, West, the Bay Observatory, and the Outdoor Gallery.

Admission prices come in two tiers, Adults and Children/Teachers/Seniors, children under 5 are admitted free of charge. In addition, residents of the nine-county San Francisco Bay area receive additional discounts. All tickets are issued according to a time stamp which allows visitors to only enter the museum at a designated hour. For this reason, pre-purchase is highly recommended since there is only a limited number of general admission tickets sold each day at the door.

In addition to its regular exhibits and hours, the Exploratorium also offers special events on a weekly and monthly basis. Each Thursday is the museum’s Adult Happy Hour (18+) from 6-10 pm. They also offer seminars and learning opportunities for students as well as K-12 educators on a regular basis. Following Oppenheimer’s original model, the museum continues its dedication to the advancement of scientific education and explicitly states within its mission that they aim to “to change the way the world learns, creating innovative learning environments, enthusiastic leaders, and new knowledge for teacher professional development.”

Why It’s a Must-See

The Exploratorium is a truly unique opportunity for a hands-on look at science, art, and human endeavor. As a trailblazer in the field of participatory education and museum experiences it is an amazing place for students as well as adults interested in science to truly learn something in a new and miraculous way.

Where to Buy It

There are a number of ways you can enjoy admission to this attraction.

Save up to 20% online at Smart Destinations. If you add more than one attraction to the cart, you will get an automatic savings of up to 20%. It’s called Make Your Own Pass.

Pay Full Price and purchase a ticket from Exploratorium either online or in person.
Purchase a Tourist pass. The Exploratorium is available on the SF CityPass