- Tony Bear
Millions of travel articles suggest diversions destined to leave vacationers without a care in the world for an entire weekend. This is often referred to as “taking your mind off things” and is usually accompanied by generous amounts of alcohol and dessert. For thoughtful people, or “geeks” as we prefer to be called, a couple of days spent indulging our scientific curiosity about the world around us is how we find diversion, facilitated instead by large quantities of caffeinated drinks.
If 48 hours of letting the left brain take over sounds like fun (yes, ‘brain dominance’ is a myth but still a cool concept), three spots in San Francisco are at the top of the list. Limiting the list to these three stops will allow for time to absorb things along the way. These places can be enjoyed alone or accompanied by another geek. Just avoid spending the whole weekend explaining instead of enjoying.
Day 1 — First Stop: The Exploratorium
The Exploratorium takes the phrase “science museum” to a different level. The Exploratorium is a 1.5-acre space on Pier 15 of the Embarcadero and a great place for a lover of any and all things science. Hundreds of unique experience exhibits provide a real world perspective on concepts of physics, nature, art and how the senses work.
There are reasons why this should be the first stop on Geek Weekend San Francisco. The opportunity to interact with the exhibits is reduced as the place starts to fill-up, so being there when the doors open is recommended. The background tags attached to each exhibit tend to be quite involved, but informative. Get there earlier in the day when the mind is fresh enough to take it all in and be prepared to do lots of reading. A hearty breakfast before arriving is also recommended. This will provide fuel for the excursion, and make it easy to avoid the hefty prices at the museum eateries. Arriving early also means more parking spaces might be available in the lot across from the Exploratorium. At $5 an hour this might be a pricey option but convenient. Or instead, use the public transportation that stops right at the front door. No parking timer to worry about helps make for a more relaxed visit.
Hundreds of kids running around (of course, they are screaming) and exhibits that are designed to be touched and enjoyed bring a playful vibe to the Exploratorium. It can be unsettling if taken too seriously. This vibe makes the Exploratorium different from many other museums. It’s important to relax and set a pace that allows for an anxiety-free experience. For a break, go upstairs to one of the few ‘quiet spaces’ in the building. The Fisher Bay Observatory Gallery is a collection of exhibits that explore the geography, history, and ecology of the San Francisco Bay region.
Before leaving, catch the view of the bay from the restaurant deck.
Next Stop: Aquarium of the Bay
The Aquarium of the Bay is on Pier 39, a 20-minute walk from the Exploratorium. The aquarium explores the habitat of the San Francisco Bay and the surrounding waters. All of the exhibits are interesting presentations of how the Bay supports a diverse ecosystem. Most of the explanatory plaques on the windows are concise; the experience is enjoyable even without doing the reading.
A highlight of the aquarium is Under the Bay, the acrylic tunnels that bore right through vast tanks of bay water. Sharks, octopuses, and other mysterious marine life drift by and overhead, close enough to reach out and touch if not for the glass barrier. Another area called Touch the Bay gives visitors a chance to be hands-on with a variety of animals. Admission includes several daily programs; other programs like the behind-the-scenes tour require an upgraded ticket. Scheduled hours vary, so get the calendar here.
Allow about two hours for the aquarium visit; on weekends the hours run to 8 p.m. This will provide a bigger window in which to enjoy the Exploratorium AND the Aquarium stops in one day. Cap off the day with dinner and a drink at one of the many Pier 39 establishments, like Fog Harbor. Window seats there are hard to come by, but worth the wait. Geek bonus: While on Pier 39, visit the Marine Mammal Center and learn why sea lions make the pier their vacation home.
Aquarium of the Bay, PIER 39, 2 Beach St., San Francisco, CA USA +1 415 623 5300
Day Two. Final Stop: California Academy of Sciences
The California Academy of Sciences is one of the largest museums of natural history in the world, and one of the newest in the U.S. Thoughtful people can kill an entire day here with ease; there are tons of things to see and do. Getting lost in this vast place happens, which is part of the fun for an explorer.
The first step when arriving: plan which shows to see in the Morrison Planetarium. This huge domed theater is home to several digital presentations throughout the day. Free with admission but a ticket is required; arriving late is not allowed. The rest of the day at California Academy of Sciences will revolve around this schedule. Next, visit the Earthquake: Life on a Dynamic Planet exhibit and get in line for ‘The Shake House’, a realistic experience of the tremors that shook the area in 1906 and 1989. The line for this exhibit can get quite long, so attack it early.
In between the planetarium shows and the quake experience, self-paced roaming of the Academy’s aquarium, rainforest, natural history, and nature exhibits will make for a daylong expedition. Highlights include: live talks by divers cleaning the Philippine Coral Reef; a selfie with the giraffes in the African Hall; special exhibits such as Whales: Giants of the Deep; and waiting for Claude the albino alligator to move. Be sure to take a break on the Living Roof.
The prices at the Academy Cafe are reasonable, and lunch there makes for a nice rest stop. The Academy is on the west side of the peninsula in Golden Gate Park. Public transit from one coast to the other can take forever but parking in the garage below the Academy is pricey. Pick your poison. If Sunday is Day Two of your Geek Weekend, the Academy hours are only 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. This will be the fastest six hours ever.
Geek bonus: download the free ‘Academy Insider’ app and get exhibit information, self-guided tours, museum floor plans, and more at your fingertips. Get help with planning the visit here.