Matter of Perception: Visiting the San Francisco Exploratorium

Drinking from a toilet may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those happening upon the “Sip of Conflict” drinking fountain as they enter the San Francisco Exploratorium, it is cause to at least stop and consider the prospect of doing so.

The "Sip of Conflict" drinking fountain the San Francisco Exploratorium.
The “Sip of Conflict” drinking fountain the San Francisco Exploratorium.

As many questions are likely to arise as there are visitors pausing to photograph each other drinking from it on a dare. “If it is plumbed the same as a drinking fountain, and if it is raised to the same level as a drinking fountain, and if it drains into a vessel made from the same materials as a drinking fountain, why is it so hard to drink from it—without giggling nervously?”

The Exploratorium, you should be warned, can be an exhausting place visit, and I do mean that in the best possible way. It is a place that may make you question dozens of things you’d never thought to question before, whether they’re things you thought you understood about any of your five senses, things you thought you understood about the living world around you, or things you thought you understood about…thought.

Upside down and backwards? Thank goodness a "brain override" helps us see things as they are instead of as our retinas receive them.
Upside down and backwards? Thank goodness a “brain override” helps us see things as they are instead of as our retinas receive them.

Consider for a moment a favorite exhibit among many visitors, my own family included. This enormous curved mirror is nothing more than a curved mirror. Yet viewing it from across the room, you may catch a glimpse of yourself much larger than you are, and upside down, and on the opposite side of the mirror from that where you stand. Walk closer and watch as your likeness seems to loom upside down in mid-air. The next temptation is to reach out and touch your face floating somewhere between the mirror and your body–yet it isn’t there.

Strike a pose! The Shadow Box captures silhouettes in an instant with the flash of a strobe light. (Plan plenty of time for this one.)
Strike a pose! The Shadow Box captures silhouettes in an instant with the flash of a strobe light. (Plan plenty of time for this one.)

Think that’s strange? Consider this: That’s exactly the way your eyes are receiving visual information about everything in front of you at this very moment. Upside down. Backward. The only thing making you believe you see it as you do is that marvelous organ upstairs called the brain, which constantly tells us it really isn’t so.

The shape of sound? Shifting high and low frequencies you can watch as shapes and patterns change, reflecting what you hear.
The shape of sound? Shifting high and low frequencies you can watch as shapes and patterns change, reflecting what you hear.

The exhibits found throughout the 330,000 square feet of this indoor/outdoor museum are not created to simply be stared at, listened to, or explained away with the help of a plaque. The exhibits at the Exploratorium are activities to do, whether with your hands, your eyes, your ears, or possibly–as in the case of the “Team Pac-Man” exhibit–with the help of other visitors.

While there are exhibits here with special appeal for the toddler and preschool set (eg. the bubble wall, sand-spinning table, and slinky escalator), the Exploratorium is a museum made for children of all ages–and visitors without any children at all. Because of its widespread appeal and popularity among locals as well as travelers, be prepared for crowds and consider these tips before you go.

Tips for visiting the Exploratorium

Planning your time – Suffice to say, there is not only a lot of ground to cover at the Exploratorium, but more exhibits to meditate and lay hands upon than a single visit can provide for most curious minds. I suggest you arrive at the opening time of 10:00 a.m. if possible and build breaks–and snacks–into your visit. The museum is closed on Mondays and open 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (Adults 18+ can also attend special events Thursdays from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.)

San Francisco Exploratorium
Step outside for a breath of fresh air and a little exercise on the terrace.

Get discounted admission – Current admission is $29 adults, $24 ages 13 – 17, $19 children 4 – 12, with 3 years and younger free. Bay Area residents save around $7 each with proof of residency in any of the 9 counties. Out-of-towners save a bundle when they get the San Francisco CityPass, which includes the Exploratorium (or choice of the deYoung Museum), the nearby Aquarium of the Bay (or choice of Monterey Bay Aquarium), the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate park (or de Young Museum), a 1-hour narrated Bay cruise, and a 7-day unlimited transportation pass valid on street cars, cable cars, and San Francisco’s MUNI public transportation system (click here for more information).

The San Francisco CityPass saves 47% off regular ticket prices and includes unlimited rides on cable cars, street cars, and more for 7 days.
The San Francisco CityPass saves 47% off regular ticket prices for four of the most popular attractions, and includes unlimited rides on cable cars, street cars, and more for 7 days.

Get discounted parking – You may be able to park for as little as $10 for the day with validation from the Exploratorium and/or prepaid parking. To see which option works best for your visit, see the current parking discounts on this page.

Arrive by public transportation – The coolest and most convenient way to arrive at the Exploratorium is by vintage streetcar (included in the San Francisco CityPass). The Market F streetcar stops right outside the Exploratorium. To help chart your course, see public transportation directions on this page.

Younger kids love the hive-like play structure outside, and the over-water Fog Bridge is a hit with  young and old alike.
Younger kids love the hive-like play structure outside, and the over-water Fog Bridge is a hit with young and old alike.

Eating at the Exploratorium – The large Seaglass Restaurant with its lovely Bay views may not be the best option if you’re visiting with young children, those who are already very hungry, and/or those who don’t appreciate standing in lines to receive haute cuisine before standing in a final line to pay for your family’s assortment of food (and the lines can get long, she writes from experience). You might be better of getting grab-and-go fare from the Seismic Joint cafe at the Exploratorium’s entrance or bringing your own picnic to enjoy at tables on the plaza or at the sunken park just across the street at Piers 17 and 19 (remember the lockers). You’ll also find food carts (including ice cream!) on the plaza outside.

For more tips and ideas to help plan your family vacation in San Francisco, see the San Francisco with Kids Pinterest board and if you’re planning a family road trip to San Francisco, don’t miss the Northern California with Kids Pinterest board.

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Shelly Rivoli

Founder, Editor, & Chief Adventure Officer at Family Travel 411 and Travels with Baby
Shelly Rivoli is the award-winning author behind the Travels with Baby guidebooks and Travels with Baby website and blog, and is the founding editor of Family Travel 411. When she isn't traveling with her husband and three children, she hangs her hat in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter: @travelswithbaby and Facebook: Shelly Rivoli.
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