Exploring San Francisco’s Exploratorium

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The Exploratorium in San Francisco is not really a museum. It’s more of a sprawling thought-provoking experience. Think science meets art in pod-like stations (exhibits), where you meander from one to another to explore, create and tinker.  It’s a lot like surfing the Internet – find something that interests you and follow the thread. Also like the Internet, it has the potential to be a pleasantly huge time suck; there are a mind blowing 600 exhibits to discover!

Exploratorium - Outside

We visited during our California trip this summer and had a blast exploring. Originally opened in 1969 by Frank Oppenheimer (his brother was the brain behind the atomic bomb), the Exploratoirum just had a multi-million dollar make over, including a new, larger location on the Embarcadero.

Want to learn more about human perception? Ask a personal question in Tone of Voice, and you’re given a random pre-recorded answer of varying intonation and body language. My 11-year-old daughter asked: “Will I be successful?” and was rewarded with a surly “maybe” from nicely dressed female adult who avoided eye contact. I asked my daughter how that response made her feel, she just shrugged and kept asking the question until she got an answer she was happy with!

Exploratorium - try holding your hand under the table

Fascinated by this, she tried Center of Attention, where she was asked to say a few words in front of a video-taped audience. At first the audience booed and jeered, and then they cheered. I didn’t have to try the exhibit myself to know how it will make me feel.

From here we went to to Startle Response, which records your startle reflex (everyone has a different one).  You can see mine below!

Then we tried an exhibit where we used mirrors and light to merge two faces into one. My face merged into my daughter’s.

See what I mean? And this was just one area. The exhibits go on and on!

As you engage with exhibits (that’s the best description I can give), there is an explanation of what is happening (though sometimes there isn’t, or I just didn’t see it). If you aren’t interested in the intellectual, you can still enjoy the experience by just “doing”.

Exploratorium - Colourful Shadows

The Exploratorium doesn’t have docents. Instead local high school students, called “Explainers” are on hand to get you started and explain what is going on in the exhibits.

This museum is not for the super organized – it may drive you crazy. But it’s perfect for young budding minds. My 11-year-old lost herself several times to the throes of the exhibits.

Exploratoium - Upside down mirror


The Changing Face of Normal. A fascinating look at mental health and how perceptions and treatments have changed over the past century. It has some very powerful exhibits, including a terrifying Utica Crib, a wooden coffin-like structure made of wooden slats that was used to confine mental health patients in the 19th century. You are encouraged to get in the “crib”, close the cover over you, and see how it made you feel. There are also personal stories, such as Mary M, a single mother of three with what we would call depression today. She was institutionalised.

Exploratorium - Aurora

Color (American spelling). Interested in colour? You will be after you go into the 70s themed ultraviolet room and see how ultraviolet lights makes white glow. Then walk into the monochrome room where colour disappears and everything is shades of brown (without other colours to absorb or reflect, objects look more or less the same colour). The girls had fun trying to guess Jelly Belly colours in monochrome, and then shining a light on them to reveal the true colour.

Bay Observatory Gallery and Deck. Check out the fabulous views, and investigate how natural and human forces interact in the landscape. I loved the live weather exhibit, which showed global percipation patterns over the past year. Yes, the UK was a bit cloudy. 😀

Exploratorium - View from Obversatory Deck

If you go:

Exploratorium 15/17 Pier  San Francisco, CA 94111 +1 (415) 528-4444 http://www.exploratorium.edu/ $25 adults; $20 youths Don’t be tricked into parking right across the street, even though a sign says says “Exploratorium parking”. They validate parking for a reduced fee at Embarcadero and Levi Building, which will save you quite a bit.

The Slanted Door 1 Sausalito – San Francisco Ferry Bldg #3  San Francisco, CA 94111 +1 (415) 861-8032 www.slanteddoor.com Yummy modern Vietnamese cuisine. Our waiter wasn’t impressed with our girls’ unadventurous palates, and he offered to make a noodle stir fry for kids (not on the menu). They girls are now Vietnamese converts, especially after they got a basket ball of fluffy candy floss for dessert (made of organic sugar, of course).

Pier 23 Café Pier 23  San Francisco, CA 94111 (415) 362-5125 http://www.pier23cafe.com/. It’s a self-proclaimed local hot spot. I used to come here in the 90s when I lived in SF as a young upwardly mobile dot com professional. It hasn’t changed much, attracting an after work crowd. Burgers, fish tacos, calamari and clam chowder, all at reasonable prices and if you sit on the deck, a fabulous bay view. Good kids menu.

Boudin at Fisherman’s Wharf 160 Jefferson St San Francisco, California (415) 928-1849 http://www.boudinbakery.com/ Come here to watch bakers at work through a floor-to-celling glass window. Also has a restaurant, museum and deli/bakery. I always come here to pick up a 1 lb long sour dough loaf for my dad, it’s his favourite.

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  1. 25/08/2013 / 18:38

    I love these places! 600 exhibits, that’s incredible! 🙂

  2. Andrea @loveandcake
    24/08/2013 / 18:38

    This looks fantastic, and so different! I would love to go!

    • Susanna
      24/08/2013 / 18:40

      It is a very worthwhile experience. x

    • Susanna
      24/08/2013 / 18:39

      It was a shot of air blasted in your face. OK I hammed it up a bit. x

  3. 24/08/2013 / 18:31

    I would love to go back to San Francisco and this definitely looks a good place to visit if we ever do.

    • Susanna
      24/08/2013 / 18:36

      If you have a chance, visit. I’ve never been anywhere like it. x