This week my family took a mini-vacation to San Francisco. We followed our usual strategy of taking the Highway 17 Express to San Jose, then the Caltrain up to San Francisco. Our favorite hotel (the Grant Plaza Hotel in Chinatown) did not have any rooms, so we had booked a room in a different budget hotel, the Hotel Bijou near Union Square. Because of the hotel’s location, we took the N-Judah streetcar instead of the 30 Stockton bus that we usually take from the Caltrain station. After checking in, we took the N-Judah line again out to Golden Gate Park and had lunch at Park Chow, a popular restaurant for park goers. The food was pretty good standard American fare, but seemed a bit over-priced (our other meals in San Francisco were better and cheaper).
After lunch went to see the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. I have not been there for a while and wanted to see the new building. I m not a big fan of modern architecture, and I was very sorry to see the beautiful old buildings for the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences torn down. Neither of the new buildings is particularly good looking though I’ve been told that they are more functional.
The one good feature of the new California Academy of Sciences building is the green roof.
Inside the acoustics are terrible, with large spaces that echo and make the place very noisy. The atrium has an intricate industrial look which is moderately interesting, but lacks the gravitas of the old lobby. I’ve never cared much for bare concrete, and the interesting parts of the atrium are at the ceiling, which few people look up to admire.
The exhibits are pretty much as they were before the remodel, except for noisier, and without the interesting architectural details of the old building. The Steinhart Aquarium has been improved by the remodel, inspired by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The coral reef tank is quite impressive, and I liked the leafy sea dragons and weedy sea dragons.
We did not visit two of the main attractions, as the Planetarium shows were sold out and the entrance to the rainforest had a line that was taking 30–45 minutes to snake its way into the exhibit.
Overall, I have to say that I was disappointed in the “new” California Academy of Sciences. As a natural history museum it doesn’t approach my memories of the Field Museum of Natural History from my youth in Chicago, and the new architecture makes it look like it is trying to be an amusement park, but without the amusement. Even the museum store is lacking in much of interest.
There was one special exhibit for the holiday season that we enjoyed: seeing the reindeer outside.
We took the N-Judah back to our hotel and went out for dinner. We were planning to try a highly rated Japanese noodle place a few blocks away, but the lines there were terrible, so we went to Chaabaa Thai instead. The food was quite good and reasonably cheap (better and cheaper than lunch). After dinner we went to see the holiday decorations at Union Square, but the rain and wind made walking a bit unpleasant, so we spent only a little time in Union Square before heading back to the hotel.
Although Hotel Bijou shows free films (with San Francisco settings), we were too tired to stay up for them, so we turned in early. After a good breakfast in the morning at the hotel (included in the room rate), we split up, with my son and me going to the Exploratorium and my wife visiting various art museums, libraries, and bookstores.We took the 30 Stockton up through Chinatown and across the Marina District to the Exploratorium. That bus is the one I have taken the most in San Francisco, and it has a rather scenic route. It is astonishingly slow though, particularly going through Chinatown. The bus is always packed in Chinatown, but is empty by the time it gets to the end of the line on Broderick.
The Exploratorium has a much lower entrance fee than the California Academy of Sciences, and there is much more to do. It is in almost all ways a superior museum for children and teens (and dads). We were not able to visit the Tactile Dome (sold out—I think you have to purchase tickets ahead of time on the web if you go on a busy day). The Exploratorium has lockers near the entrance, so we stashed our luggage there for the day. Unfortunately, I left my camera in the locker also, so I got no pictures from the Exploratorium.
Although the Exploratorium was very full (more so than the Academy of Sciences), there was no waiting in long lines: there are so many things to do that people spread out fairly uniformly over the whole museum and no single exhibit had a line of more than 2 or 3 people waiting a turn to play. I think that the Exploratorium had more people per square meter, but it felt less packed, because people spread out so much more uniformly.
There were several new exhibits since we were last there, but a couple of my son’s favorites were gone (the teapot in a mirror exhibit was one he missed). I missed the bicycle powered by pneumatic cylinders, though I always had trouble coordinating the four button presses well enough to get a smooth cadence.
I was impressed by how well maintained the exhibits were. Despite the intensive hands-on use (and abuse), very few exhibits were non-functional, and those generally fairly minor ones.
The museum store is one of the best I’ve seen, though I did not buy anything on this trip.
We stayed until closing time at 5, then took the 30 Stockton back to Chinatown and had dinner at the Hang Ah Tea Room (which claims to be the oldest dim-sum restaurant in San Francisco). Eating at the Hang Ah is a tradition for us, and the food was as good as always, but there was only one waitress working and the service was rather poor. After dinner we took the 30 Stockton back to the Caltrain station, and took the Caltrain and Highway 17 express back to Santa Cruz, getting home around 10:30 p.m.
All in all, it was a successful mini-vacation, one I would be glad to do again next year. It would be better, perhaps, to go to the museums some time when school is in session, to avoid the crowds.