Aquarium alternatives: Three cool places to spot sea creatures in the San Francisco area

One of the two underwater tunnels at Aquarium of the Bay in San Francisco
One of the two underwater tunnels at Aquarium of the Bay in San Francisco

[Flickr/Tolka Rover]

The big daddy of San Francisco aquariums is of course the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and it's definitely worth a trip if you have the time. But it’s a couple hours drive from the city, so if that’s not on your agenda for the day, here are three more accessible places to take the family and see the sea (creatures):

Aquarium of the Bay – Located right inside the Pier 39 complex, this Fisherman’s Wharf aquarium is extremely convenient and substantial enough to give you your aquarium fix. Not to be missed are the two walk-through tunnels, 300 feet in length, from which you can watch sharks, bat rays, sea stars and more glide gently overhead. The Touch the Bay exhibit allows kids to come into contact with true marine animals like Leopard Sharks and Bat Rays – if you’ll let them! Stay nearby at the Hyatt at Fisherman’s Wharf, close to Pier 39.

The California Academy of Science – This renovated masterpiece reopened to much acclaim in 2008. The Steinhart Aquarium has some very impressive tanks that are home to 38,000 live animals, which you can view from multiple angles (including from above). In addition to Northern California animals, you’ll see a Philippine reef, an Amazon habitat, a swamp (with albino alligators!), and African penguins. The Academy is located in Golden Gate Park, so consider staying at the Laurel Inn, just a quick drive away.

The Marine Mammal Center – This isn't an aquarium, and therefore rarely makes it onto the tourist list - all the more reason to visit! The center rehabilitates seals and sea lions, and welcomes visitors to see the work they do. Take a self-guided tour of the marine facility, including the newly rebuilt hospital, outdoor pools and exhibits. They're busiest in the spring when it's pupping season, so look for lots of cute elephant seal pups. Stay at the Fairmont Heritage Place in Fisherman’s Wharf, which is quick drive away over the Golden Gate Bridge.

- Debbie Abrams Kaplan of Frisco Kids and Kaplan Ink

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