Our San Francisco bay aquarium, called the Aquarium of the Bay, is a fun kid and family-friendly attraction in Fisherman's Wharf. It's also the perfect pick for anyone that is interested in seeing and learning more about the plants and animals that live right next door in the SF Bay.
The Bay Aquarium is a wonderful living museum with two walk-through tunnels, a variety of species of jellyfish, and a hands-on area that will keep kids of all ages entertained. You will find it at the entrance on Pier 39 on the eastern side of the district.
The flow of this attraction is fantastic. I've visited numerous times and learn something new during each stop.
The first exhibits in the museum show the smaller animals and plants living near the top of the water in the SF Bay. As you continue through this San Francisco Bay aquarium, your visit takes you deeper and deeper into the water where more of the larger plants and animals live including starfish, sharks, and other interesting creatures.
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Which San Francisco Aquarium is the best?
What are the other top aquariums in San Francisco and around the Bay Area?
My review of the Aquarium of the Bay.
The best time to visit is first thing in the morning. This is usually when I visit and it's still pretty quiet during this time. Make sure to arrive just as they open the doors to get in first. This is also the time when some school groups come in, but you can enter before they get checked in which will give you a great chance to start before they get too far into their visit.
Monday through Thursday are usually the best, as the weekends can get quite crowded. However, if you get there early, you can usually beat the crowds.
You will also find less people from January through April. This is low season in San Francisco, and since it isn't as busy, it is another good time to visit.
My only adjustment to these recommended times is if you want to see them feed the animals. These are the usual times that the animals are fed. Due to COVID restrictions, they may change or not have them during your visit.
A trip to this San Francisco bay aquarium will take anywhere from 90 minutes up to three hours. I've found I usually spend about 2 hours there. If you are with little ones, you might spend a full hour in the interactive, hands-on area alone which is so much fun or stick around a little longer to see them feed the animals.
They are open seven days a week, 364 days a year, they are only closed on December 25. Here are the general hours for this year. They can change at any time, so make sure to confirm the hours for the day of your visit.
Their hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. They will extend their hours to 7 p.m. on certain days. They close at 3 pm on December 24th.
The San Francisco bay aquarium is open, but with limited hours on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. They are not open on Christmas Day.
You will need to purchase ticket in advance. The tickets will be for a certain date and time for your entry. This is to allow enough time between guests and to ensure your safety while visiting.
Here are the prices for this San Francisco bay aquarium.
Their Behind the Scenes Tour is a fantastic way to learn more about this Pier 39 Aquarium. You will step behind the scenes to see what it takes to run the aquarium.
This is where you will learn how they keep their 700,000 gallons of water filtered and safe for the animals. You will also see how much food it takes to feed their crew of more than 20,000 marine animals.
You will also learn more about healthcare, research, and their conservation efforts.
It's the perfect way to learn all about this Fisherman's Wharf aquarium.
At this time, the San Francisco Bay Aquarium does not offer any free days. However, you will find some discounted ticketing options below.
The Aquarium of the Bay offers discounts to both retired and active military personnel. The catch is that you can't buy these tickets at the door. You must pick them up in advance at either Beale Air Force Base or Travis Air Force Base.
If you plan on visiting several San Francisco museums or attractions in addition to this Pier 39 attraction, you will be able to save money with one of these discount passes.
There are more than a dozen San Francisco discount passes to choose from that include the Aquarium of the Bay. I have reviewed them all and recommend one of these two. Here is a little about each one.
City Pass: The City Pass is one of the most popular and well-liked San Francisco discount cards. It offers admission to both of the aquariums in San Francisco. The first is this one. The second is the Steinhart Aquarium, which you will find inside the California Academy of Sciences (our most visited museum).
It also includes a 60-minute bay cruise, admission to a few other top museums, and a multi-day Muni pass. You will save more than 40% with this card.
Go City: Another great pass with discounted admission to this San Francisco aquarium is the Go City. On this pass, you can mix and match the attractions to visit based on a list of more than 25 options.
This pass is set up by number of days you want to use it. The more days you use it, the more attractions you will get to see at a discount.
Your visit starts on the second floor. This is the history area with some videos and written information.
There are also a handful of colorful fish in the aquariums. These are just a few pictures from this area.
The second floor is small with just a few exhibits, but don't let that fool you as there is so much to see here!
After you complete the second floor, you look out over the San Francisco bay as you wait for the elevator to the first floor. This is where you will find most of the exhibits for this San Francisco bay aquarium.
When you enter the first floor, the first thing you'll see is a large jellyfish display. These are just a few pictures of the jellyfish on display.
The San Francisco bay aquarium is a delight throughout. However, one of the biggest draws is their two walk-through tunnels. The first one contains smaller fish and quite a few starfish.
Before you enter the second aquarium, you get the rare chance to see a giant Pacific Octopus. He is quite busy, so it's tough to get a clear photo of him.
The second walk-through tunnel is up next. This one has several small sharks and large stingrays.
Once you finish in the second tunnel, you will hop back on the elevator and head up to the top floor.
This is the interactive area where you can see several animals up close and touch baby sharks, stingrays and starfish.
Here is a look at some of the things you can do in this area of the Aquarium of the Bay on Pier 39.
In addition to these displays, they also have some other animals. They include turtles, a snake, and an opossum. Throughout the day, these animals are brought out of their cages, so visitors get the chance to see them close up.
Here is the schedule from the last day I visited. This schedule changes daily, so make sure to ask when you arrive what today's schedule is, so you don't miss out on these fun hands on activities at this San Francisco aquarium.
This is the final display area of this San Francisco bay aquarium. From here you exit through the gift shop back into Pier 39.
I usually spend about an hour and a half to two hours here. You could get through quicker, but I would set aside at least that amount of time.
This San Francisco aquarium covers two floors. It's home to more than 200 species. In total, they have about 700,000 gallons of water in their tanks.
Can I bring toddlers? Yes, they will LOVE this SF aquarium. They will have a blast watching the jellyfish. Toddlers also enjoy the two tunnels where there are fish swimming all around them. Here are a few more fun things to do with toddlers in SF.
Can I bring my stroller? Yes, the aisles have plenty of space for a stroller. There are also elevators to get you to the main entrance from Pier 39 and inside to get you from the second floor to the bottom floor.
What should I wear? Casual wear is best along with a comfortable pair of shoes. I typically wear jeans with a T-shirt and bring along a sweater to add as it does get a little cooler on the bottom floor. You can also learn more about what to wear by month here.
Can we bring our own food? This SF Aquarium does not allow food to be brought in. They do allow closed lid drinks, but no other food or drinks are allowed.
Can I bring my dog? Only service animals are allowed in the aquarium. All other animals will not be permitted to enter.
The San Francisco Bay Aquarium is mostly accessible. To get to the main entrance, you will need to take an elevator to the second floor.
The aquarium itself offers wide aisles and flat surfaces. You will also find an elevator you can access to get from the upper floor to the bottom level.
They also have wheelchairs available for use. I always recommend calling ahead to ensure this is still the case and they are available.
If you plan to do the Behind the Scenes tour, please contact the aquarium a few days before your arrival. There are certain areas of the tour that are not fully accessible, but they will do some rearranging to ensure it's as accessible as possible.
The best place to park is in the Pier 39 parking garage. It's right across the street and the closest place to park.
Parking near this San Francisco bay aquarium is expensive. Rates by the hour vary based on the day but range around $10 to $12 an hour. The maximum daily rate is up to $60.
You can minimize the cost of your parking by staying for a bite to eat on Pier 39 and asking for parking validation. Most, but not all, restaurants validate parking at this garage. Make sure to ask before you order and don't forget to request them to validate your ticket before you leave. This validation will cover one hour of parking in the garage.
If you are okay with walking, you will find some additional parking near this San Francisco bay aquarium. Here are a few recommendations.
You will find dozens of hotels just a short walk away from this San Francisco bay aquarium. Here are a few of my top picks.
Hotel RIU Plaza Fisherman's Wharf: This 4-star hotel that is just a couple of blocks from Pier 39, 2500 Mason St. Read guest reviews and room rates for your stay on Booking.com.
Hotel Zephyr: This 3.5-star hotel is also just a couple of short blocks away. It's a newly remodeled hotel and some rooms offer bay views, 250 Beach Street. Check out recent guest reviews and find room rates during your stay on Booking.com.
The Wharf Inn: This is another nearby hotel that has a 2-star rating, so it means it doesn't have as many amenities as the other two listed above here. It's popular though as it's one of the more affordable options in the Fisherman's Wharf district. It's just four blocks away from this San Francisco bay aquarium, 2601 Mason. Check out more details on Booking.com.
This area in Fisherman's Wharf is full of fun activities. Here are just a few of the fun things to do near the Aquarium of the Bay.
Bay Cruises: Either before or after your visit, head out on the SF Bay to experience all the water has to offer. You will learn about SF's history and waterfront attractions. You will also get amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, Sausalito, and the SF Skyline.
Alcatraz Tours: This infamous federal prison sits in the middle of the SF Bay. It's open to visitors all year long and offers an award winning self-guided audio tour. These tours last about 2 to 3 hours and are a must do on your visit. Learn more here.
Ghirardelli Square: Another fun shopping complex is Ghirardelli Square. You will find several local retailers where you can buy unique items. They also have some great restaurants and a place to sample local wines. Learn more here.
This is a question I get all of the time and it's always difficult to answer. San Francisco is home to two wonderful aquariums: The Aquarium of the Bay and the Steinhart Aquarium.
The first focuses on the plants and animals that live right in the bay. It's a wonderful hands-on experience with two tunnels that you can walk through. It has more than 20,000 animals and is right in the heart of Fisherman's Wharf.
The Steinhart Aquarium is inside the California Academy of Sciences. You can visit it along with the other attractions within the California Academy of Sciences such as their 4-story rain forest, planetarium, natural history museum, and more. They have fewer species here, but this SF living museum is also home to some penguins, a rare white alligator, and a variety of other exhibits.
So, which aquarium in San Francisco is better? If I'm only looking for an aquarium experience, I would head to the Aquarium of the Bay since it has more underwater animals. If I'm looking for a variety of exhibits in addition to a wonderful aquarium, I'd head to the California Academy of Sciences.
In addition to these two San Francisco bay aquariums, we do have a third one about an hour and a half south of San Francisco called the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This is a world class facility and is THE best aquarium in the Bay Area.
Don't get me wrong, both the Aquarium of the Bay and the Steinhart are amazing, but the Monterey Bay Aquarium is even better. The challenge is that it's quite a drive to get there. It will take up a full day of your trip.
Although these three are the best known in the area, you will find some smaller, yet still wonderful SF Bay Area aquariums if you want to check them out. Click the link below to read more about them.
I absolutely love the Aquarium of the Bay. I head over here at least a couple of times a year to see what's changed and just to enjoy its beauty. My favorite area is the jellyfish exhibit. I could stand here for hours and watch them peacefully float around.
The tunnels are really cool too. They offer plenty of room to move around, even when it's crowded. There is also nothing like watching the sharks and other fish swim above and around you.
The touch pool area is also a huge hit with little kids. I often stop here too just for the chance to learn more and see how others react to the animals in this area.
The downside is when it's too busy. Some of the areas are small, so you either won't get a good view or you will need to wait some time to get a good look at the plants or animals in that exhibit. However, it's a small price to pay for such an amazing overall experience!