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The 5 Best California Aquariums for Kids and Adults

The 5 Best California Aquariums for Kids and Adults

With animal encounters and interactive exhibits, these awesome California aquariums are sure to surprise and delight visitors of all ages.


5 min read

May 05, 2020

From the sun-soaked beaches of Santa Monica to the fog-shrouded shores of San Francisco, California’s iconic coastline beckons to locals and tourists alike with its soft sands and shimmering waters. While many surf the swells of San Diego, sail along the Los Angeles coast, and enjoy seaside strolls in the Bay Area, not all get the opportunity to see the rich marine life that lies below the surface. Luckily, there are several state-of-the-art aquariums in California offering close encounters with awe-inspiring animals that inhabit the dense kelp forests, coral reef kingdoms, and mysterious depths of the Pacific Ocean—and beyond. 

Whether you want to watch sharks glide through deep blue waters, explore the mesmerizing world of jellyfish, witness the bioluminescent depths of the little-known “twilight zone,” or get to know the colorful creatures that call California tidepools home, you can find one-of-a-kind marine life experiences at the Golden State’s numerous aquariums. (Even if you can’t visit in person, many aquariums offer virtual experiences and web cams, so you can still take in the beauty of nature from afar.)

Here are the five best aquariums in California that are sure to surprise and delight visitors of all ages. 

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Watch mesmerizing jellyfish, colorful fish, sleek sharks, and other marine animals at the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium.

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Address: 886 Cannery Row, Monterey

Tickets: Adults ages 18–64, $49.95 | Youths ages 13–17, $39.95 | Seniors ages 65+, $39.95 | Children ages 5–12, $34.95 | Children ages 4 and under, free

Daily, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is widely celebrated as one of the top aquariums in California, if not the world. Housing over 200 exhibits and more than 80,000 plants and animals, it offers visitors an engaging glimpse into the oceanic world. From playful sea otters and swift sharks to mesmerizing jellies and charming penguins, the aquarium showcases a diverse array of marine life. Located along Monterey Bay near the historic Cannery Row, it was the pioneer in exhibiting a living kelp forest, a feature introduced in 1984. The facility continues to highlight the marine habitats of Monterey Bay, providing educational presentations, special exhibits, and intimate encounters with sea creatures.

Additionally, the Monterey Bay Aquarium plays a crucial role in marine conservation. It actively works on initiatives such as rebuilding sea otter populations, transforming fisheries, and combating global warming. Whether you opt for a guided tour or prefer to wander through the exhibits at your own pace, a visit to this aquarium is sure to deepen your appreciation for the species that inhabit our oceans.

Aquarium of the Bay

Address: Pier 39, the Embarcadero & Beach Street, San Francisco

Tickets: Adults ages 13–64, $29.25 | Seniors ages 65+, $24.25 | Children ages 4–12, $19.25 | Children ages 3 and under, free

Daily, 10 a.m.–6 p.m.

Situated along the San Francisco waterfront, the acclaimed Aquarium of the Bay offers a truly immersive experience, thanks to two immense, transparent tunnels holding roughly 700,000 gallons of water that sustain 20,000-plus animal species. Walk through the captivating tunnels to witness sleek sharks, bat rays, schools of fish, giant Pacific octopus, and other sea creatures swimming all around you. It’s easy to feel as though you’re walking underwater. You can also take a behind-the-scenes tour, explore interactive exhibits, and enjoy up-close-and-personal encounters with tide pool animals. 

Aside from highlighting the marine life of the San Francisco Bay and its neighboring waterways, the Aquarium of the Bay also shines a light on the environmental challenges facing the planet—such as climate change, plastic pollution, and habitat loss—and the ways humans can help, making it a must-see stop on any San Francisco getaway

Steinhart Aquarium

Address: 55 Music Concourse Drive, San Francisco

Tickets: $30–$36

Hours: Monday–Saturday, 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m. | Sunday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m.

Located in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences stands out as one of the world's most diverse and interactive aquariums. Home to nearly 40,000 animals from over 900 species, the aquarium offers a comprehensive view of both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Visitors can marvel at everything from a living four-story rainforest to the mysterious glow of bioluminescent ocean depths, showcasing the planet’s rich and varied ecosystems.

Since its inception in 1923, the Steinhart Aquarium has been dedicated to educating the public about the Pacific's biodiversity. It was the first public aquarium to exhibit unique species such as flashlight fish and coconut octopuses and has been a pioneer in exploring the ocean’s elusive “twilight zone.” Interactive exhibits like the Discovery Tidepool allow guests to touch starfish and sea urchin spines. The California Coast exhibit immerses visitors in the vibrant underwater world of eels, anemones, rockfish, and more. Don’t miss meeting Claude, the rare albino alligator, or watching reef fish and giant rays swim through lush coral landscapes.

Aquarium of the Pacific

See nearly 12,000 resident sea creatures at Aquarium of the Pacific, the largest aquarium in Southern California.

Address: 100 Aquarium Way, Long Beach

Tickets: Adults, $34.95 | Seniors ages 62+, $31.95 | Children ages 3–11, $24.95

Hours: Daily, 9 a.m.–6 p.m.

The Aquarium of the Pacific, located in the scenic town of Long Beach, stands as the largest aquarium in Southern California and ranks as the fourth most-visited in the United States. This award-winning facility hosts approximately 12,000 animals across more than 100 exhibits, celebrating the vast and diverse Pacific Ocean. Visitors can explore galleries that depict the cold waters of the Northern Pacific, the temperate regions of Baja and Southern California, and the warm coral reefs and lagoons of the Tropical Pacific.

The aquarium offers a range of interactive experiences, including animal feedings, behind-the-scenes tours, and close-up encounters with various creatures. Additionally, dive-certified adults can immerse themselves in the Tropical Reef Habitat tank for a unique opportunity to swim alongside 600 tropical fish (this experience is available for a fee). Beyond its engaging exhibits, the Aquarium of the Pacific is committed to education, offering programs that range from hands-on activities to lectures by leading scientists, ensuring that visitors gain a comprehensive understanding of our planet and the incredible diversity of life in the Pacific.

Birch Aquarium

Address: 2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla

Tickets: Adults, $19.50 | Seniors ages 60+, $16.50 | Children ages 3–17, $15.00 | Children ages 2 and under, free

Hours: Daily, 9 a.m.–5 p.m.

Perched atop coastal bluffs overlooking the shores of La Jolla, a coveted beach town in San Diego County, Birch Aquarium features more than 5,000 fish in over 60 habitats from the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest to the tropical waters of Mexico—plus a museum featuring cutting edge research from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego. Since 1905, Scripps has remained dedicated to bridging the gap between scientific discoveries and the public’s understanding of how the oceans impact our daily lives, making it easy to dive deeper into the underwater world.

Stop by the aquarium to interact with hermit crabs, lobsters, starfish, and other tide pool organisms; come face to face with leopard sharks; experience numerous hands-on exhibits; view the stunning variety of marine life residing in the Pacific waters; and admire panoramic ocean views. Between the surrounding scenery and fascinating marine life, Birch Aquarium is bound to take your breath away. 

What are your favorite aquariums in California? Let us know in the comments.

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