An entire universe lives and breathes within the California Academy of Sciences, where a single living roof covers an aquarium, a planetarium, a rainforest, a natural history museum, and more. Yet if you glanced at the building in Golden Gate Park, it would be easy to miss the Academy entirely. That's because hills and fields cover 87 percent of its living rooftop, which gives a home to local wildlife, keeps the academy green, and upholds its mission to explore, explain, and sustain life on Earth.
The Joseph M. Long Marine Laboratory has long been at the forefront of marine research. Opened in 1978, the UCSC-affiliated center is set on a bluff overlooking the rich natural laboratory of Monterey Bay, called the “Serengeti of the Sea” for its diversity of marine life. Complementing the laboratory's mission to advance knowledge of the marine environment, the 20,000-square-foot Seymour Marine Discovery Center opened in 2000 to educate the public about the bay and the process of scientific research. Carefully designed to resemble a lab rather than a traditional museum, the center's hands-on exhibits delve into specific research projects while colorfully answering such questions as "what is science?" and "why is science important?" Aquariums and touch tanks facilitate up-close encounters with marine life, and an 87-foot blue whale skeleton—one of the largest in the world—soars majestically outside.
Quick: talk about river otters. Here are a few facts to get you started: they're members of the weasel family, they can swim at speeds reaching 7 miles per hour, and a group of them is known, tellingly, as a romp. The keepers at Aquarium of the Bay have spent months studying these sorts of facts and figures, studiously preparing for the arrival of their brand-new residents. In Otters: Watershed Ambassadors, these river kings and queens get some well-earned attention, with exhibits tracing everything from their daily habits to their conservation status.
The otters aren't alone, of course. The 50,000 square foot facility houses three main exhibit areas devoted entirely to marine life native to San Francisco Bay. These include Under the Bay, where Moon Jellies float amidst ambient lighting inside a 725-gallon cylinder tank. They share the exhibit with two tunnel tanks, which provide an undersea view of giant Pacific octopuses, spiny dogfish, swirling schools of anchovies, and the sevengill shark, the largest shark native to the bay. Visitors eager to put their other senses to work can head over to the aquarium's touch pools, where their fingertips can graze juvenile bat rays, leopard sharks, and sea stars.
Daily programs enrich visits with interactive presentations in the Bay Lab?the aquarium's land animal area?including feeding shows. And though not included in this Groupon and membership, behind the scenes tours escort guests through all of the aquarium's highlights. Over in the Bay Theater, 3D films and award-winning documentaries examine subjects such as shark species and marine conservation, while magician Timothy Noonan's 75-minute interactive show blends family-friendly comedy with illusions such as pulling a whale out of a hat.
Housed within the heart of Golden Gate Park, Park Chalet Garden Restaurant manages to simultaneously embrace its natural surroundings and its contemporary, urban setting. Glass walls and ceilings completely surround the diners, affording them pastoral views of Queen Wilhelmina's windmill and the dutch-tulip garden without sacrificing the comfort of an indoor environment. During warm, sunny days, natural light floods the space and the retractable glass doors slide open to admit warm breezes. The dining room's pendant lamps and immense stone fireplace become invaluable at night, keeping the restaurant brightly lit and the temperatures toasty throughout the evening.
To complement this elegantly cozy ambiance, Executive Chef Matthew Urban and his team devised a menu of familiar comfort foods with subtly refined touches. Smoked paprika oil adds an unfamiliar yet welcome burst of savory flavor to the fried chicken, and cornmeal-crusted trout arrives at tables with an aromatic saffron aioli. Occasionally, the chefs look for inspiration in other cuisines and fuse those flavors with Californian ingredients. Crushed avocados add to the ahi tuna tartare's richness, but the dish's ginger-sesame vinaigrette balances those flavors with a hint of zesty spice.
However, the chefs aren't the only culinary talent at Park Chalet Garden Restaurant. The staff also brews a variety of beers in-house, crafting everything from smoky, German-style märzens to refreshingly hoppy IPAs. As diners enjoy one of these brews with their meal, they can take in the views and applaud the local bands and extraterrestrial magicians that perform every Tuesday evening.
When Segways were introduced in 2001, the developers claimed they would reconfigure cities. San Francisco promptly banned them from sidewalks, but has permitted their use on trails and in bike lanes, which means they thrive in Golden Gate Park. Leading the charge is Segway SF Bay, the best of a bunch of Segway rental points located in, or near, the park. There’s perhaps no more thorough way to see every cranny of the park’s 1,000 acres, from the Buffalo Paddock to the Rhododendron Dell, than from atop one of Segway SF’s rides. Their Central Sunset shop, just outside the park, outfits riders with everything they could need, including safety gear and plenty of instruction before cruising away. And for any local who’s simply curious about the contraptions, Segway SF Bay offers free first-time lessons.