California Academy of Sciences vs The Smithsonian: Science Showdown

What’s better — the California National Academy of Sciences or the science museum at the Smithsonian. Richard Hay makes the hard call. — It’s a science museum showdown. I’m pitting the competitors — the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco vs the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington — against each other. If you’re like me, you’re into science museums. These are the best of the best. But they aren’t equal.

Here’s how they compare — useful stuff, I hope, if you’re planning a trip to either coast this summer.

I visited The Smithsonian a couple times a month when I lived in Northern Virginia — and I did it even more often if I had houseguests. My favorite exhibit was the Spotsylvania stump, a Civil War era oak tree cut down in its prime by rifle bullets in a battle on May 12, 1864.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the California Academy of Sciences is my favorite. UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science has a better view, true.  And the Chabot Space and Science Center features the the largest telescope open to the public west of the Mississippi and I highly recommend it if you have time. But, in terms of breadth of presentation, the California Academy of Sciences is the diadem at the center of the Bay Area science museum tiara. As it were.


Naturally, the Academy’s Living Roof gets a lot of attention. The green rooftop keeps the building’s interior about 10 degrees cooler than a normal roof would. Its tiles are made from interlocking, biodegradable trays that are stitched together by the roots of the vegetation itself. The plants also convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, capture rainwater and reduce energy costs for the museum.

Ever been on the roof of the Smithsonian?

On the other hand, the Museum of Natural History has live tarantulas you can hold –with a hovering entomologist nearby.  And there’s a crawlable maze demonstrating the Life of a Termite. It’s complete with a Queen you have to crawl into the center to find.  It’s in the O. Orkin Insect Zoo these days at the Smithsonian. How cool is that.


For location alone, the California Academy of Sciences gets points. It’s square inside Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. That park, few people outside the Bay Area know, is larger than Central Park in New York City. Buffalos roam there. Literally. It has a rich scientific history.  Golden Gate Park, even, wasa where a team of scientists once conducted followup research to Charles Darwin’s seminal work in the Galapagos Islands.


And the National Museum of Natural History has an unmatched display of minerals and gemstones.  The jewels are resplendent — they’re the sort of thing you would expect to see among the Crown Jewels in England.  The most spectacular jewel on display is the blue Hope Diamond. It has a great backstory — naturally, there’s a curse involved.


Then again, the California Academy has a state of the art biodome with tropical conditions intact. The multilevel exhibit is complete with stifling humidity and an Anaconda.  You can find only of those in Washington.

And its truly impressive Planetarium will blow your mind.

In terms of its cool factor, the California Academy beats the Smithsonian hands down. Except on price. As Washington museums are, the Smithsonian of course is free.  Bang for the buck factor goes to the Smithsonian.

In a perfect world, you’d be able to check out both. Discovering something new every single day is a great way to live. On second thought, you don’t need a science museum for that, do you?

Have a great weekend. For, I’m Richard Hay.

Image credits: Richard Hay