Best Museum

California Academy of Sciences

The well-curated SFMOMA and the wondrous Exploratorium were stiff competition, but the choice for best museum in San Francisco goes to the underrated California Academy of Sciences — actually three museums in one: the Natural History Museum, Steinhart Aquarium, and Morrison Planetarium. Like MOMA's, the academy's creative and lucid exhibits can be visually stunning (for example, the current “Skulls” show, a room filled with thousands of skulls, from elephant to shrew; the vivid palettes of sea life; or the glorious kinetic sculpture of the Fish Roundabout). And like the Exploratorium, it opens our eyes to nature's wonders (in particular the sheer variety, richness, and willfulness of life, such as the “Life Through Time” exhibit, the Insect Room, and the reptiles). More than that, however, it grants us a day to wrap our minds around the Big Picture: In the right frame of mind, the academy becomes a place of contemplation, meditation, and awe that reminds us once again about the infinite universe, the boundlessness of time, and our place in the cosmos. What other museum can say that?

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