There are many reasons people choose to visit California, and experiencing its 840 miles of coastline is usually pretty high on everybody’s list. There’s nothing like taking a dip in the warm waters of Southern California, riding your bike along Ocean Beach in San Francisco, or discovering Big Sur’s rugged coastal beauty.
But getting up-close-and-personal with the ocean–specifically, the creatures that call the Pacific home–can be a bit more challenging. Luckily, California boasts a wide variety of aquariums where visitors can experience the state’s thriving marine life firsthand. From San Francisco to San Diego, the Golden State has state-of-the-art options around practically every corner.
Here are the nine best aquariums in California that are sure to delight and inspire, no matter what your age.
- Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, San Diego
- Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach
- Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, San Pedro
- Santa Monica Pier Aquarium
- Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center
- Monterey Bay Aquarium
- Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco
- Aquarium of the Bay, San Francisco
- SEA LIFE Aquarium, Carlsbad
- Other fantastic aquariums that the whole family will enjoy
Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, San Diego
Visitors can find the Birch Aquarium located just twenty minutes north of downtown San Diego in La Jolla. Perched high up on a bluff, with stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, its picturesque location alone makes the Birch Aquarium worth a visit.
But this facility is way more than just good looks. The Scripps Institute of Oceanography forms part of the University of California at San Diego, a renowned marine research center and top university for marine biology students. Scripps has always wanted to make its discoveries accessible to the public, and the aquarium has been a way to showcase scientific research.
For over a century now, visitors have delighted in the exhibits featuring sea life from all over the North American west coast. More than 5,000 fish from over 60 habitats call the Birch Aquarium home. They come from as far away as the Indo-Pacific Coral reefs, as well as the icy Alaskan waters and the warm Mexican seas.
The whole family can enjoy one of the four daily public feedings, view the stunning marine life, and check out the many interactive exhibits. Plus, the Birch Aquarium features the Preuss Tide-Pool Plaza, an outdoor area where kids can get hands-on experience with sea stars and sea cucumbers. Once you’re done, make sure to stop and enjoy the spectacular views.
Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach
The Aquarium of the Pacific is one of Long Beach’s main attractions, and it’s easy to see why. It has earned the distinction of being Southern California’s biggest aquarium, and it’s the fourth most-visited aquarium nationwide. The Aquarium of the Pacific features around 12,000 animals and over 100 exhibits, all of which celebrate the Pacific Ocean’s rich diversity.
Visitors can find galleries dedicated to the icy Northern Pacific Waters, as well as the Baja and Southern California regions. Or if the Tropical Pacific’s coral reef systems are more your speed, the aquarium’s got you covered. If you’re an adult with a dive certification, there’s even an opportunity to come face to face with six hundred tropical fish in the Tropical Reef Habitat Tank.
But if you’re not a diver, or if you just prefer to stay dry, there are many other ways to experience the aquarium. Check out the hands-on exhibits or attend a lecture by the renowned scientists that the aquarium hosts frequently.
Besides featuring all our favorite sea life, such as sea otters, turtles, and sharks, the Aquarium of the Pacific also has a dedicated Lorikeet Forest. While unusual for an aquarium to also include something not strictly marine, the Lorikeet Forest is a fun opportunity to marvel at these extraordinary birds. You can even pay to feed them.
Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, San Pedro
If you’re interested in learning about the sea life that hails from the waters of Southern California, the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium (located in Los Angeles) is an ideal place to do so. Aside from being a state-of-the-art aquarium, this place is also a leader in marine science.
It opened its doors in 1935 when it was more of a simple collection of marine specimens. However, things changed when John Olguin became the director in the 1950s and started bringing school groups for tours. He later began an evening program to help the public discover more about grunion mating practices.
The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium has since become a reference for schools and youth in the area. It’s located right next to Cabrillo Coastal Park, so visitors can access the area’s tide pools. Many come to experience the aquarium’s seasonal “grunion run,” when tiny fish come in at high to bury their eggs on the beach.
Additionally, if you’re interested in marine biology, the aquarium frequently invites experts and professors from Southern California universities to give lectures. And once you finish your exciting visit to the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, plenty of fun activities in San Pedro await. Be sure to check out sites like the Battleship USS Iowa Museum and the scenic Port Fermin Lighthouse.
Santa Monica Pier Aquarium
Though perhaps the smallest aquarium on this list, the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium has plenty to offer visitors. It holds a modest 100 species of animals and plants, which all come directly from Santa Monica Bay. You can check out the simulated tide exhibit or any of the daily activities designed specifically for kids.
Part of what helped it earn a spot on this list is its environmental activism. The Santa Monica Pier Aquarium has focused extensively on conservation, which is no surprise considering it’s run by an organization called Heal the Bay. Heal the Bay works tirelessly to keep the Santa Monica Bay healthy and supports wider initiatives like the statewide ban on single-use plastic.
While you may spend less time here than at other aquariums, its perfect location on the Santa Monica pier makes it an attractive stop. When you’re done immersing yourself in the local seas, you can hop on the Ferris wheel or check out the shops at Third Street Promenade.
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center
Santa Barbara has plenty to offer visitors, like incredible wine tasting, its historic Old Mission, and boat trips to the nearby Channel Islands. While these activities are fantastic, if you’re looking for a change of pace, a visit to the Santa Barbara Sea Center (previously called the Ty Warner Sea Center) is well worth it.
The Santa Barbara Sea Center boasts an unbeatable location on the historic Stearns Wharf, which you can find at the end of State Street in downtown Santa Barbara. As you stroll through downtown, taking in the unparalleled beauty of this central coast gem, you’ll likely end up at the aquarium without evening trying.
The Sea Center is part of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, which is arguably less famous than most of the other aquariums on this list. However, suppose you need a break from sightseeing (or wine drinking). In that case, the Sea Center features many tanks, displays, and exhibits that allow visitors to get acquainted with sea life in the Santa Barbara area.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the most famous aquariums in California and arguably the nation. It attracts an average of 1.8 million visitors yearly, and in 2015, that number climbed to 2.1 million. It represents more than just a way for the public to gain a new appreciation for sea life: the aquarium also works hard to protect California’s oceans for future generations.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is nestled in a picturesque ocean-front location on the outer edges of Cannery Row. On the outside, the site offers unparalleled views of the coast. On the inside, guests enjoy the impressive industrial feel of the tanks, which house more than 200 exhibits and over 80,000 animals and plants.
There are plenty of unique things about the Monterey Bay Aquarium. When it opened in 1984, it offered the public its first opportunity to view a living kelp forest. Since then, the aquarium has allowed visitors to become a part of the rich habitat of Monterey Bay. You’ll feel like you’re truly underwater when viewing creatures like octopuses and sharks behind its massive glass walls.
A visit to the aquarium is the best way to see the region’s sea otters, who are arguably its most famous residents. Sometimes, visitors can even spot them outside the aquarium in the area’s kelp forests.
Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco
You already know that San Francisco has plenty to offer, and world-class aquariums are no exception. If you’re spending the day in Golden Gate Park, the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences offers plenty in the way of discovery. Indeed, there’s no better way to get up-close-and-personal with marine life than by perusing the aquarium’s exhibits.
Also called the Golden Gate Aquarium, this institution has been around for nearly a century. It first opened to the public in 1923 to educate the public about the incredible biodiversity of the Pacific Ocean. Today, it houses an aquarium, planetarium, and natural history museum all in one.
The Steinhart Aquarium features an impressive offering of marine life. Nearly 40,000 animals call the aquarium home, and they represent more than 900 unique species. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more biologically diverse aquarium; of course, the Steinhart Aquarium’s claim to fame is that it’s one of the most diverse aquariums anywhere.
You may need a whole day to do everything–like meeting Claude, the aquarium’s albino alligator; marveling at “The Philippine Coral Reef,” the deepest indoor reef on the globe; and being dazzled by the starfish at the Discovery Tidepool.
Aquarium of the Bay, San Francisco
If you find yourself at San Francisco’s famous Pier 39–and you probably will if you’re visiting the City by the Bay–head to the Aquarium of the Bay for a unique underwater experience. Not only can visitors enjoy beautiful views of the San Francisco waterfront, but they can also delight in the aquarium’s two immersive walk-through tunnels.
Walking through these tunnels (which are the length of a football field) is quite the experience. They contain about 700,000 gallons of water and more than 20,000 animal species, giving you the impression that you’re taking an underwater stroll. Find everything from the smallest underwater creatures to the largest, including mesmerizing sharks.
The Aquarium of the Bay also offers an up-close look at over a hundred species that are native to the bay. Visitors have the opportunity to go on a behind-the-scenes tour, check out the aquarium’s many interactive exhibits, or experience the aquarium’s tide pool animals firsthand.
Finally, a visit to the aquarium is an excellent way to learn about the difficulties our planet is facing. Discover how things like climate change and the overproduction of plastic affect our world–and how we can make a difference.
SEA LIFE Aquarium, Carlsbad
If you’re taking your kids to LEGOLAND, the theme park is just one of the places you have to check off your list. Introduce your children to the wonders of the ocean with a visit to SEA LIFE Aquarium, which is located right next to LEGOLAND.
But that’s not even the best part. When you purchase a one or two-day LEGOLAND Hopper ticket, your SEA LIFE admission is included. You can either visit both attractions during one visit, or return to see the aquarium within nine days of purchase if you need extra time to see everything.
The SEA LIFE Aquarium opened to provide the first interactive experience of sea life for kids. It has everything you’d expect to see in an aquarium, like a shark tunnel and a touch pool.
While the aquarium itself is not as comprehensive as some of the others on this list, it does offer something unique. Because of its association with LEGOLAND, the aquarium features LEGO sculptures as part of the scenery. Children will be amazed to see their favorite ocean animals swimming alongside their favorite LEGOs.
If you’re interested in visiting LEGOLAND, you can purchase tickets to SEA LIFE separately.
Other fantastic aquariums that the whole family will enjoy
If you’re hoping to find other incredible aquariums that the kids will be sure to love, look no further than our round-up below!