Zoos are wonderful and fascinating, but there’s nothing like an aquarium to get a good look at the wildlife living under the waves. And if you’re visiting a coastal state like California, visiting an aquarium – or a few – is just on the theme.
In this post, you’ll find a list of incredible aquariums in the golden state and a description of each. Whether you’re looking for a huge indoor display with impressive exhibits, an outdoor experience guided by an expert, or the chance to find out what a starfish feels like, you’ll find it on this list. Read on to discover the best aquariums in California.
Best Aquarium in Northern California
1. Ocean World
South Crescent City, California
Located at the very top of California, right under Oregon, Ocean World was once a floating barge with sea life displayed inside and is now a sprawling ocean facility on dry land with a variety of sea life, including sharks, seals, sea lions, and stingrays. Forty-five-minute tours embark every fifteen minutes through this beautiful, natural-light aquarium experience.
The Touch and Feel Tide Pool contain many creatures native to the rocky shorelines of the pacific northwest. Find out what a sea urchin feels like, and touch a live clam and a sea cucumber. Kids and adults enjoy this unique experience of getting closer to local nature, making this a top-best aquarium in California.
Upon entering the aquarium, you’ll see the sharks, sea lions, stingrays, and more who make this place their home. Many of them are native to the area, and your tour guide will share interesting facts about each of them as you go. And if you’re feeling brave, you can actually pet a real shark!
Wrap up your incredible experience with a special seal or sea lion performance where you can watch the animals have fun with all sorts of antics and shenanigans. You can also learn about the fantastic training process that enabled these animals to remember how to do each of these tricks, which is a top reason why this aquarium is a candidate for the best aquarium in California.
Keep in mind that you can only visit this aquarium if you go through the guided tour. Ocean World takes pride in its guided tour experience, which sets them apart from other aquariums, so individual perusing is not allowed.
2. SeaQuest Folsom
If interacting with the animals is the main attraction of aquariums, you need to experience the SeaQuest Folsom. Truly a land and sea adventure, there are about as many land animals as ocean animals here. A remarkable aspect of SeaQuest is they let you touch and feed just about every animal there!
Visit their Amazon Rainforest, Pirate Island, Egyptian Desert, Mayan Jungle, and Caribbean Cove to feed sharks, birds, stingrays, crocodiles, and tropical animals. You’ll get to learn all about each of the animals and the ecosystems they inhabit in different parts of the world. And for the most epic exploration, rent some snorkeling gear and hop into the 36,000-gallon exhibit filled with reef sharks, stingrays, and hundreds of tropical fish.
Some of their animal interactions are just part of regular admission, but others, like the snorkeling with stingrays adventure, cost extra. Additional activities include handling snakes, holding a giant blue-and-gold macaw, playing with a sloth, meeting porcupines, feeding otters, and more. There’s a good chance this is the best aquarium in California.
SeaQuest is perfect for individuals, friend groups, families, and field trips. They offer a senior and military discount, a discount for college students, and a discounted rate for children under twelve. Suppose you, your friends, or your kids would have a blast checking out various ecosystems and interacting with the animals there on a deeper level than most zoos or aquariums. In that case, you should check out SeaQuest Folsom.
Best Aquarium in Central California
3. Steinhart Aquarium
San Francisco, California
The City of Fog is a delightful and romantic getaway with countless things to do and places to see. If you want to visit the best aquarium in California’s Bay Area, look no further than the Steinhart Aquarium.
This attraction features over 900 unique marine species from the Pacific Ocean and California coastal biomes. You can see beautiful fish, birds, and amphibians and learn more about how biologists work to protect them in the wild.
The California Academy of Science operates the Steinhart Aquarium, providing much more than just a simple tour. While you are there, check out the Morrison Planetarium, Osher Rainforest exhibit, and the Kimball Natural History Museum.
4. Aquarium of the Bay
San Francisco, California
The Aquarium of the Bay is an engaging attraction with so much to experience. This is one of the best aquariums in California’s Bay Area, home to over 24,000 native marine animals and immersive events.
Surround yourself with sharks, rays, and schools of fish in the Under the Bay exhibit, which features 300 feet of acrylic ocean tunnels. Meet river otters and visit the Babies hatchery to get your double dose of adorable wildlife.
Do you want to take your marine adventure to the next level? Sign up for EcoXpeditions and travel the globe to help researchers with crucial conservation efforts.
5. Seymour Marine Discovery Center
Santa Cruz, California
Located in sunny Santa Cruz, California, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center is another candidate for the best aquarium in California and is a community-supported marine science education center associated with the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC). You’ll be greeted by a giant blue whale skeleton named Ms. Blue and several life-sized elephant seal sculptures. You’ll be shocked by how enormous they really are!
One of the exhibits is Photos from the Field, a gallery of images captured by UCSC researchers in Monterey Bay. You’ll get to see photos of real wild whales, octopuses, sharks, and so much more. Of course, there are also several live animals on display, including eels and a touch tank full of friendly starfish. There’s even a nice shark swimming around who will let you pet him if you’re willing to stick your hand in his tank.
While the two aquariums we covered for Northern Cali are primarily indoor facilities, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center has only a few displays inside. Their most exciting exhibit is the great outdoors itself. They lead ninety-minute guided tours through the Younger Lagoon Reserve, a wildlife reservation adjacent to the discovery center. On this tour, visitors learn about the care of one of California’s rare coastal lagoons and about how the researchers track land and sea animals to discover more about them.
The great thing about these tours is that they are free, making this the best aquarium in California for visitors on a budget. If you’re planning a vacation on a limited budget, or a staycation near Santa Cruz, you should definitely visit the Seymour Marine Discovery Center; it’s informative, engaging, and inexpensive.
6. Monterey Bay Aquarium
The mission of the Monterey Bay Aquarium is to inspire and encourage the conservation of the ocean. And they do precisely that with their fascinating aquarium displays. Visit their deep-sea exhibit, kelp forest display, open waters exhibit, beaches and dune display, and many more to learn about the type of wildlife and ocean life that inhabit these natural places.
They also have one of the most incredible sea otter exhibits in the United States – making this the best aquarium in California for otter lovers – and a huge tentacle exhibit featuring octopuses and squid of the ocean. If you want to know more about the specific animals at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, check out their live webcams. They have several webcams going 24/7 in many of their marine displays, and you can access them all on their website.
If you’re in the Monterey area and want to see even more sea and land animals, check out the Monterey Zoo after visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium. There’s some sea life to see there and a vast number of land animals. Why not see it all while you’re in town?
7. Central Coast Aquarium
Avila Beach, California
Located in Avila Beach, California, and yet another candidate for the best aquarium in California, the Central Coast Aquarium welcomes more than 20,000 visitors to its tanks every year. Their mission is “to cultivate a community dedicated to ocean stewardship through education, engagement, and action,” which they do daily.
The Central Coast Aquarium is currently home to over seventy-five species of local marine life, including sea stars, decorator crabs, swell sharks, moon jellies, and a Giant Pacific Octopus. But it started as nothing more than an ocean enthusiast lecturing about marine life anywhere he could.
The aquarium’s founders, Russ and Carol Kiessig, established an organization in 1994. Russ spoke at restaurants and sometimes just outside on the street, telling people about the importance of caring for the ocean and the marine life within. The organization received 501c3 status in 1998, and an aquarium was finally completed in 2006.
From touch tanks to impressive ocean tank displays and the chance to pet a full-grown shark, there’s no shortage of interesting things for the whole family to do at the Central Coast Aquarium. You can even dissect a squid in the science lab to learn more about their anatomy and life cycle or walk across a boat exhibit to feel what it’s like to develop sea legs.
Best Aquarium in Southern California
8. Aquarium of the Pacific
Long Beach, California
With more than nineteen habitats and over 100 exhibits altogether, the Aquarium of the Pacific lives up to its name. Its 360,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility is unmatched in size and intricacy, making this the best aquarium in California for sea life nerds. Their coral reef exhibition is one of their most famous, detailing the state of coral reefs in the ocean now, the threats they face, and how you can help them survive. Animals in this exhibition include sea turtles, red-footed booby birds, flashlight fish, several corals, anemones, shrimp, and tropical fish of all shapes and colors.
How about them penguins? Their penguin habitat is home to more than twenty Magellanic penguins in a special exhibit with areas you can crawl in or under to experience the penguins and their penguin shenanigans from a whole new perspective.
They also have a shark lagoon, a lorikeet forest (where you can feed the lorikeets and they will sit on your arm), a frog forest, and a sea otter exhibit, to name a few. Learn about these animals, where they come from, and the importance of doing your part to preserve the world we live in for generations to come.
9. Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography
La Jolla, California
The Birch Aquarium overlooks the Pacific Ocean from nearby cliffs and houses more than sixty fish and invertebrate habitats. The species who call this aquarium home come from both the Pacific Northwest and the tropical waters around Mexico, some from even further away.
The aquarium has existed in some form for over 100 years. Established in 1905, it started with only a handful of tanks, grew over the decades, and then temporarily closed during WWII. Making this the best aquarium in California for those who love ocean life and history equally. It was reopened after the war and grew even fast. Now more than 470,000 people visit the Birch Aquarium each year.
In addition to the many ocean habitats, you can visit inside. It is a hefty additional fee, but spending an hour seeing baby seahorses, learning about the aquarium’s renowned seahorse breeding program, and finding out what goes into the complicated care of these animals in captivity, the cost is well worth it.
For another additional fee – about half the size of the sea horse tour – you can experience a tidepooling adventure. Guided tours fill up quickly and are by reservation only, so don’t miss your chance to explore these fascinating environments with a tidepool expert who can answer all your questions.
10. SeaWorld San Diego
San Diego, California
SeaWorld San Diego is the best aquarium in California for entertainment everyone in your family will love. This oceanarium theme park features fascinating marine mammals, plus rides and roller coasters.
You can see beluga whales, orcas, dolphins, walruses, seals, sea lions, and more at SeaWorld. Check out the interactive experiences and orca encounters to get up close with these impressive animals.
11. SEA LIFE Aquarium at LEGOLAND
Are you planning a trip to the LEGOLAND California resort? If so, you must check out SEA LIFE Aquarium for the ultimate interactive experience for kids.
SEA LIFE in LEGOLAND is the best aquarium in California for family vacations. Children will have fun while learning about the wonderful world of marine wildlife.
This aquarium has over 350 different species and unique hands-on learning opportunities. Each LEGOLAND admission ticket provides hopper access to the park, resort, and SEA LIFE aquarium.
12. Cabrillo Marine Aquarium
Los Angeles, California
Cabrillo Marine Aquarium is a research aquarium in California’s San Pedro district of Los Angeles. It is a small, publicly run laboratory and museum with plenty to offer.
This is the best aquarium in California if you’re on a budget since admission is by suggested donation. Take a full tour of the educational aquarium exhibit, touch tanks, interactive Exploration Center, and Aquatic Nursery.
13. Living Coast Discovery Center
Chula Vista, California
Living Coast Discovery Center is a fun and educational zoo situated in the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge. This non-profit is the best aquarium in California to see the diverse wildlife native to sunny SoCal.
The Living Coast Discovery Center features local turtles, octopuses, sharks, rays, fish, birds, mammals, and reptiles. Remember to check out the fun events and guest adventures that let you meet the animals up close.
14. Heal the Bay Aquarium
Santa Monica, California
Heal the Bay Aquarium is a tiny non-profit attraction located at the base of the Santa Monica Pier. This aquarium is located directly on the beach, providing immersive educational events on the shore.
This is the best aquarium in California if you just want an inexpensive family activity to do in Santa Monica. It features a touch tank, five indoor exhibits, and an outdoor wildlife tour under the pier.
15. Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center
Santa Barbara, California
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History is a quaint little museum and aquarium on the beach under Stearns Wharf. The Sea Center aquarium features a small collection of local marine wildlife and interactive exhibits.
You can gently pet starfish, sea anemones, sharks, rays, sea cucumbers, and snails in the touch tanks. Experience what it’s like to be a marine biologist by doing real science experiments outside on the Wet Deck.
Wrapping Up the Best Aquarium in California
Between finding out what a shark’s skin feels like, touching a starfish for the first time, and ducking under a penguin exhibit for an underwater view of their antics, there are so many exciting things to experience and so many animals to discover and learn more about in California’s many unique aquariums. As for which one is the best aquarium in California, you’ll have to decide for yourself after visiting!
While visiting California, don’t forget to sample some incredible California Cuisine! There’s no time like a vacation to try new foods and discover a dish you never knew you loved. Then, continue discovering all the great things to do in California!