Aquariums offer the rare opportunity to observe amazing creatures in their underwater habitats. Learn firsthand about aquatic life complete with immersive family-friendly exhibits, as well as interactive experiences that allow you to get up close with — and occasionally touch — creatures like sea cucumbers, seals, and even sharks! Aquariums also make the perfect date night, with some venues offering adult-only nighttime events with live music and more. Book a stay at one of numerous California vacation rentals for an unforgettable getaway. Most are situated in vacation-worthy destinations like San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, giving you the perfect excuse to book a vacation rental and get away for the weekend!
1. SeaWorld, San Diego
While perhaps not your traditional aquarium, SeaWorld in San Diego is the ultimate in undersea attractions. From thrilling rides to interactive animal shows, SeaWorld sets the standard in learning about the amazing undersea worlds of animals from around the globe, including penguins, turtles, walruses, beluga whales, and sea lions. It also rehabilitates injured or orphaned marine animals before they can be returned to the wild. Dive into the family-friendly Ocean Explorer area where there are children’s rides and unique aquariums or get up close and personal with some lovable critters at the Dolphin Encounter or Penguins Up Close Tour. There are so many things to see and do here that you might want to stay for a few days. Located in Mission Bay, there are a wide variety of top-notch, ocean front vacation rentals that will put you close to SeaWorld and other San Diego attractions like the San Diego Zoo.
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2. Birch Aquarium at Scripps, San Diego
Also located in San Diego is a more traditional aquarium where you can catch a glimpse of Pacific Ocean habitats and the animals who live there. Located 20 minutes north of downtown San Diego, high on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, this aquarium offers exhibits ranging from big whales to coral reefs and tropical fish. The kids will love the outdoor touch pools in the Preuss Tide-Pool Plaza where they can see and feel sea stars and squishy sea cucumbers.
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3. Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach
This gem of an aquarium is located along the Long Beach waterfront and showcases marine life from around the world. With with enormous floor-to-ceiling windows that let you peer into entire underwater ecosystems, this aquarium ranks amongst the world’s best. Walk beneath life-size whale models hung from the ceiling or head outside to the Magellanic penguin enclosure where you can watch the comical birds swim underwater or waddle on land. What really makes this aquarium stand out are the special events including guest lectures on everything from global warming to saving sea turtles. Check ahead for free, open-to-all-ages Friday evening events around the Shark Lagoon, where you can touch harmless bamboo sharks and bigger species as well as rays. If you’re looking for more nighttime fun than family fun, Aquarium of the Pacific hosts a monthly Night Dive events for ages 18 and up which features live bands, DJs and other fun activities for the perfect date night.
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4. Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey
With its soaring glass walls, Monterey Bay Aquarium will make you feel like you’re truly under the sea. It also has a fascinating history as a bustling sardine canning facility. After receiving a massive makeover in the early 1900’s, you can still see the building’s history chronicled in the exhibits near the aquarium’s entrance or learn even more on one of their behind-the-scenes tours. Back to the mesmerizing tanks and excellent exhibits, Monterey Bay Aquarium has over 35,000 animals and plans representing more than 550 species including giant Pacific octopuses, hammerhead sharks, and California sea otters. Definitely plan a visit to this aquarium with a few extra days to explore the breathtaking area. The Aquarium is perched on the edge of the world-famous Monterey coastline full of miles of welcoming beaches, hiking and cycling trails, and picturesque Carmel-by-the-Sea just minutes away.
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5. Ocean World, Crescent City
Ocean World is more than just an aquarium. It’s an educational and entertaining experience for the entire family! You’ll learn all about the creatures of the sea on their 45-minute tour. Start at the Touch and Feel Tide Pool where you have the opportunity to see and touch some strange and interesting creatures native to the shores of the Pacific Northwest. Then, descend into the aquarium where you’ll see sharks, bat rays, wolf eels and some playful seals and sea lions, all while learning about the life of sea creatures that live right off the coast of California. Next, touch and feel a real shark before finishing the tour with an intimate seal and sea lion performance. Don’t forget to grab a few souvenirs from their unique gift shop before heading home!
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6. SEA LIFE Aquarium, Carlsbad
SEA LIFE Aquarium at LEGOLAND California Resort is the perfect way to introduce your children to the life of the sea. This amazing underwater world combines active, hands-on learning with fascinating educational talks and up-close encounters with sea creatures including sharks, octopuses and rays. There won’t be any bored kiddos around here! Upgrade your LEGOLAND ticket with SEA LIFE admission for just $22, but check online because discounts and deals are available all the time. This would be the perfect spring break vacation, because opening this spring is their new attraction, Sea at Night, where you can walk, jump, and “splash” in a simulated bioluminescent tide.
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7. Aquarium of the Bay, San Francisco
Discover the beauty and diversity of Northern California aquatic life at Aquarium of the Bay, located on San Francisco’s historic PIER 39. This Aquarium is home to more than 20,000 marine animals including sleek sharks and rays, secretive octopus, hypnotic jellyfish, sparkling anchovies, frolicking river otters, and more. Here, you can really immerse yourself amongst the diverse animal collection with the walk-through tunnel exhibits, transparent touch pools, and a bubbling mountain stream exhibit. You’ll also get to learn about the most important environmental challenges of the day like climate change, plastic pollution in the oceans, and habitat loss. When booking your vacation rentals, search for North Beach, and you’ll be within minutes of PIER 39 as well as Fisherman’s Wharf.
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8. Santa Monica Pier Aquarium
This aquarium holds 100 species of animals and plants, including fish, crabs, sea urchins, and seahorses, but our favorite thing about this aquarium is that it’s run by Heal the Bay, which is an organization all about, you guessed it, healing the Los Angeles Bay. Heal the Bay catalyzed the grassroots campaign for Prop 67, which upheld the statewide ban on harmful single-use plastic bags. They also focus on local campaigns like Fishing for Health, an interactive, bilingual educational opportunity about fish contamination, fish consumption, and cooking methods for those who fish from Los Angeles County piers. Did we mention that this aquarium is also located on the famous Santa Monica Pier? After you’re done learning about sea creatures, ride the Ferris wheel at Pacific Park, or go window shopping at Third Street Promenade!
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9. Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, San Pedro
Cabrillo Marine Aquarium is not just an aquarium but a leader in marine science education and aquaculture research. Displaying the largest collection of Southern California marine life in the world, this aquarium has been providing visitors with both a natural and interactive approach to learning about the marine environment of Southern California since 1935. Come during the seasonal “grunion run” when the small fish arrive at high tide to fertilize and bury their eggs in the sand. CMA is also located adjacent to Cabrillo Coastal Park and the Port of Los Angeles, so after you’re day is done at the aquarium, you can discover what else San Pedro has to offer like the Banning Museum or the Point Fermin Lighthouse.
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10. Steinhart Aquarium, San Francisco
Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences houses nearly 40,000 animals representing 900 species, but that’s not the best thing about it. Here, you can visit an aquarium, planetarium, and natural history museum–all under one living roof. From splashing penguins in African Hall and wildflowers on the roof, to a four-story living rainforest and coral reef ecosystem, there’s plenty to fill a day, or two, or more! It’s also a place you can keep coming back to because exhibits are constantly changing. What’s a rainforest today could be a coral reef tomorrow.
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