We are blessed, truly. We have the good fortune to live 90 minutes from one of our country’s greatest and most unique cities: San Francisco. The City by the Bay needs no introduction with its iconic sights, world-class dining and shopping, and dynamic culture. But what do you do once you’ve walked The Golden Gate, taken a tour bus across town, and eaten your bread bowl down by the wharf? This is a question we’ve asked ourselves before while driving to the bay to escape the dreaded heat of summer. Luckily for us, San Francisco is never short on things to see and do throughout the year thanks to its temperate climate and diverse population. Thanks in large part to its prominence as an international tourist destination, San Francisco plays host to some 30 museums, arts, and cultural centers. San Francisco Museums are treasured gems sprinkled throughout the city focusing on a vast array of subjects and cultures. Yes, we’ve been to them all, and yes, we have our favorites. That is, after all, why we’re here: to share with you the best-of-the-best museums to add to any itinerary that’ll have you telling everyone you meet on the street to come and experience.
So here they are, our 13 Unique Museums You Must See in San Francisco!
California Academy of Sciences
Located directly across from the de Young Museum in the heart of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, The Academy of Sciences is among the largest museums of natural history in the world. 26 million specimens are housed in a 400,000 square-foot (37,000 square meters) building. Explore a marvelous tropical Rainforest teeming with life from some of the most bio-diverse places on Earth housed within a massive 90-foot glass sphere. Leisurely stroll through four-stories as you ascend from the forest floor all the way to the living tree canopy. Come face-to-face with the various animals, insects, fish, and reptiles along the way that call each level of the forest their home.
At the top of the Rainforest canopy, descend via elevator below the depths of the river. A glass tunnel leads you underwater where you can look up at the gargantuan fish and turtles that live in the flooded forest overhead. Beyond the tunnel, The Steinhart Aquarium is one of the most advanced and biologically diverse aquariums in the world. It’s home to the world’s deepest indoor living coral reef and more than 38,000 live animals representing over 900 species. The incredible underwater experience has many different viewpoints to underwater creatures you won’t find in any other public aquarium. Back on the surface, tropical lagoons throughout the museum only hint at the wonders below.
A second, concrete sphere mirroring the size and scale of the glass-enclosed rainforest houses the Academy’s planetarium. One of the largest and most advanced all-digital domes in the world, The Academy’s Visualization Studio produces award-winning original planetarium shows that tell stories about faraway galaxies and our home planet Earth using scientific data to depict the most current discoveries.
Elsewhere within the Natural History Museum are
- a Gem and Mineral exhibit
- the African Hall with its dioramas of African landscapes and colony of real-life African penguins
- a swamp with an albino alligator and alligator snapping-turtles
- Color of Life featuring some of the planet’s most vibrant animals
- Forum Theater featuring shows and presentations
- Naturalist Center with hands-on specimens and science activities
- Living Roof take an elevator to the top of the museum where grass and wildflowers cover the roof and blend beautifully with the views of the surrounding hillsides of San Francisco
This airy museum takes advantage of natural light and provides a wide-open feeling that is bright and cheery. The way the ascetics of the building work together create sustainable microenvironments for each exhibit – feeling like functional artwork. It’s the only place in the world to house an aquarium, planetarium, rainforest, and natural history museum, as well as innovative programs in scientific research and education—all under one living roof. While it’s the most expensive S.F. museum, you really get your money’s worth with all the museum has to offer. The California Academy of Sciences is an experience like no other and a must-see San Francisco museum.
Hours: Monday – Saturday 9:30 am – 5:00 pm; Sunday 11 am – 5 pm; Thursday Nightlife (21+ Years old) 6 pm – 10 pm. Cost: Adult $35.95; Senior (ages 65+) $30.95; Youth (ages 12-17) $30.95; Student (ages 18+ with ID) $30.95; Child (ages 4-11) $25.95; Children 3 and under are free. Parking: On-street for free up to 4 hours, except weekends (free all day). Another option is Music Concourse parking garage for an added fee (might be pretty expensive). Food: Academy Cafe and The Terrace Restaurant.
de Young Museum
First opened in 1895, this is San Francisco’s oldest and most diversified art museum. Their collection exceeds 27,000 works showcasing priceless collections of American art from the 17th through 21st centuries, modern and contemporary art, photography, international textiles and costumes, and art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.
Located across a beautiful promenade from the California Academy of Sciences, the exterior of this landmark S.F. museum is jarringly at odds with the garden-like aesthetic of its environment. It looks (to us) like a Jawa Sandcrawler mixed with an Imperial Star Destroyer from Star Wars. The architecture is all odd angles – wide-open and airy but surprisingly confusing like a maze. We never quite got our bearings here. If your head is spinning from the vastness and diversity of the museum’s collection, then head to the 9th-floor observation level of the Hamon Tower. Here you can enjoy breathtaking 360-degree views of San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean. This is the best view of S.F. we’ve seen due to its central location within the city as well as being in the heart of Golden Gate Park’s vast expanse of greenery.
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 9:30 am – 5:15 pm (closed Monday). Cost: Adult $15; Senior (ages 65+) $12; Student (ages 18+ with ID) $6; Youth and Children (ages 17 and under) are free. Tickets include same-day general admission to the Legion of Honor. Parking: On-street for free up to 4 hours, except weekends (free all day). Another option is Music Concourse parking garage for an added fee (might be pretty expensive). Food: Museum Cafe.
Located on Pier 15 on the Embarcadero, this glass and steel building comprises 330, 000 ft2 (31,000 m2) of indoor and outdoor exhibit space. The Exploratorium is an interactive museum igniting curiosity and inspiring creativity in people of all ages. 6 galleries house more than 600 hands-on exhibits where you can physically touch, throw, spin, push, pull, and drop experiments ranging from thoughts, feelings, and social behavior to light, vision, sound, and motion. There’s so much to see and explore, try not to focus too much on one exhibit. It’s easy to become mesmerized by each and every one.
Located a short walk from the Ferry Building, with great views of the Bay Bridge, the city, and the bay, this is probably the most interactive museum you will ever experience. It’s the exact opposite of a stuffy, information-heavy museum. Every single exhibit is interactive and designed to engage even the youngest of children. Come here to learn and engage with science while you play – each experience an illusion to your senses, each one a magic show. Be prepared to leave knowing both more, and less about reality, your mind, and human perception. The Exploratorium brings out the kid in everyone as even adults are going to be wowed. This is probably the most fun you will ever have at a museum.
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 10:00 am – 5:00 pm; Thursday Evening (Ages 18+) 6:00 – 10:00 pm (Closed Monday). Cost: Adult $29.95; Senior (ages 65+) $24.95; Youth (ages 13-17) $24.95; Student (ages 18+ with ID) $24.95; Child (ages 4-12) $19.95; Children 3 and under are free. Parking: On-street metered parking for a nominal fee and nearby parking garages for an added fee (might be pretty expensive). Food: Seismic Joint Cafe and SeaGlass Restaurant.
The Walt Disney Family Museum
Founded by Diane Disney Miller, Disney’s biological daughter, this museum is dedicated to the life and work of Walter Elias Disney. The 40,000 ft2 (12,192 m2) space is housed in a historic building located in San Francisco’s Presidio with views of the bay, Golden Gate Bridge, and Alcatraz. There are 10 permanent galleries on 3 floors; starting with the ancestral and familial history of the Disney name. Subsequent rooms are organized in chronological order. The museum features well-lit, contemporary, interactive galleries and state-of-the-art exhibits narrated in Walt Disney’s own voice. Displays Feature early drawings, cartoons, movies, music, memorabilia, listening stations, and more than 200 video screens. Friendly and knowledgeable docents are nearby to give you an even more in-depth look at the story of Disney’s successes and failures, as well as answer any questions you may have.
On the first floor, learn about Walt’s birth, early life and inspiration towards art, and his voluntary service in the Ambulance Corps during World War 1. Take a short elevator ride to the second floor where the meat of the museum is located. Here you’ll learn about Walt’s start in motion pictures when they were still in their infancy by pairing live action with animation. You’ll see the creation and failure of his first animation studio, Laugh-o-grams, and his first successful cartoon, Oswald the Rabbit. Discover the creation of Walt Disney Studios and Mickey Mouse as well as the introduction of sound to animated shorts. Progress through the growth of the Disney brand and his tireless pursuit of pushing the bounds of animation and sound. Hear the story of the development of the first full-length animated feature film (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves). Learn about the hard times of World War2 and his rebound after. Witness the dream, development, and building of Disneyland.
Along the way, you’ll see how the animators worked as well as how different animation processes were developed and created. You’ll also get a glimpse of intimate aspects of Disney’s personal life you wouldn’t otherwise hear about. Learn about Walt the businessman alongside Walt the family man as you move through the timeline. Get a glimpse of the interesting hobbies he was involved in, like his collection of miniatures, and his ride-able model train set he built for his backyard. Two large displays housed within the museum are a two-story, multi-plane camera used to film animated classics such as Bambi, as well as a 12-foot diorama of Disneyland as Walt envisioned (look for variations in how it differs from the actual park in Anaheim).
Currently, the museum doesn’t seem to be well known and the size is small, but you can spend all day here as the exhibits are intimate – like being invited into someone’s home to look through photo albums. By the end, you’ll be feeling emotional and nostalgic and wanting to pull out old classics like Snow White, Pinocchio, and Mary Poppins. If you’re a lover of the man, his films, or the parks, you will adore this look at Walt Disney’s achievements, failures, and ultimate legacy.
Hours: Wednesday – Monday 10:00 am – 6:00 pm (closed Tuesday). Cost: Adult $25; Senior (ages 65+) $20; Youth (ages 6-17) $15; Student (ages 18+ with ID) $20; Children 5 and under are free. Parking: On-street metered for $6 up to 3 hours or parking lot across grassy area out front. Food: onsite cafe.
The Randall Museum
Located near Corona Heights Park with amazing views of the city and bay (bring a jacket – it’s windy!) The Randall Museum is a natural history, science, and arts center for children ages 14 months to 12 years. Interactive exhibits include a live animal room, redwoods, oceans, rocks and minerals, and a massive working model train set. Classes offer hands-on learning in woodshop, art, science, and other STEM courses for children, teens, and adults. Exhibits are small enough to keep a young child’s attention. Easy to read plaques ask questions designed to engage and foster learning for the older kids. Workshops with docents give hands-on demonstrations. A “Toddler Tree House” is a room with wood platforms for kids under 4 to climb on and is available for drop-in play on Tuesday through Saturday.
Similar in focus to the Academy of Sciences, The Randall Museum is a fantastic alternative for smaller children and a great way to educate and entertain for an hour or all day. Their goal is to inspire creativity, curiosity, and a love of learning about the world around us. You’ll be amazed that this is a completely free museum!
Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 10 am – 5 pm (Closed Sunday and Monday). Cost: Free. Parking: Onsite free parking lot with plenty of parking, especially if you arrive early enough. Food: Cafe Josephine.
GLBT History Museum
Opened in 2010, The GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual, and Transgendered) Museum collects, preserves, exhibits and makes accessible to the public materials and knowledge to support and promote understanding of LGBTQ history, culture, and arts in all their diversity. The institution is believed to be the second full-scale, stand-alone GLBT history museum in the world, one of approximately 30 LGBT archives in the United States, and is recognized internationally as a leader in the field of LGBTQ public history. This small museum (only one room and a hallway) focuses on the LGTBQ communities of San Francisco and Northern California. Exhibits include:
- LGTBQ activism in print
- Queer Past Becomes Present – highlights the past to present history and humanizes those oppressed
- 3 neighborhoods (“gayborhoods”) that were once queer landscapes: Valencia St., North Beach, and Tenderloin
- Jose Sarria – 1st openly gay candidate in the U.S. to run for public office in 1961
- Aids activism (1981 to 1990)
- The assassination of Harvey Milk
The museum is an unapologetic celebration of humanizing the oppressed and anyone who has ever felt like an outcast within society. Located in the Castro District, plaques along the street give insight into pioneers and activists within the community on the Rainbow Honor Walk. Area restaurants and stores have fantastically tongue-in-cheek names like Hand Job Nail Salon, The Sausage Factory Restaurant, and The Squat and Gobble Café and Creamery that’ll have you giggling like a teenager.
Hours: Monday and Wednesday – Saturday 11 am – 6 pm; Sunday: Noon to 5 pm (Closed Tuesday). Cost: General $5; California Students and Military $3. Parking: Free on-street parking.
Asian Art Museum
Located across from City Hall, The Asian Art Museum has approximately 18,000 works of art and artifacts from all major Asian countries and traditions – some of which are as much as 6,000 years old. The original collection was donated by Avery Brundage who donated more than 7,700 Asian art objects. This collection started as a wing of the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park but was moved into its current home in 1966.
This is a large museum; one we would recommend broken into multiple visits unless you have a full day to kill. The exterior of the building matches the Romanesque architecture of City Hall with a gorgeous interior of marble and granite. The museum itself houses an overwhelmingly large collection throughout a maze of galleries on multiple floors. Galleries are devoted to the arts of South Asia, Iran and Central Asia, Southeast Asia, the Himalayas, China, Korea and Japan. The collection includes tons of pottery, scrolls, textiles, sculptures, puppets, hats, ivory, swords, and an impressive collection of jade and furniture.
It’s not a museum we recommend for young children – though you’ll see many of them trudging through gallery after gallery. All-in-all, the museum excels in redefining the misconception of Asia as a singular place with a singular people. It showcases the complex social, political, and artistic structures of each unique country and region over a 6,000-year span.
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 10:00 am – 5:00 pm; Thursday Evening 5:00 – 9:00 pm (Closed Monday). Cost: Adult $15; Senior (ages 65+) $10; Youth (ages 13-17) $10; Student (ages 18+ with ID) $10; Thursday evening $10; Active military (+ 5 family members), SFUSD Students, and Children 12 and under are free. Parking: Metered parking near City Hall for a nominal fee up to 2 hours. Food: Cafe Asia.
San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA)
Founded in 1935, the MoMA holds an internationally recognized collection of modern and contemporary art and was the first museum on the West Coast devoted solely to 20th-century art. The museum’s current collection includes over 33,000 works of painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, design, and media arts. Works by Pablo Picasso, Jasper Johns, Ed Ruscha, Diane Arbus and Robert Rauschenberg were recently added to the museum’s impressive core collection. They are displayed in 170,000 square feet (16,000 m2) of exhibition space on 7 floors, making the museum one of the largest in the United States overall and one of the largest in the world for modern and contemporary art. We only made it through 3 floors after 4.5 hours and we were exhausted!
The MoMA is not for everyone. For this reason, we put it in the middle of our list – you will either love it or wonder what you are doing there and who the hell would call this bullshit “art” anyway? This is the kind of museum that showcases the likes of Andy Warhol, Salvador Dalí, and Jackson Pollock. Be sure to read the descriptions of each installation, otherwise, the art may not make sense. Even then, it still may not make sense. That being said, the museum is undeniably beautiful – open and airy with gleaming white halls, bleached blonde wood floors, and plenty of natural lighting coming in through large windows. Plenty of rotating exhibits keep the collection fresh with something new to see and experience with each visit.
Hours: Friday – Tuesday 10:00 am – 5:00 pm; Thursday 10:00 am – 9:00 pm (Closed Wednesday). Cost: Adult $25; Senior (ages 65+) $22; Young Adult (ages 19 – 24) $19; Teens and Children 18 and under are free. Parking: Multiple nearby parking garages for an added fee (might be pretty expensive). Food: Sightglass Coffee Bar, Cafe 5, and In Situ Fine Dining Restaurant.
The Tenderloin Museum celebrates the rich history of one of San Francisco’s most misunderstood neighborhoods. The 31 blocks of the Tenderloin district are the beating heart of the city peopled by immigrants and iconoclasts, artists and activists, sinners and saints. Inside this small museum (one large room) you can view a few period artifacts that give a glimpse into the underbelly of the Tenderloin. Browse along the walls to read info-graphics, first-hand accounts, postcards and photographs, newspaper clippings, and descriptions of the illicit, illegal, and corrupt businesses and activities that gave this district its infamous moniker.
- Legendary venue Blackhawk Jazz Club where greats like Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Dave Brubeck, and Thelonious Monk played and recorded
- The Tenderloin’s role as a center of LGBTQ activism
- San Francisco’s golden age of vice, with gambling dens, speakeasies, bordellos, and a historic sex worker protest of 1917
- Gay bars in World War II
- Center for labor unions and workers’ rights
- Porn – 1969 first porn trade show – Sex 69
- And so much more
The interior of the museum is beautifully designed to look like a speakeasy with Victorian architecture and incredibly well-presented displays. We were pleasantly surprised by how much we enjoyed visiting this museum and coming out with a better understanding and appreciation of a neighborhood with some much culture and history associated with it.
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 10:00 am – 5:00 pm (Closed Monday). Cost: Adult $10; Senior (ages 65+) $6; Youth (ages 13-21) $6; Student (ages 18+ with ID) $6; Children 12 and under are free; Walking Tour $10; Museum Admission and Walking Tour: $15. Parking: Free on-street parking.
Cable Car Museum
This is a free museum containing historical and explanatory exhibits on one of San Francisco’s most iconic features: The Cable Car. It’s located in the historic Washington/Mason cable car barn and powerhouse in Nob Hill. This ‘working museum’ was established in 1974 as part of an effort to save the last remaining original operating cable car system left in the city. Four routes are preserved within the museum – the Powell, Hyde, Mason, and California line – and are what tourists still ride to view other iconic sights around the city.
Inside you’ll be greeted by the immediate smell of grease and the moderate hum and warmth of the turning motors (it’s a great place to warm up on San Francisco’s notoriously chilly days). The museum deck overlooks the huge engines and winding wheels pulling the cables and is mesmerizing to watch. On display are various mechanical devices such as grips, track, cable, brake mechanisms, tools, detailed models, and a large collection of historic photographs. The collection also includes three antique, full-size Cable Cars showing how they’ve evolved over time. Write up displays describes cable car history and their historical significance to the city with brief descriptions of how the entire system works. Downstairs is the sheave room where you can see them working – the sheaves change cable direction going into and out of the powerhouse and allow the cars to make turns on the streets above.
The museum is a fascinating way to understand the Cable Car’s historical significance as an iconic symbol of San Francisco. The simplicity and genius at work in a system utilizing 150-year-old technology is astounding to see working right in front of your eyes. When you’re ready to leave, there’s a stop for a Cable Car just at the corner that will take you to the equally-famous Lombard Street.
Hours: Daily 10:00 am – 6:00 pm (April – October) 10:00 am – 5:00 pm (November – March). Cost: Free Parking: Free on-street parking.
Not so much a museum as it is an arcade; Musée Mécanique is one of the world’s largest privately owned collections of coin-operated mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade machines in their original working condition. And yes, you can play them! The majority of the collection showcases antique arcade games – some dating back a hundred years – with everything from hand-cranked music boxes to modern video arcade games. On display are beloved artifacts from Playland at the Beach, the Sutro Baths, and the Cliff House, which was the Musée’s former (and some say, cooler) home. Here there are life-size puppets to tell your fortune, mechanical pianos, pinball machines, games of strength, mechanical dioramas, and penny press machines.
Games are crammed together in narrow rows with no real organization to their placement. Still, you’ll get to see smiling children and old-timers alike tapping their feet (and canes) to the music and bouncing from machine to machine to see what each one does. It’s a positively joyful experience for all ages. Be sure to bring some cash (there are change machines for quarters) and don’t expect the games to be free.
Hours: Daily 10:00 am – 8:00 pm (later if crowds). Cost: Free to enter and explore Parking: On-street metered parking for a nominal fee and nearby parking garages for an added fee (might be pretty expensive).
Legion of Honor
The Legion of Honor is your quintessential art museum filled with sculptures, painting, and interior decorations from lavish palaces housed in a magnificent building overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Golden Gate, and the city of San Francisco. Holdings include European paintings; European decorative arts and sculpture; ancient art from the Mediterranean basin; and one of the nation’s largest repositories of works of art on paper. An original cast of Rodin’s “The Thinker” dominates the museum entrance. The collection features works from the 13th to the 20th centuries, including those by Monet, Manet, Rubens, Van Gogh, Picasso, Seurat, and other European artists. Earlier works date from approximately 2500 B.C.
The structure that houses this museum is as beautiful as the artwork within. It is a three-quarter-scale model of the Parisian museum of the Légion d’Honneur and was built to commemorate Californian soldiers who died in World War I. While the museum tries to take advantage of its location on a hill overlooking the Golden Gate, sadly trees are blocking the way and you only get a partial view (you can walk down to get a better view). This is another in San Francisco’s collection of enormous museums and another we wouldn’t recommend for young children as you can spend all day exploring the interior and grounds.
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 9:30 am – 5:15 pm (closed Monday). Cost: Adult $15; Senior (ages 65+) $12; Student (ages 18+ with ID) $6; Youth and Children (ages 17 and under) are free. Tickets include same-day general admission to the de Young. Parking: Onsite free parking directly out front for 4 hours max. Food: Museum Cafe.
San Francisco Railway Museum
San Francisco is one of the few places in the world where you can get the actual experience of riding vintage rail transit in its “natural habitat”. The Railway museum is a celebration of San Francisco’s rail transit history; focused on exploring the positive impacts streetcars and cable cars have made on the quality of urban life in this great city. Located adjacent to the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero, this is the smallest museum we found in the city (it’s located inside a gift shop). What it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in the passion and charm of both the displays, as well as the wonderful and informative docents who can talk all day about the various modes of public transportation within the city.
On display are historical artifacts, illustrative and informative displays, rarely seen archival photographs, and audio-visual exhibits that use 21st-century technology to bring rail transit of the 19th and 20th centuries to life. The museum features a full-sized exact replica of the motorman’s platform of a 1911 San Francisco streetcar, where kids of all ages can experience what it was like to be at the controls. Artifacts include tickets, fare tokens, model rail trains, samples of the rails, and passenger counters.
The museum can be toured in an hour or just a few minutes depending on how much you’re interested in transportation but definitely engage the docents – they are incredibly knowledgeable. Before or after you take that magical ride on San Francisco’s “museums in motion”, visit this museum to make your experience complete.
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 10 am – 5 pm (Closed Monday). Cost: Free. Parking: On-street metered parking for a nominal fee.