Ranging from quirky to magnificent, the best museums in San Francisco are emblematic of the City by the Bay’s diverse, forward-thinking culture.
I’m a California local who’s spent many a month in the Bay Area, and investigating institutions packed full of fascinating finds is very my bag. In this article, we’ll get into my top museum picks for you to check out while you explore all the best things to do in San Francisco.
Table of Contents
- 25 San Francisco Museums
- Legion of Honor
- de Young Museum
- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
- Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD)
- California Academy of Sciences
- Cartoon Art Museum
- Alcatraz Island
- Musée Mécanique
- Asian Art Museum
- Aquarium of the Bay
- GLBT Historical Society Museum
- Conservatory of Flowers
- Randall Museum
- San Francisco Fire Department Museum
- Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
- Walt Disney Family Museum
- Maritime Museum
- Antique Vibrator Museum
- San Francisco Cable Car Museum
- California Historical Society
- Contemporary Jewish Museum
- San Francisco Zoo
- Wells Fargo Museum
- Treasure Island Museum
- FAQs About Museums in San Francisco
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25 San Francisco Museums
Legion of Honor
Spectacular inside and out, this hilltop museum showcases ancient and European art.
The view of this museum is amazing. The views from this museum are amazing. And the fine art on view in this museum? You guessed it, amazing.
Monet’s Water Lilies, ca 1914-1917 is a highlight from an exceptional collection of European paintings. This Lincoln Park institution is also home to one of the world’s most famous sculptures, The Thinker by Auguste Rodin.
💰 Local Deal: Legion of Honor and the de Young Museum offer Free Saturdays to Bay Area residents.
de Young Museum
A cherished fine arts museum with an observation deck overlooking Golden Gate Park.
Among the most popular attractions in legendary Golden Gate Park, de Young Museum is one of the best museums in San Francisco for art aficionados. And the view from Hamon Tower is phenomenal.
The permanent collection holds a wide variety of art and antiquities, with exhibits dedicated to African, Oceanic, and Arts of the Americas. The de Young Museum houses pieces from the largest collection of American art in the American West, ranging from the 17th century to modern and contemporary art.
De Long and the Legion of Honor museum comprise the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the city’s largest public arts institution. Make sure to check out the special events calendar for intriguing lectures and performances.
🚶 Pro Tip: A three-minute walk down a garden path will get you from de Young to the California Academy of Sciences, another popular San Francisco museum.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
An acclaimed contemporary art museum that piques the curiosity of your imagination.
Upon entering the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art one immediately steps into a 45,000 square foot space showcasing gigantic works of modern art. It is an apt metaphor for the mind-expanding experience to be had ahead.
Galleries are lined with incredible paintings, sculptures, and installations. Spaces are separated at curious angles, making one feel like it runs into the next, yet in each a new adventure. Departing the museum felt much like waking from a series of dreams.
🍽️ Looking for a lunch spot? SFMOMA’s ground-floor restaurant and coffee bar are open to the public and there’s a 5th-floor cafe exclusively for museum guests.
Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD)
A highly respected art institution celebrating contemporary artists from Black cultures around the globe.
A two-minute walk from SFMoMA, the Museum of the African Diaspora curates thought-provoking exhibitions by Black artists. My visit was a wonderfully moving experience, enlivened by the efforts of a passionate community.
A Smithsonian affiliate, MoAd “ignites conversations and inspires learning through the global lens of the African Diaspora.” Ongoing exhibitions illuminate cultural standpoints through a variety of mediums.
📆 Plan ahead for special events: MoAd hosts a full calendar of culturally enriching programs including book clubs, poetry readings, and film screenings.
California Academy of Sciences
Experiential presentations illuminating scientific explorations of the natural world.
Exhibits here don’t just inspire wonder, they explain it. It’s an experience that envelops you in worlds within our world and beyond.
Observe butterflies and amphibians in a lush rainforest. Frolic with fishes in the aquarium. Go above and beyond to far-flung galaxies in the planetarium.
It’s no mere science museum! California Academy of Sciences is also one of the largest natural history museums in SF.
Cartoon Art Museum
A lighthearted, fun museum with a colorful collection honoring humorous art.
Whether you’re eight or eighty, cartoons are fun. Such is the vibe at Cartoon Art Museum. Mimicking the feeling of hipster art galleries, this fun spot forgoes stodgy and boring altogether.
An amusing array of animated art outlines the world of comic strips and political cartoons. Multimedia displays and superhero memorabilia color in the details of lore surrounding comic books and tv series.
In addition to $7 tickets for SF residents, the Cartoon Art Museum offers a Pay What You Wish Day on the first Tuesday of each month. For more savings check out our San Francisco on a budget post.
A playful space overflowing with things you’ve never seen before, even though some are things you see every day.
You’ll be astounded by the wonders discovered when you set your mind free at Exploratorium. It’s the sort of place where every perspective is new, a fusion of vibrant science and art exhibits that are meant to be played with.
Located on the picturesque Embarcadero waterfront, this destination is easily paired with others nearby. To check out a local gem, stroll ten minutes southeast to the Ferry Building. Inviting boutiques and gourmet food stands here feature locally sourced, artisan goods every day, but the Tues/Thurs/Sat farmers market is outstanding.
Alternatively, spend a full morning explorator-ing then walk ten minutes northwest to the ferry departure for Alcatraz Island. The Alcatraz Night Tour provides a unique look at this top SF attraction, including a dazzling view of the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset (weather permitting. Karl, the notorious SF fog, can be neither predicted nor contained.)
🍸 Explore After Dark – Though one of the most kid-friendly museums around, Exploratorium holds equal appeal for grown folks. Thursdays from 6-10 pm they host After Dark, an 18+ evening event with drinks and a DJ. Kids aren’t allowed, but you’re encouraged to act like one!
A San Francisco must-do attraction with a spooky old prison and sensational views.
Out in the San Francisco Bay, this tiny island is the famous home of the large and particularly infamous prison, Alcatraz. The baddie alumni includes none other than Al Capone, but all inmates have long since left the premises.
Visitors freely roam prison halls, which remain mostly intact down to bedding and kitchen. A free audio tour tells the most notorious tales of intrigue and escape.
Outside, the land has been returned to its natural state where possible. Abandoned gardens are alive with wildflowers and the sounds of seabirds. You get incredible views in all directions, of the city, the bay, and that #1 SF attraction: Golden Gate Bridge.
👉 Don’t Miss… Red Power on Alcatraz. This moving exhibition shares the story of Native American activists who enacted change through their occupation of the island in the late 1960s.
A whimsical stockpile of old-fashioned arcade games and machines.
Simply put, Fisherman’s Wharf cornerstone Musée Mécanique is the museum of fun and games. All those games are playable, so hit the change machine and onward to nostalgia town.
Arcades may largely be considered kid stuff nowadays, but you’ll find a fair few reminders here that this wasn’t always the case. For example antique slot machines and coin-operated puppet shows featuring decidedly adult themes. There are loads of fun oddities for kids and adults alike, but parents may want to keep an eye out.
🎄 Visiting for the Holidays? Musée Mécanique is open 365 days a year! It’s a great option on days like Christmas or New Year’s Day when many attractions are closed.
Asian Art Museum
A vast collection of Asian art housed in a gorgeous building across from City Hall.
A striking Beaux-Arts building in the heart of San Francisco, the Asian Art Museum is a fittingly impressive sight. Beyond the pillars and dragon statues, tall doors open to one of the world’s finest collections of Asian art.
Works on display here span thousands of years, ranging from ancient jade pendants carved during the Shang dynasty to contemporary Chinese art by innovators such as Liu Jianhua.
Aquarium of the Bay
Discover Northern California’s ocean wildlife in underwater tunnels deep below the surface of the Bay.
Of all the attractions in the City by the Bay, none gets you closer to that bay than this one. Close to as in under, surrounded by schools of silvery fish, rays, and sharks.
The Aquarium of the Bay is a great choice for families. Kids love the touch pools and river otter habitat above the waves. Plus it’s right next to the famous Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf, which also have lots for the kiddos to enjoy.
GLBT Historical Society Museum
Dynamic exhibits dedicated to LGBTQIA+ history and culture.
Lots of the best museums in San Francisco honor history. This one made history, as the first stand-alone museum of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender culture and history in the United States.
Located in San Francisco’s iconic Castro neighborhood, this unassuming local fixture celebrates the story of the surrounding community. A display of the original rainbow flag is one hallmark piece from the permanent collection. Rotating exhibitions demonstrate queer culture’s impact on and enrichment of our world.
Conservatory of Flowers
Stroll an ornate, Victorian-era greenhouse brimming with tropical and aquatic plant life.
Intricately patterned and paned, the beauty of this domed glass structure befits the beauty of the exotic plants within. Giant lily pads are a sight to behold, and a favored family photo op. Strolling a jungle fragranced with fresh cacao and coffee is a great way to add subtle spice to a day date.
If you love all things plants, be sure to get into the great outdoors around the Bay Area on the best hikes near San Francisco.
🎄 Visiting in December? The Conservatory is in the same corner of Golden Gate Park as Peacock Meadow, where you’ll find a wildly popular holiday light display. If you book a late afternoon ticket and linger until nightfall, you get to stop and smell the roses instead of fighting for parking.
Creative, interactive exhibits exploring nature, science, and art.
Easy-to-visit displays educate on animal life, earth sciences, and human history. Plus free admission for one and all!
Exhibits here are geared towards a younger audience, but the museum holds an appealingly nostalgic charm for adults. It’s sort of like visiting a time capsule of your elementary school.
🏙️ Don’t miss the view! Ample picnic tables and benches border a small park that offers views stretching to the bay.
San Francisco Fire Department Museum
Antique fire engines, equipment, and memorabilia illustrating the history of the SFFD.
San Francisco’s history includes several major fires and earthquakes. Also known as Guardians of the City, this museum salutes the heroes who respond in times of crisis.
Most interesting is the in-depth coverage of the Great Fire and Earthquake of 1906, as seen by those fighting it. Antique equipment on display dates back to the Gold Rush era.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
A community-driven cultural center focused on public art.
Now, granted, we’re gently stretching the definition of ‘museum’ here, but Yerba Buena Center is well worth a visit. Dedicated to supporting artists’ essential role in social and civic pursuits, the center works to uplift creative voices through public artworks, galleries, and performances.
The downtown San Francisco neighborhood of Yerba Buena is among the best places to stay in San Francisco, especially for museum buffs. San Francisco Marriott Marquis is a great option overlooking the Yerba Buena Gardens.
Walt Disney Family Museum
A fond tribute to the work of Walt Disney.
Walt Disney Family Museum pays homage to an American innovator who revolutionized the world of entertainment.
Galleries showcase collected works and family memorabilia, offering a window into the mind of Walt Disney. Rotating exhibits spotlight classic Disney films.
🌉 Nearby Attraction: The Disney Museum is adjacent to Crissy Field, a tremendously popular park and beach area with sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
A centerpiece of San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, displaying relics of life at sea on the Pacific.
Resembling an Art Deco oceanliner, the striking exterior of this museum impeccably complements the historic artifacts and World War II-era murals within. History buffs and boat lovers won’t want to miss the fleet of antique vessels along Hyde Street Pier.
If you’re looking to do a little coastal exploring of your own, check out these awesome day trips from San Francisco.
⏰ Short on time? Adjacent to Ghiradelli Square, the museum and San Francisco Maritime Park are a convenient way to mix a less touristy attraction in with typical hotspots. You can easily visit this area, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Crissy Field in a single day.
Antique Vibrator Museum
An entertainingly educational look at the personal intimacy implements of yesteryear.
If a unique museum tickles your fancy, look no further than the Antique Vibrator Museum. Devoted to devices designed to… tickle other areas, displays here are both legitimately informative and playfully tongue-in-cheek.
You won’t find any docents, but the pleasant staff of adult retailer Good Vibrations welcomes guests to the museum, which shares space with their showroom. All visitors must be aged 18 or over.
San Francisco Cable Car Museum
A window into the world of San Francisco’s beloved trolley system.
Few public transportation systems are as charming as that in San Francisco. There’s a spark of glee anytime you catch a ride on a brightly enameled antique cable car, many of which are still in service throughout the city.
This museum offers a closer look at the classic trolleys than you get riding from point A to point B and some interesting local lore along the way.
👉 If local history is right up your alley… Head around the corner to the Chinese Historical Society Museum. Immigrants from China are an integral part of San Fran’s history and culture, and the society has taken great care in preserving their stories.
California Historical Society
An enormous catalog of objects and documents detailing Golden State history.
If you’re a California history buff, then you can delve into your heart’s content in this treasure trove. Comprised of thousands of documents, photographs, and all manner of other artifacts, the society’s collection steadfastly preserves California’s heritage.
👪 Nearby Attraction: The historical society may be a bit of a yawn for young ones. Only a few blocks away, the Children’s Creativity Museum is a strong contender for most kid fun of all San Francisco museums.
Contemporary Jewish Museum
Innovative exhibitions that engage visitors in the diversity of the Jewish experience.
What resonates most clearly through the Contemporary Jewish Museum is depth. The artists showcased delve into the intricacies of life, honing in on moments and emotions that connect beyond cultural bounds, speaking directly to the human experience.
The program here is largely made up of temporary exhibits, resulting in an ever-changing collection that allows you to discover something new no matter how many times you visit.
San Francisco Zoo
Exotic animal life nestled amongst thriving gardens.
Designed to offer nature interactions that promote conservation, the San Francisco Zoo uses the lush environs of Golden Gate Park to recreate the awe inspired by seeing animals in the wild.
Giraffes, zebras, and ostriches are just a few of the species you can see interacting as they roam the Valentine Family Savanna. The park makes every effort to provide spacious, outdoor habitats, which thanks to California’s mild climate can be planted with plentiful vegetation from the animals’ native homes.
Lions, two-toed sloths, and two rescued grizzly bear sisters are among the fan-favorite animals. Families will find a wealth of activities for kids, including a train, carousel, and large play area.
Wells Fargo Museum
Antique stagecoaches and other artifacts collected by an icon of the Old West.
Founded as a stagecoach service during the Gold Rush era, Wells Fargo, & Co. became an essential service for settlers throughout California. Using a restored coach and other items of note, the Wells Fargo history museum traces the timeline of the company’s expansion.
Treasure Island Museum
A historic building dedicated to preserving the stories of a unique manmade island.
Building One, the majestic Art Deco structure that houses this museum was originally built to host one of the grandest temporary exhibitions in San Francisco History, the Golden Gate International Exposition.
In fact, the whole island was built to host the exposition. And, currently, is undergoing a pretty major reconstruction. The museum remains open during construction, with limited exhibits in the lobby of Building One. The main attraction, a set of four Pacific Unity Sculptures from, you guessed it, the exposition, is always on view.
🚍 How to Get There: You can drive to the island via the Bay Bridge (Interstate 80,) but traffic is unpredictable. The ferry (from the Ferry Building) is the most fun option, or for max efficiency catch the muni (25 Treasure Island) at Salesforce Transit Center.
FAQs About Museums in San Francisco
Does San Francisco have good museums?
What are the free museum days in San Francisco?
Free museum days in San Francisco vary by location, but most are on the first Sunday, Tuesday, or Wednesday of each month. Several spots offer additional free admission days/times for San Francisco Bay area residents.
Thanks for reading my guide on the best museums in San Francisco! Now that you’re set up in the City by the Bay, let’s head south and have a look at the best museums in Los Angeles!
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