San Francisco’s history and culture culminate inside its diverse museums. Some of the world’s best are found within the boundaries of this vibrant city, so finding time to visit one or two during your time there is well worth the cost of admission (some are even free!). Learn about science, global histories, literature, pop culture, and of course, art, at the best museums in San Francisco.
California Academy of Sciences
California Academy of Sciences brings the world of natural science to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The 400,000 square foot space is an aquarium, planetarium, rainforest, and natural history museum all rolled into one. Plus, the building has an incredible solar panel-lined living rooftop that helps keep its carbon footprint low, and your ticket helps sponsor world-class scientific research projects. The Steinhart Aquarium houses 40,000 live animals spanning over 900 different species. At the same time, the Osher Rainforest boasts four full stories of neotropical flora and fauna, complete with free-flying birds, butterflies, and Amazonian boa constrictors.
Children's Creativity Museum
Just around the corner from SFMOMA, the Children's Creativity Museum is a must for families traveling with children or locals looking for an educational and fun way to spend the afternoon. Tailored to children aged 2-12, the museum takes a creative approach to make learning fun through interactive games, hands-on science experiments, art, music, and even child-friendly robot coding. If anything, the kids won’t want to miss a ride on the preserved carousel constructed in Rhode Island in 1906.
Located on Pier 15 right on the water, the Exploratorium is consistently ranked among the world's best museums. If you’ve traveled to San Francisco before, you may have visited the Exploratorium at its old location at the Palace of Fine Arts (which is where the museum lived from 1969 to 2013). Founded by famous physicist Dr. Frank Oppenheimer, this museum is, unsurprisingly, all about exploration. Inside, you’ll find over 600 hands-on exhibits ranging from art to science that attracts over a million visitors each year. Learn how fog is formed, what makes tornadoes, and all there is to know about prisms through interactive galleries and science experiments.
Cable Car Museum
It's no secret that San Francisco’s famed cable cars are one of the city’s best highlights. Visitors to the Cable Car Museum in Nob Hill will learn everything about cable cars' history and maintenance. Among examples of real-life old models of cable cars, including one dating back from the 1870s and the only surviving car from the city’s first rail, visitors can overlook the powerhouse that drives the city’s cables.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
One of the country’s largest modern art museums, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is found just a few steps from the city’s famous Yerba Buena Gardens. Apart from the 33,000 works of modern and contemporary art inside representing Frida Kahlo and Jackson Pollock's likes, visitors will also have free access to 45,000 square feet of galleries on the ground floor of the museum. There is even an entire floor dedicated to photography. Admission is free for those 18 and younger, as well.
De Young Museum
At more than 125 years old, De Young Museum is known for its more than 27,000 pieces spanning from the Americas, Oceania, and Africa in the forms of contemporary art, modern art, and photography. More recently, the museum has gained fame for its international textiles and costumes collections. It is located in the heart of Golden Gate Park and in 2003, upgraded its facilities thanks to a collaboration between San Francisican and Swiss architectural designers. One of the building's best parts comes from the Observations Level of the ninth floor, which provides a stunning 360-degree view of the nearby Pacific Ocean.
Museum of African Diaspora
The Museum of African Diaspora, also known as MoAD, was founded in 2005 by former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. The 20,000 square foot museum located downtown is one of the few museums on earth that focuses exclusively on historical and contemporary African Diaspora culture, celebrating Africa's heritage and African descendant cultures throughout the world. Along with offering immersive exhibits, MoAD puts on programs inspired by dance and music throughout the year and sponsors an Emerging Arts Program to support young artists.
Contemporary Jewish Museum
Just around the block from MoAd, the Contemporary Jewish Museum focuses on Jewish culture and history through art exhibits and educational programs. It is hard to miss the ground-level cube made of 3,000 steel panels, just one of the museum’s examples of contemporary avant-garde architecture, though inside the space accounts for a little bit of everything. The museum has three stories and 63,000 square feet of exhibitions, and hosts workshops, talks, tours, and performances designed for all ages throughout the year.
Legion of Honor
Originally built to honor the Californian soldiers who died in World War I, the Legion of Honor overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean from Lincoln Park. The building, an architectural masterpiece in itself, now contains 4,000 years' worth of ancient and European art and paintings. Art aficionados will recognize Rodin’s Thinkers in the courtyard and be pleased to find one of the largest collections of prints and drawing works in the country. General admission is free the first Tuesday of every month, and Bay Area locals get in free every Saturday.
We dare you to walk past Musée Mécanique on Pier 45’s Fisherman’s Wharf and not be compelled to take a peek inside. Founded by local San Franciscan philanthropist and historian Edward Galland Zelinsky, this unparalleled museum is made up entirely of his own personal collection of vintage arcade games, coin-operated musical instruments, and other antique oddities. There are over 300 pieces altogether, each one more unique than the next. Best of all, visitors get free admission and can use their own coins to operate the mechanical machines themselves (games range from a penny to 50 cents) since they are all kept pristine in their original working condition.
Asian Art Museum
Find the Asian Art Museum in the Civic Center neighborhood just across San Francisco’s City Hall's plaza. This museum protects one of the world’s most extensive and diverse collections of art from Asian culture. Among rotating temporary exhibits, the Asian Art Museum has a permanent collection of over 18,000 works from China, Japan, India, and other countries from the Asian continent. See what is believed to be the oldest Buddha sculpture in existence, a bronze rhinoceros vessel from 11th century China, a famous sculpture of Simhavaktra Dakini from Tibet, restored Japanese samurai armor, and much more.
The Beat Museum
Celebrate the legends of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and other monumental members of the Beat Generation at The Beat Museum in North Beach. This small museum-meets-bookstore houses a substantial collection of memorabilia from the Beat Movement of the 1950s. This isn’t your typical museum, as visitors are free to casually roam at their own pace, even stopping to hang out, lounge, and read undisturbed if they like. While you're in the area, check out historical and iconic City Lights Books around the corner, the original publisher of Ginsberg’s famous "Howl" in 1956.
Located in Fisherman’s Wharf, Madame Tussauds has been blowing minds with its realistic wax sculptures in San Francisco since 2014. Among the regular sculptures of celebrities, movie stars, politicians, and other famous figures, Madame Tussauds SF features wax figures of local San Franciscan artists, musicians, and activists. Spend an hour or two checking out the exhibits and take photos with your favorite (faux) celebrities before going out to explore the rest of Fisherman’s Wharf.
The Randall Museum is operated by the San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department, mainly focusing on nature. Located in Corona Heights Park between the Castro and Haight-Ashbury districts, the museum features science and art exhibits about wildlands, wildlife, domestic animals, and onsite classes and after-school programs for youth. It’s a favorite for local field trips to teach kids about nature, but it is worth a visit if you’re in the area with your little ones.
The Walt Disney Family Museum
Families and Disney lovers won’t want to miss San Francisco’s own Walt Disney Museum in the city's Presidio district. The museum is dedicated to Walt Disney's life and all of his beloved creations, from Mickey Mouse to the Disneyland parks. There are interactive galleries and exhibits narrated by Walt Disney himself, various original artworks from cartoons and movies, and screenings of classic Disney movies shown throughout the day. By far, the biggest draw is the incredibly detailed and massive model of Disneyland that represents the park with attractions that either existed or were at their development stage while Walt was still alive.