San Francisco has a big and broad collection of top-notch museums, and nearly all of them can be visited for free--and here’s how (and when and for whom). Below are some general guidelines and free admission programs to know about; a list, in alphabetical order, of San Francisco Bay Area museums, their free-admission days; and lastly, a list of museums that are always free.
What to Know
- Most major San Francisco Bay Area museums are free for everyone at least one day each month, and several are always free for children ages 12 and under.
- Various local museums provide free admission under two nationwide programs:
- Bank of America’s Museums on Us - Bank of America and Merrill Lynch cardholders get free general admission to certain museums during the first full weekend of every month. The museums in the Bay Area are San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, de Young, Legion of Honor, Contemporary Jewish Museum; Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland; and San Jose’s The Tech Interactive.
- Blue Star Museums - Launched in the summer of 2010, this program provides free admission to designated museums for active duty military personnel and their families from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Included are the Bay Area Discovery Museum, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, Children’s Creativity Museum, CuriOdyssey (formerly Coyote Point Museum) in San Mateo, de Young and Legion of Honor, Filoli, Lawrence Hall of Science, Museum of Craft and Design, Oakland Museum of California, San Jose Museum of Art, Walt Disney Family Museum, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
- Before you go on a free day: Be prepared for crowds. Because of capacity limitations, admission is not guaranteed, so it’s best to arrive early. If you’re planning a group visit, check with the museum first; some museums limit or prohibit group visits on their free days.
- Reduced admission: Most museums give discounts to seniors, youths, children, and students. Check for other possible discounts, for instance, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts also gives price breaks to visitors who ride public transportation and to teachers. On certain nights, many major museums stay open late and host special programs, entertainment and cash bars, all at a discount.
Free Admission Offers
- Asian Art Museum - (200 Larkin Street, San Francisco). Showcasing Asian art and culture for the masses, San Francisco's Asian Art Museum provides a "bridge of understanding" between the Asian continent, its distinct regions, and the U.S. through everything from kimono-inspired fashions to contemporary cartoon-like sculptures. The museum offers free general admission each first Sunday of the month, and is always complimentary for those ages 12 and under, SF Unified School District students (with ID), and active U.S. military (with up to five family members).
- California Academy of Sciences - (55 Music Concourse Drive Golden Gate Park, San Francisco). Both a masterpiece of sustainable architecture and one of the largest museums of natural history on the planet, the California Academy of Sciences has been wowing crowds with features like a 2.5-acre living roof and its use of 11-million pounds of recycled steel since reopening in 2008. The museum is home to a planetarium, a four-story rainforest canopy, and a resident albino alligator named Claude. It's free on rotating dates for San Francisco residents of designated ZIP codes.
- Cartoon Art Museum - (781 Beach Street, 1st Floor). Reopened in its new Fisherman's Wharf location in 2017, San Francisco's beloved Cartoon Art Museum now houses approximately 7,000 works dedicated to the arts of comic and cartoons. Exhibits ran the gamut from the elaborate stylized maps of Uruguay-born cartoonist Jacinta "Jo" Mora to the animated works of Tom & Jerry, Fantasia, and The Simpsons. The first Tuesday of every month is “Pay What You Wish Day," meaning you can contribute as little or as much as you're able to afford.
- Chinese Historical Society of America - (965 Clay Street). Housed in an historic Julia Morgan-designed structure in San Francisco's Chinatown, the Chinese Historical Society of America is the country's oldest such organization: founded in 1963 to explore and promote the legacy of Chinese across the U.S. through exhibitions--like the history of Chinese in SF's Sunset District--and events such as workshops in graphic noveling. The museum is free each first Thursday of the month.
- Contemporary Jewish Museum - (736 Mission Street, San Francisco). Although founded in 1984, it wasn't until 2008 that San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum, or "CJM," opened within its current 63,000 square-foot South of Market facility, where along with a rotating array of exhibits it's home to various screenings, performances, talks, and workshops highlighting Jewish culture, as well as an onsite deli serving up traditional Jewish comfort foods. The CJM is free each first Tuesday of the month, and always for those ages 18 and under.
- de Young Museum - (50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., San Francisco). San Francisco's more-than-century-old fine arts museum is known for its incredible American art displays from the 17th through the 21st centuries, along with a selection of modern international artworks, fashions, and other decorative objects such as rare Turkman carpets and 8th century European fans. Located within Golden Gate Park, the de Young is free every Saturday for San Francisco residents.
- Exploratorium - (Pier 15, San Francisco). Completely interactive and oh-so-much-fun, the Exploratorium provides visitors the unique opportunity to engage with projects through the realms of science, art, and perception, whether it's seeing how quietly you can trek across a gravel path or creating vivid images through movement. This immersive museum is completely free six select days a year, including Pi Day (March 14) and Mother’s Day, and always free for public school teachers and those three yeas of age and under.
- Legion of Honor - (Lincoln Park, 100 34th Avenue, San Francisco). Reaching into the vast annals of millennia past, San Francisco's prestigious Legion of Honor regales with a stunning art collection that spans more than 6,000 years. Peruse works by Impressionist painters like Renoir and Monet, marvel at Rodin's Age of Bronze sculpture, and be mesmerized by temporary exhibits like Mummies and Medicine. The museum is free every Saturday for San Francisco residents.
- Museum of the African Diaspora - (685 Mission St. San Francisco) Learn how the migration of Africans influenced history, art, and culture worldwide at the Museum of the African Diaspora, a Smithsonian affiliate and contemporary art museum that celebrates Black cultures through a both global lens and everything from slavery narratives to poets in residents. The museum is free for active military and those ages 12 and under.
- Museum of Craft and Design - (2569 Third Street, San Francisco) SF's only museum entirely dedicated to modern and contemporary craft and design, MCD showcases a unique array of changing works, from survivalist architecture to life-size sculptures detailing the plight of elephants through steel and glass. It's free on first Tuesday of the month ,and always for those ages 12 and under.
- San Francisco Botanical Garden - (9th Ave. & Lincoln Way, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco) Tucked within Golden Gate Park, the San Francisco Botanical Garden is a 55-acre floral delight filled with wildflowers, cloud forests, and nearly 100 Magnolia trees, as well as plenty of hidden spots to while away an afternoon among nature. The gardens are always free for San Francisco residents (with proof of residency) and those four and under; and free for non-residents on the second Tuesday of each month, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Jan. 1.
- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art - (151 Third St., San Francisco). Originally founded in 1935, the SFMOMA was the first West Coast museum devoted exclusively to 20th-century art. The museum reopened in 2016 after a multi-year expansion and features works by Diego Rivera, Andy Warhol, and Edward Hopper among many other celebrated artists. It's free on first Tuesday of the month, as well as for those ages 12 and under and in active U.S. military.
- Yerba Buena Center for the Arts - (701 Mission Street, San Francisco). Ever-engaging and always diverse, the YBCA art center spans multiple disciplinaries that include everything from contemporary ballet to international film. It's free on the first Tuesday of each month.
- San Francisco Cable Car Museum - (1201 Mason St., San Francisco) Discover how cable cars work and how the city's cable car system has been rebuilt, and step inside an antique 19th century cable car at this museum devoted to one of San Francisco's most iconic attractions. Admission is free.
- San Francisco Railway Museum - (77 Steuart St., San Francisco) Celebrate San Francisco's more general rail transit history with historic artifacts, archival photos, and a gift shop housing some of the most unique souvenirs in the city.