San Francisco has a big and broad collection of top-notch museums, and nearly all of them can be visited for free, you just have to know how and when. A couple of quick tips: Many of SF's museums have a monthly "free day," but be prepared for crowds. Because of capacity limitations, admission is not always guaranteed, so it’s best to arrive to each museum early. If you’re planning a group visit, check with the museum first; some museums limit or prohibit group visits on their free days. Also, 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 transit and to teachers. On certain nights, many major museums stay open late and host special programs, entertainment and cash bars, all at a discount.
Here is our list of 15 phenomenal San Francisco museums and the most affordable times to visit them. Now, get exploring!!
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).
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 the third Wednesday of the month, as well as rotating dates for San Francisco residents of designated ZIP codes.
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.
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.
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.
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 on each first Tuesday of the month and always complimentary for those ages 12 and under.
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 is always free for public school teachers and those 3 years of age and under.
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 on Saturdays for San Francisco residents, and always for those ages 17 and under.
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 personnel and those ages 12 and under.
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
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 ages 4 and under; and free for non-residents on the second Tuesday of each month, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and January 1.
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.
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.
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.
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. Admission is free.