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11 of the Best Museums in San Francisco

11 of the Best Museums in San Francisco

When making the itinerary for your San Francisco visit, be sure to include these world-class museums

The first things that come to mind when most think of San Francisco are the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, the city’s famous cable cars, Alcatraz Island, and the amazing and diverse food. But to overlook the vibrant and extensive San Francisco art museum scene would be a mistake.

Because here’s the truth: San Francisco’s impressive cultural diversity is reflected in its wide array of museums. There is a little something for everyone—whether you’re an art enthusiast, a casual museum-goer, or a family seeking kid-friendly museums.

Best of all, many of these museums are located in the most popular areas of San Francisco, such as the Presidio, Golden Gate Park, and Yerba Buena Gardens, so you’ll never have to choose between sightseeing and museum-going. Here is a list of the best museums to visit in San Francisco.

10 of the Best Museums in San Francisco

de Young

Best Museum to: See Classic Paintings and Sculptures

de Young is San Francisco’s oldest museum and is one half of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Located in Golden Gate Park, de Young houses an expansive collection of classic American paintings and sculptures from the 17th to 21st century, as well as a mix of modern and contemporary art spanning the globe. Enjoy a drink at the cafe overlooking the sculpture garden and head to the top of the tower for a breathtaking 360-degree view of the city.

Need to know: The observation tower closes one hour before the museum. The museum is closed on Mondays and is free for visitors 17 and under.

10 of the Best Museums in San Francisco

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

Best Museum to: Discover Works from Modern and Contemporary Artists

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is an art lover’s dream come true. This massive space features over 33,000 works from modern and contemporary artists such as Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Henri Matisse. Located near Union Square and the Yerba Buena Gardens, the SFMOMA building itself is a stunning work of modern architecture and its LEED Gold certification is a testament to the museum’s continued dedication to sustainability.

Need to know: Be sure to check out the rooftop sculpture garden and the impressive Living Wall with over 19,000 plants. The museum is closed on Wednesdays and is free for visitors 18 and under.

Contemporary Jewish Museum

Best Museum to: Explore Different Sides of Jewish Culture

The Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) features rotating, thought-provoking exhibits on the art, culture, and history of the Jewish community. The CJM is a non-collecting institution, so exhibits are timely and change often. Recent exhibits include a visual look at music history through photographer Jay Blakesburg, who captured San Francisco's vibrant and unique culture while documenting artists such as the Grateful Dead, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young. Past exhibits have featured everything from trailblazing puppeteer Jim Henson to the denim history of Levi Strauss. 

Need to know: Visitors under 18 are free; admission is free for all on the first Friday of every month. While there, try a signature pastrami sandwich or bagel and shmear from Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen—they have an outpost within the museum. 

10 of the Best Museums in San Francisco

Asian Art Museum

Best Museum to: Explore Asian Culture

San Francisco is a diverse city with a large Asian population, so it’s fitting that the Asian Art Museum would house one of the country’s most extensive collections of Asian artworks. In fact, the Asian Art Museum is home to one of the largest collections of Chinese art outside of China. You’ll find over 18,000 permanent works of art consisting of paintings, jades, ceramics, and armor from across every region of Asia.

Need to know: Visit the Japanese Tea House, which was originally built in Kyoto before being disassembled and reassembled. The museum is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Tickets are half off after 5 p.m. on Thursdays and free on the first Sunday of every month.

10 of the Best Museums in San Francisco

The Walt Disney Family Museum

Best Museum to: Relive Your Childhood

Located in the Presidio, the red-bricked Walt Disney Family Museum is one you won’t want to miss. Kids will enjoy seeing their favorite Disney characters come to life through interactive galleries while Disney-loving adults can take a nostalgic trip down memory lane via the museum’s chronological focus on the life and work of Walt Disney. The 3D scale model of Disneyland might even make you consider extending your California stay so you can visit the real thing.

Need to know: The museum hosts special events and screenings of classic Disney films in the Fantasia-themed theater. Tickets are free for children five and under and military personnel.


Best Museum to: Discover the Art of Science

Like its name suggests, the Exploratorium is a science museum filled with hundreds of interactive activities and hands-on experiments that play with optical illusions, magnetic fields, and more. The Exploratorium is the brainchild of Frank Oppenheimer, brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who aimed to combine art and science education. When it’s time to give your brain a breather, head to the museum’s Seaglass Restaurant and Bar, where you can take in stunning views of the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island.

Need to know: The Exploratorium’s Black Box is an ideal space for displaying media art installations while the Kanbar Forum features 99 loudspeakers that can fully alter the acoustics to make it sound like a concert hall or a small gallery. The museum is closed on Mondays. Tickets are free for children 3 and under, and discounts are given to seniors (65+), teachers, and people with disabilities.

10 of the Best Museums in San Francisco

Museum of African Diaspora (MoAD)

Best Museum to: Learn About Roots You Never Knew You Had

The Museum of African Diaspora (MoAD) is a contemporary art museum focused on showcasing African ancestry and African American works that highlight the spread of African culture throughout the world. The museum, located at the St. Regis near Union Square Park, is fairly small but perfect if you’re a completist who doesn’t like to leave any stone or artwork unturned. Visitors should set aside time to peruse the beautiful collection of photography from around the world. 

Need to know: MoAD partners with local artists for special exhibits and presents documentaries and short films in the Toni Rembe Freedom Theater. The museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and there is free admission every second Saturday. Tickets are always free for children 12 and under and for active-duty military.

10 of the Best Museums in San Francisco

California Academy of Sciences

Best Museum to: Explore Nature

The California Academy of Sciences, located inside Golden Gate Park, combines a Natural History Museum, an aquarium, a planetarium, and a rainforest that’s perfect for nature lovers. Interact with the free-flying birds and butterflies in the rainforest enclosure and don’t miss your chance to see one of San Francisco's most popular residents, Claude the Albino Alligator, at the indoor swamp. If you enjoyed the Living Wall at the SFMOMA, you’ll love the Rolling Hills of California Academy of Sciences Living Rooftop.

Need to know: Buying tickets in advance is the best way to save on the price of admission here. Check out the calendar for NightLife events on Thursdays from 6–10 p.m., including DJs and musical performances, specialty cocktails, cultural discussions, and the chance to see animal exhibits in the evening.


Legion of Honor

Best Museum to: See Ancient European Works of Art

The other half of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Legion of Honor, was built to commemorate Californian soldiers who died in World War I. Located on a bluff in Lincoln Park, Legion of Honor heavily features ancient art and European paintings and sculptures. A bronze cast of Rodin’s The Thinker immediately greets visitors, while further inside is one of the largest collections of works on paper.

Need to Know: Pack a lunch and have a picnic on the grass while taking in a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. The museum is closed on Mondays and tickets are free for visitors 17 and under.

10 of the Best Museums in San Francisco

The Museum of Craft and Design (MCD)

Best Museum to: Learn a New Craft or Brush Up on an Old One

The Museum of Craft and Design (MCD) is a contemporary art museum that spotlights classic and unconventional design concepts. Exhibits from local and international craftsmen often include hands-on demonstrations of the artistic techniques used to create them. The MCD is a non-collecting museum with no permanent collections, meaning that each visit is a unique experience. The entire museum consists of just two rooms, making it ideal for a quick visit.

Need to know: The MCD’s award-winning store is packed with design books, children’s toys, and gifts. The museum is closed on Monday and Tuesday. Tickets are free for children 12 and under and military personnel; on Wednesdays there’s a “pay what you can” admission policy.

Children’s Creativity Museum (CCM)

Best Museum to: Bring Your Kids

The Children’s Creativity Museum (CCM) is a fun collection of interactive exhibits perfectly suited for children ages 2–12. Kids can get messy creating paintings in the ArtLab or solve puzzling challenges using blocks and LEGO bricks in the DesignIt! Studio. Also, the augmented-reality sandboxes take playing with sand to a whole new level. Be sure to take a ride on the LeRoy King Carousel and explore the adjacent Yerba Buena Gardens Children's Park.

Need to know: Leave a lasting impression by adding your artwork to the digital community garden or by contributing physical art to the large collaborative mural. The full museum is open Thursday through Sunday; the carousel is open Friday through Sunday. Kids under 1 are free.

In addition to these great museums, there are more than 40 additional San Francisco art museums to discover. The comprehensive collections of artwork and diverse communities of emerging artists make San Francisco’s lively art scene one of the best in the country. And if you are able to cast an even wider net, check out some of these top Bay Area museums, too.

If your museum visits sparked an interest in San Francisco’s history, you’ll want to check out some of the city’s iconic landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf, or take a ferry ride across the bay to tour Alcatraz. Enjoy a meal at the Ferry Building Marketplace, grab a drink at one of San Francisco’s many breweries, or go wine-tasting on Treasure Island. And don’t forget the San Francisco nightlife. It’s a big city with even bigger experiences to offer.

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