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What to See at San Francisco’s de Young Museum

The de Young Museum

This stunning Bay Area cultural marvel has been delighting art and architecture fans for more than 125 years

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On the north side of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, a curious crack in the sidewalk will lead you to the city’s oldest public museum: the de Young. The faux fault line is actually a symbolic work of art, created by British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy—and it's just one of the nearly 5,000 pieces in the museum’s permanent collection.

One of the premier art museums in the country, the de Young has been an integral part of San Francisco culture for more than 125 years. Visit the facility to explore American art from the 17th century through the present day, as well as international sculptures, paintings, textiles, and costumes. The de Young also serves as a glorious gateway to Golden Gate Park, and is located near the Music Concourse, Rose Garden, Japanese Tea Garden, and Conservatory of Flowers.

de Young History and Architecture

The museum’s history dates back to the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894. Following the fair, Michael H. de Young, co-founder of the San Francisco Chronicle, championed for the temporary Egyptian Revival–style Fine Arts Building to become a permanent fixture and the museum was born.

The 1906 earthquake caused significant damage and forced a long closure, and in 1919, the museum expanded into a new building designed by Louis Christian Mullgardt in the Spanish Plateresque style. At the turn of the 21st century, the cultural center underwent another major overhaul with a new building designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron in collaboration with Fong & Chan Architects in San Francisco.

The current structure itself is a piece of art, designed to blur the lines between the man-made building and its natural setting. The starkly beautiful textured copper facade invokes the filtering of light through tree branches, and the nine-story Hamon Observation Tower offers a panoramic view of the surrounding park and downtown San Francisco through its floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Insider tip: You can visit the observation tower without a ticket to the museum, Tuesday through Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. 

Must-See de Young Collections and Exhibits

The de Young Museum houses an impressive, eclectic mix of American, European, African, Asian, and Oceanic art. Find everything from French tapestries dating back to the 16th century to watershed moments in fashion like the early designs of Christian Lacroix. The permanent collection boasts paintings and drawings from well-known artists, including Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Sol LeWitt. Guests can also browse fascinating international artwork like the Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art, which showcases pieces from hundreds of villages and clans throughout the island nation.

The museum also hosts rotating exhibits, including the annual Bouquets to Art, which features floral pieces inspired by artwork. Other past exhibits have been dedicated to royal Hawaiian featherwork, Keith Harrington’s pop art, and the celebrated Black fashion designer Patrick Kelly.

Visiting the de Young Museum

The de Young Museum is currently open to the public Tuesday through Sunday, and advanced reservations for both general admission tickets and special exhibitions are recommended—although walkups are also allowed. Reservations include access to the Hamon Tower and observation area.

Guests are welcome to dine at the de Young Café on the Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden Terrace and browse fascinating small gifts at the museum store without purchasing entry. General admission is complimentary for everyone on the first Tuesday of every month and after 4:30 p.m. daily. Bay Area residents may visit on Saturdays for free, and admission is free any time for those with limited accessibility, museum members, California library cardholders, and anyone qualifying for Medi-Cal or SNAP benefits. 

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