Best museums in San Francisco
What is it: Located in the middle of Golden Gate Park, this 125-year-old museum specializes in art from America, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. In recent years, it’s become particularly known for its sprawling costume exhibits, from contemporary Muslim fashion to Oscar de la Renta and Vivienne Westwood.
What's on: Ed Hardy: Deeper Than Skin, debuting this summer, is the first museum retrospective of the renowned California tattoo artist. Another upcoming (and acclaimed) show to get on your radar is Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, 1963–1983.
Don't miss: The Hamon observation tower on the 9th floor. The stunning, glass-encased space overlooks all of Golden Gate Park, downtown San Francisco, the Bay, and the Marin headlands. The museum café is also worth a taste.
What is it: Global architecture firm Snohetta designed the ambitious new addition in 2016, making it one of the largest modern art museums in the country. Inside, you’ll find 33,000 works of art, including painting, photography, architecture and design, and media arts.
Why go: Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again and the soon-to-open April Dawn Alison, featuring 30 years of photos depicting the colorful female persona of the Oakland-based photographer who lived as a man.
Don't miss: The light-flooded space features six sculpture-decked terraces, as well as the largest living wall in the country. (It’s bursting with more than 19,000 plants, including nearly two dozen species native to California.)
What is it: This grand Beaux-Arts building is a feat of architecture in itself, clad in white limestone, marble, and gleaming chevron wood. Devoted to ancient and European art, the museum contains more than 800 European paintings in its permanent collection—of which around 250 are on view—including works by masters like Claude Monet and Fra Angelico.
What's on: The special Early Rubens exhibition, focusing on the master's most innovative period from 1608 to 1620. And coming soon: Strange Days, Dada, Surrealism and the Book that will feature rarely seen works from the likes of Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Joan Miró, and Louise Bourgeois.
Don't miss: Ancient art from Egypt, Greece, and Rome fills the Hall of Antiquities (don’t miss the mummy room).
What is it: The Asian Art Museum contains one of the most extensive collections of Asian art in the world, with more than 18,000 works in its permanent collection.
What's on: Tattoos in Japanese Prints is the current featured exhibit and the upcoming Art Recovered From Shipwrecks is sure to be fascinating.
Don't miss: The Chinese collection is considered to be the best outside of China itself.
What is it: Cal Academy is an aquarium, planetarium, rainforest, and natural history museum wrapped into one. Though it’s considered California’s oldest museum—originally established in 1853—it has morphed over time to remain a vital, vibrant space. In all, the 400,000-square-foot building contains over 26 million specimens.
Don't miss: The museum also has one of the most striking rooftops in the city, covered in seven rolling hills and home to an estimated 1.7 million plants.
What it is: This eye-popping art and science museum mesmerizes kids and adults alike. The museum touts over 650 exhibits, including hands-on activities, science experiments, and interactive galleries incorporating sight, touch, memory, and perception. The clever, mind-bending exhibits blend light, tricks of physics, and sound.
What's on: Make sure to check out Self Made, which explores various aspects of identity and the meaning of self through bold and playful interactives, artworks, artifacts and costumes.
Don't miss: A sculpture made from 100,000 toothpicks!
What is it: This contemporary art museum celebrates black culture in all its forms. It was opened in 2005, a pet project of former SF mayor Willie Brown. Though the 20,000-square-foot space is relatively small, the lens is broad, examining African ancestry from a historic and contemporary angle.
What's on: Coffee, Rhum, Sugar & Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox that looks at the legacy of European colonialism in the Caribbean via the works of 20 modern-day artists and Still Here, which explores stories of migration, displacement, and survival in films by eight artists that represent a spectrum of the African Diaspora.
Don't miss: In addition to its temporary exhibitions, the museum hosts annual programs for poets in residence and emerging Bay Area artists.
What is it: Located across from Yerba Buena Park, the Jewish Museum is an architectural marvel, swathed in more than 3,000 color-changing blue steel panels and shaped to reflect the Hebrew letters chet and yud, which together spell the Hebrew word for life. On the second floor, the 2,200-square-foot Yud Gallery soars to 65 feet high and is dotted with 36 diamond-shaped windows; that inspiring space is devoted to audio installations, performances, and special events. The three-story, 63,000-square-foot museum showcases a vibrant range of group shows and rotating exhibitions, including the works of Israeli musician and composer Kutiman, famous illustrator and New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, legendary director Stanley Kubrick, and contemporary artist Cary Leibowitz.
Don't miss: Plan your visit on the first Tuesday of the month, when admission is free.
What is it: Originally founded in 1984, this petite but well-appointed museum displays a slew of comic art, including comic strips, comic books, anime, political cartoons, graphic novels, zines, and underground comix. The museum houses nearly 7,000 works in its permanent collection, including the work of illustrators like Roz Chast, Robert Crumb, Wally Wood, Edward Gorey, and Chuck Jones.
Don't miss: Tables stationed around the space are stocked with drawing utensils for adults and kids to create their own comic art.
What is it: Local legend Edward Galland Zelinsky founded this museum as a showcase for his unparalleled collection of antique oddities, namely coin-operated mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade machines. The assortment spans more than 300 items, including coin-operated pianos, antique slot machines, hand-cranked music boxes, salvaged bits of local history, a steam-powered motorcycle, and various vintage arcade games.
Don't miss: Don't forget your coin jar. The arcades are all in working condition and can be played—most cost $.25 or $.50 apiece.
What is it: This immersive museum encourages visitors to plunge, ride, play, and eat their way through its splashy exhibits. The Instagram-worthy scenes include an animal cookie carousel, rainbow- and banana-print candyscapes, and an entire swimming pool full of rainbow sprinkles.
Don't miss: Head to the pint shop to sample the assortment of kid- and adult-friendly flavors like Churro Churro (cinnamon ice cream with churro bites), Pinata (vanilla ice cream laden with iced animal cookies, cupcake bites, fizzy cotton candies, and rainbow sprinkles), and Nana Banana (banana ice cream swirled with salted caramel almond butter).
What is it: After a $9 million renovation in 2018, this science and nature museum has been revitalized. The new and improved space features a high-tech STEM lab, science and ceramics studios, and fully redesigned exhibit spaces. The museum is packed with kid-friendly exhibits and play spaces, including the toddler treehouse, the sprawling electric model railroad (featuring replicas of real Bay Area trains), and a live animal exhibit that contains coyotes, foxes, reptiles, and sea creatures.
Don't miss: A trip to the always-free Randall Museum would be worth it just for the panoramic city views from the top of Corona Heights Park. And check out the new kinetic sculpture in the lobby by local artist Ben Trautman—the graceful steel, aluminum, and wood mobile mimics a bird in flight.
What is it: This gem of a museum was conceived completely with children in mind. Imagination and creativity rules here—rather than a rowdy playspace, the high-tech museum is thoughtfully designed to encourage making and inventing. That ethos spans a wide array of labs, workshops, and studios. In the Animation Lab, kids knead clay into characters and create their own stop-motion movies. In the Tech Lab, future Googlers learn how to write code by programming robots to play music and solve puzzles. And kids can star in their own music videos—complete with costumes and green screen technology—in the Music Studio.
Don't miss: Outside, take a spin on the ornate LeRoy King Carousel, a storied relic originally constructed in 1906. The ride has twirled in this Yerba Buena location since 1998.
What is it: This Presidio museum is devoted to the life and work of Walt Disney, the man behind the iconic mouse. Opened in 2009, it was founded by the Walt Disney Family Foundation and overseen by Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller. The space is split between historic photographs and media from Disney’s life (spread across 10 permanent galleries) and rotating exhibits highlighting the significant animators and stylists behind the company’s beloved movies.
Don't miss: Interactive galleries contain multimedia video, listening stations, early renderings, and a 12-foot diameter model of Disneyland.
What is it: Peruse the work of painters, textile artists, technologists, and sculptors at the Museum of Craft and Design, a small, contemporary museum with a frequently rotating list of exhibits.
Don't miss: The exhibits are thought-provoking and unexpected—from month to month, that might mean survival architecture, custom motorcycles, fashion, light fixtures, sound installations, or contemporary furniture.
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