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Photograph: Courtesy SFMOMA

Check out these cool exhibits at the best museums in San Francisco

From contemporary art to world-renowned science centers, these museums in San Francisco are well worth the price of admission

Written by
Clara Hogan
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Art is everywhere in San Francisco, from the Mission murals and the Painted Ladies to those famous heart sculptures that are among the most Instagrammable places in the city. But with a world-class lineup of museums in San Francisco, the city also delivers when it comes to capital-A art. SFMOMA, the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor are the big art galleries where fine art is concerned. But you can also discover art of specific and various cultures within city limites, from the Asian Art Museum and the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) to the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

While the city's art museums alone could keep you busy for weeks, San Francisco's eclectic museum scene encompasses so much more. Beyond art, the city also provides chances to dig into science at places like the Calfornia Academy of Sciences, learn about the cartoons at the Cartoon Art Museum, discover the history of Walt Disney at the Walt Disney Family Museum, and let kids (or adults) get hands-on in experiments at the Exploratorium and discover the fun of an old-timey arcade at Musée Mécanique. No matter your interest, there's a museum in San Francisco guaranteed to be worth your visit.  

RECOMMENDED: The best things to do in San Francisco

Best museums in San Francisco

  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Golden Gate Park
  • price 1 of 4

Located in the middle of Golden Gate Park, this 125-year-old museum specializes in art from 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: Hung Liu: Golden Gate (金門) features the work of Hung Liu, who grew up in the mid-1900s in China under the Maoist regime. She's known for her Socialist Realist paintings of archival photos, sanctioned documents, and other primary sources, highlighting narratives around migration. See the exhibition through March 13, 2022.

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. 

  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Yerba Buena
  • price 2 of 4

Global architecture firm Snohetta designed SFMOMA's 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.

What's on: Pan American Unity, a Mural by Diego Rivera is on display through summer 2023. This large display is the famed artist's last mural in the United States, which he painted in front of a live audience during the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in 1940. 

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.) 

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  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Outer Richmond
  • price 1 of 4

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: Iliazd: Publishing as an Art Form looks at Russian Modernist Ilia Zdanevhich's work collaborating with the likes of Pabalo Picasso and Georges Braque to publish 21 artist books.

Don't miss: Ancient art from Egypt, Greece, and Rome fills the Hall of Antiquities (don’t miss the mummy room).

  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Civic Center
  • price 1 of 4

Founded more than 50 years ago, 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, ranging from ancient stones and ceramics to contemporary paintings and video installations. 

What's on: teamLAB: Continuity is an immersive experience that allows visitors to be part of an interactive landscape of blooming flowers, darting fish, and flying crows in a video installation splashed across the floor, walls, and ceiling. 

Don't miss: The Chinese collection is considered to be the best outside of China itself. 

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  • Museums
  • Science and technology
  • Golden Gate Park
  • price 2 of 4

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.

What's on: Sharks allows visitors to dive deep into learning about the diversity of these feared sea creatures, from the small lanternshark to the mighty Megalodon. 

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.

  • Museums
  • Science and technology
  • North Beach
  • price 2 of 4

This eye-popping art and science museum located at Pier 15 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 Sun Painting, a "live" painting that uses light from the Sun to change colors and shapes. 

Don't miss: A sculpture made from 100,000 toothpicks! 

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  • Museums
  • Yerba Buena
  • price 1 of 4

Note: This museum is temporarily closed with plans to open in the fall of 2021.

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.

Don't miss: In addition to its temporary exhibitions, the museum hosts annual programs for poets in residence and emerging Bay Area artists.

  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Yerba Buena
  • price 1 of 4

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. The three-story, 63,000-square-foot museum showcases a vibrant range of group shows and rotating exhibitions.

What's on: GOLEM: A Call to Action features work by Los Angeles-based artist Julie Weitz and is comprised of three video installations that draw on Jewish allegory and folklore. This exhibit runs through December 5, 2021.

Don't miss: 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

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  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Yerba Buena
  • price 1 of 4

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.

What's on: The Legend of Wonder Woman celebrates one of the most recognizable fictional characters in history. The exhibit, which runs through the end of 2021, tells the superhero's 80-year history.

Don't miss: Tables stationed around the space are stocked with drawing utensils for adults and kids to create their own comic art.

  • Museums
  • Special interest
  • Fisherman's Wharf

Local legend Edward Galland Zelinsky founded this museum as a showcase for his unparalleled collection of antique oddities back in 1933, 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.

 

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  • Museums
  • Corona Heights

Note: This museum is temporarily closed.

The new and improved museum (it underwent a $9 million renovation in 2018) 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.

  • Kids
  • Exhibitions
  • Yerba Buena
  • price 1 of 4

This gem of a museum was conceived completely with children in mind. Imagination and creativity rule 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.

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  • Museums
  • Movies and TV
  • Presidio
  • price 2 of 4

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.

  • Museums
  • Union Square
  • price 1 of 4

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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