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The best San Francisco museums to see the latest exhibits

Explore ancient artifact, modern design and even the history of ice cream at these San Francisco museums
Photograph: Courtesy SFMOMA
By Shoshi Parks and Lauren Sheber |
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San Francisco has always been an artsy city, from its thriving art galleries to its vibrant public art (like the colorful Mission murals). SFMOMA may soak up all the glory (indeed, it’s a must-see), but there are San Francisco museums devoted to every era, medium, and fascination. Whether you want to be steeped in ancient artifacts, impressed by the great contemporary artists of our time or just need something to do with the kids, there’s a San Francisco museum fit for every whim.

Museums in San Francisco

1
M.H. de Young Museum
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Emily Hoyer
Museums, Art and design

de Young Museum

icon-location-pin Golden Gate Park

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 the contemporary designer Oscar de la Renta. The permanent collection spans the gamut from gowns, paintings, and textiles to ancient artifacts. In addition, you’ll find an impressive collection of 19th-century American and European photography with a focus on historical California photographs. The museum deftly mixes historic gems with modern technology, as evidenced by the new “de Youngsters Studio,” a multimedia space for kids to interact with art through cameras, AR, and digital works. 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.

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2
Photograph: Courtesy SFMOMA
Museums, Art and design

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

icon-location-pin Yerba Buena

The modern art museum’s new building, which opened in 2016, merges seamlessly with its original structure, completed in 1995. Global architecture firm Snohetta designed the ambitious addition, making it one of the largest modern art museums in the country. The distinctive, textural facade was inspired by San Francisco’s fog and rippling bay. Inside, you’ll find 33,000 works of art, including painting, photography, architecture and design, and media arts. 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.) Even if you don’t shell out for a ticket—which, trust us, you should—there are still over 45,000 square feet of free public art spaces to explore for free. Even the vibrant, monochromatic restrooms are endorphin-spiking feats of design.

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3
California Palace of the Legion of Honor
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Harry Chen
Museums, Art and design

Legion of Honor

icon-location-pin Outer Richmond

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. The emphasis on sculpture is evident from the moment you arrive—you’ll encounter Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker in the outer courtyard. The permanent collection spans from medieval times to the early 20th century, showcasing decorative arts, paintings, sculpture, and ancient artifacts. Ancient art from Egypt, Greece, and Rome fills the Hall of Antiquities (don’t miss the mummy room). The Legion is also home to the Skinner Organ, a beautiful  mahogany, ivory, and ebony instrument built by the Ernest M. Skinner Organ Company in 1924; check deyoung.famsf.org for a schedule of free concerts.

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4
Asian Art Museum
Photograph: Courtesy Asian Art Museum
Museums, Art and design

Asian Art Museum

icon-location-pin Civic Center

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. Though the museum originally shared a space with the de Young, it quickly outgrew its cramped digs. In 2003, after extensive renovations by architect Gae Aulenti, the museum took over the former San Francisco city library building in Civic Center; you can still read the quotes about books and literature etched into marble walls on the second floor. The building is split into galleries devoted to South Asia, the Persian world, West Asia, the Himalayas and Tibetan Buddhist world, Korea, Japan, and China. In particular, the Chinese collection, considered to be the best outside of China itself, is a point of pride. That section reveals jade carvings, Buddhist sculptures, decorative ceramics, ritual bronzes, and more. The museum is slated to expand further still in late 2019 with the addition of a new pavilion on the first floor.

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5
Exploratorium
Museums, Science and technology

Exploratorium

icon-location-pin North Beach

This eye-popping art and science museum mesmerizes kids and adults alike. Reopened after massive renovations at Pier 15 in 2013, the museum touts over 500 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. Whether you’re ogling rare plants or awe-inspiring art (a sculpture made from 100,000 toothpicks?!), it’s easy to spend a full day here.

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6
Cartoon Art Museum
Photograph: Wei Shi
Museums, Art and design

Cartoon Art Museum

icon-location-pin Yerba Buena

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 relocated to this waterfront location in fall 2017, which affords nearly 8,000 square feet of exhibition space, as well a screening area, a library, and a collections facility. Visitors can browse everything from early Disney and Warner Bros. stills to obscure graphic art from around the world. 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. Tables stationed around the space are stocked with drawing utensils for adults and kids to create their own comic art.

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7
IMG_2926
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Dave Patten
Museums, Special interest

Musée Mécanique

icon-location-pin Fisherman's Wharf

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. It’s a must-see for vintage lovers and history buffs. 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. The arcades are all in working condition and can be played—most cost $.25 or $.50 apiece.

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8
Museum of the African Diaspora
Photograph: Courtesy MoAD
Museums

Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD)

icon-location-pin Yerba Buena

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. The exhibits, which rotate frequently, center around four themes: Origins, Movement, Adaptation, and Transformation. Origins explores the African roots of modern art and culture; movement delves into the Slave Trade and the emergent music and folklore; adaptation covers the transformation of African traditions, cultural expressions, beliefs, and practices over time; and transformation examines how people of African descent have forged new identifies. Those four broad categories yield poignant exhibits, such as Textural Rhythms: Constructing the Jazz Tradition through Contemporary African American Quilts; Beyond the Blues: Ending the Prison Industrial Complex; and Dandy Lion: Rearticulating Black Masculine Identity. In addition to its temporary exhibitions, the museum hosts annual programs for poets in residence and emerging Bay Area artists.

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9
Randall Museum
Photograph: Yelp/Jennifer O
Museums

Randall Museum

icon-location-pin Corona Heights

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. But after a $9 million renovation in 2018, the 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. 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. 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.

10
Contemporary Jewish Museum
Photograph: Bruce Damonte
Museums, Art and design

Contemporary Jewish Museum

icon-location-pin Yerba Buena

Located across from Yerba Buena Park, the Jewish Museum fills the former space of the landmark PG&E Power Substation, originally built in 1881. Designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, the retrofitted building 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. Plan your visit on the first Tuesday of the month, when admission is free.

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11
Children’s Creativity Museum
Photograph: Courtesy Children’s Creativity Museum
Kids, Exhibitions

Children's Creativity Museum

icon-location-pin Yerba Buena

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. 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.

12
California Academy of Sciences
Museums, Science and technology

California Academy of Sciences

icon-location-pin Golden Gate Park

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. The Kimball Natural History Museum is perhaps best known for the Africa Hall, where taxidermied animals are displayed behind glass, while the Project Lab showcases real scientists doing research in public view. The Morrison Planetarium features the world’s largest completely digital planetarium dome, measuring 90 feet in diameter. You can meander among the butterflies, marine life, and birds of the rainforest within a humid, 90-foot glass dome. And the impressive Steinhart Aquarium includes exhibits of coral reef, tidepool, and swamp habitats, as well as a colony of African penguins. 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.

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13
Museum of Ice Cream SF
Photograph: Katie Gibbs
Museums

Museum of Ice Cream

icon-location-pin Tenderloin

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 worry, germaphobes: They’re plastic, and cleaned regularly.) Book a guided tour with the MoIC’s “Pink Army,” or wander around according to your whims. Afterwards, 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)

14
The Walt Disney Family Museum
Photograph: Scott Fong
Museums, Movies and TV

Walt Disney Family Museum

icon-location-pin Presidio

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. That includes original artwork and concept art from all of Disney Studios’ animated features, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) to present. Throughout, interactive galleries contain multimedia video, listening stations, early renderings, and a 12-foot diameter model of Disneyland.

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15
Museum of Craft & Design
Photograph: Yelp/Jess W.
Museums

San Francisco Museum of Craft & Design

icon-location-pin Union Square

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. In a city of massive, century-spanning museums, MCD is refreshingly focused and intimate. Though the museum frequently collaborates with local artists, designers, and universities, its displays frequently feature works of craft and design from around the world. 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.

The best San Francisco art galleries

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