There’s no shortage of fascinating, provocative, eye-popping and downright entertaining exhibits at San Francisco museums right now. In fact, the city’s collection of world-class institutions are among the top 49 things to do in San Francisco (along with the colorful Mission murals tours, of course). Plus, weekly nightlife events offer a different perspective for culture lovers and art- and history-novices alike, with special themes, music, performances and cocktails galore. Whether your tastes run classical or campy, scientific or sculptural, you’ll find something to scratch your cultural itch. Afterwards, refuel with a latte at one of San Francisco's best cafes.
RECOMMENDED: The best San Francisco art galleries
San Francisco museums
With more than 30,000 internationally acclaimed paintings, sculptures and performance art pieces from contemporary and modern artists, the SFMOMA prides itself in pushing the boundaries of the art world. This summer, check out René Magritte: The Fifth Season (May 19–Oct 28). The first exhibit to look exclusively at Magritte’s late career, the show examines his most important bodies of work from the 1940s through the 1960s, and shows how they marked a fundamental shift in painting from Modernism to our own time.
True to its name, the Academy is a showcase for all things science. Attractions include a state-of-the-art planetarium, massive aquarium (it takes up an entire floor) and a four-story living rainforest, home to butterflies, birds and a variety of tropical plants. The building itself is a marvel; it's insulated with salvaged Levi’s jeans and has a “living roof” that is home to 1.7 million native plant species. For the 21+ crowd, join the party on Thursday evenings when adults are invited to visit permanent exhibits and specially themed lectures and performances with a cocktail in hand.
Made from copper that will, in time, transform to match the green of its Golden Gate Park surroundings, the de Young museum’s design, complete with a 144-ft observation tower, is like a beacon calling art lovers to this primitive-yet-futuristic mothership. Their permanent collection is ambitious and includes 27,000 paintings, sculptures, artifacts and crafts ranging from African textiles to pre-Columbian art to modern paintings. For a real treat, visit the museum on a Friday night when, in addition to keeping the collections open late, the museum showcases themed-performances, sets up activities for children and plies adults with alcoholic beverages.
Indonesian shadow puppets, Hindi sculpture, sacred texts from the Ming Dynasty and a complete, authentic teahouse imported from Kyoto are among the 18,000 artworks and artifacts spanning 6,000 years of history at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. The collection is the most extensive assemblage of Asian art in the country.
The Exploratorium is a museum for the child in everyone. At its massive home on the Embarcadero waterfront, this fifty year old San Francisco institution uses play and experimentation to introduce visitors to scientific principles. From the storage lockers that play tones when you touch them to the outdoor “fog bridge” by artist Fujiko Nakaya, everything in the museum is hands on.
The Contemporary Jewish Museum's soaring skylights and enormous windows illuminate often-unexpected exhibits that illustrate the subtle influence of Jewish people and culture on the world at large including Stanley Kubrick’s directorial achievements, Bill Graham’s rock and roll revolution and 1960s children’s book illustrator Arnold Lobel. At the museum cafe, Wise Sons Deli serves up Jewish comfort foods in generous portions.
Rivaling the Legion of Honor’s spectacular views is its collection of European painting and decorative art which includes the second largest assemblage of sculpture by the famed French artist Auguste Rodin—a favorite of the museum’s founder Alma Spreckels. The courtyard’s glass pyramid provides natural light for the galleries below, which contain more than
The Walt Disney Family Museum is dedicated to the life of Walt Disney and the artistic empire he inspired. Permanent exhibits document Disney’s innovations in sound and animation and provide a fascinating look at the career of the man behind the mouse, including the audio-enhanced tale of how Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was almost abandoned. Stop by the Fantasia-themed theater to catch a Disney classic six days a week.
This small but well-curated gallery space houses a permanent collection representing thousands of years of Mexican, Chicano and Latino art and culture. Among their 16,000 objects are colonial wooden altars, works by Mexican masters like Diego Rivera, pre-hispanic pottery and over a thousand paintings, sculpture and ephemera from contemporary Latino artists. On Sundays, the museum hosts family events to stir the creativity of the next generation.
The GLBT History Museum was founded in 1985 as a home for collecting, preserving and telling the story of the struggles and achievements of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. In its Main Gallery, the museum illustrates queer history from a variety of perspectives. The museum also maintains a variety of online exhibit spaces featuring art and archival materials from their collection.
This fun museum is dedicated to cartoon art and animation including editorial cartoons, Sunday funnies, graphic novels and moving animation. The camera used to create television’s first animation, Crusader Rabbit (1949-1951), stands sentinel over the museum’s lobby. In their bookstore, ‘zines, periodicals and coffee table books feature an eclectic mix of this versatile art form.
A museum in name only, everything at the Musée Mécanique can, and should, be played with. At this homage to turn-of-the-century mechanization, you’ll find more than 200 coin-operated games and amusements dating back to the 1880s, many of which were salvaged from San Francisco’s now-defunct seaside amusement park, Playland at the Beach. Gypsy fortune tellers, giant moving dioramas, can-can girl stereoscopes, carnival strength testers, player pianos, and a looming Laughing Sal (the cackling Playland greeter) will delight kids and adults alike.
The exhibit space at the California Historical Society is dedicated to collecting, conserving and displaying the history of California in all its iterations. In their vaults, the organization protects over half a million photographs, 5,000 works of art and over 50,000 manuscripts, books and magazines. Rotating displays feature both well-known and hidden chapters of California’s past such as San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (World’s Fair) and the craft of largely-forgotten artists and tastemakers.