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
Reopened to much fanfare in May 2016, the new and improved SF MOMA features a ten-story 170,000 square foot addition that nearly triples the space of its original Mario Botta-designed building. On display alongside favorites from the museum’s permanent collection are sixteen special exhibition galleries, works specially commissioned for the new museum and 45,000 square feet of ground-floor exhibits that are open to the public at no charge. With more than 30,000 internationally acclaimed paintings, sculptures and performance art pieces from contemporary and modern artists, the SF MOMA prides itself in pushing the boundaries of the art world. Admission is always free for visitors under the age of 18.
True to its name, the Academy is a showcase for all things science. Astronomy? Check! Their Morrison Planetarium is state-of-the-art. Marine biology? Check! The Steinhart Aquarium takes up the museum’s entire lower floor with exhibits like the world’s deepest living coral reef display. Ecology? Yup, they’ve got that too, in the form of a four-story living rainforest which is home to butterflies, birds and a variety of tropical plants. In fact, right down to the design of its building, which is insulated with salvaged Levi’s jeans and has a “living roof” that is home to 1.7 million native plant species, the California Academy of Sciences embraces the latest in scientific research and education. Come with the kids for an afternoon or join the party on Thursday evenings when guests over 21 are invited to visit permanent exhibits and specially themed lectures and events with a cocktail in hand.
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, the most extensive assemblage of Asian art in the country, is housed in a space repurposed from the city’s main library into a bright, monumental space by Gae Aluenti, the Italian architect responsible for the Parisian Musée d'Orsay. An upcoming addition, a 9000 square foot pavilion, will increase the museum’s ability to display special collections celebrating both contemporary and ancient works from this fascinating and diverse continent.
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. World-class special exhibitions offer a glimpse at photographers, artists, designers and artistic movements as diverse as Keith Haring, J.M.W. Turner and art from the African-American south. 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.
The exterior of the Contemporary Jewish Museum combines a 1907 power sub-station’s Beaux Arts brick facade with a blue-steel cube in a design that architect Daniel Libeskind based on the Hebrew letters for the word “chai,” meaning life. Inside, 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.
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. New exhibits appear regularly but even the museum’s most beloved mainstays - the Sweeper's Clock, a fascinating movie loop in which two street sweepers keep time by pushing around piles of trash, the toothpick diorama of San Francisco and the Tactile Dome, a sensory-deprivation crawl-through maze (advance reservations required) - are worth returning for again and again. Upstairs on the second floor, the glass and steel Bay Observatory and the sustainable seafood restaurant Seaglass offer a more in-depth view of the San Francisco Bay.
This neoclassical museum built in 1921 in the image of the 18th century Parisian Palais de la Legion d’Honneur adorns the ocean bluffs of Land’s End on the western edge of San Francisco. 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 87,000 pieces by masters like El Greco, Rembrandt and Monet. On the garden level, temporary exhibitions accompany the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts and the Bowles Collection of porcelain.
The Walt Disney Family Museum is dedicated to the life of Walt Disney and the beloved artistic empire he inspired. The museum opened in 2009 in a former army barrack and gymnasium at the heart of the Presidio, the city’s military-post-turned-National-Park, thanks to the work of Disney’s eldest daughter, Diane. Inside, 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. Regularly rotating exhibits feature the work of revered animators and artistic collaborations, some of which, like Disney’s project with Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali, were never completed. 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 brand new Community Gallery launched earlier this month with an exhibit featuring 35 years of LGBTQ portraits by San Francisco artist Lenore Chin. The museum also maintains a variety of online exhibit spaces featuring art and archival materials from their collection.
After being forced to leave its old home following a massive rent hike in 2015, the Cartoon Art Museum is back and better than ever in its new SoMa location. The space 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. When you’ve had your fill of fun, check out the early photos of San Francisco and earthquake memorabilia along the walls of the arcade.
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. After your visit, delve deeper into the collections on the California Historical Society’s impressively curated website.