Even with the Museum of Modern Art closed until 2016 for a major expansion, there’s no shortage of fascinating, provocative, eye-popping and downright entertaining exhibits at San Francisco museums right now. You can even catch highlights of SFMOMA’s collection on display at indoor and outdoor venues around the city from the Asian Art Museum to neighborhood street festivals. Despite challenging times for commercial art galleries, there is still a healthy cluster around Union Square. The city’s collection of unusual institutions is among its chief attractions: Travel through four centuries of American art at Golden Gate Park’s de Young Museum, discover the history of manga and Mutant Ninja Turtles at the Cartoon Art Museum, walk through a four-story living rainforest at the California Academy of Sciences or challenge your perceptions at the hands-on Exploratorium. Whether your tastes run classical or campy, scientific or sculptural, you’ll find something to scratch your cultural itch.
Unmissable San Francisco museums
The country's largest showcase for Asian art, the museum once housed the Main Library. Extensively and beautifully redesigned by Gae Aulenti, the architect responsible for the Musée d'Orsay conversion in Paris, the museum retains remnants of its previous role, including bookish quotes etched into the fabric of the building. The Asian has one of the world's most comprehensive collections of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Indonesian and Southeast Asian art, spanning 6,000 years of history with more than 15,000 objects. Artifacts range from Japanese buddhas and Indonesian shadow puppets to sacred texts and porcelains from the Ming Dynasty. The café, open only to visitors, serves Asian-inspired dishes, and the gift shop is well stocked with high-quality stationery, decorative items and a good selection of coffee table books.
The opening in 2008 of the redesigned Academy marked the debut of the world's “greenest” museum and put San Francisco firmly on the world science museum map—it's the only such institution to combine an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum and scientific research program under one roof. The complex is anchored by a four-story rainforest dome that's home to flitting butterflies and birds, and a “living roof” that features some 1.7 million native plant species. In between is the Steinhart Aquarium with the world's deepest living coral reef display, an Amazonian “flooded forest” viewed via an acrylic tunnel, the all-digital Morrison Planetarium, a live penguin habitat, an African Hall with lifesize dioramas of lions and gazelles, and a swamp featuring Claude, the albino alligator. As opposed to most museum fare, the Academy's dining options are first-rate: The Academy Cafe offers a half-dozen organic, sustainable ethnic food stations; the Moss Room is a proper, fancy sit-down restaurant with a dripping moss wall.
The state's official historical group has focused its efforts on assembling this impressive collection of Californiana. The vaults hold half a million photographs and thousands of books, magazines, manuscripts, maps, paintings and costumes—as well as an extensive Gold Rush collection. Selections are presented as changing displays on the state's history that range from retrospectives on Yosemite National Park to the centennial of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Don't miss the excellent little California-themed bookstore, which also offers a selection of crafts and jewelry by local designers.
San Francisco's most seductively situated museum, the Legion is set on ocean bluffs at Land's End with sweeping views of the Golden Gate. The neoclassical museum is a three-quarter-scale adaptation of the 18th-century Palais de la Légion d'Honneur in Paris, built in 1924 as a memorial to the Californians who died in World War I. A cast of Rodin's The Thinker dominates the entrance; the French sculptor was the personal passion of Alma Spreckels, the museum's founder, and the collection of his work here is second only to that of the Musée Rodin in Paris. A glass pyramid in the courtyard acts as a skylight for galleries containing more than 87,000 works of art, spanning 4,000 years, but with emphasis on European painting and decorative art (El Greco, Rembrandt, Monet). An expanded garden level houses temporary exhibitions, the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts and the Bowles Collection of porcelain.
The camera that was used to create the first animation for television (Crusader Rabbit produced 1949–51) graces the lobby of this SoMa museum, which features more than 6,000 pieces of cartoon and animation art, from editorial cartoons and Sunday funnies to graphic novels and original animation cels. This is the only museum in the Western U.S. dedicated to the art form. The bookstore contains a large and eclectic selection of books, 'zines, periodicals and coffee table tomes covering everything from erotic photography to Asterix.
Dedicated to linking the art of the Jewish community with the community at large, the Contemporary Jewish Museum sheds light on works and people that have influenced Jewish culture, traditions and ideas. The striking building, designed by Daniel Libeskind, is carved out of a 1907 Willis Polk power substation that marries the old Beaux Arts brick facade to a shiny, modern blue-steel cube. Libeskind based the design on the Hebrew letters of the word “chai” (life). Inside, soaring skylights and enormous windows illuminate exhibits ranging from Yiddish music to the history of the kibbutz and the work of photographer Arnold Newman. The café offers excellent contemporary Jewish comfort food from Wise Sons Deli.
Covering the length of three football fields along the Embarcadero waterfront, the Exploratorium is a science nerds' mecca, with more than 600 interactive exhibits that test the boundaries of physics and human perception. The museum was founded in 1969 by physicist Frank Oppenheimer (brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the A-bomb), who was dedicated to the idea of getting people to explore, experiment with and test their notions of scientific principles. Every aspect of the Exploratorium is hands-on—from the storage lockers that play tones when you touch them, to the outdoor “fog bridge” by artist Fujiko Nakaya that shrouds visitors in mist created by more than 800 high-pressure nozzles. New exhibits are introduced regularly, but the most popular mainstays include the Sweeper's Clock, a fascinating movie on a loop in which two street sweepers keep time by pushing around piles of trash; a marble maze you build from hardware store odds and ends; a mind-blowing parabolic mirror; a diorama of San Francisco made from 100,000 toothpicks; and the Tactile Dome, a crawl-through maze navigated in complete darkness using your sense of touch (advance reservations required). The steel-and-glass Bay Observatory on the second floor offers a spectacular perch to observe the geography, history and ecology of the San Francisco Bay. The in-house restaurant, Seaglass, showcases sustainable seafood and sushi, as well as small regional farms—and (note to parents) there's a full bar fea
The most prominent feature of this futuristic-primitive building is the massive perforated copper tower that emerges from the surrounding canopy of trees, making all those who approach from the 9th Avenue entrance to Golden Gate Park feel like the vanguard of an expedition that's just stumbled across an abandoned mothership. The effect is at once overwhelming and electrifying. Inside, however, the exterior walls take a backseat to the impressive and vast collections of art. The de Young holdings include some 27,000 paintings, sculptures, objects, crafts and textiles from Africa, Oceania and the Americas dating from the 17th to 20th centuries. Rotating exhibitions cover a wide swath—everything from the treasures of King Tut and the Impressionists to Edward Hopper and Keith Haring. There's also an excellent store and café with large outdoor seating areas in a sculpture garden. The observation tower with commanding views over the park is worth the trip alone; the courtyard, café, store, sculpture garden and tower can be entered without paying admission.
Founded in 1975, the Mexican Museum houses a permanent collection of more than 14,000 art objects representing thousands of years of Mexican, Chicano and Latino art and culture. Exhibits range from pre-Hispanic and Colonial crafts to contemporary Mexican and Latino printmaking. The museum store, La Tienda, offers a terrific selection of crafty Mexican gifts, including ceramics, masks, jewelry, posters and books. Currently housed in Fort Mason, the museum is expected to move to a new state-of-the-art home in the Yerba Buena arts district by 2017.
Part museum, part old-fashioned arcade, the Musée Mécanique houses Ed Zelinsky's collection of more than 200 coin-operated games and amusements dating back to the 1880s. The result is a love letter to the era before video games, as well as to turn-of-the-century San Francisco. Gypsy fortune tellers, giant mechanical-circus dioramas, can-can girl stereoscopes, carnival strength testers, player pianos, and a looming Laughing Sal (a cackling mechanical relic salvaged from San Francisco's defunct Playland at the Beach amusement park) are among the games that delight kids and adults alike. Along the walls, photos of early San Francisco and earthquake memorabilia set the mood for a time when the city was still something of a western outpost on the edge of the Pacific. Step out back and you'll find the USS Pampanito, a restored World War II submarine that's open for tours.
Opened in 2009 by a foundation headed by Walt Disney's oldest daughter, Diane, the museum offers a fascinating look at the man behind the mouse. It's housed in a repurposed army barracks and gymnasium in the Presidio, a former military post that's now part of the national park service. Inside, galleries are set up chronologically, beginning with Walt's early cartoons for his high school yearbook and ending with his death in 1966. Highlights include an interactive gallery documenting Disney's innovations in sound synchronization; an original multiplane camera that shows how Walt and company first developed dimensional animation; the audio-enhanced nail-biting tale of how the Disney brothers financed Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; and a 13-foot model of Disneyland as Walt originally envisioned it. Rotating exhibits give you an up-close look at some of the artists who have brought Disney's most beloved characters to life. The Fantasia-themed theater screens classics six days a week.