The 15 best museums in San Francisco, including Art, Science, and History museums, and a few small, fun museums that are absolutely free.
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San Francisco is fortunate to have many major sights and activities for visitors and locals to enjoy. The city’s great sights include several world class art museums, hugely popular science and history museums, and even a few fun free museums. This article is about the 15 best museums in San Francisco.
You’ll find these details covered for each of the 15 museums:
- Descriptions and reasons why they are worth visiting
- Locations and typical amount of time needed to visit
- Links to official websites to get the latest museum information like operating days/hours, tickets, and ways to get there.
- Link to a Google map with the 15 museums pinned. Click the pins for brief descriptions.
- Best time to visit San Francisco
Art Museums in San Francisco
The museums included are ones I know and love and have visited over the years, often with kids and grandkids. Here’s the list:
|Art Museums||Science & History Museums||Free, Fun Museums|
|1. Asian Art Museum||8. California Academy of Sciences||12. Cable Car Museum|
|2. Contemporary Jewish Museum||9. Exploratorium||13. Fire Department Museum|
|3. de Young Museum||10. Hyde Street Pier||14. Musée Mécanique|
|4. Legion of Honor||11. Maritime Museum||15. Wells Fargo History Museum|
|5. African Diaspora (MOAD)|
|6. Modern Art (SFMOMA)|
|7. Walt Disney Family Museum|
San Francisco Museum Locations Map
Map with the museum locations pinned.
1. Asian Art Museum
This museum has one of the finest collections of Asian art in the world. The permanent galleries contain more than 18,000 artworks. They represent every region in Asia, and some are more than 6,000 years old.
The museum has beautiful ancient jades and ceramics as well as contemporary exhibits, and it hosts special exhibits from other institutions. It even has a Japanese Tea House that was built in Kyoto, disassembled and shipped to San Francisco, and then reassembled on the museum’s second floor.
Location: 200 Larkin Street (in Civic Center)
Time: 1-2 hours
Link: Asian Art Museum
2. Contemporary Jewish Museum
This museum has no permanent collection; instead, it hosts exhibits from other institutions. On my recent visit, the museum had a huge and amazing “Levi Strauss: A History of American Style” exhibit with 150 years of Levi history. With hundreds of items of clothing and images, the exhibit tells the story of why Levi Strauss created his sturdy Levi jeans and their importance to miners, ranchers, rodeo riders, and others who need rugged clothing.
The museum also provides education programs, lectures, and performances with the goal of making the “diversity of the Jewish experience relevant for a twenty-first century audience.”
The unusual and striking building is the result of a merger between a historic power substation with a modern steel geometric superstructure. The blue steel cube is tilted on its side and wedged into the original brick building. It’s a fusion of traditional and contemporary architecture, repurposing the old into something new.
Location: 736 Mission Street (between 3rd Street and Yerba Buena Lane)
Time: 1-2 hours
Link: Contemporary Jewish Museum
3. De Young Museum
The de Young is housed in a beautiful building with a perforated copper skin. It’s permanent collection includes thousands of American paintings, sculptures, textiles from the 17th to 21st centuries and collections from Africa and the Pacific. The de Young always has multiple special exhibits from around the world, so visiting never gets old.
Tip: Take the elevator to the top of the 144-foot (44 m) tower for an expansive 360° view of the city.
Location: 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive (in Golden Gate Park)
Time: About 2 hours; more is you see all of the exhibits
Link: De Young Museum
4. Legion of Honor Museum
This stunning French neoclassical building, on a hill above the Golden Gate, has a remarkable collection of European paintings, and ancient art. The entry courtyard is home to one of Auguste Rodin’s famous 1880 sculptures: The Thinker.
The Legion was built to honor the troops who served in WWI. When it opened in 1920, it was dedicated to “our brave boys who gave their lives to their country in the Great War.”
Location: 100 34th Avenue (in Lincoln Park)
Time: About 2 hours
Link: Legion of Honor Museum
5. Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD)
MOAD showcases “the art, history, and cultural richness of the African Diaspora.” It uses exhibits and programs to document, connect, and celebrate the cultural heritage of the people of Africa. It challenges us to learn about and talk about the African Diaspora and its effect on “communities and cultures around the world.”
On my recent visit, the second floor had a wonderful collection of works by South African artist Billie Zangewa. She creates amazing collages by hand-stitching colorful fragments of raw silk. The exhibits change every 3-6 months.
Location: 685 Mission Street (at 3rd Street). The museum is inside the St. Regis San Francisco Hotel, but it has its own entrance on Mission Street.
Time: about 60 minutes
Link: Museum of the African Diaspora
6. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
The postmodern building is striking inside and out and would be worth seeing even if it were empty. But it’s not empty; it houses one of the largest collections of modern art in the U.S., including works by familiar artists like Diego Rivera, Richard Serra, and Andy Warhol.
Remarkably, parts of the museum are free. There are “45,000 square feet of free, art-filled public space,” which is open to all, no ticket required.
While visiting SFMOMA, or even if you’re just in the neighborhood, take time to see Diego Rivera’s Pan American Unity mural. It’s free and very easy to visit. The mural is displayed in SFMOMA’s Roberts Family Gallery (on Howard near Third Street).
Rivera’s mural is a fusion of Latin America’s past and America’s industrialization. It’s 22-feet high, 75-feet long, and weighs over 22 tons. Moving it is a massive undertaking, and is only possible because Rivera created it in 10 steel-framed panels.
Diego Rivera (1886-1957) is one of Mexico’s most famous artists. He created Pan American Unity in 1940 for the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island. For several years, it’s been on display at San Francisco City College and will return to the college in mid-2023.
Don’t miss the Living Wall. The 150×30-foot (46×9-meter) wall is covered with over 15,000 plants:
Location: 151 3rd Street (between Mission and Howard)
Time: 2 hours
Link: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
7. Walt Disney Family Museum
This museum tells the life story of Walt Disney and the evolution of animation at Disney Studios. The story is told in chronological order using photos, videos, and interactive exhibits. The museum includes Walt’s train with photos of him riding on it and a model of Disneyland that’s sure to bring back memories.
Don’t miss the multiplane camera crane. The crane allows images to be drawn and photographed in layers to create the illusion of depth with background images on the bottom plane and foreground images on the top. You can see the entire crane on the upper floor and get a closer look at its lower section as you exit through the gift shop.
Location: On the Main Post (in Presidio National Park)
Time: About 2 hours
Link: Walt Disney Family Museum
Science Museums in San Francisco
8. California Academy of Sciences
The Academy of Sciences is a very up-close, hands-on, science and natural history museum. It has an impressive aquarium, living rainforest, an excellent planetarium, dinosaur skeletons, live penguins, a white alligator name Claude, and more. Its mission is “to explore, explain, and sustain life.”
Everything, from the aquarium at the bottom to the living roof at the top, is first class. It’s a great place for everyone and is super popular with kids.
Tip: The Planetarium is included with the Academy of Sciences ticket, but go to the Planetarium entry and pick up a Planetarium ticket for entry to a specific show and time.
Location: 55 Music Concourse Drive (in Golden Gate Park)
Time: Allow at least 3 hours, especially if you see the Planetarium show
Link: California Academy of Sciences
According to my grandchildren, this is the #1 place to go in San Francisco. With over 650 hands-on exhibits, it’s a gold mine for inquisitive minds where visitors explore “the world through science, art, and human perception.”
Location: Pier 15 on the Embarcadero (at Green Street). Both the E and F Line historic streetcars stop right in front.
Time: Allow at least 3 hours. Sometimes we spend the whole day with a break for lunch in the onsite Seaglass Restaurant.
Note: Two more great science museums in the US, that we love are both in Washington state. They are the Hanford tours of the B Reactor and LIGO. Check it out.
History Museums in San Francisco
Both the Hyde Street Pier and the Maritime Museum are part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.
10. Hyde Street Pier
The Hyde Street Pier has eight historic vessels on display — all from the late 1800s or early 1900s. They include the 3-masted schooner C.A. Thayer and square-rigger Balclutha.
Location: At the foot of Hyde Street
Time: About 1 hour
Link: Hyde Street Pier
11. Maritime Museum
The Maritime Museum has huge collections of everything nautical including figureheads from gold-rush era ships and dozens of large-scale ship models. It’s in the striking art deco building that looks like an ocean liner. The building was originally a bathhouse and its lobby is graced with a whimsical depression era mural by artist Hilaire Hiler.
Location: 900 Beach Street (at Polk)
Time: About 1 hour
Link: Maritime Museum
Free Museums in San Francisco
Here are four museums in San Francisco that are free, and they are all popular with children.
12. Cable Car Museum
This is more than a museum; it’s the real cable car barn and powerhouse. From the upper level, watch the huge engines turn the winding wheels that pull the cables running under the streets. The cable car Gripman operates a grip lever, which grabs and holds onto the underground cable.
The cable pulls the car along the street at 9.5 mph (15.3 km/h). There’s another viewing area downstairs where you can see the large sheaves that guide the under-street cables.
Location: 1201 Mason Street (at Washington Street)
Time: About 30-minutes
Link: Cable Car Museum
13. Fire Department Museum
Housed in a cavernous room at Firehouse Station 10, the museum has several antique fire trucks and fire wagons. The collection includes Broderick Engine No. 1, which was built in 1855 and was the first fire wagon built in California.
The walls are lined with display cases filled with Firemen’s personal effects like uniforms and helmets and with Firehouse equipment.
Location: 655 Presidio Avenue (near Pine Street)
Time: About 45-minutes
Link: Fire Department Museum
14. Musée Mécanique
This museum has the world’s largest collection of penny arcade games, and mechanical instruments. Many of the mechanical wonders are over 100-years-old and most are still in working order.
Musée Mécanique is very popular with children. It’s free to enter, but operating the machines requires quarters, and, of course, there are change machines: $5 per child sounds about right.
Location: Pier 45 at the foot of Taylor Street (in Fisherman’s Wharf)
Time: As long as the quarters last
Link: Musée Mécanique
15. Wells Fargo History Museum
This small museum is well worth visiting. It has several exhibits from the California Gold Rush including a Wells Fargo Overland Coach used in the 1860s, gold dust and ore, photos, paintings, and interactive exhibits.
I’ve not taken children to this museum, but I have been there when school field trips were present, and the kids really seemed to enjoy the Overland Stagecoach and the interactive exhibits.
Location: 420 Montgomery Street (inside Wells Fargo Headquarters)
Time: Less than an hour
Link: Wells Fargo History Museum
Best Time to Visit San Francisco
Weather-wise, mid-September through mid-November is best. The summer fog (nature’s air conditioner) doesn’t roll in as often and the winter rains haven’t yet started. The rest of the year, the weather is mixed: there are often gorgeous, sunny days in winter and overcast, chilly days in summer.
Getting to the 15 Museums
Links are provided for all 15 museums to help you get current details like operating days/hours, tickets, parking, and ways to get there. Most of the museums are easily reachable on public transit. If you’d like more detailed public transit information about routes, apps, maps, fares, and ways to pay, see our related Getting Around San Francisco on Public Transit article.
This article is intended to give and overview of popular museums in the city, and to help you choose some that match your interests. The goal is to make sightseeing in San Francisco more enjoyable.
To discover more sights that match your interests, check out these related articles:
- 12 Most Popular Attractions
- 7 Unique Neighborhoods
- 12 Extraordinary Parks & Gardens
- Things to do at San Francisco Airport (SFO) on a layover
About the Author
Ginny Vail is a travel writer who loves travel planning, sightseeing, photography, and videography. She’s visited all 50 states and traveled around the world. Her articles focus on discovering places to go, sights to see, and details about when and how visit them.