Things to do in Bay Area

Best Bay Area Museums

Visit the best Bay Area museums to understand the region's culture.

Museums are far more than a series of artifacts or art pieces. They’re stories that bridge the gaps between the past, present, and future. We recommend checking out the various museums if you're looking for things to do in the Bay Area.

You'll learn about things you might not have considered, such as bookmaking or the history of the cable cars that still drive down San Francisco’s streets. After exploring the venues on this list, find us for a fantastical tale.

Art Museums

Artistry runs through the Bay Area’s streets; you'll find it in art museums and galleries.

1. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Minutes from Union Square, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art draws crowds from allacross the Bay Area. As one of the most popular museums in San Francisco and one of the largest art museums in the region, it’s often busy. Visiting during the weekdays can cut down on foot traffic.

Over 30,000 art pieces are housed across ten floors and over 45,000 sq. ft. While many exhibits cycle frequently, the permanent collection includes works from Henri Matisse and other well-known artists.

Visitors under 18 get free admission, and the museum occasionally has free days for the general public. Frequent events spread artistry to the community with performances, film screenings, and members-only nights.

Photographer: travelview

2. de Young Museum

The de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park and the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park comprise the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Together, they form the largest public art system in the city and one of the largest in the nation. Since 1895, the de Young Museum has housed art from several cultures, including America, Oceania, and Africa.

Textiles, paintings, photography, and other forms of artistry hang on the walls for the community to explore. Temporary exhibitions introduce concepts, such as fashion and art history, with works that inspire creativity.

Frequent art events, such as opportunities to sketch the art on display and docent-led tours, create an inviting environment for people of all skill levels to immerse themselves in the craft. The museum also offers frequent family events to bring children closer to their inner artists.

If a tour of this museum made you crave more, check out the best Bay Area tours.

3. Asian Art Museum

San Francisco's multicultural heritage is heavily influenced by immigration, particularly from Asian nations. The Asian Art Museum is a testament to the immigrants’ contributions to the city.

Thousands of artworks fill the museum's halls. Over 2,000 pieces are displayed on the second and third floors at any given time, and the work rotates regularly to showcase the entire collection.

A series of masterpieces from across Asia showcases sculptures of Hindu deities and images of Buddha. Jade cups display carved calligraphy, and simple yet elegant jars attract attention.

The C. Laan Chun Library has one of the nation's most comprehensive collections of research on Asian art history and culture.

Photographer: Walter Cicchetti

4. The Contemporary Jewish Museum

The Contemporary Jewish Museum's distinctive design is an exhibit in itself, no different from the art it houses. Located in the Yerba Buena district, its exterior features over 3,000 color-changing steel panels. Their reflections spell the Hebrew word for life.

The second floor has a sloped roof dotted with diamond-shaped windows and reaches 65 ft. in height. It serves as a performance hall and hosts regular special events. Throughout the museum, rotating exhibitions explore topics such as Israeli musicians and artists.

Regularly scheduled events offer the opportunity to discover Jewish culture and how it influenced the Bay Area.

5. Museum of the African Diaspora

Celebrate Black and African heritage and artistry at the Museum of the African Diaspora. While the museum's initial mission was to focus on artists from diasporas, it has since expanded its scope to embrace the African influence of contemporary art.

By featuring art rather than artifacts, the museum encourages storytelling. The artwork’s experiences speak for themselves, and the First Floor Gallery connects the museum to the St. Regis Hotel and permanently houses a free exhibit for the general public.

Those who venture further into the museum discover far more. The Toni Rembe Freedom Theater doesn’t show images or videos. Within the darkened room, spoken narratives play over speakers. Nine men and women of African descent speak their truths.

6. Institute of Contemporary Art San José

For decades, the Institute of Contemporary Art San José has challenged artistry with daring exhibitions. Regular education programs guide visitors through the work on display, providing insight into the design choices and encouraging reflection and engagement.

Exhibitions spread across three galleries, exploring various aspects of local art. In the past, temporary exhibits included avant-garde art and creations by contemporary artists. This museum’s hours are somewhat restrictive. It’s only open from Thursday to Sunday between the hours of 12-5 p.m., so plan accordingly.

Science and Technology Museums

Every day is a chance to learn; you’ll discover something new at these museums of science and technology.

7. California Academy of Sciences

Within Golden Gate Park, the California Academy of Sciences engages children and adults. It has everything you could ask for in a science center, from opportunities to meet animals to fossils and gardens. If you’re looking for Bay Area kids’ activities, this should be at the top of your list.

We love exploring the Steinhart Aquarium, where nearly 40,000 animals swim. Over 900 unique species reside within the enclosures, from African penguins to a biodiverse Philippine coral reef biome.

At the Morrison Planetarium, you’ll sit within a dome mimicking the tilt of the Earth as intergalactic adventures display above. The Osher Rainforest houses over 1,600 live plants and animals within a glass dome. Tropical birds fly overhead while chameleons creep through trees.

Look back at the Kimball Natural History Museum, where ancient fossils are displayed alongside a blue whale skeleton. Hands-on exhibits encourage exploration of evolution and speculation of the future.

8. Exploratorium

Arts and science collide in the Exploratorium, creating a public learning laboratory. People of all ages can put on their lab coats and experiment. Six extensive galleries focus on various aspects of exploration.

The Tactile Dome is particularly attractive for adventurers. In a completely dark environment, you must find your way out, using only your sense of touch to guide you. It’s an immersive experience worth attempting. For another adventure, The Tinkering Studio encourages young engineers to tackle challenges innovatively.

We love visiting the Exploratorium after it closes on Thursday nights when it transforms into an adults-only environment. A full bar and live music set the stage for special programming designed to challenge adult explorers.

Photographer: Eric Akashi

9. San Francisco Cable Car Museum

Cable cars started in San Francisco and were invented by Andrew Smith Hallidie in 1873. While riding cable cars ranks near the top of most tourists' lists of things to do, another option gets you closer to these iconic vehicles.

The San Francisco Cable Car Museum, established in 1974 and located in Nob Hill, pays homage to the technology. It displays three cable cars from the 1870s within the Washington-Mason powerhouse and carbarn. Admission to this museum is free.

10. USS Hornet Sea, Air and Space Museum

The USS Hornet Sea, Air and Space Museum is one of the best museums in the Bay Area. It was once a fully functional aircraft carrier that served as a base on the seas.

The USS Hornet, which spans 158,000 sq. ft., was one of the most decorated ships in history. Today, it’s permanently moored and houses several historically accurate aircraft atop its hangar. The exhibits showcase what life was like on this ship during World War II. Two rotating galleries and special exhibits provide new insights into its historical significance.

History Museums

Discover past stories that helped influence San Francisco and the world at large.

11. San Francisco Railway Museum

Cable cars aren’t the only old-school mode of transportation in San Francisco. Vintage rail transit still traverses the streets, and it’s celebrated at the San Francisco Railway Museum. The museum shows how streetcars and cable cars transformed life in the city and surrounding areas.

Within the museum, children delight at the full-sized replica of a 1911 San Francisco streetcar motorman’s platform. They get to toy with the controls and pretend they’re steering.

Various artifacts and audio-visual interactive exhibits throughout the museum explain the technology behind these modes of transportation and how they paved the way for modern travel.

12. The Walt Disney Family Museum

For Disney fans, the Walt Disney Family Museum is a must-visit attraction. With permanent galleries weaving his life story, it’s a sneak peek behind the scenes of one of the most successful franchises in history.

Temporary exhibitions, workshops, and special events elaborate on diverse topics like book illustrations. Over the summer, children can take themed classes and learn about various aspects of artistry, including costume designs and animation done digitally or with unconventional materials.

At the end of the museum, you'll discover a miniature model of the original Disneyland. However, those with a sharp eye may notice it’s not an exact replica of the original park — it instead captures what Walt Disney dreamed the park would look like.

Photographer: Walter Cicchetti

13. GLBT Historical Society Museum

Within the Castro District, the GLBT Historical Society Museum is the first museum to explore gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender history in the United States and one of three of its kind in the world. Although the museum is small, it’s an emotionally evocative exploration of local LGBTQ history from the gold rush to the present day.

Two permanent exhibitions discuss the original rainbow flag, now commonly associated with LGBTQ pride, and a history of local events. Documents and artifacts chronicle the journeys of queer life in San Francisco. Supplemental temporary exhibits offer insight into other areas, such as family ties.

14. The American Bookbinders Museum

Books contain entire worlds and lifetimes within their pages, but how were those pages put together in the first place? You'll learn the answer to this question and more at the American Bookbinders Museum.

Temporary exhibits introduce topics such as the anatomy of a handmade book, how to create handmade book covers with foils and embossing, and why contemporary bookbinding remains an artistic staple.

Tools used over the centuries, such as board shears, printing presses, and book-sewing machines, are on permanent display, showing how complex the book-making process once was. Compare the earliest forms of clay tablets and scrolls to the machine-produced books of today.

Self-guided and audio tours in English and Mandarin will take you through letterpress printing and hand-binding processes as they were done centuries ago.

Exploring the Rich Cultural Heritage of Bay Area Museums

Throughout the Bay Area, museums highlight the diverse cultural heritage and historical journeys that have created the region we know and love today. After a day of exploring the region's culture, come see us.

When we’re on stage, we demand the limelight with exceptional skill and a tendency to defy conformity. Our stories inspire, delight, and dazzle. As you join us on a turbulent emotional journey, you’ll watch us stretch human limits. At our shows in the Bay Area, anything could happen.

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