Things to do in San Francisco

Museums in San Francisco

The top San Francisco museums have everything from Impressionist paintings to sculptures made from found objects. Find out which ones we recommend.

Move over, Paris! San Francisco has some of the best museums in the world, making it a haven for history buffs, art enthusiasts, and science aficionados.

Whether you’re dying to see a Matisse painting up close or you’ve always wanted to visit the historic ships at Hyde Street Pier, the City by the Bay has things to do for everyone.

Grab your camera, put on your most comfortable pair of walking shoes, and get ready to experience some of the best things to do in San Francisco.

Art and Design Museums in San Francisco

1. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

Not everyone likes Renaissance paintings or early American furniture — and that’s okay. If you’re in the mood for something more modern, check out the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, better known as SFMOMA. Not only is this place thrilling and intriguing, it’s one of the most unique San Francisco buildings.

Designed by Mario Botta and updated by Snøhetta architects, the building itself is a work of art. Lush gardens and plenty of natural light come together to create a relaxing oasis in the heart of the city. Inside SFMOMA, you’ll find a treasure trove of paintings, sculptures, textiles, and other works of art.

Gaze adoringly at Collection by Robert Rauschenberg, come up with your own interpretation of Mark Rothko’s No. 14, 1960, or ponder the meaning of Critter Bird in Space, a futuristic sculpture by Lygia Clark.

SFMOMA often holds special exhibits, making it the perfect place to bring a date or meet up with friends.

2. de Young Museum

Visit the de Young Museum for a whirlwind journey through 5,000 years of art history. As part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the de Young has thousands of objects in its permanent collection.

You'll see everything from ornate mirrors to some of the most famous European paintings in the world. We highly recommend viewing the childbirth tray painted by Lorenzo di Niccolò sometime between 1380 and 1400 CE.

In the 14th century, expectant mothers didn’t have Amazon wish lists, so family members often commissioned works of art to celebrate the birth of a child.

Niccolò’s tray depicts Diana — the Roman goddess of the hunt — turning Actaeon into a stag. Bold colors, animated figures, and a geometric border surprise and delight viewers day in and day out.

If childbirth trays aren’t your jam, check out the museum’s photography collection. Recent favorites included Ansel Adams and photographs by Carleton E. Watkins.

Although he was born in New York, Watkins spent much of his time capturing the indomitable spirit of the western United States. He spent much of his time in California, taking photos of Cliff House, the Golden Gate Bridge, The Palace Hotel, and other landmarks.

Photographer: Claudia Lorusso

3. Asian Art Museum

The Asian Art Museum owns more than 18,000 objects, but don’t panic! They’re not all on view at the same time, so there’s no need to rush through the exhibits. Best of all, AAM offers digital gallery cards.

Instead of leaning forward and squinting at tiny print, you can use your personal device to view information on each object.

If a trip to Asia isn’t in your budget, a visit to Chinatown in San Francisco and the AAM for the museum’s Asian art collection is the next best thing. Curators take great care to display objects from a wide range of regions and time periods. Galleries 13 through 16 contain Buddhist sculptures, jade carvings, bronze statues, and other artifacts from ancient China.

For those who've always wanted to visit Tibet, check out Gallery 12, which features more than 150 paintings dating all the way back to the 12th century CE.

Finish your visit with a stop in Gallery 7, which has ceramics, jade carvings, and other objects from Afghanistan, Turkey, and other parts of West Asia.

If you close your eyes, you can almost see ancient artists spinning their pottery wheels or transforming raw jade into delicate figurines.

4. Legion of Honor

Transport yourself to Paris with a stop at the Legion of Honor, part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Designed by George Applegarth, the building is a shining example of French neoclassical architecture. Graceful arches, imposing columns, and a flat roof make it feel as if you’re walking along the banks of the Seine.

While you’re inside, don’t miss the Salon Doré from the Hôtel de la Trémoille in Paris. First built in 1781, the Salon Doré started out as the reception room of an elegant Parisian home.

After short stints in New York City and Burlingame, California, it arrived at the Legion of Honor, taking its rightful place as the crown jewel of the museum. Plaster, painted wood, and mercury-gilded glass make it feel like you’ve stepped into the world of Louis XVI.

Before you leave, make sure you take time to enjoy Lincoln Park. It’s the ideal place to enjoy a picnic while taking in unparalleled views of the Golden Gate Bridge or the nearby Pacific Ocean.

Photographer: Daniel Chicchon

5. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is more than just a contemporary art museum in Yerba Buena Gardens — it’s a movement. It serves as a gathering space for artists and a source of inspiration for Bay Area residents and visitors, making it one of the most important attractions in the South of Market (SoMA) neighborhood.

YBCA also has a theater on the premises, giving visitors access to film workshops and screenings. Before you visit, you should know that YBCA is a bit different from other San Francisco museums.

It has no permanent collection, so what you’ll see depends on when you visit. You might encounter a statement marquee, view a sculpture exhibit dedicated to achieving peace in the Middle East, or stumble across furniture designed by local students.

Make your visit even more special by taking a Pilates class or sticking around for a contemporary dance performance after you view what’s on display.

Photographer: Georg Eiermann

6. Cartoon Art Museum

Embrace your inner child with a trip to the Cartoon Art Museum, a magical place filled with comic strips, graphic novels, and other cartoon-related memorabilia.

Exhibits rotate regularly, so there’s always something new to enjoy, from a trip through the Marvel Universe to a celebration of Filipino-American History Month.

You may even get a glimpse of artwork from the Star Wars series, so grab your lightsaber, climb into the Millennium Falcon (or your Toyota Prius), and get ready to take in one of the most extensive collections west of the Mississippi.

7. Museum of Craft and Design

And now for something completely different. If you need a break from paintings and ancient sculptures, check out the Museum of Craft and Design.

It’s not every day you get to see a Persian carpet with Superman on it, but that’s just one of the unusual objects on display. You may even see objects made from neon, glass, polished metal, and other materials.

If you live in San Francisco, look out for one of MCD’s Mobile MakeArt vans. Each van comes stocked with MakeArt kits, making it easy to indulge your creative side on the weekend or after a long day at work.

Science and Interactive Design

8. California Academy of Sciences

The California Academy of Sciences combines an aquarium and a natural history museum with interactive galleries, making it the go-to destination for kids and their grown-ups.

Begin your visit with a stop at Steinhart Aquarium, the site of daily dive shows and a rainforest filled with butterflies. Home to more than 1,000 unique species, the aquarium has African penguins, a swamp habitat, and colorful coral reefs.

If you’re feeling brave, check out the Venom: Fangs, Stingers, and Spines exhibit — just stay behind the glass.

Kimball Natural History Museum is where all the cool kids go to hang with the dinosaurs, learn more in animal exhibits, and find out exactly what makes gems glitter. The Hidden Wonders exhibit has more than 700 specimens, giving you plenty to talk about when you get home.

Photographer: Claudia Lorusso

9. Exploratorium

Exploratorium at Pier 15 isn’t a museum in the traditional sense; it’s a laboratory designed to encourage experimentation. Instead of simply viewing exhibits, you get to cosplay as a scientist — no lab coat needed.

Optical illusions, reflective surfaces, colorful lights, and dry ice join forces to teach you about the basic principles of physics. Exploratorium even has an exhibit designed to simulate the powerful vortex created by a tornado.

Step inside if you dare! If you’re looking for a unique date idea, check out After Dark Thursday Nights. This amazing museum transforms into a science-themed nightclub for adults, making it the hottest destination at Pier 15.

Leave the kids at home, grab a drink, and get up close and personal with one of the 650-plus interactive exhibits on the premises.

Cultural and Historical Museums

10. Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD)

The Museum of the African Diaspora celebrates the culture and customs of Native Africans and their descendants. Rotating exhibits feature paintings, textiles, mixed-media compositions, and other types of art, giving you valuable insight into how people from African countries have influenced everything from global political cartoons to commerce.

Featured artists explore a variety of concepts, such as how color shapes perception and what members of the African Diaspora can do to preserve their unique culture.

MoAD's 5-week summer program is designed for teens interested in the visual arts field. Participants receive an hourly wage and a transportation stipend, allowing them to explore their career options without missing out on the opportunity to earn some much-needed cash.

11. Contemporary Jewish Museum

While you’re in town, make sure to stop by the Contemporary Jewish Museum, an institution dedicated to making the Jewish experience accessible to visitors of all ages and backgrounds.

Designed by Daniel Libeskind, the museum started out as a power substation, but it quickly became a lively space for honoring the past and looking toward the future.

Inspired by two Hebrew letters, Libeskind incorporated more than 3,000 blue panels into his design.

Made from steel, the panels change color based on your vantage point and the amount of sunlight available, bringing the imposing structure to life. The exhibits change regularly, but one of the museum’s most enduring themes is connection.

For example, artist Mika Rottenberg explored the relationship between human connection and capitalism. Other exhibits highlight Jewish cultural practices or examine the role of music in the Jewish experience.

12. San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park

Ahoy, mateys! Set sail for San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park — or just hop in an Uber if you can’t tell the difference between a ship’s bow and its jib.

Tucked away in the Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood, the national historical park has a maritime museum and research center, making it the perfect place to learn about the difference between a schooner and a galleon.

If you’re looking for the perfect photo backdrop, look no further than Hyde Street Pier, which has historic vessels as far as the eye can see. The complex is also home to Aquatic Park, the ideal place to relax on the beach or take a lunchtime stroll.

13. San Francisco Railway Museum

When you think about trains, do you picture old-fashioned locomotives or high-speed bullet trains? If so, you’re forgetting an important part of railway history: vintage rail cars.

Before you could order an Uber in the middle of the night, San Francisco residents had to take the train to Pier 39, Mission Street, and other local attractions.

The San Francisco Railway Museum celebrates that bygone era with photos, artifacts, audiovisual exhibits, and even a life-sized replica of a streetcar platform.

Kids love to climb on board and discover what it was like to navigate a streetcar through the city’s steep, winding streets.

Special-Interest Museums

14. Cable Car Museum

Have you ever watched the opening credits for Full House and thought it might be fun to hop on a cable car and wave to everyone around you? You’re not alone.

A trip to San Francisco wouldn’t be complete without a ride on one of the city’s iconic cable cars — or a visit to the Cable Car Museum.

The museum has historic photos, mechanical displays, and other items to teach you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about this mode of transportation. Find out who invented the cable car, how the cables maintain a consistent speed, and why the cable car system almost disappeared.

Photographer: Casey Horner

15. Walt Disney Family Museum

You don’t need to plan a separate visit to Anaheim to get your fill of Disney history. Just visit the Walt Disney Family Museum while you’re in San Francisco.

It doesn’t have Ariel’s Undersea Adventure or Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, but it does take you on an exciting journey through the life and times of Walt Disney.

Exhibits document Disney’s arrival in Hollywood, his innovative approach to animation, and his patriotic contributions to American life.

Walt Disney Family Museum also holds a yearly animation festival. It showcases animated films from teens and college students.

Planning Your Visit

There’s no bad time to visit San Francisco, but we recommend scheduling your trip between September and November. Summer crowds have thinned out; it’s a little cooler; and everyone is gearing up for Halloween and other fall festivities.

Before you check plane ticket prices or snag a sleeper car on your favorite train route, check the website for each museum on this list. If there’s a temporary exhibit you’re just dying to see, schedule your trip accordingly.

And don’t forget to bring your sunscreen. San Francisco may be known for fog, but there’s also plenty of sunshine.

While you’re in town, make sure you visit Golden Gate Park, Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz Island, Aquarium of the Bay, and all the other San Francisco landmarks you know from film, television, and magazines. If you can’t get to them all, we highly recommend you return for another visit.

Leave Your Heart in San Francisco

World-class museums, stunning ocean views, and architectural masterpieces are just a few of the many reasons to visit the City by the Bay. Whether you’re visiting for the first time or looking to reclaim the nostalgia of your hometown, you’ll never run out of things to do.

Once you visit the top San Francisco museums on your list, make your visit even more special by taking in one of our shows in San Francisco. Our performers pull out all the stops to make your immersive experience a memorable one. You’ll flip (pun intended!) when you see what we have in store.

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