San Francisco’s magnificent museums honor its close links to Asia as well as the tech hub’s quirky love of science and progress. You'll find museums here tracing the city’s history from its earliest days, when the bay was filled with sailing ships bringing gold-seekers to America, as well as its idiosyncratic history over the intervening centuries.
The city has dozens of museums, large and small, promising days of rewarding browsing. Here are 10 of our favorite museums that capture the local vibe and culture.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: best for modern art
Known by the slightly complicated acronym, SFMOMA, this museum has a mind-boggling collection of modern masterworks displayed over seven floors. The collection is vast, and the museum was a visionary early investor in then-emerging art forms such as photography, installations, video, digital art and industrial design.
Don’t miss the standout photography and special exhibitions. Meditate amid stimulating abstract paintings in the Agnes Martin room, then get an eyeful of Warhol’s iconic pop art, and hit the 7th floor for a showcase of cutting-edge contemporary work and intriguing multimedia installations. Sunny days are ideal for a restorative coffee in the rooftop cafe and sculpture garden.
Maritime National Historical Park: best for boat buffs
With four historic ships turned into floating museums, this maritime park is Fisherman’s Wharf’s most authentic attraction. Moored along Hyde Street Pier are the 1891 schooner Alma, which hosts guided sailing trips in summer, the 1890 steamboat Eureka, paddlewheel tugboat Eppleton Hall, and iron-hulled Balclutha, which once transported coal to San Francisco.
It’s all run by the National Park Service and the exhibitions extend to the adjacent Maritime Museum, which was built as a casino and public bathhouse in 1939 by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA). Beautifully restored murals depict the mythical lands of Atlantis and Mu and exhibits include maritime ephemera and dioramas. Note the entryway slate carvings by celebrated African American artist Sargent Johnson.
Exploratorium: best for kids
Is there a science to skateboarding? Do toilets really flush counterclockwise in Australia? Combining science with art, San Francisco’s dazzling hands-on Exploratorium challenges you to question how you know what you know. As thrilling as the exhibits is the setting: a 9-acre, glass-walled pier jutting out over San Francisco Bay, with vast outdoor areas you can explore for free.
The 600-plus exhibits have buttons to push, handles to crank and dials to adjust, all made by artists and scientists at the museums' in-house workshops. With such fun activities as trying out a punk hairdo, courtesy of the static-electricity station, it’s one museum children won’t want to leave.
Chinese Historical Society of America: best for personal stories of immigration
Visitors can picture what it was like to be Chinese in San Francisco during the gold rush, transcontinental railroad construction and Beat heyday in this excellent museum, originally built as Chinatown’s YWCA in 1932. Historians have unearthed some fascinating artifacts relating to the Chinese history of San Francisco, including 1920s silk qipao dresses, WWII Chinatown nightclub posters, and Frank Wong’s Chinatown miniatures.
Exhibits feature personal insights and Chinese American perspectives on national milestones in history – including the Civil Rights movement, the Cold War, and the Chinese Exclusion Act, which officially excluded Chinese immigrants from US citizenship and civil rights from 1882 to 1943.
Cable Car Museum: best for gearheads
Hear that whirring noise coming from beneath San Francisco's cable car tracks? That’s the sound of the cables pulling the cars, and they all connect inside the city’s historic Washington and Mason Cable Car Barn. Grips, engines, braking mechanisms...if these mechanical wonders warm your heart, you’ll be besotted with the free Cable Car Museum.
This intriguing museum isn’t just a warehouse for antiques – it’s the functioning powerhouse that keeps the popular Powell-Mason line running. You can track the cables running down the street, through an open channel and into the powerhouse, where they wind around massive bull wheels without losing momentum or tension. Head to the upstairs deck to see the mechanisms in action and watch cables whir over the wheels – as awesome a feat of engineering now as when Andrew Hallidie invented the technology in 1873.
Legion of Honor: best for museum-goers with short attention spans
A museum as eccentric and illuminating as San Francisco itself, the Legion of Honour showcases a wildly eclectic collection spanning Monet's water lilies and John Cage soundscapes, ancient Iraqi ivories and the counterculture comics of Robert Crumb. Upstairs are blockbuster shows of work from old masters and Impressionists, but don’t miss the Legion’s Achenbach Foundation of Graphic Arts collection, which covers 90,000 works on paper, from drawings by Rembrandt to the graphic designs of Ed Ruscha.
The Legion’s setting rivals its art. There are dazzling views of the Pacific and trails lead to the Lands End Lookout with its arresting views of the Golden Gate. On a warm day, stroll on to the ruined Sutro Baths below the lookout, once San Francisco's most stylish bathing area.
California Academy of Sciences: best for nature and science lovers
Architect Renzo Piano’s landmark environmentally-sensitive building houses 40,000 weird and wonderful animals in a four-story rainforest and a split-level aquarium, set beneath a ‘Living Roof’ of California wildflowers. Add in a cutting-edge planetarium and natural history displays, and you have all the ingredients for a thoroughly engrossing day out. The Academy has been pushing non-stuffy science since 1853, but the building is like something from the 25th century.
Today, butterflies alight on visitors in the glass Osher Rainforest Dome, penguins paddle around a see-through tank in the African Hall, and Claude the albino alligator stalks the mezzanine swamp. Glimpse infinity in the Morrison Planetarium and check out the Giants of Land and Sea exhibit, where you can brave an earthquake simulation, virtually climb a giant redwood tree and get lost in a fog room.
Children will enjoy the basement Steinhart Aquarium, where visitors can duck inside a glass bubble to enter an Eel Garden and pet starfish in the hands-on Discovery Tidepool.
de Young Museum: best for globe-trotting artworks
The de Young’s camouflaged, oxidized green exterior barely hints at the fantastic range of artistic wonders within. Exhibitions here boldly broaden artistic horizons, from ceremonial masks from Oceania and trippy hippie handmade fashions to James Turrell’s domed ‘Skyspace’ installation, built into a hill in the sculpture garden.
Featuring African masks and Turkish kilims alongside California crafts and avant-garde American art, this cross-cultural collection has been expanding minds for a century. Rotating main-floor installations are riveting and diverse, from early Inuit carvings to documentary photography from US prisons. Access to the Osher Sculpture Garden is free, as is the 144ft observation tower with its 360-degree viewing room.
Asian Art Museum: best for Asian culture
The most comprehensive collection of Asian art outside Asia covers 6000 years of history and thousands of miles of terrain. A trip through the galleries is a treasure-hunting expedition, from cutting-edge Japanese minimalism and seductive Hindu temple carvings to a jewel-box gallery of lustrous Chinese jade – just don’t bump into those priceless Ming vases!
The museums' displays follow the evolution and migration of Asian art from West to East, along with Buddhist pilgrimage trails and trade routes toward San Francisco. If you’re tight on time, follow the mapped trail of masterworks; parents can pick up Explorer Cards for kids to find favorite animals and characters in the galleries.
Beat Museum: best for hipsters
The rise of the Beat movement in the 1950s was one of San Francisco’s defining moments, and it's lovingly celebrated at this North Beach museum. The 1000-plus artifacts in this collection of literary ephemera range from the sublime (check out the banned edition of Ginsberg’s Howl, with the author’s own annotations) to the ridiculous; the Jack Kerouac bobblehead dolls are definite head-shakers.
Downstairs, watch Beat-era films. Upstairs, pay your respects at shrines to individual Beat writers, and take a nostalgic ride on the wave of reinvention that carried San Francisco in the modern age.
You may also like:
How to get around San Francisco: the dos and a definite don't
Top 5 day trips from San Francisco
7 breathtaking beaches in San Francisco