Want to expand your mind during your stay in the City by the Bay? Be sure to check out all the incredible must-visit museums in San Francisco! With the city’s rich cultural history and its position as a cutting-edge hub of arts and innovation, you’ll have an endless choice of museums to choose from, whether you love historical facts or the weird and wonderful!
San Francisco has a wonderful art scene. Check it out at premium destinations like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and de Young Museum, or delve into the city’s strong Asian influence at the Asian Art Museum.
Step into major pieces of history like the USS Pampanito Museum and Memorial. Then, explore the quirkier sides of the Golden Gate City’s heritage at the San Francisco Cable Car Museum and The Beat Museum.
Not sure where to start? Suss out the coolest places in the Bay Area with this complete San Francisco museum guide!
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Get your creative fix at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), one of the largest modern art museums in the United States. Whether you want to explore the greats of the 20th century or push the boundaries of contemporary mixed media, this art-lovers’ hotspot will deliver.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is located in the SoMa neighborhood. This super cool area in Downtown San Francisco thrives with a mixture of historic buildings, sleek tech start-ups, and pretty gardens. SoMa is the ideal district to start museum hopping, with several other institutions also calling the area home, including the Children’s Creativity Museum and the Asian Art Museum.
Spark inspiration with SFMOMA’s world-class art collection. The gallery’s 33,000 pieces demonstrate the evolution of modern art. From delicate sculpture to immersive video, you’ll have a chance to interpret the world in new ways. Pay tribute to the greats like Matisse and Frida Kahlo, or work through curious new installations with topical social commentaries.
de Young Museum
Take your creativity back in time trip to the de Young Museum. This top-notch art museum is a celebration of American fine arts from the 17th to the 21st centuries. It also features contemporary pieces from around the world, including Europe, the Americas, and Africa.
Visit the de Young Museum to explore over 1,000 paintings, 800 sculptures, and 3,000 decorative objects. Admire intricate African textiles or realistic brushwork depicting US life in the 18th century. You’ll also find work by famous American artists like Edmund Charles Tarbell, Frederic Edwin Church, and John Singer Sargent.
The de Young Museum is located in the heart of the sprawling Golden Gate Park. With gorgeous green spaces and gardens like the Conservatory of Flowers, the park is the perfect place to get some fresh air between museum hopping. The museum’s striking architecture is a brilliant complement to its natural surroundings; you can’t help but be impressed by the angular copper façade.
Let your imagination run wild at the Exploratorium. This museum of science, art, and human perception helps you to explore complex topics in a hands-on way. With over 600 interactive exhibits, you’ll have so much fun you’ll forget you’re learning along the way!
Challenge your perceptions in the Tactile Dome. In total darkness, navigate a maze of textures and twist yourself into peculiar spaces.
Each gallery in the Exploratorium has a theme around different natural phenomena. Watch live heart cells beat to the rhythm of your pulse and watch phytoplankton multiply in the Living Systems Gallery. In the Seeing and Reflections gallery, you’ll witness incredible light installations and challenge your perceptions with optical illusions.
Head to Fisher Bay Observatory, where you’ll have stunning views of the city and the Exploratorium’s beautiful location in San Francisco’s San Francisco’s Embarcadero area. Take some time to explore the neighborhood’s waterfront views and important city landmarks.
Legion of Honor
Lose yourself in the grandeur of the Legion of Honor. This opulent art museum houses a collection of ancient and European art. Go on an epic journey through 6,000 years of painting, sculpture, and decorative art.
The setting of Legion of Honor alone is enough to get your creative juices flowing. Perched on the hilltop of Lincoln Park, you’ll see all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean. The neoclassical building is a replica of the original Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris. Weave through monumental columns and majestic archways, a fitting home for these European masterpieces.
Bask in the greatness of classic pieces by Rembrandt and Monet. Or, descend into the Hall of Antiquities and peek into ancient civilizations from Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the Near East. The Legion of Honor also has a huge sculpture garden, famous for its impressive collection of works by Auguste Rodin.
San Francisco Cable Car Museum
A San Francisco trip itinerary wouldn’t be complete without paying tribute to one of the city’s biggest icons. The San Francisco Cable Car Museum gives you an in-depth look at the humble cable car. Learn about their history and operation and why they’ve been essential for the city since the 19th century.
San Francisco Cable Car Museum isn’t just a museum; it’s a functioning hub for the rail line. Amongst the live hum of the spindle pulleys and winding wheels, you’ll learn what makes these vintage pods so special.
Admire the intricate pieces of machinery keeping the transportation system running. Unpick the engineering that gets them up and down the hills of San Francisco. Adorable memorabilia includes books, cable car bells, and vintage cable cars from the 1870s.
The museum’s location in the Nob Hill neighborhood gives you plenty of opportunities to take in the city’s historic charm. Enjoy impressive period architecture, a luxurious heritage, and stunning views of the bay.
The Beat Museum
Get stuck into San Francisco’s bohemian side at The Beat Museum. It’s a whole museum dedicated to preserving and promoting the legacy of the Beat Generation. If you’re not in the know, the Beat Generation was a 1950s arts and literary movement rebelling against mainstream American life.
At the Beat Museum, you’ll explore rare artifacts, manuscripts, and memorabilia from literary greats like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. This cultural movement didn’t just alter art and literature. It was a major architect in shaping the society of the 20th century. Take a look at its impact on art and music and its lead-up to the hippie movement.
The Beat Museum is located in San Francisco’s cool North Beach area. The neighborhood is rich in literary heritage and was once an important gathering place for the Beats. It’s a great spot today for art and literature lovers. Pick up a read at the iconic City Lights Bookstore and curl up in one of the charming Italian cafes.
Asian Art Museum
Intrigued by the mysteries of the Far East? Throw yourself into new cultures at the Asian Art Museum. One of the most interesting places to visit in San Francisco, this museum houses incredible masterpieces from this diverse continent, with 18,000 works spanning 6,000 years of history.
The Asian Art Museum is home to the most valuable collection of Asian artworks outside of China. Take a deep dive into a visual representation of the cultures from China, Japan, India, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Delight in the intricacies of Chinese calligraphy or in the simplicity of Weiyin-style abstract paintings.
Asian art is rich in exciting disciplines, ideologies, and diverse religious references. Admire delicate sculptures and expert brushstrokes.
When you’re done at the Asian Art Museum, take some time to explore the local area. The Civic Center area has beautiful architecture and historic landmarks like the San Francisco City Hall.
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park
Say “Ahoy!” to the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. This park is an absolute must-visit for history buffs or anyone with a passion for the open seas. San Francisco’s maritime history was a major factor propelling the city to success. The park will immerse all your senses into life at sea around the Bay Area.
Your jaw will drop at the sight of the fleet of magnificent historic ships at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Roam the decks of beauties like the 1886 square-rigger Balclutha and the 1890 steam ferryboat Eureka. Watch the boat builders use traditional techniques to maintain and repair the historic fleet.
The San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park is also home to the Maritime Museum and the Aquatic Park Historic District. Admire the evolution of maritime technology and the photo murals of San Francisco’s historic waterfront. After you’ve got your fix of knowledge, take a swim at the white sand beach.
Step into a world of quirky nostalgia at Musée Mécanique. This unique museum houses one of the largest collections of 20th-century coin-operated games and instruments in the world. Whether you’ve got spare time to kill or spare quarters to use up, it’s one of the most unique places to visit in the city.
The room is a whirlwind of sights and sounds, with delicate hand-cranked music boxes, buzzing arcade games, and creepy puppets. Musée Mécanique will challenge your imagination with entire mini carnivals and realistic dancing dolls. A man called Edward Zelinsky started the collection in the 1920s. His son now helps the fun live on.
Embrace more seaside fun in the surrounding Fisherman’s Wharf area. Hang out at fun attractions like Pier 39, or continue your museum quest by hopping over to the nearby USS Pampanito Museum and Memorial.
USS Pampanito Museum and Memorial
Find your sea legs at the USS Pampanito Museum and Memorial. This floating museum is a major slice of US history. An icon on San Francisco’s waterfront, it’s one of the most popular historic vessels in the country.
The USS Pampanito Museum and Memorial is a Balao-class submarine. During WWII, it made six patrols and sunk six Imperial Japanese ships. Step on board and get a closer look at this significant chapter in military history. Take the audio tour and browse the artifacts on board to get a sense of what this vessel did for the United States.
A visit to the USS Pampanito Museum and Memorial isn’t just a history lesson: The immersive experience will give you a realistic look at life on a submarine. Experience the claustrophobia of the torpedo room and the tight living quarters where fighters slept. Feel the gravity of the huge weapons and the complex controls in the mission room.
Children’s Creativity Museum
San Francisco’s most popular museums aren’t only for adults. Fire up your kid’s creative spirit at the Children’s Creativity Museum. Located in Yerba Buena Garden, this fun museum is packed with hands-on exhibits to encourage children to imagine and explore.
The Children’s Creativity Museum is full of exciting exhibits for all ages. The Art Lab helps kids use art to form new connections. Contribute to the Mural Station, where you can add to a huge shared mural or make a big paint splash at the Messy Art Station.
In the DesignIt Studio, the world is a budding designer’s oyster. Build bridges and boats, or create your own world in Augmented Reality. Head over to the animation studio and learn the basics of making a stop-motion movie, or test your musical gifts in the MakingMusic Studio. You can build your own instrument, record your own song, or just have fun with different sounds.
Wells Fargo Museum
Fancy yourself as the next financial mogul? Get tips from the experts at the Wells Fargo Museum. At this museum on the edge of San Francisco’s Chinatown, you’ll get a deep dive into the history of the US financial system, from the Gold Rush to Silicon Valley.
Wells and Fargo founded their thriving multinational financial services company in 1852. Inside the walls of the original Wells Fargo bank, the Wells Fargo Museum documents the company’s rise to success. Delve into the turbulence of WWII, fighting counterfeit cash, the early ATMS, and the rise of online banking.
Fun exhibits transport you back to exciting periods from the 1800s to the present day. Ride on a simulated stagecoach or admire the original Abbot-Downing Concord Coach that Wells and Fargo used in the 1860s. Send your own telegram or check out how Wells Fargo’s early investments in tech revolutionized the future of banking.