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World-class art collections, interactive science exhibits and everything you ever wanted to know about cable car systems, San Francisco has a diverse museum scene. Where else is there an aquarium, rainforest, planetarium and natural history museum rolled into one? Beyond the exhibits, many of the museums offer breathtaking views of the bay and the city’s best parks. Here are the most iconic museum stops to include on your itinerary.
de Young Museum
Only half of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the de Young Museum is located in the wilds of Golden Gate State Park. The collections are impressive, but the building itself is worth visiting.
In 2005, the de Young Museum re-opened in a new facility that weaves the museum into the natural environment of the park. Historic elements from the former de Young, such as the sphinxes, the original palm trees, and the Pool of Enchantment, have been retained or reconstructed at the new museum. Over the years, the de Young has grown from an attraction originally designed to temporarily house an eclectic collection of exotic oddities and curiosities to the foremost museum in the western United States concentrating on American art, international textile arts and costumes, and art of the ancient Americas, Oceania and Africa.
What to See
- Find magnificent panoramic views atop de Young’s Hamon Tower, which rises nine floors up. The tower offers a perspective of the city you can’t get anywhere else. Visitors can see the orange towers of the Golden Gate Bridge peeking above the treeline and the living roof atop the California Academy of Sciences. The shape of the tower is also distinctive. The copper shaft looks different from each angle.
- Notable works include those by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Georgia O'Keefe and others. The majority of the artwork is anthropological in nature, with objects from the Americas, Africa and Oceania, and a mix of permanent and temporary special exhibits. Special ticketed exhibition are not included in the general admission.
What to Do
Meet the Artists
- Each month a different Bay Area artist transforms the Kimball Education Gallery into a working art studio. Meet the artists Wednesday through Sunday from 1pm-5pm for free.
- Families enjoy viewing and doing art with numerous children’s programs. Friday Nights at the de Young offers live music, hands-on art, tours, artist demonstrations, and food and cocktails for purchase.
Eat and Drink
- Stop by the de Young Café for an espresso and a pastry or in the afternoon, relax with a traditional European Weinpause with a selection of small, savory nibbles and an array of wines. Friday Nights at the De Young features a mix of live music, dance, film screenings and lectures for the adult crowd.
- The de Young is located in Golden Gate Park, where are countless trees and 7,000 kinds of plants right in the heart of San Francisco, so make some time to wander the brindle paths, row on Stow Lake, or see the buffalo roam at the Buffalo Paddock. Or, just rest under the Monterey Cypress trees.
Legion of Honor
The other half of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, The Legion of Honor displays an impressive collection of 4,000 years of ancient and European art overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.
Located in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park, the museum was built to commemorate Californian soldiers who died in WWI. It overlooks the Pacific Ocean and is a stately building. A nod to the European art found inside, it was built as a replica of the Legion d'Honneur in Paris. A visit to the museum can feel like an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.
What to See
- Its collections include Rodin’s The Thinker, which sits in the museum’s Court of Honor and greets visitors at the entrance. Inside the museum are three galleries with over 100 of Rodin's sculptures. Rodin's Thinker is perhaps his best-known monumental work, first conceived circa 1880–1881 as a depiction of poet Dante. The image evolved until it no longer represented Dante, but all poets or creators.
- Works by many of the big names of European art are here in plenty. Notable artists include Renoir, Monet, Picasso, Degas, van Dyck, Rembrandt, Hals, Rubens, van Gogh, Cezanne, Gainsborough, El Greco and more.
What to Do
- The Legion's Skinner pipe organ, which sounds great in the Rotunda, was built in 1924 by the Ernest M. Skinner Organ Company in Boston. Public organ concerts are presented at the Legion on Saturdays and Sundays at 4pm, with a repertoire ranging from Bach to Gershwin to musical thunderstorms, Sousa marches, Gilbert and Sullivan, and the great film music of Hollywood.
- Docent Tours are free with admission Tuesdays through Sunday.
Eat and Drink
- The de Young Café, with its inviting view of the Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden, offers soups, salads, sandwiches and hot entrees available for dining in the café or take away for an alfresco lunch in the park.
- Right next to the museum is Land's End, with awesome scenic cliffs and easy trails just right for beginning hikers. Also nearby is the world-famous Cliff House, part of the Sutro Historic Landscape District and the Sutro Bath ruins.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) reopens May 14, 2016 after being closed for three years of renovations and a major expansion. The new SFMOMA has a 10-story, 235,000 square foot addition designed by acclaimed architecture firm Snøhetta. The museum will also feature nearly 45,000 square feet of free public access, confirming SFMOMA’s role as a vital cultural and social hub in the heart of San Francisco.
SFMOMA was the first museum on the West Coast devoted solely to modern and contemporary art, opening in 1935. With the renovation, there will be more to see, and that includes the actual building. The architects drew their inspiration from a combination of waves, the iconic San Francisco waterfront and the infamous fog.
What to See
- SFMOMA has four collecting areas: Architecture + Design, Media Arts, Painting + Sculpture, and Photography. The museum will house the largest gallery, research and interpretive space devoted to photography of any art museum in the United States.
- Richard Serra’s 200-ton "Sequence," was the first work of art for the new building and was integrated into the expansion plan from the beginning. The walls and ceiling were built around it. The works dominating the two main entrances are by San Francisco natives: Serra on Howard Street and Alexander Calder in the atrium. Calder is best known for his hanging mobile sculptures.
- On display are nearly 300 works from the Fisher Collection. During the 1970s, Doris and Donald Fisher, the founders of Gap, began collecting art works for the offices of the company they founded. What started out as a hobby blossomed into a full-blown collection that includes prints, paintings, sculpture, drawings, photographs and other media spanning different movements and time periods.
- The museum has acquired or been promised around 3,000 works from 200 donors for its permanent collection. The art includes works by Pablo Picasso, Jasper Johns, Ed Ruscha, Diane Arbus and Robert Rauschenberg.
What to Do
- SFMOMA has a long-standing history of presenting groundbreaking live performance experiences, dating back to the 1940s.
- Co-curated with the San Francisco Film Society, the Modern Cinema program features in-depth explorations of works by key figures in the history of filmmaking with related talks, screenings and live cinema productions.
Eat and Drink
- Opening along with the new SFMOMA is Sitsu, a new restaurant on the ground-floor level from Michellin-three-starred chef Corey Lee. Like the very museum it sits in, Sitsu will "curate" a menu of dishes from recipes contributed by more than 80 chefs from around the world. It will serve both lunch and dinner.
- SFMOMA is located in the SOMA (South of Market) neighborhood of San Francisco, across the street from Yerba Buena Gardens. In the summer, baseball fans make up some of the foot traffic as they head to AT&T Park, home of the Giants. The California Historical Society is also nearby.
Located on the Embarcadero along the waterfront on Piers 15 and 17, the Exploratorium is a quirky, hands-on museum of science, art, and human perception. Don’t call it a science museum; it’s a playful learning laboratory of more than 600 interactive exhibits and experiences.
Founded by physicist and educator Frank Oppenheimer, the stated mission is to change the way the world learns. It was c Characterized in 7x7 magazine as "a mad scientist's penny arcade, a scientific funhouse, and an experimental laboratory all rolled into one."
Oppenheimer was forced to divert his academic career as a result of an inquiry by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He had worked on the Manhattan project with his brother, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who helped develop nuclear weapons during World War II. Blacklisted from academic positions, he moved his family to Colorado, where they ran a cattle ranch until he was allowed to teach high school science in 1957. He received a National Science Foundation grant from the National Science Foundation, which he used to build models of nearly a hundred science experiments, and in 1969, he founded the Exploratorium. His library of experiments would become the core of the museum's exhibit collection.
What to See
- The Tactile Dome provides a unique perceptual experience as visitors travel through a series of various textures in total darkness. Guests navigate their way through this sensory environment entirely by touch—sometimes walking, sometimes crawling or even sliding. You must be at least 7 years old, and reservations are required. In addition to the cost of admission, Tactile Dome visits are $12 for members; $15 for nonmembers.
- "Here is being created the Exploratorium," reads the sign over a workshop at the Exploratorium. All the exhibits are made by museum staff and the shop is open to public view. Visitors will find exhibits in various stages of development.
The Exploratorium is split up into six different galleries both indoors and out, each highlighting a specific content group.
- West Gallery: Experiment with thoughts, feelings and social behavior
- South Gallery: Think with your hands
- Central Gallery: Play with light and vision, color, sound and hearing, and motion and spatial perception.
- East Gallery: Investigate the living world
- Bay Observatory Gallery: Observe the local environment and explore global phenomena
- Outdoor Gallery: Wind, water, tides, and more
What to Do
- Every Thursday from 6 to 10 p.m. the Exploratorium reopens for adults 18+ only. The programs and events change each week and revolve around a theme. All include a cash bar and film screenings, plus the opportunity to play with the hands-on exhibits.
Eat and Drink
- The Seaglass Restaurant is a casual waterside venue open for lunch, except on Thursdays they are open until 9:30pm in conjunction with the After Dark program. The menu features locally sourced items showcasing small producers and changes seasonally, but often includes tacos, pizzas, salad, sandwiches and fresh seafood and sushi.
- For a grab and go meal, the Seismic Joint Café is just off the Embarcadero with coffee, baked goods and more.
- The waterfront location offers sweeping views of the city skyline, Coit Tower, the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island. It’s located between the Ferry Building Marketplace for some shopping and food and Fisherman’s Wharf at Pier 39.
California Academy of Sciences
An aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum and rainforest all under one "living" roof, The California Academy of Sciences is home to 40,000 animals. The museum features engaging exhibits and shows, charismatic live animals from around the world, and a fascinating team of scientists and presenters working to explore, explain, and sustain the diversity of life.
Rebuilt in 2008, the building covers more than 400,000 square feet and is one of the newer natural history museums in the U.S. It was founded in 1853, just three years after California gained statehood.
The roof covered in sod provides a habitat for native California plants and the skylights shine into the museum, bathing it in natural light.
The building itself is meant to be a model of sustainability, and it’s also a state of the art research center.
What to See
The Osher Rainforest
- A ramp winds upward for four stories and is teeming with live animals, including free-flying tropical birds and butterflies, while the exotic reptiles and amphibians are behind glass cases. Visitors climb through the tiers of rainforest canopy, and once at the top they descend to the 100,000-gallon Flooded Forest tank, where freshwater fish cruise overhead. From there, it’s the start of exploring the aquarium.
- The aquarium is home to an array of beautiful and critical marine habitats. It is one of the most biologically diverse and interactive aquariums in the world, showcasing vibrant Philippine coral reef, lush tropical rainforests and California’s own coastal ecosystem. Guests can touch a starfish, sea urchin and other animals in the tide pool.
- Don’t forget to say hi to Claude the albino Alligator.
- Drawing on the Academy’s 150-plus years of research and specimen collection, the Kimball Natural History Museum explores some of the most significant discoveries and issues of our time. Here, visitors can see science in action with live talks by Academy scientists. Dioramas of African landscapes are viewable in the Tusher African hall. And of course, two highlights that can’t be missed are the 87-foot long blue whale skeleton and the towering T. rex.
What to Do
- A giant 75-foot curved screen makes you feel as though you are flying through the cosmos. The programing ranges from traditional star shows to special films to live broadcasts from Academy scientists in the field.
The Shake House
- Visitors can experience the sustained tremors of San Francisco's two biggest quakes—the 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake and the 7.9-magnitude Great San Francisco quake of 1906—from inside the dining room of a Victorian-era "Painted Lady" house.
- A new adventure unfolds every Thursday night from 6 to 10pm for adults to enjoy music, creatures and cocktails.
Eat and Drink
- Amidst sculptures, The Terrace offers small plates that are perfect for sharing. A daily happy hour runs from 2-4pm The Academy Café features food with cultural connections to California that can be enjoyed in the indoor or outdoor dining areas.
- Cal Academy is located in Golden Gate Park, the largest urban park in America. Once you’ve finished exploring the museum, you can rent paddle boats on Stowe Lake, visit the Botanical Garden or walk across the street to the de Young Museum for 360-degree views of the city.
Cable Car Museum
From the first run in 1873 to the present, learn about the inventor, technologies, builders, rapid expansion, near loss and the ongoing efforts to save and rebuild San Francisco’s most iconic modes of transportation.
Established in 1974, the museum is a nonprofit educational facility dedicated to preserving the history of cable cars. It houses a collection of historic cable cars, photographs, and mechanical displays, as well as a gift shop. Learn about the history of the cable car and also the development of San Francisco. It’s small, free and on one of the cable car stops.
What to See
- Located in the historic Nob Hill neighborhood, see the Washington/ Mason Cable Car Barn and powerhouse. The Museum is located upstairs with a deck overlooking the huge engines and winding wheels that pull the cables. Downstairs is a viewing area of the large sheaves and cable line entering the building through the channel under the street. Here, visitors can view the inner workings of the system with the actual cable winding machinery that run the three lines, Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason and California Street.
- Antique cable cars from the 1870s are on display, including the only surviving car from the first cable car company, the Clay Street Hill Railroad No. 8 grip car. It’s said Andrew Smith Hallidie got the idea for a steam engine powered, cable driven, rail system after watching horses struggling on the wet cobblestones of the city.
What to Do
Ride the Cable Cars
- The San Francisco Cable Car system is the last working system of its kind in the world, so it’s both a fun tourist attraction and also a functional way to get around the city.
- The Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines stop at the museum. Famous landmarks on the lines include Lombard Street, Ghirardelli Square, views of Alcatraz Island and Fisherman's' Wharf.
- Nob Hill is a historic neighborhood established during the Gold Rush that has a reputation of privilege. Cable car lines made the hilltop accessible, and the city’s wealthy began to build homes there, above the rowdiness of the waterfront. Historic buildings include the Fairmont Hotels and the Flood Mansion.
- Wander aimlessly along the streets to find produce and live markets, kitschy plastic trinkets and the long heritage of the oldest and largest Chinatown in North America. A decorated gate marks the entry to Grant Ave, which is considered the neighborhood’s center.
Now that you know about the best San Francisco museums, use San Francisco CityPASS and save nearly half off combined admission prices to some of the museums listed above as well as other top attractions in San Francisco. San Francisco CityPASS includes a 7-day Muni and Cable Car Passport, as well as prepaid admission to the California Academy of Sciences, a Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise (visitors who purchase their San Francisco CityPASS at the Alcatraz Cruises ticket office may substitute an Alcatraz Island tour), your choice between Aquarium of the Bay or Monterey Bay Aquarium, and either the de Young and Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museums or the Exploratorium. Some special exhibits are not included with CityPASS and may require an extra fee.
Cable Car Museum Photo Credit
Legion of Honor and de Young Museum Images courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco