Given how colorful, vibrant, modern, and off-beat the city of San Francisco, California, can be, it’s no surprise that museums in San Francisco are equally diverse and exciting.
There’s plenty to do in and around the city, from visiting wine country to seeing redwood trees to tossing a frisbee in Golden Gate Park. But high on the list of the best things about San Francisco is its many museums, so even if the weather is perfect every day you’re visiting, you should still visit at least one or two — or maybe all seven below, especially since some are free.
San Francisco is home to some of the most renowned museums in the world. From the iconic de Young Museum and Legion of Honor to the exploratory California Academy of Sciences, it’d be hard not to find a museum you liked among a list of so many options. But here are seven to get you started.
- The best museums in San Francisco for for history buffs
- The best museums in San Francisco for the arts
- The best museums in San Francisco for science and nature
The best museums in San Francisco
All the museums listed below are in San Francisco proper. They’re all reachable via Bay Area Rapid Transit (SF’s public transit) or you can get rideshares and taxis fairly expensively — after all, the city is only seven square miles large.
The best museums in San Francisco for history buffs
The Cable Car Museum
Few things are more synonymous with SF than the classic cable cars, and the city celebrates them at the San Francisco Cable Car Museum. It’s one of the most unique museums in San Francisco and is in the historic Washington-Mason cable car barn and powerhouse.
It displays hundreds of artifacts and interactive activities related to San Francisco’s cable cars. Visitors can explore how cable cars were constructed, operated, and later restored during the 1970s, or a behind-the-scenes tour to look at how electricity is generated to power the cable cars. Admission is free and guided tours are available throughout the week, though the museum is closed every Monday.
Fee: Free, but donations accepted
Address: 1201 Mason St.
Hours: 10 AM – 4 PM, closed Monday
You’ve probably heard of Alcatraz, the 22-acre island about one mile off the coast of San Francisco. It’s famous for serving as a maximum security prison for criminals like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. Today, it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city, partially because of the fascinating museums on the island.
After taking a self-guided tour of the prison, stick around to explore the many museums and exhibits in the island’s various buildings. Exhibits range from collections of prisoner’s artifacts and historical items to exhibitions on the history of crime in America to exhibits on the island’s Native American occupation of the 1970s.
To visit the island, you’ll need to take a ferry from Pier 33. Prices start around $42 for adults, depending on what you want to see, and should be purchased online if possible. The SF Bay can be quite choppy and breezy, so pack an extra layer for the boat ride, even if it’s hot outside.
Fee: Accessible only via cruises; prices start at $28 (for kids).
Address: Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing
Hours: Changes seasonally, open daily
It’s a bit cliché to call something a place both kids and adults will love, but how else do you describe a museum dedicated to all-things-arcade?
This small-but-packed museum is the best in SF for going back in time as the collection has more than 300 items since the beginning of mechanized entertainment. That includes arcade games, coin-operated attractions, fortune-telling machines, vintage dolls, foosball machines, and a host of other very random, very quirky items. The museum started as one person’s personal collection back in the 1930s, but has since ballooned into the impressive spread visitors can see today.
Admission to the Musée Mecanique is totally free, but because it sits near Pier 45, it’s likely that you’ll end up spending some money in the area, anyway — the popcorn carts on the pier are hard to resist.
Fee: Free, but donations accepted
Address: Taylor Street at Pier 45
Hours: Daily, 10 AM – 8 PM
The best museums in San Francisco for the arts
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco comprises two separate museums. One is in Golden Gate Park and the other is northwest of that, near the coastline.
The de Young Museum in San Francisco is a creative, engaging art museum inside Golden Gate Park. It features permanent collections from around the world spanning significant periods of history and cultures dating back to the 17th century, along with rotating special exhibitions; it’s currently an exhibit on Egyptian pharaohs. The gallery space covers 84,000 square feet and includes more than 1,000 pieces of artwork, including paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, textiles, and decorative arts. General admission is $15 for adults and can be purchased online in advance, though you may have to pay extra for special exhibits.
The second option is the Legion of Honor, one of the best museums in San Francisco for classic art. It’s about three miles from the De Young. The beaux arts-style museum boasts a collection of over 4,000 European paintings and decorative arts dating back to the Renaissance era. It also has a lovely outdoor sculpture garden and is one of the prettiest buildings in Golden Gate Park. Tickets are also around $15 and should be purchased in advance.
The closest BART (SF public transportation) stop to the museums is the Carl St & Cole St station, which isn’t especially close, but you can ride the Golden Gate shuttle around the park for free.
Fee: Children are free, students are $6, adults are $15, seniors are $12. Extra fees for special exhibits, programs, etc. Admission to the permanent (non-special exhibit) collections is free everyday after 4:30 PM.
Address: De Young: 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., Legion of Honor: 100 34th Ave.
Hours: 9:30 AM – 5:15 PM, closed Monday
The Asian Art Museum
The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco is one of the largest museums in the country dedicated to the arts and culture of Asia. In SF’s Civic Center area, it features a vast collection of over 18,000 works from Japan, China, Southeast Asia, India, and other parts of Asia. The exhibitions are organized chronologically and geographically with permanent collections focusing on Buddhism and Hinduism. The museum also offers educational programs such as lectures and events that cover topics related to Asian art history and culture. Ticket prices vary depending on the type of exhibition; however, adult tickets generally cost between $15 and $25.
The museum is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday, and you can buy tickets in advance online, though it doesn’t usually sell out. It’s centrally located in the city and is just a five-minute walk from the Civic Center/UN Plaza BART Station.
This awe-inspiring museum is home to one of the most comprehensive collections of Asian art in the world. With over 18,000 artifacts spanning 6,000 years of history, this museum has something for everyone—from ancient jades and bronzes to 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints. Special exhibitions are held throughout the year to showcase unique works from across Asia.
Fee: Youth and students are $14, seniors are $17, adults are $20. Extra fees for special exhibits, programs, etc.
Address: 200 Larkin St.
Hours: Thursday: 1 PM – 8 PM. Friday – Monday: 10 AM – 5 PM. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday
The best museums in San Francisco for science and nature
The California Academy of Sciences
Also in Golden Gate Park is the California Academy of Sciences, one of the coolest museums in San Francisco — or in all of California, for that matter. The one-of-a-kind science museum offers an interactive and educational experience for all ages, from a rainforest environment with live animals to a planetarium, an earthquake simulator, a 3D theater, and more. The four-story building includes more than 38,000 square feet of exhibition space and hosts special exhibitions focused on topics such as rainforest ecology, dinosaurs, geology, sharks, penguins and amphibians from around the world.
One thing that makes this museum especially cool are the “nightlife” events hosted throughout the year. There’s a lot of variety in the events, but examples include late-night dance lessons and a Lunar New Year celebration, complete with a tattoo parlor and pop-up restaurants. Tickets for standard museum admission start at $38 for adults.
Fee: Youth are $26.50, students and seniors are $29.50, adults are $34. Extra fees for special exhibits, programs, etc.
Address: 55 Music Concourse Dr.
Hours: Monday – Saturday: 9:30 AM – 5 PM. Sunday: 11 AM – 5 PM.
Near the city’s famous Embarcadero, The Exploratorium is San Francisco’s flagship museum of science, art, and human perception. It’s a must-visit for anyone interested in hands-on exploration, with more than 600 interactive displays dedicated to teaching STEM. Visitors can learn how their brands interpret what their eyes see, create energy with pickles, and make images from solar flares.
While some exhibits certainly are more child-friendly, many are sized for and tailored to adults. Despite that, the museum can turn into a bit of a daycare on weekends when parents let their kids run free, so go midweek if you don’t want to get shoved aside by nine-year-olds. The Exploratorium also has “After Dark Thursdays” from 6 PM to 10 PM, and because the events are 18 and above, it’s a great time to go play with the exhibits without feeling like you’re taking space away from a kid (and on-site bar and museum DJ add a social, adults-only vibe). Tickets sell out often, so buy your admission (daytime or otherwise) in advance online.
Fee: Youth, seniors, and students are $29.50. Adults are $39.95. Extra fees for special exhibits, programs, etc.
Address: Pier 15 Embarcadero (at Green St.)
Hours: Tuesday – Saturday: 10 AM – 5 PM. Sunday: 12 PM – 5 PM.
Where to stay in SF
San Francisco has some of the coolest hotels in the US and with so many options, it’s usually easy to find something for every budget, even last minute.
We hope you love the spaces and stays we recommend! Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a stay. Listed prices are accurate as of the time of publication.
The Fairmont San Francisco
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At the top of historic Nob Hill, this iconic hotel offers breathtaking views of the city and bay, as well as luxurious amenities and impeccable service. It’s also known for its basement tiki bar, The Tonga Room, which was one of the first tiki bars in the US.
The Herb’n Inn
This small hotel is a colorful bed and breakfast in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, making it close to Golden Gate Park. It’s known for its unique, bohemian decor and laid-back atmosphere. The hotel has just three rooms, and amenities include a communal kitchen, outdoor patio, and an on-site Psychedelic History Museum. This is a great choice if you want to stay in S.F.’s most hippie/alternative neighborhood.
The Phoenix Hotel
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The Phoenix Hotel is a retro hotel located in the Tenderloin neighborhood. It’s known for its rock and roll history and laid-back vibe, and is a popular choice among travelers looking for something a little different. The hotel has a pool, fitness center, and on-site bar and restaurant. The Tenderloin is a bit up-and-coming, but it’s safe enough, though it’s best not to walk solo very late at night. But since it’s near many of the city’s popular music venues and bars, there are usually plenty of people out. Rooms start around $159 a night and there’s no resort fee.
Hotel Zetta San Francisco
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This trendy hotel is in the SOMA neighborhood, just a short walk from the Exploratorium. The hotel has the phenomenal The Cavalier restaurant, as well as the S&R Lounge and the a speakeasy-style bar called Marianne’s. It’s also close to Union Square and has an on-site bar and billiards room. Rooms are similarly priced to the Phoenix Hotel.