World-Class Museums are not the first thing that jumps to mind when thinking of San Francisco. However, with the general progressive and cultured vibe of the City, it’s not surprising to find the city has many really world-class museums, including one of the best Modern Art collections in the world. It also boasts the Academy of Sciences, a really novel take on what a museum should be along with the experimental and hands-on Exploratorium. The City also boasts some real-world class fine art museums with collections the envy world over.
So while it may not be your first thought when visiting the City museum lovers will be spoilt for choice when they head to San Francisco. Our guide to San Francisco’s Museums and Galleries will take you through what is available and what to expect at each as we give you a full San Francisco Museums list.
California Academy of Sciences
This is a really magnificent attraction. It is a long way from what most people would call a museum and is actually really hard to classify. It’s a bit of everything. A real exhibit of everything that Science is about. it’s 4 or 5 attractions in one. An Aquarium, Natural History Museum, Tropical Rainforest, Planetarium, and a whole lot more.
The Steinhart Aquarium is probably enough of an exhibit on its own to warrant a visit. With 40,000 Animals from over 900 different species, it qualifies as a world-class aquarium in its own right. Most of the expected exhibits are present like the giant coral reef exhibit and the California coast tanks. But there are quite a few unexpected and different exhibits such as the Swamp containing Albino Crocodiles, The African Penguins, and the Deep Sea Twilight zone.
If you have ever wanted to explore the canopies of rainforest then this is your opportunity. The four stories high Osher rainforest dome is like the Academy has brought a small piece of real rainforest into the heart of San Francisco. You can explore the treetops from the walkways, complete with free-flying butterflies and birds. You will also find displays containing many amphibians and reptiles such as arrow frogs, Cameleons, and Pythons. Finally, once you have had enough of the above-ground flora and fauna you can head down to the flooded forest floor to see the animals living in the freshwater rivers and ponds of the rainforest.
Another attraction that would be worth the entrance fee on its own!
Explore the wonders of the universe in one of the planetarium’s many shows that run throughout the day. This giant state-of-the-art planetarium, one of the world’s biggest, creates a very immersive experience that’s a long way ahead of the typical “What’s in the night’s sky” of old planetarium shows.
Check what’s currently playing here. All shows included in the entry fee
Natural history Museum
The Natural history portion of the Acadamy is a little more traditional-style museum. Featuring Giants such as the Blue Whale and full T-Rex Skeleton down to hundreds of more humble specimens and the incredible African hall filled with dioramas of African wildlife in their natural surroundings. There is a heavy focus on human evolution bringing you face-to-face with our ancestors.
While the Four permanent iconic exhibits steal the show there is a lot more going on. Many temporary exhibits come and go and there are many smaller exhibits and hands-on things to do along with talks and shows. We often find a couple of hours is more than enough to see and experience most museums but anything less than a full day is doing the Acadamy a disservice. Sure you could probably whisk around in a couple of hours but really it deserves a bit more than this.
We really can’t say enough good things about the academy of sciences and it needs to be very high up on your list of must see’s when visiting the City.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art – SFMOMA
The San Francisco Museum of Modern art is the largest collection of modern art in the United States and one of the largest in the world making this museum a must-visit place for cultured art lovers. But due to the sheer size and variety of works on display, it appeals to a lot more people than a normal stuffy museum would.
The Museum has only recently re-opened following a massive revamp and is now one of the premier art collections anywhere in the world. With literally thousands of pieces from across the 20th century featuring important work from artists such as
- Jackson Pollock
- Andy Warhol
- William de Kooning
- Arshile Gorky
- Henry Matisse
- Jean Metzinger
- And many more…
Expect a very varied collection, not just paintings but art sculpture photographs, and even film. The 20th century produced a wave of incredible art using an unprecedented number of media and this is reflected in the collection.
For those who are more technology-minded than Artistically, the SFMOMA Mobile App will act as a guide to the museum so you know what you are looking at as you wander around the museum. Really anyone with even a passing interest in museums will be enthralled by this truly world-class monument to Modern Art. We promise you will not be disappointed. Even the building is a work of art in itself!
De Young Museum and the Legion of Honour
- $15.00 – Tickets are valid for both museums on the same day.
- Included on the Go San Francisco Card
These two museums are curated by the same team and are focused on Fine art from both Ancient and modern times. The Museums contain some incredibly precious and important works and should be high on the list of any art aficionado heading to San Francisco. The Two Museums operate in conjunction with each other with the De Young focussing on American and Americas art (along with collections from Oceania and Africa) and the Legion of Honour housing the European collection together they are known as the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
De Young Museum
Located near the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park the De Young has a fantastic and striking location and works really well when combined with a trip to the academy. The Museum has an enviable collection of fine artworks from the last 4 centuries in both Painting and Sculpture. It is a huge and comprehensive collection of over 1000, paintings, 800 sculptures, and much more including decorative, textile, and costume arts.
The Legion of Honor
Looking out into the Pacific Ocean the Legion of Honor is a fantastic-looking museum in a delightful location. It also happens to house a massive collection of European art from many of the Masters such as Rembrandt, Monet, Greco, Renoir, Picasso, and Rodin.
It is a breathtaking collection and is widely considered one of America’s must-see art collections. When combined with the De Young museum it really is a must-see for art lovers. Add in the SFMOMA and San Francisco is an Art destination that is the envy of anywhere!
Less of the serious stuff. The Exploratorium is a completely different concept for a museum. An experimental and completely hands-on interactive experience this is like no museum you have experienced before.
While the concept is geared firmly towards making museums fun for kids this works equally well with adults. Museums are not to everyone’s tastes and walking around looking at old paintings is not everyone’s cup of tea. If that sounds like you the Exploratorium could be right up your street! While the aim is fun and interaction it’s still a learning environment as well so it really is perfect for kids.
The entire museum is set up as a practical Science laboratory allowing you to actually try out and perform hundreds of different experiments and activities. It is a fascinating and truly innovative approach to a science museum and well worth checking out.
Walt Disney Family Museum
If Disney is not your thing, probably move along now. But if like us you are big Disney fans then this is a fascinating museum and a must-see when in San Francisco. Remember though this is not Disneyland, do not expect rides and characters, instead, this is a tribute to the life and works of the great man.
Here you will see concept art and the early sketches, drawings, and ideas that would go on to form his legendary works. Learn about the life of the man who brought joy to so many and sees the many awards he picked up along the way.
A couple of hours is all that is needed to see the Museum and while it’s not the most fun or exciting Disney attraction in the world it is still a very informative and worthwhile place to visit. Any self-respecting Disney fan should visit to pay Hommage.
Cable Car Museum
Cable cars are pretty much synonymous with San Francisco. They date back to 1873 and were once the primary method of getting around the city. It is fitting then to have a museum dedicated to the history of these iconic transports. It is not immediately obvious how the cars operate and the museum shows exactly how this ingenious system gets the cars moving around the city especially as they climb up the staggeringly steep gradients.
You don’t get a lot in life for free so it’s great to see this museum free to all. It doesn’t take long to visit the museum and it is incredibly fascinating so make you take to the time to pop in and learn about the historic cable cars of San Francisco.
For many especially the young Museums are a thing of nightmares. While some of San Francisco’s museums are lively and interesting experiences they are still the last thing some people want to visit. To counter this there are several “living Museums”. These are completely different from just collections of exhibits and bring the subject matter to life.
Really we should include the California Academy of Sciences in this section but as it’s one of San Francisco’s premier attractions we wanted it high up on the list. It is certainly what we would call a living museum.
- From $37.25
It doesn’t get any more real than this. One of San Francisco’s most popular attractions is a visit to Alcatraz Island. A tour around this living and breathing penitentiary gives a terrifying insight into how the inhabitants lived out their time incarcerated on the inescapable island prison. Any tour is here will really bring to life the history of the island along with many of its inhabitants.
San Francisco Dungeon UPDATE 2023: PERMENENTLY CLOSED
If regular museums bore you rigid and you prefer your history brought to life then the San Francisco Dungeon should be right up your street. The tour around the dungeon brings to life the gruesome history of the early times and crimes of the city as America found its feet in the world.
Expect thrills, spills, and scares as the cast of the dungeon act out and demonstrate the history of San Francisco’s underworld and the punishments metered out to the perpetrators. We have visited Dungeons all over the world and they are great fun and always memorable.
San Francisco’s dungeon also now features “The Drop” Ride. A dark indoor thrill ride. Basically, a tower drop ride that is pretty tame for ride fans but still gives a good thrill for most people.
The San Francisco Dungeon is available on the Go San Francisco Card
Aquarium of the Bay
The Aquarium of the Bay is a medium-sized aquarium situated on the Embarcadero at Pier 39 with multiple exhibits featuring sea life from in and around the Bay area. This approach is fairly unique and it’s refreshing to see only creatures that actually live in the local water as opposed to another reef exhibit filled with clownfish and “dories”
We are big Aquarium fans and have seen enough reef exhibits to last a lifetime (but we still keep going to them!) and we really appreciate the different approach the Aquarium of the bay takes. We do hear some people are disappointed and if you go expecting large sharks, colorful reef fish, and all the bells and whistles of a normal Aquarium you may come away disappointed. That is not to say it is not a spectacular attraction. The main tank is over 700,000 gallons of filtered bay water with two large acrylic viewing tunnels and has over 60,000 fish so it’s a big bold attraction it’s just a little different from what most people expect.
The Bay Institute that runs the Aquarium also does a lot of great conservation work in the bay area which you will learn about on your visit and the entry fee goes to support these aims. While the Aquarium lacks some BIG sharks there are still lots of sharks in the collection including the elusive seven-gilled sharks. The Aquarium also features Bat Rays, Skate, Moray Eels, Octopus, Schooling Anchovies, and many of the species living in the bay area. There is also a River Otter enclosure with four very cute and playful otters.
San Francisco Zoo and Gardens
The San Francisco Zoo is not one of the best zoos in the country, but it is still well worth the visit and has some fantastic animals and exhibits. There are many large African animals such as Giraffes, Hippos, Rhinos, Zebra, and Ostrich, along with a large collection of Big cats including Lions, Tigers, and Leopards. There is an Australian section featuring Kangaroos and wallaroos, and a large South American section with Anteaters, capybaras as well as many reptiles and amphibians from the rainforest regions of South America. The Primate exhibits are one of the major draws here with Low land Gorillas being the stars of the show.
The Zoo is famed for its breeding programs and helps protect over 30 species including Bald Eagles, Black rhinos, and Gorillas. The Zoo was the birthplace of Koko the Gorilla who famously learned sign language. She has now sadly passed away.
The Zoo is not the largest and some of the exhibits are a little dated but it’s well worth checking out. The grounds and gardens are beautiful and make a nice change from the city.
San Francisco Go Card
If you are planning on visiting a few of these Museums then a great way to save quite a bit of money is the San Francisco Go Card. most of San Francisco’s Museums are covered by the Card and you can save up to 50% on visiting the attractions individually. There are lots of non-museums included too and it is a really great way to get the most out of your visit to San Francisco.
Check out our full review here to see if a San Francisco Go Card is right for you.
Have Your Say!
What is your Favourite San Francisco Museum? Are you a fan of the Fine arts or the more modern approach of some of San Francisco’s Museums? Or maybe you prefer the Living Museums where everything is brought to life? Let us know in the comments below and also drop us a comment if you have any questions regarding any of the San Francisco Museums.
2 thoughts on “San Francisco Museums List – Our Guide to San Francisco’s Museums and Galleries”
Wow! I didn’t realise how many museums were in San Francisco! I visited the city a few years ago but (don’t hate me) never went to a single museum.
This will definitely change the next time I’m in the city. I hope this is soon because the place is beautiful. How much time would you recommend staying in the city to see the main attractions and the best of these museums?
Yep it comes as quite a surprise to some as it’s certainly not renowned for it’s museums but it’s actually pretty unsurprising given the culture of the city.
The time you need in the City would depend massively on how you intend to visit the museums and how much you want to see. Even along weekend can be enough to get a great flavor of the city and take in the headliners at a quick pace, However, to get a real feel of the city can take a lifetime! Of course 5 days to a week is plenty to see most of the headline attractions and really immerse yourself in Bay life.
Thanks for reading and hope you enjoy your next trip to San Francisco.