As well as being a city blessed with incredible natural scenery and a melting pot of cultures from around the world, San Francisco is a cultural jewel of the West Coast. As one of the first big cities on the West Coast, established by Spanish colonizers in 1776, San Francisco has a rich and interesting history that few other cities in the area can match. Plus, San Francisco has been a haven for artists almost from its very inception. Put all of that together, and you have a city that's at the forefront of arts and culture, and has museums and art galleries to match.
You certainly won't struggle to find interesting museums in San Francisco. Whether you want to learn more about the history of the city, appreciate modern art, explore different cultures from around the world, or take the kids to a science center that will entertain and educate them with interactive exhibits, you've come to the right place. Plus, in a city not generally known for being affordable, you may be surprised to find that some of the museums listed below are among the best free things to do in San Francisco.
But before you start planning your route between the museums of the city, take a minute to drop off your unneeded bags at a Bounce luggage storage in San Francisco. Traveling light will make it easy to get around, and many of the best museums in San Francisco don't have facilities to store bags. It makes sense to get your bags safely put away before you dive into San Francisco's cultural scene.
Walt Disney Family Museum
Ordinarily, kids and museums don't go together all that well. However, San Francisco bucks that trend. The city has many child-friendly museums, and some of the best things to do with kids in San Francisco are to visit them.
The Walt Disney Family Museum is a perfect example. This museum tells the story of animator Walt Disney and how the company he founded became one of the biggest media conglomerates in the world. It's also a place where kids can meet their favorite Disney characters and interact with the fascinating exhibits. The Walt Disney Family Museum also screens classic Disney movies in the afternoons, so it's a great place to take the kids if you need a little peace and quiet.
Contemporary Jewish Museum
The history of Jewish immigration in many ways reflects the broader history of the founding of the United States. The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco tells the story of Jewish life and culture in the United States that goes back to the founding of the nation and even before. The Jewish people have played an outsized role in the history of California, and continue to be a major influence on Californian and American culture to date. The Contemporary Jewish Museum is the perfect place to learn more about this rich history and celebrate a gifted and resilient people.
De Young Museum
Located in Golden Gate Park along with several other of the city's most important museums and cultural institutions, the de Young Museum is a must-visit for art fans. This museum is dedicated to American art, spanning the 17th to the 21st centuries. See sculptures, paintings, drawings, ceramics, and other forms of art that show the evolution and development of artistic techniques through the centuries. The museum also has an impressive collection of African and Pacific art, so you can travel the world without leaving this institution. The de Young Museum is one of the Fine Arts Museums of Francisco, along with the Legion of Honor located in Lincoln Park. As such, it's one of the best places in the city to appreciate art from the Americas and around the world. Best of all, it's completely free to visit. All you need to do is show up and walk in, so it's the perfect place to spend a few hours for art lovers on a budget.
Asian Art Museum
Ever since it was founded, San Francisco has been the gateway to the Pacific and to Asia. The city is home to the oldest Chinatown in the United States, and remains a major center of Asian immigration to this day. So it's no wonder that San Francisco hosts the stunning Asian Art Museum.
This museum features art and artifacts from across Asia, including China, Japan, India, the Philippines, Turkey, and just about everywhere else. You'll learn more in an afternoon spent here than you probably did in a couple of years of school, and will almost certainly come away with new appreciation for the arts and cultures that call Asia home. Plus, the Asian Art Museum is worth visiting just for its incredible architecture, making it a great place to get those all-important Instagram photos.
Admission is at a reduced price after 5 PM on every Thursday, and totally free on the first Sunday of every month. So there's really no reason not to go and see all the treasures this museum has to offer.
Cable Car Museum
San Francisco's cable cars are one of the most iconic sites of this legendary city. Taking a ride on these classic public transportation vehicles is guaranteed to be a highlight of any trip to the Bay Area. But if you want to learn more about one of San Francisco's top attractions, don't miss the chance to visit the San Francisco Cable Car Museum. The museum houses exhibits that will give you an in-depth look into the history of the cable cars and how this unique mode of transport shaped the growth and development of the city. You'll be able to see classic cars that have been retired from active duty, and even see the cable moving under your feet as it pulls the cars up and down San Francisco's many hills. As well as being a museum, the Cable Car Museum remains a crucial part of the city's transit infrastructure, so it offers a real peek behind the scenes of how San Francisco works.
Oh, and did we mention it's completely free to visit? After taking a ride on the cable cars, why not learn more about them at this budget-friendly Museum?
Children's Creativity Museum
Another of San Francisco's excellent family museums is the Children's Creativity Museum. This unique institution located in Yerba Buena Gardens is the perfect way to spend the day with the family. In fact, the term 'museum' may be a bit of a misnomer for this place, because it's more like a multimedia studio than anything else. Here, kids can make their own animated films or record songs in the recording studio. The museum encourages children in creative pursuits, making it ideal for kids of any age, and plenty of adults too.
Yerba Buena Center
Also located in Yerba Buena Gardens, you'll find the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. This institution presents contemporary visual art, films, and performances from the cutting edge of the San Francisco and worldwide art scene. If you're looking for something new and exciting, this is the place you're most likely to find it. Check out the schedule of performances or visit any time to see the innovative work of some of the most exciting artists working today.
California Academy of Sciences
Golden Gate Park is one of the best places to visit in San Francisco for many reasons. It's a green oasis in the middle of the busy city, and the perfect place to get some fresh air and stretch your legs on the many hiking trails. However, Golden Gate Park is also home to some of the best and most popular San Francisco museums. And many of those museums fall under the broad umbrella of the California Academy of Sciences.
This nonprofit organization operates many exciting attractions inside Golden Gate Park. You'll find the Steinhart Aquarium, the Morrison Planetarium, and the extraordinary Osher Rainforest located here. The California Academy is also home to the Kimball Natural History Museum, one of the most popular San Francisco museums and another fantastic place to visit with the family.
Learn about the history and future of life on earth from the fascinating interactive exhibits at the Natural History Museum. The gigantic blue whale skeleton and towering T Rex are surefire hits with the kids, and the museum often hosts special programs that let you peek behind the scenes at the research that the California Academy of Sciences is known for. Hands down, it's one of San Francisco's top museums, and with so many other great attractions in the area, including the nearby de Young museum, there's no excuse not to visit.
Wells Fargo History Museum
These days, Wells Fargo is best known as a financial services company. But the history of the corporation is far more interesting than you might have thought. In fact, Wells Fargo and its famous stagecoaches were key to opening up the West to settlement, and San Francisco owes not just its prosperity but even its existence in some part to this fabled company.
The Wells Fargo History Museum is located in San Francisco's financial district, and it gives a valuable glimpse into the Wild West days of the city. Check out the gold nuggets and go for a ride in a stagecoach to see what life was like back when San Francisco was very much on the frontier of the emerging country that became the modern-day United States.
Thanks to this museum's central location, you won't struggle for lunch options once you've enjoyed the exhibits. Check out our guide to the best street food in San Francisco to learn more.
California Historical Society
California is a unique place, and a state that can often feel more like a nation of its own. Its history goes back before the founding of the United States, when this was part of Mexico. And the story of how California became American, and the contributions the state has made to the culture and economy of the country, is one well worth exploring.
That's the store you'll learn at the California Historical Society. Located downtown next to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, this underrated institution is a must-visit for anyone who wants to understand more about California's past.
By now, you may be getting the impression that you don't have to pay anything to see some of the best museums in San Francisco. The Randall Museum isn't going to change that impression, because this fabulous institution is also completely free.
It's also another fantastic place to bring the kids. The Randall Museum prides itself on hands-on and interactive exhibits that explore history and science. Highlights include one of the world's biggest model trains, the innovative STEM lab, and a theater that hosts regular performances.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Located in pleasant Lincoln Park, this museum is the place to go to enjoy modern and contemporary art in San Francisco. SFMOMA, as its known to its friends, is one of the largest museums in the entire United States, and is home to some landmark works of modern art. With over 33,000 pieces of modern art in its collection, SFMOMA offers an embarrassment of riches for art lovers. Check out work by Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo, William Eggleston, and Diego Rivera, among others. Chances are good you'll come away with a new appreciation for modern art.
What are the best free museums in San Francisco?
There are so many free museums in San Francisco that it can be hard to know where to start. The Randall Museum is one of the best in the city, paid or unpaid, and if you're traveling to San Francisco with kids, you have to check out the collection here. For something a little more quirky, the Cable Car Museum is a quick but interesting visit, and is convenient to reach by cable car. Additionally, the de Young is great for art lovers on a budget.
Which are the best museums in Downtown San Francisco?
The Wells Fargo Museum couldn't ask for a better location, situated as it is right in the heart of downtown. Additionally, the California Historical Society is only a few blocks away. And SFMOMA and the Contemporary Jewish are also located in downtown San Francisco, so you could spend days visiting just the museums in this area.
Are there any cheap museums in San Francisco?
San Francisco has so many free museums that you can get your cultural fill without spending a penny. And even the museums that aren't free can often be visited for free or at reduced rates at certain times. For instance, the Asian Art Museum drops the price of a ticket to five dollars every Thursday after 5 PM, and also allows people in for free on the first Sunday of every month. Also, many San Francisco museums drop their admission charges on certain days of the year. Watch out for free Museum days at the Contemporary Jewish Museum on the first Tuesday of every month, and free admission to the California Academy of Sciences on select Sundays throughout the year.