The best museums in San Francisco feature an eclectic ensemble of galleries that draw the biggest crowds, but there’s also a substantial selection of cultural and historical exhibitions for you to check out. The city by the bay has some of the best museums on the western seaboard. That’s hardly surprising as this bohemian enclave is awash with artistic expression.

    From antique arcades to wartime history and space exploration to science, San Francisco has a museum for every interest. Below, we cover the very best to make your next trip to Golden Gate City both fun and informative. Here’s where to learn art, history or something new in San Francisco.

    1

    San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

    The greatest collection of contemporary art in America

    • History

    The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, or SFMOMA, is a treasure trove of contemporary art. Some 33,000 pieces from the 20th-century reside throughout the 405,000-square-foot exhibition space, creating the most extensive collection of its type in the United States.

    Photography, painting, architecture, and digital design comprise the works, with big-name artists from Andy Warhol to Frieda Kahlo on display. Don’t miss the spectacular sculpture-clad terraces and the verdant vertical garden – the architecture here is almost as impressive as the artworks. A modest entry fee applies, though budget travellers can enjoy a small selection of works in the open-air public gallery.

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    Location: 151 3rd St, San Francisco, CA 94103, USA

    Open: Friday–Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm, Thursday from 1 pm to 8 pm

    Phone: +1 415-357-4000

    Map

    photo by Caroline Culler (CC BY-SA 3.0) modified

    2

    Exploratorium

    A family-friendly science museum to tantalise the senses

    • History

    Fun for all ages, the Exploratorium hosts 650 interactive exhibits that cleverly combine science and the arts. Hands-on activities and scientific experiments play tricks on the senses, teaching a few tidbits about physics in the process.

    One of the most mind-bending exhibits is a whimsical recreation of the San Francisco Bay made from over 100,000 toothpicks. Don’t miss the Tactile Dome, either, where visitors must navigate a course using all senses except sight. Located on Pier 15 downtown, the museum has an affordable entry fee that includes discounts for families.  You’ll need 3 to 4 hours to explore the entire exhibition.

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    Location: Pier 15, The Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA 94100, USA

    Open: Tuesday–Sunday from 10 pm to 5 pm, Thursday from 6pm to 10pm

    Phone: +1 415-528-4444

    Map

    photo by Fabrice Florin (CC BY-SA 2.0) modified

    3

    M. H. de Young Memorial Museum

    International art in a stunning location within Golden Gate Park

    • History
    • Photo

    The de Young Museum wows visitors with its esteemed collection of fine international art. Its ever-expanding exhibition, which first opened in 1895, now covers the Americas, Africa, and Oceania through multiple modern halls. Sculptures, paintings, and textiles comprise the works – de Young is especially popular for its expansive costume collection.

    The museum resides within the world-famous Golden Gate Park, making it an excellent side trip for anyone exploring the lush expanse. Be sure to scale the Hamon Tower, a gorgeous glass-encased observation deck that affords beautiful views of the bay.

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    Location: 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118, USA

    Open: Tuesday–Sunday from 9.15 am to 5.15 pm

    Phone: +1 415-750-3600

    Map
    4

    Musée Mécanique

    An antique penny arcade chock-full of vintage wonders

    • History
    • Budget

    Musée Mécanique is an assortment of mechanical oddities that takes retro gaming to a whole new level. Founder Edward Zelinsky began his epic collection way back in the 1920s, and it’s now the stuff of San Francisco legend. His legacy spans some 300 unusual items, including coin-operated fortune tellers, music boxes, penny arcade machines, and more.

    While entry is free, many of Musée Mécanique’s fun-filled mechanical antiques cost a quarter to play – the perfect excuse to get rid of those cumbersome coins. Highlights include Laffing Sal, a terrifying 6-ft-tall automaton, as well as the world’s only steam-powered motorcycle, which dates back to 1912.

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    Location: Pier 45, Fishermans Wharf, San Francisco, CA 94133, USA

    Open: Daily from 10 am to 8 pm

    Phone: +1 415-346-2000

    Map
    5

    San Francisco Cable Car Museum

    An ode to the ubiquitous San Francisco cable car

    • History
    • Budget

    The San Francisco Cable Car Museum celebrates the city’s most beloved form of public transport. Since first chugging through its hilly streets in 1893, the cable car has become synonymous with San Francisco – a ride on the council-funded Historic Streetcar is a quintessential experience.

    Although the charming relics of old have been replaced with modern, energy-efficient trams, visitors can still catch a glimpse of the old days here. The Cable Car Museum showcases 2 19th-century carriages and numerous exciting artefacts from the time. As it resides above the present-day cable car powerhouse, visitors can also watch the action unfold via its overlook galleries. Entry to the museum is free.

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    Location: 1201 Mason St, San Francisco, CA 94108, USA

    Open: Daily from 10 am to 6 pm

    Phone: +1 415-474-1887

    Map

    photo by Daderot (CC0 1.0) modified

    6

    San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park

    A historic assortment of endearing wooden ships

    • History
    • Photo

    San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park is where boating buffs should make a beeline for. It's an intriguing shoutout to the city’s nautical past. Hyde Street Pier hosts an array of time-old boats, with everything from square-rigged sailing ships to schooners and steam-powered ferries on display.

    Next, pop into the visitors centre at the bottom of the pier. A marvellous collection of maritime relics lie throughout the historic structure – don’t miss the Fresnel lighthouse lens. If you’d like to learn more, the comprehensive Maritime Research Center lies 10 minutes walk to the west. Otherwise, have a go at open-water swimming within Aquatic Park – just try not to get too near to sea lions as they’re wild animals.

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    Location: 499 Jefferson St, San Francisco, CA 94109, USA

    Open: Daily from 9.30 am to 5.30 pm (September–May: daily from 9.30 am to 5 pm)

    Phone: +1 415-447-5000

    Map
    7

    USS Hornet Museum

    A WWII warship that fished Apollo 11 out of the Pacific

    • Families
    • History
    • Photo

    The USS Hornet is San Francisco’s premier floating museum. After serving in World War II and the Apollo 11 recovery mission, the ship was decommissioned and positioned in the bay as an ode to naval aviation and space exploration. Self-guided tours let you see the enormous control room, hangars, and propulsion room at your own pace. Got questions? Keep a lookout for the friendly guides who wander around the ship.

    A wide range of real-life aircraft resides on the flight and hangar decks, dating from World War II to the Vietnam War. The Apollo Program Exhibit is equally impressive – the biggest of its kind on the West Coast. Youth and family groups can spend a night in the berths for the full Navy experience.

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    Location: 707 W Hornet Ave, Alameda, CA 94501, USA

    Open: Saturday–Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm

    Phone: +1 510-521-8448

    Map

    photo by Oleg Alexandrov (CC BY-SA 3.0) modified

    8

    USS Pampanito

    A fantastic Second World War submarine

    • Families
    • History
    • Photo

    The USS Pampanito is your best bet for experiencing life onboard a real World War II submarine. This historic Balao-class vessel served on 6 war patrols for the US Navy in the Pacific, sinking 6 Japanese ships and damaging 4 more. Nowadays, the sub sits dormant on Pier 45 in Fisherman’s Wharf, welcoming around 100,000 curious visitors each year.

    The Pampanito still boasts multiple working parts, and the Maritime National Park Association aims to restore several more. The engine room, the galley, the periscope, and a torpedo tube are among its impressive hands-on displays. Educational programmes allow families to spend the night in its underwater bunks – don’t expect much headroom here, though.

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    Location: San Francisco, CA 94133, USA

    Open: Daily from 9.30 am to 5.30 pm (September–May: daily from 9.30 am to 5 pm)

    Phone: +1 415-775-1943

    Map
    9

    USS Jeremiah O’Brien

    One of the few remaining D-Day ships on earth

    • History
    • Photo

    The USS Jeremiah O’Brien is the only operational Liberty Ship left in the world. Wartime history buffs would be mad to miss it on their visit to San Francisco. The cargo vessel is one of the few remaining boats of the D-Day fleet, a 6,939-strong armada that invaded Normandy on 6 June 1944.

    Apart from serving in the greatest seaborne invasion ever, the USS Jeremiah O’Brien attracts visitors for its impeccable condition. Its cargo hold, bridge, and engine room remain much the same as they were in the mid-'40s, all of which you can see on a self-guided tour. For a true taste of naval history, she runs passenger-carrying pleasure cruises around the bay.

    Location: Pier 45, San Francisco, CA 94133, USA

    Open: Daily from 9 am to 4 pm

    Phone: +1 415-544-0100

    Map

    photo by kevinmcgill (CC BY-SA 2.0) modified

    10

    Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

    Among the world’s best collections of Asian artwork

    • History
    • Photo

    The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco boasts among the biggest collections of oriental artwork globally, with a staggering 18,000 pieces on display. Housed in the city’s former main library, its halls are awash with millennia-old Hindu, Islamic, and Buddhist influences – an unusual juxtaposition.

    Be sure to pop into the teahouse, which was taken apart in Kyoto and re-built, bit by bit, by traditional Japanese carpenters inside the museum. The Chinese collection is equally impressive – the best this side of Beijing. Come with an empty stomach on Sundays to bite into a weekly serving of mouthwatering Korean food.

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    Location: 200 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA 94102, USA

    Open: Thursday from 1 pm to 8 pm, Friday–Monday from 10 am to 5 pm

    Phone: +1 415-581-3500

    Map
    Harry Stewart | Contributing Writer

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