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Top San Francisco Museums To Visit Now
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Top San Francisco Museums To Visit Now

When it comes to the City by the Bay's ties to capital-A art, the famed San Francisco museums do much more than just deliver.

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5 min read

November 21, 2021

“The only way to understand painting is to go and look at it. And if out of a million visitors, there is even one to whom art means something, that is enough to justify museums." - Pierre Auguste Renoir

Art is everywhere you look in San Francisco, from the Mission murals and the Painted Ladies to those iconic heart sculptures that are among Instagrammable places in the Bay Area. And when it comes to the city’s ties to more capital-A art, the famed San Francisco museums do much more than just deliver. These institutions don’t need a strict guide map, whether it houses unusual collections and traditional art pieces. Simply follow your eyes to wherever they lead you to better understand your taste.

These Are The Coolest San Francisco Museums To Check Out

Located in Golden Gate Park, the de Young Museum is a component of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco along with the Legion of Honor.

de Young Museum 

Location: 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive

Located in the middle of Golden Gate Park, the 125-year-old de Young Museum in San Francisco is a real curator of epiphanies. Their permanent collection comprises American, African, Oceanic, American Indian, Maori, and Filipino art with notable pieces by the incomparable Frida Kahlo.

Head on to the top of the nine-story building’s observation tower and you’ll see a clear city day bring the most stunning of vistas. On Friday evenings, the museum even stays open late for its ‘Friday Nights at the de Young’ program, where delicious mocktails are backdropped by anything from poetry to performance art.

Completely rebuilt in 2008, the California Academy of Sciences' primary building in Golden Gate Park covers 400,000 square feet/

California Academy of Sciences 

Location: 55 Music Concourse Drive

The California Academy of Sciences is an aquarium, planetarium, rainforest, and natural history museum all wrapped in one. And even though it’s technically considered Golden State’s oldest museum, you definitely won’t be able to guess that by looking at it. The current Cal Academy has morphed into a vibrant 400,000 square-foot building that’s home to over 26 million specimens and plenty of innovative ideas.

The ‘living exhibits’ are Cal Academy’s highlight—rainforests populated by plants, frogs, free-flying birds, and butterflies are accessible via a tunnel brimming with Amazonian fish. There’s also a recreated swamp, where you can peer down at Claude, the resident albino alligator; but fair warning, his ruby red eyes might capture your soul.

The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco houses one of the most comprehensive Asian art collections in the world, with more than 18,000 pieces.

Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

Location: 200 Larkin Street

You don’t exactly have to be a connoisseur of Asian art to treasure a visit to this museum. Through its monumental exterior, the Asian Art Museum in S.F. conceals a light and open space that’s full of possibilities. A part of the Asian collection on display—approximately 2,500 pieces out of 15,000-plus total—is laid out thematically by region, so following the historical developments is a piece of cake. 

Start exploring on the third floor, where you’ll find Buddhist art in Southeast Asia and early China, which include a large jewel-encrusted, exquisitely painted 19th-century Burmese Buddha and clothed rod puppets from Java. The second floor uncovers later Chinese works, as well as pieces from Korea and Japan; the joy here is all in the details. On a Korean jar, for instance, you can search for a cobalt tiger smoking a pipe and gawk at the delicacy of the Japanese tea implements.

The Cable Car Museum is part of the complex that also houses the cable car power house, which drives the cables and the car depot.

San Francisco Cable Car Museum

Location: 1201 Mason Street

Riding one of the iconic cable cars is a San Francisco staple, but getting to explore them up close is a whole other experience. The San Francisco Cable Car Museum is a thrill for kids as well as for grown-ups, who have always nurtured a curiosity about the historic system. Nestled in Nob Hill, the museum houses three cable cars from the 1870s, including the last remaining one that stood on the Clay Street Hill Railroad. But nostalgia doesn’t sum up the entirety of your experience. As important as it is to look back at the past, the museum urges folk to focus on the current and the future of this magnificent system—it does so by showcasing giant mechanisms that power the system’s cables.

Gearheads will love peeking at the displayed tools, grips, track, cable, and breaks, while history buffs learn about the past. If you’re the latter, one of the key draws for you will be the actual origin story—a tale of a budding inventor who came up with the idea for the steam-powered system after watching carriage horses struggle to go up a steep San Francisco hill.

Madame Tussauds San Francisco features wax figures of famous figures from movies, music, politics, popular culture, and sport.

Madame Tussauds 

Location: 145 Jefferson Street

If you’ve got a thing for wax museums, San Francisco has a gem in store. Introducing the Madame Tussauds of San Francisco, a museum divided into six areas showcasing waxworks of the most popular celebrities you can think of. In the A-List Zone, expect to see replicas of legends like Morgan Freeman, Leonardo Di Caprio, Laverne Cox, and Jennifer Anniston. There’s also the Spirit of San Francisco hall, which pays a heartfelt homage to a few of the city’s greats. 

Gather around the bonfire with Janis Joplin, play a few chords with Jimi Hendrix, and stroll around the Golden Gate Bridge with none other than Robin Williams. With San Francisco being one of the most technologically advanced cities, it’s only natural that the museum gives odes to influential leaders and entrepreneurs. Meet U.S. Presidents and say hello to the tech innovators like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, who have shaped the world as we know it today.

The Museum of Illusions is one of the most fun museums around because it is fully interactive. Photo courtesy of Museum of 3D Illusions.

San Francisco’s Museum of 3D Illusions

Location: 55-61 Jefferson Street

San Francisco's Museum of 3D Illusions comes Instagram-ready with four unique experiences. There’s Giant's House, Museum of Illusions, Upside Down House, and Smash It—all of them will transport you to a world ruled by fantasy and imagination.

The Giant's House is bound to warp your perception of size and matter; you'll probably be convinced you've shrunk down a few sizes. There's a donut the size of a monster truck wheel, a massive pizza where the average adult is the size of a slice, and a giant burger that’s fit to be fed to King Kong.

The Museum of Illusions is S.F.'s only installation to feature more than 30 3D illusions that produce eye-popping pics inspired by current events, cartoons, movies, and dream-like experiences. You can go on an African Safari, get up-close and personal with majestic giraffes, take the stage in front of a massive crowd of adoring fans, and walk on the edge of a towering skyscraper (cause you're a daredevil like that).

The Exploratorium was founded by physicist and educator Frank Oppenheimer and opened in 1969 at the Palace of Fine Arts, its home until 2013.

S.F. Exploratorium

Location: Pier 15, The Embarcadero

The remarkable Exploratorium is S.F.’s prized institution dedicated to the science of learning. Its location fills a former waterfront pier with hundreds of state-of-the-art exhibits and demonstrations. Ideal for people of all ages, this place has lots of room to roam around, dashing from one clever exhibit to the next—you can learn about sound waves, play prisms, figure out magic tricks, and even find out how fog works. Exhibits do change regularly, so you should always brush up on the website to see what’s happening. One thing’s for sure though, there’s always something new to learn.

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