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World-class art collections, interactive science exhibits and everything you ever wanted to know about cable car systems, San Francisco has a diverse museum scene. Where else is there an aquarium, rainforest, planetarium and natural history museum rolled into one? Beyond the exhibits, many of the museums offer breathtaking views of the bay and the city’s best parks. Here are the most iconic museum stops to include on your itinerary.
What better way to learn and absorb the information you are seeing than to be able to interact with it? At the Exploratorium in San Francisco, visitors get to do just that.
The Exploratorium has more than 600 interactive indoor and outdoor exhibits created by staff scientists and artists. It has been characterized as, "a mad scientist’s penny arcade, a scientific funhouse, and an experimental laboratory all rolled into one" (7x7 Magazine).
The Exploratorium was the first ever science museum to build a website. It launched in December of 1993. The Exploratorium has had such an impact on learning that 80% of science centers, around the world have used or are using Exploratorium exhibits, programs, or ideas in their work.
What to Do
With six galleries to explore, there is an interactive exhibit for everybody. Even if you’re not a scientist, you probably have a few unanswered questions about the world, scientific phenomenon, or both. The Exploratorium is likely to answer at least one of those burning questions.
In the Bernard and Barbro Osher West Gallery, visitors can delve into the mysteries of human memory, emotion, judgment, and perception. The Tactile Dome is an engaging exhibit that allows visitors to explore and make their way through a series of textures in total darkness using only their sense of touch as a guide. Reservations are required as this exhibit is in constant high demand. For CityPASS holders, ticket prices for the Tactile Dome are reduced to $15.
Because each gallery within the Exploratorium is so different from the next, it’s difficult to determine a "best" exhibit. In the Bechtel Central Gallery, visitors can explore sight and sound with several unique exhibits such as "Bright Black," where visitors are led to believe that an object is white before discovering that the object is quite dark. The Tinkering Studio in the South Gallery has been one of the most popular exhibits for both children and adults, allowing visitors to engage in hands-on workshop activities. Visitors can build, hack, transform, and experiment — and the activities are always changing.
There are six different galleries, each focusing on a different field: social behavior, touch, vision and light, the living world, the local environment and global phenomena, and wind, water, and tides. It’s easy to spend a whole day in the Exploratorium!
Know Before You Go
To get the most out of your visit, plan to spend the whole day there so you get the chance to fully immerse yourself in each of the gallery spaces. Adults can enjoy "Exploratorium After Dark" a strictly 18+ event that takes place the first Thursday of every month from 6:00pm to 10:00pm. At this special event, adults can sip on a cocktail and engage in innovative and interactive scientific and artistic presentations.
California Academy of Sciences
The California Academy of Sciences is an entirely immersive experience that takes visitors through a rainforest, the deep blue sea, and the bright stars of the universe.
The California Academy of Sciences houses over 26 million specimens and is one of the largest natural science museums in the world. The California Academy of Sciences is also a renowned educational institution known for its innovative programs. This museum is the only place in the world to combine the wonders of an aquarium, planetarium, and natural history museum in one location.
Over 40,000 animals make their home at the California Academy of Sciences. It was founded in 1853, just three years after California gained statehood, and was rebuilt in 2008 to include a sod roof that provides a habitat for native plants. Skylights bathe the museum in natural light.
What to Do
Animals bring smiles to people’s faces. Some adorable, waddling characters have made the California Academy of Sciences their home, and are a part of the great educational experience the Academy provides to visitors of all ages. Penguin feedings are recurring events at the Academy. Watch as a biologist feeds these magnificent creatures and partake in an educational Q&A all the while. This event is great for kids and adults.
The Osher Rainforest is a four-story leafy haven that takes visitors on a journey through the colorful life that inhabits the rainforest. Exotic birds, wild amphibians, and huge Amazonian fish are all highlights of this fantastic exhibit. Once inside the dome, visitors will see a 90 ft. stretch of lush, green rainforest above. The spiral path inside takes guests up through three distinct ecosystems of rainforest. The first ecosystem is a Bornean forest floor, the second is a Madagascan mid-story, and the third is a canopy of the Costa Rican forest. After you explore the top, you can take an elevator down below the surface of the forest floor to view the flooded Amazon. Once there you can see the light above you shining through the water and onto the scales of the Amazonian fish.
Step into the Shake House to feel what San Francisco’s two biggest earthquakes felt like – the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta quake and the 7.9 magnitude Great San Francisco quake of 1906.
Know Before You Go
If you plan to see a show at the Planetarium, book your show upon arriving. Looking for an even more personal experience? Take the behind-the-scenes tour and understand the Academy’s role in research, scientific exploration, and dedication to education as you dig a little deeper into the heart of the museum, aquarium, and rainforest. Adults can enjoy a night at the museum full of music, creatures, and cocktails every Thursday from 6:00 to 10:00pm. Oh, and say hi to Claude the albino alligator.
de Young Museum
Located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge Park, the de Young Museum is a wonderful attraction brimming with global artwork. From the extensive collection of 17th century to 20th century American art, to the prized works of Native American and African artists, the de Young Museum provides visitors with an enriching and inspiring experience. The building itself is a sight to see, as it weaves into the natural environment of the park and incorporates historic elements of the older buildings into the new design.
The de Young collections have been relocated twice due to natural disasters. The great earthquake of 1906 caused significant damage to the original building, and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake resulted in the creation of an entirely new, privately-financed institution that would be structurally safe and sound and suit the needs of the growing collections within. The new building’s facade is composed of 950,000 lbs. of copper, 300,000 lbs. of glass, and 7,200 copper panels with 1,500,000 embossings.
What to Do
With many temporary exhibits moving through the de Young, there is always something new to see. The museum is the foremost museum on the West Coast for its collection of American and African textiles and costumes. What makes de Young unique is the organization of collections. Rather than organizing pieces in one collection by geographical location, various works of art from around the world are gathered into collections based on a unifying theme. This way, visitors can see the significance of the pieces, as well as similarities to other pieces of art from different regions of the globe.
The American paintings collection, as well as the African art collection, are popular exhibits within the de Young Museum. The African art collection has expanded substantially since its beginnings. What once was a random selection of bold, expressionistic works is now an impressive collection that boasts enough work to unify the pieces thematically. The American paintings cover artwork from various time periods and regions with the Americas, and is organized chronologically. From Native American and Spanish colonial to Neoclassical and impressionist, there is much to see and be amazed by at the de Young. For those looking for an outdoor excursion, the sculpture garden is a pleasant and peaceful way to appreciate art outside the walls of the Museum. The garden features the original sphinx sculptures of the de Young Museum, as well as the Pool of Enchantment.
Visit the Harmon Tower for panoramic views, which is nine floors up. From here, you can see the Golden Gate Bridge, the living roof of the California Academy of Sciences, and a view unlike any other in San Francisco.
Know Before You Go
Visit on Wednesdays between 1:00pm and 5:00pm to meet the artists, a free event in a working art studio. There are also children’s programs for younger enthusiasts and Friday Nights at the de Young for adult enthusiasts, where food and cocktails are available to purchase. The museum is generally closed on Mondays, with a couple of exceptions. Check the calendar for special hours. There are audio tours available at the audio guide kiosk.
Legion of Honor
Located in the heart of San Francisco’s Lincoln Park, the Legion of Honor Museum shines inside and out with 4,000 years of ancient and European art, brilliant French neoclassical architecture, robust statues, and an unbeatable view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco cityscape.
The de Young and the Legion of Honor combine to create the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco institution. The Legion of Honor was built to commemorate Californian soldiers who died in WWI, and as a replica of the Légion d'Honneur in Paris.
The de Young and the Legion of Honor combine to create the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco institution. The Legion of Honor was built to commemorate Californian soldiers who died in WWI, and as a replica of the The Legion of Honor holds one of the largest collections of drawings and prints in the US and is the museum featured in Hitchcock’s film, Vertigo. The famed statue that rests in front of the Museum, The Thinker, by Auguste Rodin, is not actually the thinker but a thinker, one of many. Rodin commissioned work from Henri Lebosse, under Rodin’s supervision. There are in fact multiple Thinkers around the United States and several sprinkled throughout the world, giving nearly every corner of the globe a thinker of their own.
What to Do
In the Legion of Honor, there is a gallery dedicated specifically to the various works of Rodin, including over 100 sculptures. And within the Rodin Gallery is the Skinner Organ, a pipe organ made to emulate the sounds of an orchestra without the need for multiple musicians. The thunderous music is rich and full in the high ceilings and wide space of the Museum, and visitors can enjoy a free concert held every Saturday and Sunday at 4pm while enjoying magnificent art. Performers play everything from Bach to Hollywood film scores and each concert resonates through the air of the grand museum.
The Legion of Honor’s collection consists of more than 124,000 works from world renowned artists such as Renoir, Monet, Picasso, Degas, van Dyck, Rembrandt, Hals, Rubens, van Gogh, Cezanne, Gainsborough, and El Greco. The European decorative arts, ancient Mediterranean art, impressive sculptures and paintings, and the vast collection of paper drawings have put the Legion of Honor on the list of some of the best museums in the world. The classical paintings and other various works of art are made even more memorable hanging in a beautifully designed building atop land with a remarkable view.
Know Before You Go
Take a free docent tour with admission Tuesday through Sunday. For an interactive and educational experience, download the mobile app, which provides visitors with a detailed 3-D map that guides visitors through the chronological collection, enlightening them with interesting tidbits of information along the way.
San Francisco lives and breathes art, and modern art emulates the spirit of San Francisco. And so, the recently expanded SFMoMA, the California equal to its New York big sister, is the collective home of all things modern art.
After nearly three years of being closed for renovations, the new SFMoMA is a one-of-a-kind Museum complete with a 235,000 square foot addition and over seven floors of gallery space, making the SFMoMA the largest museum in Northern California and one of the biggest in the world.
The new building includes 45,000 square feet of space that’s free for the public to access. This makes SFMoMA a vital cultural and social hub of art in the heart of San Francisco. It’s also the first museum on the West Coast to be devoted entirely to modern and contemporary art, opening back in 1935.
What to Do
The SFMoMA has been applauded for its excellent curation and organization. The seemingly infinite open space, sophisticated architecture, and unique collections make SFMoMA one of the best museums in the world. Some visitors have claimed that after renovation, the SFMoMA is even better than its New York contemporary.
Temporary exhibits expose lesser-known artists to the public eye. However, SFMoMA's permanent collection brings together the beloved work of such artists as Chuck Close, Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo, Roy Lichtenstein, and many others. But perhaps the SFMoMa's most prized permanent feature is its Living Wall. The Living Wall is a combined force of art and nature, inspiring creativity with the varied colors and textures in horticulture but also providing visitors with a beautiful break from the enclosed walls of the museum. The Living Wall is made up of several different plant species. Each section of the wall features different plants, and with nature’s habit of cyclical change, the wall is unlikely to be the same one visit to the next. Unlike a painting, the Living Wall is always moving. While you explore the grand space of SFMoMA, find the time to take a lush respite outside and gaze at the green wonders of the Living Wall.
Inside, you'll see the largest gallery, research, and interpretive space devoted to photography of any art museum in the United States. You'll also see works by San Francisco natives, and a 200-ton sculpture called "Sequence" that the new building was designed around.
Know Before You Go
For those who are unsure of the world of modern art and would like a "sample" before diving in, the first two floors of the SFMoMA are free to explore. Take a 45-minute guided tour of the museum free with admission. Dozens of visitors to the SFMoMA have recommended downloading the amazing SFMoMA app and exploring the space on your own. The audio in combination with the indoor tracking and positioning technology tell visitors about every piece of art they come across in the museum. With a variety of renowned hosts, visitors can also take an immersive narrative through the museum. There are also regular live performances at SFMoMA.
Cable Car Museum
San Francisco is visualized by outsiders as the hilly, foggy city with the Golden Gate Bridge and iconic cable cars. Nothing shouts "San Francisco" quite as loudly as the Cable Car Museum. It's the only place in the world where you will get the chance to explore the historic transportation that draws visitors to the city each and every year.
Before the 20th century, all of the railroad companies had a combined 53 miles of track stretching across the Bay Area. But in 1906, the Great Earthquake and Fire destroyed most of the city. As the city was slowly brought back from the ashes, the electric streetcar became the favored mode of transportation as it was easier and cheaper to build and maintain, and faster all around. The Cable Car Museum is dedicated to this most-loved mode of transportation.
In 1947, the city’s then-mayor declared that all cable car lines should be eradicated because every other means of transportation (mainly buses) were less expensive by comparison. But Friedel Klussmann could not accept that. She founded the Citizens’ Committee to Save the Cable Cars. The committee was able to prove to the City of San Francisco that the value of the cable car outweighed their operational cost. And she was right. San Francisco's cable cars are the last working system of their kind in the world, making them both a fun tourist attraction and functional way to move around the city.
What to Do
The history of the cable car in San Francisco is fascinating. Within the museum are various artifacts and photographs that take visitors on a timeline from conception to reality. You'll see old models of cable cars including three antique cable cars from the 1870s. Learn a little bit about the engineering behind the cable cars as you peruse the mechanical devices that power the cable car system.
Almost anyone who has visited the Cable Car Museum is fascinated by the impressive pulley system that is behind it all. From the deck above, visitors witness the engines and wheels at work. Down below, you can witness the cables actually being pulled through the channel under the street. After you’ve learned a little bit about the history and engineering of the cable car, seeing everything come together in mechanical action will make your cable car experience all the more enjoyable.
Know Before You Go
There is always free admission to the Cable Car Museum. It is open every day from 10:00am to 6:00pm April through October, and from 10:00am to 5:00pm November through March. There is a store within the museum where visitors can purchase unique memorabilia pertaining specifically to cable cars. Take home a little bit of history and see why Friedel Klussmann and the committee that fought so hard to keep these beautiful relics up and running.
Now that you know about the best San Francisco museums, use San Francisco CityPASS and save nearly half off combined admission prices to some of the museums listed above as well as other top attractions in San Francisco. San Francisco CityPASS includes a 7-day Muni and Cable Car Passport, as well as prepaid admission to the California Academy of Sciences, a Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise (visitors who purchase their San Francisco CityPASS at the Alcatraz Cruises ticket office may substitute an Alcatraz Island tour), your choice between Aquarium of the Bay or Monterey Bay Aquarium, and either the de Young and Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museums or the Exploratorium. Some special exhibits are not included with CityPASS and may require an extra fee.
Cable Car Museum Photo Credit
Legion of Honor and de Young Museum Images courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco