Top 12 Museums in San Francisco

Last Updated on February 20, 2024 by Emily Johnson

Known for its iconoclastic characters and pioneering creative spirit, San Francisco overflows with outstanding museums celebrating history, science, arts and culture. Over 65 museums scatter across the city’s 49 square miles, from behemoth art institutions like SFMOMA to tiny niched galleries honoring local heritage. Visitors can admire avantgarde masterpieces, relive the Summer of Love hippie movement or explore alien worlds in futuristic planetariums.

SFMOMAModern and contemporary art
Computer History MuseumTechnological advances and computing history
Alcatraz Federal PenitentiaryHistoric prison and island tours
Chabot Space CenterSpace and science exploration
Cable Car MuseumHistory of SF’s cable car system
Legion of HonorFine arts across 6,000 years
Cable Car Home MuseumLocal SF history
de Young Museum1960s counterculture and art
ExploratoriumInteractive science and learning
USS Pampanito SubmarineWWII naval history

To help pare down the possibilities, we compiled this guide to San Francisco’s essential museums for art aficionados, science buffs, history heads and families alike. It covers top-rated institutions both past and present, highlighting current exhibits worth traveling to see. Read on for the ultimate museum bucket list on your San Francisco trip.

Immerse in SFMOMA’s Modern Art Collection

Name and Location: The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is located at 151 Third St, San Francisco, CA.

Collections and Exhibits: SFMOMA houses an internationally recognized collection of modern and contemporary art spanning paintings, sculptures, photography, architecture and design, media arts and more.

What to Expect: Visitors explore one of the world’s greatest collections of modern art across a 165,000 sq. ft. space featuring works by Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jackson Pollock and prominent Bay Area artists.

Visitor Information: Open Fri-Tues 10am-5pm. Timed tickets start at $25, discounts for seniors/teens/under 18 free. Advance purchase recommended.

For sheer volume and variety of modern and contemporary art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) tops travelers’ museum lists. The airy 10-story building houses over 33,000 pieces in mediums from painting and sculpture to photography and installation art showcasing luminaries like Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock and Frida Kahlo plus lesser-known yet equally compelling artists that push boundaries.

Guests ride a mammoth 14-foot-tall sculpture escalator through the soaring central atrium getting unique peeks at current exhibits from various floors. Don’t miss living wall courtyard capped by a mesmerizing light sculpture outdoors. With interactive displays and boundary-pushing world premieres, SFMOMA both educates and intrigues art lovers from across the globe.

Discover Tech Tales at the Computer History Museum

Name and Location: The Computer History Museum is located at 1401 N Shoreline Blvd, Mountain View, CA.

Collections and Exhibits: This museum explores the computing revolution and the ongoing impact of digital technology on the way we work and live through dynamic exhibits and one of the largest international collections of computing artifacts.

What to Expect: Visitors discover the history of computing via interactive galleries showcasing inventions from Charles Babbage to Steve Jobs, including 1960s hardware, personal computers, artificial intelligence labs, virtual reality, and more.

Visitor Information: Open Wed-Sun 12pm-5pm. General admission starts at $17.50, seniors and teens discounted. Timed entry tickets required, advance purchase recommended.

In the heart of Silicon Valley, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View chronicles technological advances starting from early calculators to today’s AI and social networks that now powerfully shape society. Visitors view over 1,100 artifacts like codebreaking WWII computers or Apple’s original Macintoshes coupled with fascinating backstories brought to life through films and demonstratives.

Kids love trying 1980s video games or giant touch screens for designing the next viral app. Special exhibits like “Pong to Pokémon” connect gaming’s evolution to current pastimes. For those inspired by invention stories, the Computer History Museum amazes with both prototypes that failed and revolutionary achievements across computing’s brief but extraordinary history.

Experience Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary

Name and Location: Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary is located on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, 1.25 miles offshore from Pier 33.

Collections and Exhibits: This former maximum high-security prison site operated from 1934-1963 before closing. Its cellhouse has since been preserved to illustrate the prison conditions and storied inmate escapes attempts at the notorious former Alcatraz penitentiary.

What to Expect: Visitors tour cell blocks, solitary confinement spaces and historic relics while learning about dramatic inmate escape efforts from one of America’s most infamous former prisons. Night tours also available seasonally.

Visitor Information: Ferries depart Pier 33 routinely. Day tour tickets from $40, including audio guide. Advance booking strongly recommended. Evening tours available too.

Once America’s most feared prison housing mobsters like Al Capone, today Alcatraz Island functions as a museum recounting its infamous history. Just over a mile offshore in San Francisco Bay, “The Rock” stopped operating as federal penitentiary in 1963 but stories of dangerous inmates and escape attempts (some deadly) keep intriguing visitors today.

A short ferry shuttles guests over to explore cellhouse ruins with audio tours recounting tense prisoner uprisings, violent battles and accounts of those kept in solitary confinement here. Eerie remnants remain like tunnels leading to a stopped escape route or graffiti left behind in cells. Beyond the prison’s dark past, the island also provides outstanding bay views and nesting seabirds worth watching.

Launch into Outer Space at Chabot Space Center

Name and Location: Chabot Space & Science Center is located in Oakland, CA at 10000 Skyline Blvd.

Collections and Exhibits: This hands-on space science center features interactive exhibits, a planetarium, large telescopes and bay views across its 8-acre campus. The TRUST Dome Theater regularly screens 2D/3D films focused on space and science topics.

What to Expect: Visitors can drive rovers over mock Martian terrain, study aeronautics concepts, attend astronomy presentations in the telescope domes, enjoy space films and dazzling light shows under the vaulted ceilings of the planetarium.

Visitor Information: Open Wed-Sun 10am-5pm. General admission starts at $18.95, children 3-12, seniors discounted. Chabot includes dedicated STEM education areas catered specifically to youth learning.

The Chabot Space and Science Center transports visitors through the cosmos via handcrafted spacecraft models, meteorite samples and even a full-sized mockup of the International Space Station. Especially entertaining is their immersive planetarium projecting visitors into the Milky Way using a towering 75-foot screen overhead. Exciting astronomy shows replay night skies from ancient Babylon to futuristic visions alongside live commentary about constellations and galaxies from Chabot’s scientists.

Plus, interactive exhibits invite future astronauts to design launch vehicles or try docking rings with steady hands. From stargazing 101 classes perfect for beginners to glamping overnight under the telescopes, Chabot unleashes visitors’ inner space geeks blending entertainment with STEM education through their inspiring exhibits.

Salute San Francisco History at the Cable Car Museum

Name and Location: The San Francisco Cable Car Museum is located at 1201 Mason St in Nob Hill, San Francisco.

Collections and Exhibits: The museum contains historical Cable Car memorabilia alongside exhibits highlighting San Francisco’s iconic cable cars – covering their 1869 inception to ongoing operations and restoration efforts by the SF Municipal Railway to preserve this singular transport mode running since the 19th century.

What to Expect: Visitors discover cable car machinery like winding wheels still propelling coiled cables under city streets, alongside vintage grip cars, historic artifacts, photographs and models detailing this Victorian pioneering railway established over 155 years ago.

Visitor Information: Free admission. Open daily 10am-5pm. Located at Washington and Mason St. cable car barn – active cable machinery runs through the museum space.

As the world’s last manually operated cable car system pulling passenger vehicles up San Francisco’s steep hills since 1873, a ride aboard these National Historic Landmarks ranks as a quintessential city experience. Luckily, the nonprofit Cable Car Museum provides free access for anyone to see the internal machinery powering the famous system that’s moved over a billion people across three lines over its history

Visitors can walk right into the massive engine room humming from large rapidly spinning wheels, winding gear shafts, and metal gripping cables that pull the cars through underground channels across Nob Hill and beyond. Historic displays chronicle how the iconic cable cars evolved as the city’s public transit and also house rescued vintage cars. Exploring SF’s quirky history, the Cable Car Museum delights transportation lovers of all ages.

Admire Monet Masterpieces at the Legion of Honor

Name and Location: The Legion of Honor Museum overlooks Lincoln Park in San Francisco at 100 34th Ave, CA.

Collections and Exhibits: This fine arts museum houses a comprehensive collection of over 4,000 years of ancient and European art spanning paintings, sculptures, decorative arts and antiquities within a Beaux-Arts style building.

What to Expect: Visitors admire one of the world’s most significant repositories of French masterworks outside Paris from artists like Monet, Rodin and Rembrandt plus European antiquities among rotating touring exhibitions in a spectacular clifftop setting.

Visitor Information: Open Tues-Sun 9:30am-5:15pm. Adults $15, discounts seniors/youth/under 12 free. Guided tour information online. On-site cafe and store.

Overlooking the rugged Pacific coastline, the Legion of Honor museum’s gorgeous neoclassical architecture provides a fitting backdrop for its extensive fine arts collection spanning over 6,000 years. Must-see galleries include one of world’s most comprehensive Monet paintings collections with haystack studies, water lily ponds and misty Rouen Cathedral scenes.

Don’t miss one of just four casts of Rodin’s monumental The Thinker sculpture in the Court of Honor or stingingly beautiful Magritte paintings upstairs. Egyptian mummies, Medieval tapestries and dazzling Faberge eggs round out permanent galleries while special exhibits have spotlighted greats from Renoir to Chihuly. Pack binoculars and light jacket to also admire real passing ships on San Francisco Bay from Legion of Honor’s spectacular clifftop terrace.

Peek at Local History in the Cable Car Home Museum

Name and Location: The Cable Car Home Museum is located within the Washington-Mason Powerhouse at 1201 Mason Street in Nob Hill, San Francisco.

Collections and Exhibits: This small unique exhibit space recreates 1880s cable car workers’ home life through interpretive displays featuring authentic artifacts, furniture, photographs and clothing from Victorian-era railway employees living in cramped quarters with their families.

What to Expect: Free with Cable Car Museum entry, visitors explore a tiny workers’ cottage space illustrating the challenging 1880s manual laborer domestic experience, showcasing modest period furnishings and information panels from an often overlooked working class perspective.

Visitor Information: Free. Open daily 10am-5pm. Entry through the Cable Car Museum space in the same brick powerhouse building. No dedicated staff, self-guided casual exploration of the mini home replica.

A tiny hole-in-the-wall museum that’s delightfully off the beaten path, this Victorian house museum squeezes three stories of exhibits tracing San Francisco’s development into a few snug rooms. Visitors browse the jam-packed collection room by room learning how innovations like cable cars and the Transamerica Pyramid forever changed the cityscape.

Fun memorabilia on display includes relics survived from the 1906 earthquake/fires, prohibition-era wine smuggling evidence and butterflies collected locally during the gold rush era. Costing only $2 per person, the quirky Cable Car Home Museum packs immense intrigue into a petite but memorable package – rather like the city itself!

Step into 1960s Counterculture at de Young Museum

Name and Location: The de Young Museum resides in scenic Golden Gate Park at 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco.

Collections and Exhibits: This fine arts institution boasts one of the most significant collections of American painting, sculpture and decorative arts alongside art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas housed in a state-of-the art copper structure.

What to Expect: Visitors admire paintings showcasing 19th-20th century American artists alongside global textile arts, sculptures and costumes interspersed with touring exhibitions related to fashion, modern trends and music movements in light-filled airy galleries throughout the space.

Visitor Information: Open Tues-Sun 9:30am-5:15pm. Ticket pricing $15 adults, reduced rates available. Audio guides and tours offered. Museum cafe and store on premises.

Golden Gate Park’s sleek de Young Museum dedicates an entire floor to showcasing San Francisco’s avantgarde artists, writers and activists who radically shook up societal norms during the late 1960s. Their one-of-a-kind exhibition titled “The de Young in the 60s” envelopes visitors in sights and sounds from the rebellious yet optimistic Summer of Love era that championed ideals still relevant today.

Psychedelic posters, experimental films, tie dye clothing and even a singsong protest bus immersive experience recaptures the free-spirited creativity that flourished locally when peoples bonded over peaceful common causes. Beyond the hippie homages, the multistory museum also impresses with other exhibits featuring textile arts to modern paintings.

Experience the Exploratorium’s Interactive Science

Name and Location: The Exploratorium is an interactive science/art museum at Pier 15 along the Embarcadero in downtown San Francisco, overlooking the bay.

Collections and Exhibits: Focused on tactile education through immersive science, art and human perception exhibits, the Exploratorium encourages curiosity, inquiry and wondering through 600+ interactive displays to engage each visitor’s inner scientist.

What to Expect: Guests can touch, build and move various exhibits to learn science concepts first-hand, in uniquely tailored ways from gravity/magnetism/light stations, olfactory experiences, a glass bay observatory, fog bridge and more while asking questions and sparking intuitive learning drives.

Visitor Information: Open Thurs-Tues 10am-5pm, ages 4+ but tailored for all learning levels across exhibits favoring exploration over memorization in science. Ticket prices start at $20.

Ranking among America’s best science centers for all ages, the exporatory Exploratorium allows kids and adults alike to uncover mysteries in topics from soundwaves to psychology through over 600 hands-on exhibits. Inside their light-filled space looking across San Francisco Bay, visitors drift through meditative fog sculptures, visualize data patterns or rock an indoor tightrope balancing bar.

Many displays change periodically but favorites like the completely dark Tactile Dome or mesmerizing Tinkering Studio never fail to educate through play. Catch an inhouse screening in their soundproof theater hosting film festivals or trippy art experiments. For both beauty and STEM enjoyment, the Exploratorium delivers unbeatable interactive fun.

Tour a Historic Warship at the USS Pampanito Submarine

Name and Location: The USS Pampanito submarine is docked at San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, located at Pier 45.

Collections and Exhibits: This WWII-era US Navy submarine historic artifact (nicknamed the “Pamp”) is docked alongside 1900s ships allowing climbing aboard to glimpse 1940s submariner duties via restored compartments, torpedo room, engine rooms and cramped crewways throughout the metal submarine hull.

What to Expect: Visitors can squeeze through tight passageways while learning how 80+ men lived for months undersea across a thinly-stretched metal tube in close quarters during months-long 1940s war patrols from informative displays posted throughout the historic vessel.

Visitor Information: Open daily. Tickets $16 adults, youth discounted. Advance reservations recommended. Audio tour included with entry. Access involves climbing ladders/steep steps. Surface ship exhibits also available at same pier location.

Moored along Fisherman’s Wharf, the USS Pampanito submarine provides a rare opportunity to explore a WWII era vessel from the inside out. Visitors walk narrow corridors once filled by 80 submariners, peer through periscopes and check gauges in the engine rooms accompanied by authentic sound effects and stories recounting tense war patrols in the 1940s Pacific waters. Docent-led tours provide extra details and opportunities to chat with real sailors about their maritime stories.

Above deck, guests view naval guns that fired torpedoes as well as exhibits on dive boat operations plus kids can climb atop an Army Sherman tank. Budget about 2 hours onboard to see it all. For military history buffs, the USS Pampanito delivers a world-class museum tucked right into an authentic ship still floating decades later.


From marveling Monet’s gauzy country pastorals to climbing aboard a 75-year old submarine or shaking up science through artistic exhibits, San Francisco museums inspire and intrigue travelers with incredibly diverse collections. Track the journey from room-sized computers to smartphones at technology museums or contemplate provocative modern art installations in converted palaces. Costs range wildly from just pennies to view niche treasures to up to $30 at internationally renowned institutions filled with iconic masterpieces and artifacts spanning human imagination and innovation through the centuries.

With so many choices, use our guide to uncover more unexpected gems like a tiny cable car history house or sprawling hands-on science center appealing to all ages off the typical tourist trails. Whether you crave avantgarde inspiration, naval adventures, or gardens dotted with Rodin sculptures, San Francisco overflows with phenomenal museums guaranteed to enlighten and entertain every type of traveler.

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