The Best Museums in San Francisco Right Now

You’ll find world -class art, mind-blowing science exhibits, botanical wonders and more at the best museums in San Francisco

When you think of cities with amazing museums, San Francisco probably isn’t the first one that comes to mind. But while Paris has The Louvre and New York has The Met, SF has some truly amazing museums that boast not only incredible art, but also some of the quirkiest and most specific museums you’ll find anywhere. Where else are you going to find a space dedicated entirely to 20th-century penny arcade games? Also, the museums here have some legit cafes and that’s absolutely something to factor in because what makes you hungry and need a glass of wine more than walking around a museum for two hours?

Whether you’re interested in fine art, photography, vintage cars, natural sciences, botany, those aforementioned antique arcade games, or just having your mind blown over and over again, here are our favorite SF museums (and a couple in Oakland as well) that continuously make us think, ignite creativity in our own lives and, perhaps most importantly, leave us feeling productive and satisfied.

Walt Disney Family Museum
Earliest known drawings of Mickey Mouse | Courtesy of Walt Disney Family Museum

Tucked inside of a row of old army barracks along the sprawling Main Lawn in the Presidio is this museum founded by Walt Disney’s daughter, a place where you can better understand who Walt Disney was through early drawings, cartoons, films, music and a spectacular model of Disneyland. While the permanent collection stands on its own, there are always temporary exhibitions, like “Walt Disney's The Jungle Book: Making a Masterpiece” (February 2 – March 5, 2023) and “Chris Miller: Kaleidoscope,” a selection of paintings by Walt Disney’s grandson (until March 20, 2023).
How to visit: Admission is $25 for adults.

The Exploratorium
Photo courtesy of the Exploratorium

Forget everything you’ve ever been told about how you’re only allowed to “look and not touch” at museums because the Exploratorium isn’t just about looking at cool stuff, it’s about learning and playing with cool stuff. All of the exhibits are interactive, so you get to touch a tornado, dance with your own shadow, distort your size just by walking into a room, look into infinity, roll ping pong balls through a replica of the city made entirely out of toothpicks and see all kinds of illusions. If edibles are a thing you enjoy, you won’t regret eating one about an hour before your visit begins. Needless to say, the Exploratorium is full of kiddos during the day, so if you don’t want to feel bad playing with an exhibit while kids wait, go After Dark on Thursdays when there are cocktail bars, DJs and everyone has to be 18 or older.
How to visit: Daytime tickets for adults are $39.95, and After Dark tickets are $19.95. Advance tickets are encouraged.

Museum of the African Diaspora
Photo courtesy of MoAD

MoAD is a contemporary art museum that “celebrates Black cultures, ignites challenging conversations and inspires learning through the lens of the African diaspora” and because it doesn’t have a permanent collection, you can always go and discover something new. Right now, you can see “The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion,” which highlights the work of 15 contemporary fashion photographers from London to Lagos (until March 5, 2023), and “10/27/03,” by artist Ashley A. Ross. The exhibition showcases black and white photographs juxtaposed alongside documents from the artist's personal archive to “illustrate ideas about indoctrination and legacy within the Black familial structure” (until March 5, 2023). MoAD also puts on great events (more than 200 a year, both in-person and virtually), like open mic nights, “Poetic Tuesdays” and both a film and book club. While the museum is always celebrating Black voices, history and art, it is ramping up that celebration during Black History Month. Throughout February, there will be an array of lively programming, including conversations, screenings, and a Community Free Day on February 11th.
How to visit: GA: $12; students, seniors, and educators $6; free for children under 12 and for those who receive SNAP benefits by presenting their EBT card (will grant up to four people entry per EBT card).

Oakland Museum of California
Photo courtesy of Oakland Museum of California

Usually, if you want art, history and natural sciences, you’ll have to go to at least two different museums, but at OMCA, you get them all under one roof. This museum is all about inspiring Californians to “create a more vibrant future for themselves and their communities” and does this by bringing together 1.8 million objects that tell our state’s history. Go before June to see “Angela Davis: Seize the Time,” an exhibit that “examines the image, influence and activism of the Oakland-based icon” featuring a range of materials, including “contemporary and historical artworks, media, literature, sketches, rare manuscripts of Davis’s philosophical and activist writings.” There’s also an ongoing exhibit called “Black Power” that focuses on the Black Panther Party to “bring to light the tensions between a culturally and socially progressive California and examples of economic racism and oppression in the state” and is intended to inspire action. OMCA has lots of events, including Friday Nights at OMCA with Off the Grid, a free community event with live music, activities and food trucks where you can explore the museum or lounge in the garden.
How to visit: GA is $19 for adults; GA + “Hella Feminist” is $25.

Fisherman’s Wharf
Even if you’re not a “museum” person, you’re still a Musée Mécanique person because it’s a private collection of over 300 penny arcade games and artifacts from the 20th-century, including coin-operated pianos, antique slot machines, animations and more. Look closely and you’ll find some very dark machines, including ones that depict executions, the demise of a wagon train that didn’t reach its final destination and the fate of a drunk man who passes out in a churchyard only to be haunted by the devil. What you won’t have to look closely for is the famously creepy Laffing Sal, because even if you try to avoid looking at it, you’ll still hear her monstrous laughter within the museum and then later in your nightmares. There’s also a “Love Tester,” “Arm Wrestler,” fortune teller, a collection of vintage pinball machines and so much more.
How to visit: Free admission

SFMOMA San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

You’ll invariably find some of your favorite, tried and true contemporary artists at SFMOMA, including work by Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, but there’s also always lots of new art to see as well. Right now, that includes a collection of Alexander Calder’s sculptures that both delight and make you think about engineering in a whole new way (through May 2023); “Conversation Pieces: Contemporary Furniture in Dialogue” is described as “works of furniture that prioritize meaning and material choice over function and practicality” (until June 25). “Acción Latina: The ’80s Matter in the Mission,” is a look at the influential art and activism that took place in the Mission District in the ‘80s (until June 27). While you’re there, be sure to also check out the murals from Bay Area artists on floors 2, 3, and 5, take in some fresh air in front of the largest living wall in the U.S. and enjoy a bite or glass of wine in the sculpture garden. The SFMOMA also hosts one of the best parties of the year, Art Bash, which is happening this year on April 19th.
How to visit: Tickets are $25 for adults and $19 for young adults (19 to 24). Reserve tickets here.

The de Young
Photo by Gary Sexton

Golden Gate Park
It’s basically impossible to see all of the paintings, sculptures, carvings, and costumes at this fine art museum in one visit, especially if you’re also hoping to see a visiting exhibition, so plan accordingly. There are only a few weeks left to see “Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs,” a stunning exhibition that boasts the largest collection of Ramses II objects and Egyptian jewelry to ever make its way to the States (until February 13, 2023). When that departs, there’s still plenty more reasons to visit, including “Lhola Amira: Facing the Future,” the South African’s first exhibit in the U.S. that she describes as a “constellation” rather than an “installation” and includes a newly created, site-specific spiritual portal (until December 3). Other exhibitions include “Sargent and Spain,” a look at the vibrant works of John Singer Sargent (February 11 – May 14, 2023), “Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence,” a new body of painting and sculptures that confront “the silence surrounding systemic violence against Black and Brown people through the visual language of the fallen figure” (March 18 – October 15, 2023). Plus “Ansel Adams in Our Time,” an exhibition of over 100 works by the photographer and environmental activist shown alongside artists who influenced him (April 8 – July 23, 2023). If you want to take a break at any point, the cafe is open, which is also the perfect excuse to take a stroll through the Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden.
How to visit: Visitors are encouraged to book in advance. GA is $15 for adults. Special exhibits are extra and include GA. GA on Saturday is always free for Bay Area residents and is free for everyone on the first Tuesday of the month.

Asian Art Museum
Courtesy of Asian Art Museum

Civic Center
The Asian Art Museum has over 18,000 pieces of Asian art, including everything from video installations to ancient ceramics. Current exhibitions include “Bearing Witness: Selected Works by Chiura Obata,” which includes some of his “earliest watercolors depicting the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, his famous prints of California landscapes plus his somber consideration of World War II’s devastation” (until February 27, 2023). Also on display is Japanese artist Yoshida Hodaka’s first-ever solo exhibition in the United States, “Color Trip: Yoshida Hodaka’s Modern Prints” (until May 1, 2023.). Be sure to also stop by the Cha May Ching Museum Boutique, which is full of treasures and objects sourced from Asia.
How to visit: GA is $20 for adults. The museum has free admission on the first Sunday of every month and is half-price on Thursday nights after 5 pm.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum
Photo by JKAPhotography

This “non-collecting” museum aims to make “the diversity of the Jewish experience relevant for a 21st-century audience” through innovative exhibitions and programs. Right now, the one to see is by photographer Gillian Laub entitled “Family Matters,” which features her photographs that capture the loyalty and love of her family, the fractures that occur due to politics, bar mitzvahs, weddings, poolside barbecues and more (until April 9, 2023). Coming in mid-February, you’ll be able to experience “Cara Levine: To Survive I Need You to Survive,” which uses video, sculpture and installation to grapple with issues facing all of us right now, including police brutality, climate change and COVID-19. And, obviously, if you’re going to be there, you should grab a pastrami sandwich at the Wise Sons Jewish Deli outpost in the museum.
How to visit: Adult tickets are $16 and exhibitions are included. Admission is free on the first Friday of the month.

California Academy of Sciences
Courtesy of California Academy of Sciences

Golden Gate Park
Head to the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park to go “face-to-fin” with over 40,000 animals. Say hello to Claude, the famous and beloved albino alligator, wander among butterflies and birds in the Osher Rainforest, visit with the colony of African penguins (feedings happen at 10:30 am and 3 pm), and so much more, including ethereal jellyfish, a paddlefish, seadragons (one of the oldest and strangest species found in the U.S), and Methuselah, an Australian lungfish who is may be the oldest living fish in human care on the entire planet. Want to see it all when there aren’t lots of kids running around? Go on Thursday nights for NightLife, when the museum transforms into a playground of fun for adults only, complete with bars, DJs, and more.
How to visit: The ticket prices fluctuate based on an algorithm we’ve never been able to decipher (an equation that includes the day of the week, time of day, and how far you plan ahead—we think), but they seem to range right now from $36.50 to $43 for adults. NightLife tickets are $19.75 for GA. Buy tickets here.

The Tenderloin Museum
Courtesy of The Tenderloin Museum

This cozy museum celebrates the often overlooked history of one of SF’s most misunderstood neighborhoods. Learn about how the Tenderloin became home to the largest collection of single-room occupancy hotels (SROs) in the world, the famous jazz musicians who played in the clubs, and the political and social activism that started there. Before the Stonewall Riots in 1969, there was the Compton Cafeteria Riot, which was one of the first documented LGBT-related riots in U.S. history. There’s a plaque commemorating the uprising on the corner of Taylor and Turk.
How to visit: Admission is $10. Ask about the walking tour where you’ll see the hotel where Muhammad Ali use to spar, plus famous recording studios.

The Cartoon Art Museum
Courtesy of The Cartoon Art Museum

Fisherman’s Wharf
Check out 7,000 original pieces of cartoon memorabilia, including comic strips, comic books, anime, political cartoons, graphic novels, underground comics and discover when and why they were created. The exhibits rotate, but right now, you’ll be able to see YAY Comics! Hilo, Phoebe and Her Unicorn, and Friends” (until February 20, 2023), “Edward Gorey’s Errie Art” (through February 12, 2023) and A Treasury of Animation,” which showcases original production art from the 1920s and upward (ongoing). There are also in-person and online events, like “Toon Talks” with artists, workshops and more.
How to visit: $10 for adults ($7 if you’re an SF resident). Go on the first Tuesday of the month, and pay what you want.

Conservatory of Flowers
Photo by Richard Tauber

Golden Gate Park
Step inside a domed Victorian greenhouse, one of San Francisco's most stunning buildings—and also the oldest public, wood-and-glass conservatory in North America—and take a leisurely stroll through plant-filled galleries filled with rare and exotic plants. Wander through the humid Lowlands and listen to the babbling pond in Aquatics, then delight in everything in bloom in the Highlands. See what’s in bloom right now online, and be sure to make time to enjoy a picnic on the lawn of the colorful botanical garden.
How to visit: $10 for non-SF residents; SF residents get in for free, as does everyone on the first Tuesday of the month.

Madame Tussauds
Courtesy of Madame Tussauds

Fisherman’s Wharf
You might not consider a wax museum a museum, but it has the word “museum” right in its description, plus who doesn’t enjoy a little campy fun once in a while? Also, Madame Tussauds is historic! It’s been around for 200 years, and the woman behind it was imprisoned with her mother during the French Revolution. During your trip through the museum, you’ll see lots of stars, including music icons Jimmy Hendrix, Taylor Swift, and Madonna. You’ll also see some of SF’s beloved hometown heroes, like Joe Montana, Steph Curry, Janis Joplin, and Robin Williams. Turns out playing tourist in one’s own city is actually pretty fun. Plus, it’s an excuse to explore Fisherman’s Wharf get an Irish Coffee from Buena Vista. After all, you’re already down there…
How to visit: Tickets are $30.

Courtesy of Blackhawk Museum

While most museums have at least some semblance of a theme, the Blackhawk Museum is more like a tasty trifle with layers of intriguing galleries. It’s definitely best known for its Classic Car Collection and one-of-a-kind automobiles, including an 1886 Benz Patent Motorwagon, a 1937 Rolls-Royce Phantom III Sedanca DeVille and a 1929 Duesenberg Model J, but what goes well with fancy cars? Well, why not the sub-Saharan African culture you’ll discover in the “Art of Africa” exhibit, which features wooden sculptures, ceremonial rituals, and music. You can also go “Into China” with a gallery that includes fine art and exquisite reproductions from China, like an Imperial Dragon Throne and intricate model of the Forbidden City. Plus you can discover the “Spirit of the Old West,” which explores America’s westward expansion from the 1700s through the early 1900s, including depicting the lives of Plains Indians and 19th-century settlers.
How to visit: GA for adults is $15.

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat!

Daisy Barringer is an SF-based freelance writer who spent many childhood days wandering around the Exploratorium. Follow her on Instagram to see what she’s up to now.