The Best Museums to Visit in San Francisco Right Now

Explore world art, mind-blowing science exhibits, botanical wonders, and more with the Bay Area’s best museums.

California Academy of Sciences
Photo courtesy of California Academy of Sciences

Okay, so we’re no New York City, but San Francisco is actually home to some truly amazing museums that boast not only incredible art, but amazing architecture and legit cafes. (What? If there’s anything in the world that makes you hungry and want a glass of wine, it’s walking around a museum—fact.) Another fact is that going to museums does wonders for our spirits because not only are we seeing and learning new things, we’re engaging with the world in different ways, finding inspiration, and creating new memories.

Whether you’re interested in fine art, photography, vintage cars, antique arcade games, natural sciences, botany, or having your mind blown over and over again, here are 14 of 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 important, leave us feeling productive and satisfied. Make some time to visit in between all the other fun stuff going on this summer.

The Exploratorium
Photo courtesy of the Exploratorium

Embarcadero
Throw out 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 build sculptures with magnetic sand, create colored shadows, distort your size just by walking into a room, look into infinity, and see all kinds of illusions. Right now, you can’t go inside of the Tactile Dome, but as soon as it returns, reserve a time slot to go into the pitch black dome and feel your way out of it (pop a gummy about an hour beforehand for maximum fun). 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 $29.95 and After Dark tickets are $19.95. Advance tickets are encouraged.

Museum of the African Diaspora
Photo courtesy of MoAD

SoMa
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 basically always go and discover something new. All of the current exhibits are ending in September if not sooner, but soon after, you’ll be able to see “The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion,” which highlights the work of 15 contemporary fashion photographers, from London to Lagos (October 5, 2022–March 5, 2023), as well as other exhibits that have yet to be announced. MoAD also puts on great events (more than 200 a year, both in-person and virtually), like open mic nights, “Poetic Tuesdays,” a film club and book club, and the annual Afropolitan Ball (October 15, 2022).
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

Oakland
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 ‘em 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 the end of the year to see “Hella Feminist,” an exhibition that brings together historic objects from the museums’s collection (posters, pins, photos, and more) alongside newly commissioned art to demonstrate intersectionality and how elements of one’s identity are inextricably linked (through January 2023). 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.
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 20th-century penny arcade games and artifacts, 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, and the famously creepy Laffing Sal which, even if you try to avoid looking at, you won’t be able to miss. There’s also a “Love Tester,” “Arm Wrestler,” fortune teller, and a collection of vintage pinball machines.
How to visit: Free admission

Blackhawk Museum
Photo courtesy of Blackhawk Museum

Danville
This museum is 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 it’s not all about fancy cars. You can also discover sub-Saharan African culture in the “Art of Africa” exhibit that features wooden sculptures, ceremonial rituals, and music; 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; and 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.

SFMOMA San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Courtesy of SFMOMA San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

SoMa
You’ll always find some of your favorite, tried and true artists at SFMOMA, including work by Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, but there’s always lots of new art to see as well. Right now, that includes 150 of Diego Rivera’s paintings, frescoes, and drawings created from the 1920s to the mid-1940s (through January 2, 2023); large-scale sculptures from contemporary artists Olafur Eliasson, Teresita Fernández, and Anish Kapoor that play with light, color, and our perception of them (through December 11, 2022); and a collection of Alexander Calder’s sculptures that both delight and make you think about engineering in a whole new way (through May 2023). 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.
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, so you may want to start with “Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs,” a stunning exhibition that boasts the largest collection of Ramses II objects and Egyption jewelry to ever make its way to the States (through February 13, 2023). There are only a few months left to check out Faith Ringgold’s “American People'' exhibit, a colorful look at five decades of art and activism (November 27, 2022). 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. “Ramses the Great” is $35. 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. Right now on the ground floor, you’ll find thoughtful multimedia meditations on subjects that affect us all, like personal resilience, the passage of time, political upheaval, and inclusion. There’s also preserved artwork that was recovered from shipwrecks, including nearly two dozen 12th-century stone reliefs from Central Vietnam that sat on the bottom of the Arabian Sea for nearly 120 years. Right now, you can also see “Carlos Villa: Worlds in Collision,” a look into the Filipino American artist's “spectacular, visually magical worlds of feathers and photographs, capes and masks, bones and tattoos” (through October 24, 2022) and “Bearing Witness: Selected Works by Chiura Obata,” with first-hand depictions of the 1906 earthquake and fires (rendered on-the-spot), as well as paintings that document the forced incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II (through January 31, 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

SoMa
Hopefully, you didn’t miss the amazing Jim Henson exhibit that just closed, but even if you did, you’re not too late to see “Oz is for Oznowicz: A Puppet Family's History”, a look at the puppeteer work of the parents of Frank Oz, the legendary actor and director who was a close collaborator with Henson and performed beloved Muppet characters, like Miss Piggy, Fozzie the Bear, and Cookie Monster. This exhibit features never-before-seen marionettes created by Mike and Frances Oznowicz, including a caricature of Hitler that served as a form of mockery and social commentary when the dictator was rising to power in the late 1930s (through November 27, 2022). Also showing is “Tikkun: For the Cosmos, the Community, and Ourselves,” works from Bay Area artists that reflect on the Jewish concept of tikkun, which translates to repair in Hebrew (through January 8, 2023). If you want to make the most of your visit, go in mid-October after photographer Gillian Laub’s “Family Matters” exhibit opens so you can 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 (through April 9, 2023). And, obviously, since you’re 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 to go “face-to-fin” with over 40,000 animals in the aquarium. 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 turns 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

Tenderloin
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, and underground comics, discover when and why they were created, and more. The exhibits rotate, but right now you’ll be able to see “YAY Comics! Hilo, Phoebe and Her Unicorn, and Friends” (through December 11, 2022), and “A Treasury of Animation,” which showcases original production art from the 1920s and upward (ongoing). During normal times there are also in-person workshops, but those are all happening online for the foreseeable future.
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 SF’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: Adult tickets are $10 in the winter and $13 the rest of the year. 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.

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Daisy Barringer is an SF-based freelance writer who is taking advantage of these strange times by exploring San Francisco on foot. Follow her on Instagram to see where she goes next.