The 10 Best Museums to Visit in San Francisco Right Now
Get a dose of culture—in person.
Museums in San Francisco are slowly starting to open up after being closed for most of the past year, which makes visiting one probably the most exciting thing you’ll do all year (no offense to park picnics and eating dinner in your ski jacket). There are lots of protocols in place to keep everyone safe, including the obvious ones like wearing a mask, social distancing, and staying home if you’re not feeling well. A lot of museums are also requiring timed tickets that must be bought in advance in order to ensure that they don’t exceed 50% capacity. That may sound like a bummer, but it’s actually an amazing chance to experience some of your favorite museums without the crowds.
A few of our favorites, like the Legion of Honor, Exploratorium, Museum of African Diaspora, and the Musée Mécanique aren’t open yet, but for the ones that are, we’ve rounded up all of the info you need, including current exhibits and protocols on admission. Let the culture commence!
Journey inside of Van Gogh’s art at this exhibition that uses light, music, and movement to show the post-Impressionist artist’s iconic work in a way that feels like you’re inside of a dream. Van Gogh’s masterpieces are illuminated by over 300,000 cubic-feet of projections that cover the walls and floors under a soaring ceiling. They move, they grow, they transform, all accompanied to an outstanding soundtrack that you’re immediately going to checkout on Spotify. Truly, this is an exhibition that must be experienced in-person; words could never do it justice, but since we have to try, we’ll say it’s intense and beautiful and mesmerizing and cathartic all at the same time.
Social distancing protocols are in place: you can move around the room, but if you’re going to stand still, you need to do so in one of the circles. There is also reduced capacity, along with temperature checks and touchless hand sanitizing stations. COVID protocols are also in place at the rooftop Gogh Café where you can enjoy treats like brie on baguette and eclairs with Van Gogh’s face on them.
Tickets are selling fast and this exhibition is only here through September 6th, so buy yours soon. This is an art experience you don’t want to miss.
How to book: Timed tickets are required and are available on the hour from 9 am to 9 pm (10 pm on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday). Ticket prices range from $39.99 to $99.99. Buy tickets here.
You’ll still find some of your tried and true favorite exhibits at SFMOMA, including “Pop, Minimal, and Figurative Art,” which features work by Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, but there’s a lot of new stuff to see as well. There’s an ongoing series by local artists, “Bay Area Walls” that addresses COVID-19, as well as the racism and inequality that was brought to the forefront in 2020. You can also see “Off the Wall,” an exhibit that transforms photographs into sculptures and runs through September, and “Close to Home,” also running through September, which brings seven Bay Area artists together to create a shared experience of the pandemic and social upheaval of 2020. Upcoming exhibits include more than 200 works by Nam June Paik, a Korean American artist known as the “father of video art” (Spring 2021–Fall 2021), and the Pan American Unity mural by Diego Rivera (Summer 2021–2023).
How to book: Timed tickets are required for all visitors. Tickets are $25 for adults and $19 for young adults (19 to 24). Reserve tickets here.
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 the Frida Kahlo exhibit that is open through May. The exhibit features personal items like photographs and paintings that were locked away for 50 years after her death in 1954 and looks at how appearances can be deceiving. The highly-anticipated “Calder-Picasso” exhibit is also running through May and features more than 100 sculptures, paintings, drawings, and graphics by Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso. And if you have ever thought about what it’s like to live in a world that has become AI-driven, don’t miss “Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI,” which runs through the end of June. The later months of summer will bring the “Hung Liu: Golden Gate” exhibit, with paintings about international and domestic migration, and the people who arrived in California “from both land and sea.” If you want to take a break at any point, the cafe is open for indoor and outdoor dining.
How to book: Timed tickets are required for every visitor and must be reserved in advance. GA for adults is $15. The Frida Kahlo exhibit and the Calder-Picasso exhibit are $35 (includes GA). Right now essential and frontline workers get a $15 discount on special exhibitions. GA on Saturday is always free for Bay Area residents and is free for everyone on the first Tuesday of the month. Learn more about visiting the museum right now and buy tickets here.
It is crucial that we show our support to Asian communities who have experienced a disturbing increase in racist violence over the last year. The Asian Art Museum posted a statement that includes ways we can support the Asian and Asian-American communities in the Bay Area, but another small way to support that community is to visit the museum and learn more about the diverse cultures of Asia.
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 in the 15th and 17th centuries, including nearly two dozen 12th-century stone reliefs from Central Vietnam that sat on the bottom of the Arabian Sea for nearly 120 years. Learn more about the current exhibitions here. In May, the museum will be opening its outdoor art terrace and in July, you’ll be able to interact with an immersive and dynamic digital art exhibition from teamLab.
How to book: Timed tickets are required and must be purchased in advance. You can stay as long as you’d like and exit and reenter. The museum has free admission on the first Sunday of every month, but every other day it is $15 for adults.
The CJM is re-opening to the public on Saturday, April 17th, and visitors will be able to see all of the current exhibits, including “Levi Strauss: A History of American Style,” “Threads of Jewish Life: Ritual and Other Textiles from the San Francisco Bay Area,” and “Predicting the Past: Zohar Studios, The Lost Years.” Before the doors open, everyone with internet access can see the first of a new three-part digital exhibition from Los Angeles–based artist Julie Weitz’s ongoing “My Golem” project, a performance series she began in 2017 in response to Donald Trump’s presidency and the rise of anti-semitism and white supremacy in America. Each day of Passover (March 28 through April 4, 2021), there will be a new video on the museum’s Instagram. That will be followed by an online multimedia presentation on the museum’s website, and finally, in June, the last part will be able to be viewed in-person in a new black box gallery that will be free to the public.
How to book: Visitors aren’t required to book a timed ticket before their visit, but they’re encouraged to. The price for adults is $18.
Golden Gate Park
The California Academy of Sciences is opening up with just 20% capacity at first, so you can feel extra safe. Go “face-to-fin” with over 40,000 animals in the aquarium (finally, we can say hello to Claude, the albino alligator who must have really missed us!), wander among butterflies and birds in the Osher Rainforest (free reservations are required to allow for social distancing), and visit with the colony of African penguins (feedings happen at 10:30 am and 3 pm).
Most of your favorite exhibits are open (though you’ll also need to make a free reservation for the Shake House earthquake simulator), but for safety reasons the Morrison Planetarium, Naturalist Center, Curiosity Grove, and Discovery Tidepool are temporarily closed.
How to book: Timed-entry tickets must be purchased in advance. This museum is popular with families, so if you want to go on the weekend, plan ahead. Tickets can be booked up to three weeks in advance. 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 timing of purchase—we think), but they seem to range right now from $28.50 to $43 for adults.
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 LGBT-related riots in U.S. history. There’s a plaque commemorating the uprising on the corner of Taylor and Turk.) The Tenderloin Museum has also added a multimedia exhibition created by Bay Area artists during lockdown.
How to book: You must reserve your timed ticket in advance. Ask about the walking tour where you’ll see the hotel where Muhammad Ali use to spar plus famous recording studios.
Check out 7,000 original pieces of cartoon memorabilia, including comic strips, comic books, anime, political cartoons, graphic novels, and underground comics, and discover when and why they were created, and more. The exhibits rotate, but right now you’ll be able to see art from Gemma Correll, including pieces from “The Worrier’s Guide to Life,” and Harmony Becker’s artwork from George Takei’s graphic memoir about his haunting childhood in Japanese internment camps. During normal times there are also in-person workshops, but those are all happening online for the foreseeable future.
How to book: Advance ticket sales are not available, but the museum will only allow 33 people in at a time, and admittance to the galleries will be spaced ten minutes apart. The museum is only open on the weekend and it’s $10 for adults ($7 if you’re an SF resident). Go on the first Tuesday of the month, and pay what you want. Learn more here.
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 full of rare and exotic plants. Wander through the humid Lowlands and listen to the babbling pond in Aquatics, then delight in everything in bloom in Highlands. Before or after, enjoy a picnic on the lawn of the colorful botanical garden.
How to book: Advance tickets encouraged, but not required. They’re not time or date specific and they never expire. Tuesday through Thursday, admission is $10 for adults, and Friday through Sunday, it’s $12. SF residents get in for $7 every day the museum is open. Go on the first Tuesday of the month and you’ll get in for free.
You might not consider a wax museum a museum, but right now we’ll take fun in any form it appears. Plus, 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. After being stuck at home for the better part of a year, it turns out playing tourist in one’s own city is actually pretty fun. (Plus, it’s an excuse to get an Irish Coffee from Buena Vista. After all, you’re already down there…)
How to book: Madame Tussauds is open Friday through Sunday and advance tickets ($22.49) are required.
Daisy Barringer is a writer who used to spend hours in the Exploratorium as a kid. It’s still probably her favorite museum in SF. Tell her your favorites on Twitter @daisy.