Best Museums in San Francisco

MOMA opens soon, but San Francisco Has Plenty of other Museums, too

Visiting a museum is always a unique experience, as each one has its own distinct characteristics, style, and of course, content. Although one could argue the restaurants and hotels that a city have to offer are extremely important, the distinct array of museums in a city says a lot about its commitment to culture and art.

Museum subjects vary greatly from city to city, and can range from firefighter's museums to fine art to sports. It's no different in San Francisco, with a wealth of museums ranging from MOAD to The Cartoon Art Museum. And most of the cities best museums are concentrated around Yuerba Buena Park, so true museum lovers could knock out three or four world-class museums in one day and on foot.

And since the largest and most well-known of the museums in this area, SF MOMA, is closed for construction until 2016, now is a great time to give the smaller but just as fascinating museums in a chance to show off their cultural wealth.

Although a good night's sleep at a fine hotel or a splendid meal at a four-star restaurant can really make a trip, think about what a day at a thoughtful museum can offer: significant memories that can last a lifetime.


Cartoon Art Museum
Photo courtesy of Cartoon Art Museum

A delightfully unique attraction, the Cartoon Art Museum is an anomaly in the western United States and the region's only museum wholly dedicated to cartoon art. Located in the city's Yerba Buena cultural district, it houses nearly 6,000 original items, including everything from comic books and graphic novels to Sunday funnies and Saturday morning cartoons. Special exhibitions are held annually, as are book signings, lectures, cartooning classes and workshops. If you're visiting San Francisco with the kids, especially young ones, this is a fantastic place to introduce them to art without having them squealing for mercy and running for the doors.

Recommended for Museums because: The Cartoon Art Museum is uniquely San Francisco and a great option for kids of all ages.

Tom's expert tip: Original site conveniently located near Yuerba Buena Art Center and other museums, but new museum opening soon.

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For those who like their museum visits sprinkled with Disney magic, be sure to check out the Walt Disney Family Museum. Offering a comprehensive history of this American legend within the beautiful confines of the Presidio, the museum tracks this multibillion dollar corporation's rise from Mickey Mouse to Snow White, Mary Poppins and Disneyland. The Walt Disney Family Museum brings his legacy to life and Lots of interactive exhibits for kids (of all ages!) that invites viewers to find their own creative inspiration in Walt Disney's story. And the location of the Presidio is hard to beat, with wonderful hiking trails that start through eucalyptus forests and end up down by San Francisco Bay.

Recommended for Museums because: Hard to find a bigger hit with families than the Walt Disney Family Museum.

Tom's expert tip: Start off your tour with "Beginnings," which highlights Walt Disney's formative early years.

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Asian Art Museum

The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco is one of the largest museums in the Western world devoted exclusively to Asian art. Its holdings began with the generous donations of collector Avery Brundage, and now, the facility houses nearly 15,000 treasures that span 6000 years of history. More than 2500 extraordinary works are displayed at any one time. Together they constitute a comprehensive introduction to Asia's major cultures, including those of India, Tibet, China, Japan and Korea. The museum is located in the city's former Main Library.Take time to check their website for fascinating programs for families and other special events.

Recommended for Museums because: With its central location in the Civic Center, visiting the Asian Art Museum is a great way to kick-off a fascinating San Francisco day.

Tom's expert tip: Cafe Asia is one of the better museum cafes of the entire city.

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Cable Car Museum

This museum has been called "one of the top 10 free attractions in the world" by travel guru Arthur Frommer. It's an excellent for all ages because it celebrates the fun whimsy of cable cars but doesn't skip the more complicated mechanics, as well. Watch the machinery that makes San Francisco's most famous form of transportation possible. Also go upstairs for photographs, memorabilia, and other displays related to the history of cable cars. Located at the intersection of Mason and Washington Streets, the Cable Car Museum is perched on the edge of the Embarcadero, which offers glistening views of San Francisco Bay.

Recommended for Museums because: Cable Car Museum celebrates one of the most important and recognizable icons of San Francisco.

Tom's expert tip: The Cable Car Museum is right on the Embarcadero, a lovely outside walk almost any time of the year.

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If you want a museum experience that's educational and fun for kids, take the trip over the Bay to Sausalito and visit the Bay Area Discovery Museum. Everything about the museum is made to make learning fun for the whole family, including the Art Studios, Bay Hall, Discovery Hall, Lookout Cove, Tot Spot and Wave Workshop. And with a stunning view of the bay right outside, not to mention the backdrop of the Marin Headlands, parents can sit an enjoy the scenery wild their kids go wild with learning. General Admission runs $12, and the museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 9 a.m.- 5 p.m.

Recommended for Museums because: Like the Exploratorium, the Bay Area Discovery Museum is an excellent option for families.

Tom's expert tip: The Bay Area Discovery Museum has an excellent program schedule for kids, including Toddler Circle Time.

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The Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) is dedicated to sharing the art and stories of our common African heritage with audiences from around the world. Showcasing the history, art, and cultural richness that resulted from the migration of Africans throughout the world,MoAD connects all people through our shared African heritage. Open Wednesday through Saturday from 11 am--6 pm and Sunday from 12 pm – 5 pm. General admission is $10, but kids under 12 are free. If you want a very moving and personal experience, visit The Museum of the African Diaspora for a museum experience unlike any other.

Recommended for Museums because: MoAD is a unique museum with a very clear and powerful mission.

Tom's expert tip: The "Slavery Narratives" on their website is a powerful primer to this impressive museum.

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Lincoln Park

Unlike some of the other museums on this list, the structure that houses this museum is as beautiful as the artwork within. The extensive collection features works from the 13th to the 20th centuries, including those by Monet, Manet, Rubens, Van Gogh, Picasso, Seurat, and other European artists. Earlier works date from approximately 2500 B.C. An original cast of Rodin's "The Thinker" dominates the museum entrance. After you wander the beautiful insides of Legion of Honor, take time to check out its distinct neighborhood, which includes cozy Clement Street and Lands End Recreational Area, which features nature trails with stunning views of the Pacific.

Recommended for Museums because: The Legion of Honor is the perfect option for those who wan to get away from downtown but still want to experience a world-class museum.

Tom's expert tip: Leave time to explore the beautiful surrounding grounds and fantastic views outside of the Legion of Honor.

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de Young Museum
Photo courtesy of de Young Museum

First opened in 1895, the de Young is San Francisco's oldest, most diversified art museum. In late 2005, after many months of renovation, the facility reopened with a new, copper-clad exterior and updated, newly fashioned exhibits. The museum's collections feature primarily American art from the colonial period to the mid 20th century, but you'll also find textiles, crafts and decorative arts, not to mention extensive collections of African, Oceanic and pan-American art. If you visit, be sure to take the elevator to the top of the Hamon Observation Tower. Since the tower is located in the center of San Francisco, it offers a fantastic, 360-degree view of the entire city and surrounding landscape.

Recommended for Museums because: the de Young Museum offers some of the most current and diverse exhibits in the city.

Tom's expert tip: Since it's in the heart of Golden Gate Park, leave time for before or after your visit to explore San Francisco's most famous green space.

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Contemporary Jewish Museum
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

Although the de Young museum has the most striking of all the San Francisco museums, the Contemporary Jewish museum has to rank a very close second. Opened in 2005, the 63,000 square foot stunning museum by designer Daniel Libeskind celebrates Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas within a 21st-century perspectives. Like many of the cultural museums in San Francisco, the delight of the museum is that it can celebrate both past accomplishments and current pursuits of a specific culture. Recent exhibits on Houdini and Ezra Jack Kets reveal just how deeply Jewish imagination and thought have positively impacted American culture.

Recommended for Museums because: The Contemporary Jewish Museum is in Yuerba Buena Gardens area which offers a cluster of fantastic museums to choose from.

Tom's expert tip: Newly redesigned museum dedicated to contemporary perspectives on Jewish culture. Ideal location downtown, close to public transit.

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The Exploratorium
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

The Exploratorium believes the fundamental childhood traits of being playful and curious should be fostered for a lifetime. Founder Frank Oppenheimer believed in intertwining art and science to make learning attractive and memorable through exhibits such as the Tactile Dome and Traits of Life. If you believe that families that learn together stay together, head to the Exploratorium for a lifetime of togetherness in one day. And even if your budget can't handle the price of admission, the Exploratorium offers fantastic exhibits outside for free, such as the "Fog Bridge" that blows misty gusts every half-hour. And the city hasn't found a way to charge for the views of the sparkling San Francisco Bay that the Exploratorium offers - at least not yet.

Recommended for Museums because: The Exploratorium is a great museum choice for those traveling with children.

Tom's expert tip: Even if you don't have time to visit the inside of the museum, the 1.5 acres of free exhibit space outside is worth the trip.

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Meet Tom Molanphy

The only thing that Tom Molanphy loves more than the food, art, music, and culture of San Francisco is sharing it with others. San Francisco never gets old for Tom.

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