6 Can't-Miss San Francisco Museums

San Francisco's best museums feature ancient artifacts, innovative installations and more.

By Jenna Scatena, ContributorApril 24, 2017
By Jenna Scatena, ContributorApril 24, 2017, at 12:44 p.m.
U.S. News & World Report

6 Can't-Miss San Francisco Museums

Exploratorium

The Exploratorium is a hands-on museum for the insatiably curious of all ages.(Amy Snyder for Exploratorium)

San Francisco is known for its love of cultural diversity and innovation, and almost nowhere is that more apparent than in its assortment of museums. Whether you're visiting one of the most comprehensive Asian history museums on the West Coast, playing with creative science experiments or exploring the recently expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, you'll be awe-struck and entertained. For first-time or returning visitors, here are some of the city's best museums, according to its expert residents: San Francisco hotel concierges.

California Academy of Sciences

California Academy of Sciences(Will Love/California Academy of Sciences)

Set in Golden Gate Park, the California Academy of Sciences is like three museums in one. The expansive state-of-the-art space is the only place in the world with an aquarium, planetarium and natural history museum. Venture through a rare underwater world with one of the world's largest indoor living coral reefs, or soar through outer space while watching a show in the futuristic digital planetarium. Then, take a hike with tropical butterflies in the four-story glass dome rainforest. And don't miss the living roof – its grassy surface serves as a home to local wildlife and is equipped with weather stations.

The museum is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $34.95 for adults; $29.95 for seniors, students with an ID and youths 12 to 17; $24.95 for children 4 to 11; and free for children 3 and younger. On Thursday nights, the museum hosts NightLife events from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. for those 21 and older.

Exploratorium

Exploratorium(Amy Snyder for Exploratorium)

Located at Pier 15 along San Francisco's scenic Embarcadero Promenade, just a mile walk from Pier 39, the Exploratorium is a hands-on museum for the insatiably curious of all ages. Exploring the 9-acre facility is like discovering one giant multidimensional science experiment, aimed at sparking intrigue and informing minds. Included in the facility is a theater, a pier, outdoor installations and a hands-on tactile dome. It's also known for its lively science-minded events and lectures, as well as its spectacular view of the San Francisco Bay.

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday, and closed Mondays, except for select holidays. Admission is $29.95 for adults; $24.95 for seniors, teens 13 to 17 and students with an ID; $19.95 for youths 4 to 12; and free for children 3 and younger. It holds After Dark events on Thursday nights from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. for those 18 and older.

Legion of Honor

Legion of Honor(Courtesy of Legion of Honor)

The art collections at the Legion of Honor span 4,000 years of human history, and include paintings, sculptures and decorative arts. The majority of the collections are from Europe – including paintings and sculptures from the medieval and Renaissance periods, French impressionist art, and pieces from ancient Greece and Egypt. Some people come for the art or the impressive exhibits that rotate through, while others come simply to stroll the grounds, which are a work of art themselves. Teetering on the coastal bluffs of the city's western edge, this French neoclassical estate has great views of the Pacific Ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge and downtown San Francisco.

"The collection, the location, everything – it's beautiful and you can combine it with a hike through Lands End. Plus it's a great place to watch the sunset," says Andreas Rippel, chief concierge at the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco.

The museum is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday, and is closed Mondays. Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for seniors, $6 for college students with an ID and free for youths 17 and younger. On the first Tuesday of the month, general admission is free.

de Young Museum

de Young Museum(Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

The iconic de Young Museum is a fixture in Golden Gate Park, near the California Academy of Sciences. Housing an eclectic mix of Oceanian, American and African art, as well as others, it's a great place to get lost in for a few hours. There are a few options to navigate the museum: on your own or with a scheduled docent tour, audio guide or a mobile app. Don't miss the observation tower, with views that stretch over the park's eucalyptus canopy, beyond the western neighborhoods, to the Pacific Ocean.

The museum is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday, and is closed Mondays. Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for seniors, $6 for college students with an ID and free for youths 17 and younger.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art(JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)

The gem of San Francisco's bustling SoMa (short for South of Market) neighborhood, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art reopened in 2016 with a bang after a lengthy renovation nearly tripled the museum's size. Now, there's something for everyone, whether it's architecture and design, media arts, painting, sculpture or photography.

"It's the biggest art space in the city and the photography collection in particular is absolutely incredible. The living wall is a fun backdrop for photos," says Rachel Ward, editor at Where San Francisco magazine. "And don't miss the upper deck that lets you admire the architecture from the outside, and catch a great view of downtown."

Other ways to experience all that this cosmopolitan museum has to offer include exploring its 45,000 square feet of art-filled public spaces that can be experienced without a ticket purchase. Foodies will want to try In Situ, a fine dining restaurant reimagined by one of the city's top chefs. More than 80 chefs from around the world contributed to the establishment's menu.

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday through Tuesday, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday. It's closed Wednesdays. Admission is $25 for adults, $22 for seniors, $19 for young adults 19 to 24 with an ID and free for those 18 and younger.

Asian Art Museum

Asian Art Museum(Courtesy of Asian Art Museum)

"The Asian Art Museum is a great contrast to the more common Western museums. You can see what was going on through Asia for 6,000 years," says Keith DiBene, chief concierge at Hotel Vitale San Francisco, A Joie de Vivre Hotel.

The indoor sky-lit court at this historic building provides a beautiful centerpiece that illuminates one of the largest museums in the Western world devoted to Asian art. Be sure to carve out ample time to explore the 18,000 objects carefully amassed over many years by art historians, religious studies scholars and anthropologists. From Bhutanese textiles to stone sculpture, Sikh art to bronze relics from Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia, and wood carvings to jade artifacts, the museum's collection represents several millennia of history.

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday, with extended spring and summer evening hours on Thursdays until 9 p.m. It's closed Mondays. General admission is $15 for adults; $10 for seniors, college students with an ID and youths 13 to 17; and free for children 12 and younger. General admission on Thursdays after 5 p.m. is $10. Admission includes a free audio tour that visitors can download on their smartphone or listen to by borrowing a device from the museum.

To experience more of what San Francisco has to offer, check out the U.S. News Travel guide.

Jenna Scatena, Contributor

Jenna Scatena writes about San Francisco for U.S. News & World Report. Her work has appeared ...  Read more

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