Measuring in at just 49 square miles, San Francisco is much smaller than most major metropolises. However, this doesn’t mean that the city has a shortage of sites to see—especially in terms of its art and culture scene. In addition to colorful events and captivating public art, the “City by the Bay” is celebrated for its eclectic array of museums.
Here, we present a selection of these important institutions and explore what makes them so special. Covering everything from ancient sculpture to the art of biodiversity, these must-see museums are as unique as the city itself, making them an ideal way to experience San Francisco.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, or SFMOMA, is the largest modern and contemporary art museum in the country. Here, housed within seven floors of galleries and a free, public space, you’ll discover a world-class collection of painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, design, and media arts.
SFMOMA’s holdings have increased substantially in recent years, following a monumental donation by the Fisher family. In order to accommodate the Fishers’ collection—which comprises work by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Alexander Calder, and other contemporary greats—the museum underwent a major, three-year expansion. In 2016, SFMOMA reopened its doors, and, today, continues to “assemble unparalleled collections, create exhilarating exhibitions, and develop engaging public programs that connect with [the] community.”
The Legion of Honor Museum
If you’re interested in art with a bit more history, you’re sure to love the Legion of Honor Museum. Here, you’ll find a collection that spans 4,000 years, with holdings including ancient Mediterranean sculpture, Medieval panel paintings, and Impressionist masterworks.
In addition to its encyclopedic collection, the Legion of Honor boasts a beautiful campus. The building itself is a three-quarter-scale version of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris, a historic mansion nestled next to the Musée d’Orsay, while its wooded surroundings give way to unmatched views of the city skyline and world-famous Golden Gate Bridge.
The Legion of Honor represents one-half of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco (FAMSF), an organization that also oversees the de Young Museum.
The de Young Museum
Intending to “integrate art, architecture and the natural landscape in one multi-faceted destination,” the de Young Museum is one of the city’s most popular museums. Like the Legion of Honor, the de Young has an eclectic collection of art, with highlights including textiles, sculptures from Africa and Oceania, and American landscape paintings from the 17th through the 20th centuries.
In 2015, the de Young reopened after a highly-anticipated refurbishment. In addition to improving conditions for viewing the artwork, this project sought to better blend the building into its Golden Gate Park surroundings by outfitting it with a striking copper façade that will gradually fade to a shade of forest-green.
The Asian Art Museum
In the hustle and bustle of San Francisco’s Civic Center is the Asian Art Museum. Here, you’ll find over 2,000 objects that help “serve as a bridge of understanding between Asia and the United States” and present over 6,000 years of history across several different countries.
On top of its permanent holdings, the Asian Art Museum is celebrated for its world-class exhibitions. Much like the museum itself, these temporary shows highlight the eclectic nature of “Asian art” by exploring a breadth of themes, from traditional Chinese painting to contemporary Japanese sculpture. Though these spectacles aim to attract new audiences, they first and foremost intend to serve San Francisco’s diverse community.
Contemporary Jewish Museum
Just a few minutes away from the Asian Art Museum is the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Like the former, the latter strives to contextualize a culture’s story within a contemporary context. What sets the CJM apart from the Asian Art Museum (and from all San Francisco museums for that matter), however, comes down to its collection—or lack thereof.
Rather than preserve and present objects, the museum primarily serves as an exhibition space. “Ever changing,” the museum explains, “the CJM is a non-collecting institution that partners with national and international cultural institutions to present exhibitions that are both timely and relevant and represent the highest level of artistic achievement and scholarship.”
The California Academy of Sciences
On the lookout for a more multidisciplinary museum? If so, be sure to stop by the California Academy of Sciences. An aquarium, planetarium, rainforest, and natural history museum rolled into one, this state-of-the-art site is sure to satisfy visitors from all walks of life.
In the Steinhart aquarium, you’ll encounter over 40,000 live animals, from luminescent jellyfish and waddling penguins to Claude, the museum’s prized albino alligator. In the Morrison planetarium, you’ll get a glimpse of the cosmos as you gaze at a 75-foot dome dancing with projections. In the four-story rainforest, you’ll discover a lush ecosystem teeming with over 1,600 live plants and animals. And, finally, the Kimball Natural History Museum features everything you’d expect in a traditional museum, including fossils, taxidermy, minerals, and more.
Which so much in store, it’s no wonder the Academy of Sciences has become a “powerful voice for biodiversity research and exploration, environmental education, and sustainability across the globe.”
Other Museums Worth Seeing
On top of these large-scale institutions, San Francisco is full of fantastic smaller museums. These include: the Museum of the African Diaspora, a non-profit that shines a light on black cultures; the Walt Disney Family Museum, a state-of-the-art site that creatively explores the life and work of Walt Disney; and the Cartoon Art Museum, a colorful space with “something for everyone.” In each case, these museums help solidify San Francisco’s role as a one-of-a-kind destination for all things art and culture.