San Francisco has long been a historic hub on the West Coast. From the gold rush to modern times, the City By The Bay marked important plot points in California history and then evolved into a modern epicenter for creativity and innovation. With that, San Francisco offers a number of free museums to celebrate history, art, culture and even fun. These are the best free museums in San Francisco to visit this year.
While the chance to ride one of San Francisco’s iconic cable cars attracts tourists from all over the world, the Cable Car Museum gives you an inside look at how these incredible vehicles operate. The museum houses a number of historic cable cars, machinery and historical documents. But the best part is that it’s built atop the functional bones of the cable car system, so you can see the gears pulling cable from actual operating cars in real time.
Opened in 2022, the Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco (ICA SF) prides itself as always being “under construction.” That means there are no permanent collections and it’s dedicated to always taking creative risks as they relate to equity and civic engagement in the city. Free to the public, ICA SF showcases the art of locals like Patrick Martinez, a muralist and large-scale sculptor inspired by classic Pee-Chee folder art who collaborated with the Golden State Warriors on the new design of the Dogpatch Community Basketball court. You can also see Liz Hérnandez and Ryan Whelan’s upcoming “A Weed By Any Other Name,” an exhibit that personifies the strength and spirit of the Bay Area through the intricacies of blackberry bushes.
You can start exploring San Francisco’s diverse culture the minute you land at this free airport museum. Throughout each of the three terminals at SFO International Airport, you can peruse museum exhibits dedicated to LGBTQ trailblazer Harvey Milk, Japanese American fiber artist Kay Sekimachi, photographs of iconic San Francisco concerts by local photographers, bygone relics like The Unknown Museum and lots more SF-centric culture and ephemera.
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While the museum moniker might be a bit of a stretch in its name, we’re taking the liberty of including Musée Mecanique here because this Fisherman’s Wharf institution might be the most fun museum you’ve ever been to. Amidst all the fisheries and crab shacks, this arcade features more than 300 orchestrions, coin-operated pianos, antique slot machines and animations. It’s free to enter and marvel at the machines, but a buck or five will go a long way in making drunken sailors, opium dens and even vintage musical instruments come alive. There’s also a slew of more contemporary arcade and pinball machines.
While New York’s Ellis Island is forever etched in American history for being the busiest immigration processing station in the country, Angel Island served a similar role on the West Coast. In fact, between 1910 and 1940, more than 500,000 immigrants passed through the tiny island just off the coast of the city in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. The free-to-visit Angel Island Immigration Station is a living landmark of that experience. What’s more, you can get to Angel Island by riding the Golden Gate Ferry from the Embarcadero, which passes by Alcatraz and looks out at both the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Bridge.
There’s really no place like Letterform Archive, which shares “the joy of letters” in myriad formats. The archive unfolds to feature exhibitions of its more than 100,000 pieces of graphic design ephemera. The fantastic “Subscription to Mischief” exhibit features graffiti art from 1990s zines and the exchange of this art form by artists around the world. It’s a place for curious, design-minded people, and most of all, a place to discover the beauty in letters that exists all around us.
Dedicated to provocative photographic works since 1974, SF Camerawork was founded with the idea of featuring photography that is experimental, unconventional and sociopolitical. Current exhibits include Charles Lee’s documentation of Black rodeo culture and cowfolk, called sweat + dirt. SF Camerawork has been a launchpad for works and lectures from noted photographers in the past like Robert Mapplethorpe and Sally Mann, while also showcasing contemporary leaders in photography like John Chiara, Binh Danh and Jason Lazurus.
Free Museum Days
On certain days of the month, just about every major museum in San Francisco can qualify as a free one. The Asian Art Museum features exhibits from Zen Buddhism to Takashi Murakami’s colorful monsters and is free on the first Sunday of Every Month. The sweeping deYoung Museum of fine arts building in Golden Gate Park and the glorious Legion of Honor at Lands End are both free on the first Tuesday of every month. The Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), which celebrates Black cultures around the world, is free on the first Saturday of every month. The Contemporary Jewish Museum extols the diversity of the Jewish experience through its many exhibits and is free on the first Friday of every month.
Here is a more complete listing of free museum days at San Francisco’s typically ticketed museums.
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