Whether you have a free afternoon or want to switch up your weekend plans, SF’s fantastic museums are excellent places to get the most out of your day. That said, a trip to the museum isn’t always cheap and you might have to wait a bit for the next free admission day. Here we’ve rounded up some essential free museums and exhibitions in San Francisco ranging from small art collections to fascinating explorations of local history. Read on to get inspired for your next outing into SF’s vibrant arts and culture scene, free of charge.
1. California Historical Society
This nonprofit is dedicated to compiling artifacts from California history, and lucky for us their headquarters are in San Francisco. The collection is only to the public on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 1-5pm by appointment via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Browse a fascinating gallery of historic photographs, posters, and documents that are constantly changing depending on the exhibition.
Location: 678 Mission St, Yerba Buena
2. SF Public Library exhibits
If you’re an SF Public Library cardholder, then you know that SF’s library system is good for way more than just books. At any given time you can check out between 5-10 free exhibitions across the SF library system’s 27 branches. These range from community art shows to specially-curated investigations into local history.
It’s also worth taking a peek into the Main Library’s SF History Center which has a collection of historic typewriters used by famous writers including Dashiell Hammett and Herb Caen (not for patron use), Harvey Milk’s original speeches and letters, and SFPD mug shot books and wanted posters.
3. Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco
The Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco (ICASF) opened in 2022 as an innovative new gallery space that is completely free to all, working to uplift artists and individuals while promoting equity and representation. ICASF works to “create a paradigm shift in the art world” by exhibiting civically engaged creators on the cutting edge of the contemporary art scene. Check it out on Wednesdays from 12-5pm, Thursday-Friday from 12-7pm, and Saturday-Sunday from 11am-5pm.
Location: 901 Minnesota St, Dogpatch
4. SF Center for the Book
This non-profit organization is dedicated to the appreciation and creation of book arts. Visitors can sign up for workshops in letterpress and bookbinding, or simply check out their exceptional rotating exhibitions. Past exhibitions have included displays of calligraphy, palm leaf work, social justice works, and more. The space is open from 10am-5pm Wednesday through Sunday.
Location: 375 Rhode Island St, Potrero Hill
5. Cable Car Museum
San Francisco’s iconic cable cars are national landmarks, so it’s only fitting that there’s a museum dedicated to them! See 19th-century cable cars, mechanical displays, photographs and more at this free San Francisco museum that works to preserve the city’s long and storied cable car history.
Location: 1201 Mason St, Nob Hill
6. Truhlsen-Marmor Museum of the Eye
The American Academy of Ophthalmology maintains this free public museum about the science of sight. It includes a VR experience, a giant interactive eyeball, high-tech exhibits, and ancient artifacts. The extensive collection was previously accessible only by appointment, but it’s now open to the public from 11am-4:30pm Wednesday-Sunday.
Location: 645 Beach Street, Fisherman’s Wharf
7-11. Fort Mason Center exhibition spaces and galleries
When’s the last time you paid a visit to San Francisco’s amazing Fort Mason Center? The popular art center hosts numerous exhibitions and events throughout the year in their ample gallery spaces. Below is a summary of places to keep an eye on across Fort Mason’s expansive campus.
Museo Italo Americano
This is the first U.S. museum devoted entirely to Italian-American art and culture. Its small permanent collection showcases work by Italian and Italian-American artists, and they put on original documentary exhibitions on a rotating basis. Keep an eye out for their Italian language classes, lectures, and other special events.
As the name suggests, SF Camerawork is dedicated to exhibitions about photography. Since 1974 this nonprofit has worked to stimulate thought-provoking conversations in a non-commercial way through dynamic photographical works.
The Haines Gallery cultivates an often-changing selection of modern art displays in their luminous viewing rooms. You’ll find works from over 20 artists with many available for purchase.
The Guardhouse is a 100-square-foot former military guard station with temporary site-specific art installations presented by FOR-SITE. Each year FOR-SITE invites three artists to transform the space in a way that responds to the site’s significance and surroundings.
Fort Mason campus
In addition to the aforementioned gallery and exhibition spaces, Fort Mason frequently showcases temporary exhibitions in other parts of its campus. Pay a visit to the corridor gallery between Buildings B and C where you’ll often find large commissioned murals, or keep your eye out for events in other parts of the Fort Mason campus.
12. Misalignment Museum
SF’s newest museum imagines a post-apocalyptic future after Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) destroys most of humanity. Upon realizing the error of its ways, this is the memorial and apology created by AGI for the remaining humans. The museum is now open on Thursdays and Fridays from 4-7pm and Saturdays from 2-5pm through May 1, 2023; although they are working to get funding to keep the museum around permanently.
Location: 201 Guerrero St, Mission Dolores
13. Floor 2 galleries at SFMOMA
SFMOMA is currently offering free admission to its Floor 2 galleries through May 29, 2023. Guests can see works from 2022 SECA Art Award Exhibition, which spotlights five award-winning Bay Area artists; as well as Open Ended: Painting and Sculpture, 1900 to Now, an ongoing exhibition focused on revolutionary ideas between artists. Although these spaces are free to visit, you’ll still need to reserve tickets and it’s best to do so in advance to avoid lines.
Location:151 3rd St, Yerba Buena
14. Musée Mécanique
Musée Mécanique is one of the world’s largest private collections of coin-operated mechanical instruments, and one of the most unique museums in San Francisco. The collection was started by SF native Edward Galland Zelinskey, who bought his first coin-operated game when he was just 11 years old in 1933. Since then, it’s grown to include over 300 antique arcade artifacts, coin-operated pianos, slot machines, animations, and more. Zelinskey passed away in 2004, but his magnificent collection is still free for the public to enjoy 365 days a year from 10am-8pm at Pier 45 in San Francisco.
Location: Pier 45, Fisherman’s Wharf
15. Society of California Pioneers Museum
The Society of California Pioneers was established back in 1850 when California was recognized as the 31st state. Today, the society continues to be under the leadership of descendants of those early pioneers. They display rotating exhibits about CA history at the Pioneer Hall museum in the Presidio and maintain the Alice Phelan Sullivan Library, both of which are open and free to the public. Visit on the first Saturday of every month and all Fridays from 10am-4pm, or make an appointment to visit at another time.
Location: 101 Montgomery St #150, Presidio
16. McElroy Octagon House
Have you seen this bizarre blue home in Russian Hill? The McElroy Octagon House is a famous reminder of the octagon craze of the 19th century, and it continues to turn heads even 160 years after it was built. In 1963, an electrician discovered a time capsule left behind by the house’s original owners, William Carroll McElroy and his wife Harriet Shober McElroy, which gave unprecedented insight into the house’s origins. The McElroy House is now a free museum available for the public to visit on certain days of the year. It’s usually open for docent-led tours from 12-3pm on second Sundays and second and fourth Thursdays of each month.
Location: 2645 Gough Street, Russian Hill
17. Depression-era murals at Coit Tower
Coit Tower is an essential San Francisco landmark rising high above Telegraph Hill. For $7 visitors can travel to the top of the 212-foot-high tower and marvel at 360° views of San Francisco, but there’s no cost to see the 26 colorful Depression-era frescoes painted inside the tower’s base. The murals represent the first major project commissioned by the U.S. Government’s Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) in 1934, part of the Depression’s New Deal program meant to employ artists and beautify public spaces. Despite the project offering only $38 per week for the artists, it still turned out some big names of the time including Ray Bertrand, John Langley Howard, and Frederick Olmsted. Visitors may view the murals for free or join guided tours of up to 6 people for $10.
San Francisco’s innovative nonprofit arts organization 836M presents an exciting new showcase of the work of Bay Area cartoonists, graphic novelists, and zine makers. Cartoonists@836M challenges four local artists to create brand-new work responding to a prompt about the history of SF’s neighborhoods. Check it out from May 25-Sept. 28, 2023 at 836M in San Francisco.