How well do you know San Francisco’s museum scene? Of course any visitor to the city will hit up amazing spots like SFMOMA, the de Young Museum, or the Academy of Sciences. But there is an entire network of lesser-known museums and collections specializing in everything from LSD blotter art to model boats! Read on to discover 20 weird and wonderful museums in San Francisco, and scroll to the bottom for a handy map to point you in the right direction!
1. Gregangelo Museum
SF artist Gregangelo Herrera owns this wild and wacky four-story house, decorated with all manner of eccentric decorations, performers, and more. Prepare for absolute sensory overload in each of the 27 rooms, all of which have different themes centered around mysticism, mythology, natural phenomena, spirituality, religions or legends. This immersive art experience is 40 years in the making, so you know it’s gotta be good! Tour options include a fast-paced “Quickie” through the interior of the home; an enchanting outdoor tour of the mosaic exterior and gardens; and an art, poetry, and film experience.
2. 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 at Pier 45 in San Francisco.
3. Antique Vibrator Museum
Good Vibrations on Polk Street is home to a thrilling collection of vintage sex toys dating back to the 1800s! Store owner Joani Blank has spent the last 2 decades seeking out these treasures, many of which more closely resemble home appliances than the sleek pocket-sized gadgets we’re familiar with today. You can RSVP for a free docent-led tour by calling (415) 345-0400 at least 72 hours in advance.
4. The Blotter Barn
Mark McCloud’s collection of LSD blotter art is the most comprehensive one in the world! Also known as the “Institute of Illegal Images,” it contains decades of colorful designs. According to California Curiosities, the fascinating collection is displayed in McCloud’s private Victorian home at 3466 20th Street. For that reason there is no sign, no official tour schedule, and no ticket office. Follow @blotter.barn on Instagram for updates and opportunities to see it for yourself.
5. Camera Obscura
Cameras Obscura have been documented in SF since the 1860s, and this one in Lands End has been in practice next to the Cliff House restaurant for 7 decades! It’s based on a 15th-century design by Leonardo Da Vinci which uses a pinhole opening to let in sunlight and project an image of the surrounding area. You can step inside and observe this old technology working around you, in a giant precursor to the modern camera. There’s also a small holograph collection that was added in 1979. Find it at 1096 Point Lobos Avenue.
6. San Francisco 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. Gain a new perspective and appreciation for this ancient art in a modern context!
7. Beat Museum
This museum in North Beach is dedicated to the memory of the Beat Generation, a collective of writers and artists that congregated in San Francisco in the 1950s. Here you’ll find exhibitions of Beat memorabilia including poetry, books, manuscripts, and more. Discover how this literary movement influenced free speech and social justice for decades.
8. SF Cable Car Museum
Mr Godoy’s efforts can be seen throughout the museum. The bronze letters over the front doorway were cast and installed by Gilberto. He also cast and finished both the California Historic Civil Engineering Landmark and the National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark plaques pic.twitter.com/thCYCYs36V
— San Francisco Cable Car Museum (@SFCCM) October 17, 2021
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 nonprofit museum that works to preserve SF’s long and storied cable car history.
If you’re looking for more background on the cable cars, consider visiting Woods Division Carpentry Shop in the Dogpatch, where you can see master carpenters restoring the cable cars before your eyes!
9. Mechanic’s Institute Library and Chess Room
This beautiful building is home to an extensive and little-known library dating back to 1854! The library is private, but you can grab a 15-minute visitor’s pass from the security desk or join the free tour on Wednesdays at noon. If you want to delve deeper into the collections or participate in events, consider purchasing a pass or becoming a member. The institute also happens to be a lovely place to work or study.
10. Tenderloin Museum
San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood is famous for being a raucous, abrasive area of town. This museum works to uplift stories of the musicians, immigrants, artists, dancers, sex workers, and more who have always called it home. Discover the misunderstood neighborhood’s true history through both temporary and permanent exhibitions.
11. 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 at Fisherman’s Wharf!
12. 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.
Not much was known about it until the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in California saved it from destruction in 1952. More details came to light in 1963, when an electrician discovered a time capsule left by the house’s original owners, William Carroll McElroy and his wife Harriet Shober McElroy. They left behind newspaper clippings, photos, and a letter written by Mr. McElroy on July 14, 1861, who explained that the home had been constructed as their “privet Residence.”
The house is now a free museum available for the public to visit on certain days of the year.
13. Walt Disney Family Museum
This fascinating museum in the Presidio is dedicated to the legacy of Walt Disney. Learn about his life and extensive career through exhibitions of his awards, a giant model of Disneyland, train cars from his backyard railroad, and much more. They also have a screening room for Disney films (temporarily closed due to Covid).
14. Depression-era murals at Coit Tower
Coit Tower is an essential San Francisco landmark rising 210 feet above Telegraph Hill since its construction in 1933. In addition to the gorgeous views, it contains 26 beautiful murals depicting the Great Depression, which were painted inside the base by local artists in 1934. Visitors may view the artworks for free and join guided tours limited to 6 people.
15. 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 open a couple days a week to the public. Browse a fascinating gallery of historic photographs, posters, and documents that are constantly changing depending on the exhibition.
16. Helen Crocker Russell Library of Horticulture
The San Francisco Botanical Garden is a beautiful place to visit, housing thousands of plants and amazing gardens. It also happens to house Northern California’s most comprehensive horticulture library, with about 27,000 volumes and 250 plant and garden periodicals. Not only can visitors browse books on garden design, ethnobotany, and more, but they can also view and purchase beautiful botanical illustrations and artwork.
17. San Francisco Model Yacht Club
This local club devoted to model yachts was established in 1898, and they continue to race the miniature yachts in Spreckles Lake to this day! Their clubhouse in Golden Gate Park houses an impressive collection of model yachts, which is open to the public when members are present, generally between early March until late October.
18. American Bookbinders Museum
This museum is open just a few days a week to display their collection of 19th-century bookbinding equipment. See the evolution of western bookbinding through both early mechanized machines and fully automated ones.
19. Ripley’s Believe it or Not!
This curious museum is dedicated to oddities, illusions, and more. Check out shrunken heads, an Egyptian mummified foot, and a vampire kit. Or measure yourself against the world’s tallest man! Don’t forget the wacky mirror maze complete with LED lights and infinity mirrors. It’s a great museum for kids!
20. Fragrance Garden
Enjoy dozens of beautiful scents at the Garden of Fragrance, including lavender, mint, rosemary, and much more. The San Francisco Botanical Garden dedicated this peaceful space in 1965 for visually impaired and handicapped visitors. Since then, they’ve expanded into a full experience designed specifically for your senses of smell and touch.
Featured image: mgdfoto via Shutterstock