Few cities in the world house the kind of world-class art museums that San Francisco does, and none can compete with the setting that the city by the bay provides. Here is the essential list of San Francisco's top art museums; they are scattered across the city and each one is a whole world of art and a full day's adventure in and of itself.
Located in the heart of downtown San Francisco, this five-story monument to modern art from all around the globe is also one of the city's top architectural landmarks. The red brick facade contains a huge central atrium where a spiral stairway leads up to floor after floor of gallery space. Be sure you make it all the way up to the rooftop garden and cafe, where views of the skyline and Yerba Buena Gardens are to be had over lunch or a cup of joe. The museum's gift shop is also one of the best destinations in the city for high-quality art coffee-table books as well as other artistic gifts.
The largest museum in the United States devoted exclusively to Asian art, this Civic Center museum is one of San Francisco's most treasured cultural assets. Inside the historic Beaux Arts-style building, which used to be San Francisco's main library, three floors of galleries organized by region span the complete Asian continent. Fans of Buddhism will be especially impressed, as the museum holds extensive artifacts from Tibet, China, Thailand, Japan and India that visually chronicle the spread of the religion throughout the area, including the oldest dated Chinese figurine of Buddha in the world.
Opened in 2005, this futuristic art museum is made of copper, glass, wood and stone and was designed to fit right in to it's surrounding environment: the greenery of Golden Gate Park. Inside the museum, an eclectic and extensive collection awaits, including tribal artwork from Africa, pre-Colombian America and the Pacific Islands as well one of the nation's largest collections of early post-Colonial American painting and decorative arts. The museum also features a cool look-out tower that offer visitors panoramic views out over Golden Gate Park.
Take a step back to old Europe at this replica of an actual palace in Paris and enjoy the views of the city from the cliffs out in the far reaches of the Richmond District. Once you get past the stunning sculpture flanked gates and entry, the museum holds an impressive colection of European art and endless exhibits of artifacts from the ancient cultures of the old world. Egyptian freezes, Greek sculpture and Mesopotamian ceramics are special treats although the sculpture garden, which houses works by Rodin, is the museum's crown-jewel.
This historic waterfront complex in the Marina District actually holds several different art museums, all of them free of admission charges. The Mexican-American museum features works by Chicano and Mexican immigrant artists in the United States as well as a vast array of pre-Colombian arts and artifacts. The Museo Italo-Americano focuses on the fine art works of Italian Americans and also hosts a varied program of classes, events and public programs. The SFMOMA Artists Gallery concentrates on California artists, and stocks it's rotating exhibits from its namesake's huge inventory.
Dedicated to showcasing the best Jewish fine art works from around the world, this downtown museum is another San Francisco cultural highlight. The museum itself, which lies just across the street from Yerba Buena Gardens, is comprised of two structures: a historic brick power plant and a modern black glass geometrical creation by architect Daniel Libeskind. Inside, several galleries share the space with classrooms and screening studios, as the museum offers a large selection of public programs and events.
Opened in 1896 and one of the oldest art schools in the nation, the San Francisco Art institute is home to several galleries that are open to the public, even if it is not technically a museum. Make sure to check out the Diego Rivera Mural "The Making of a City" which shows workers constructing several different San Francisco icons. The building, which sits on the slopes of Russian Hill overlooking North Beach, is a fascinating architectural mix of a medieval style monastery with a starkly modern minimalist addition. Be sure to visit the onsite cafe, which is located on the rooftop terrace, one of the best places in the city for a coffee with a view.