Unique Museums in San Francisco
Explore Asian art, the African diaspora, Jewish history and more in this richly diverse city
San Francisco doesn’t simply tolerate people of diverse backgrounds, it celebrates them. Dating to its Gold Rush beginnings, when people of various ethnicities came to the city from all over the world, San Francisco has typically welcomed newcomers with open arms. Since those early days, the Bay Area has been known as a place of ethnic multiplicity, and more recently as a hub of cultural sophistication.
Learn about cultures that helped shape San Francisco at these three local museums, all in close proximity to one another. They showcase some of the city’s most vital communities, exploring their global roots, historic challenges and contemporary achievements.
Asian Art Museum
Opened in 1966 after a donation of thousands of objects, the Asian Art Museum (AsianArt.org) moved from the de Young Museum to the Civic Center near City Hall in 2003, occupying the 1917 beaux arts building that formerly housed the city’s main library. The museum has added space for special exhibitions in recent years, with more on the way. A new pavilion and art terrace will feature large installations, such as a major sculpture from Ai Weiwei.
Plan Your Trip
Location: 200 Larkin St.
Getting there: Park at the Civic Center Garage, about a half block away at 355 McAllister St. Or take the BART (train) to the Civic Center station, about two blocks from the museum.
Visit: Thursday through Monday (closed New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day)
Admission: $15 for adults; $10 for adults 65 and older
Accessibility: There’s a drop-off and pickup zone in front of the museum for those with mobility issues. The museum is fully accessible, and all floors can be reached by elevator. Wheelchairs are available (first come, first served) at no charge.
It has a vast permanent collection — more than 18,000 objects spanning 6,000 years and every region of Asia — with about 2,000 on display. You’ll see armor, bronzes, ceramics, a giant silver elephant saddle, jewels, multimedia video works, paintings, textiles, weaponry, even a reconstructed Zen Japanese tearoom. Especially popular are the Balinese puppets and an Indonesian dagger collection. “We also have some drool-worthy ancient jades — literally the oldest art in San Francisco,” says Zac Rose, a museum spokesperson.
All that, plus 15 masterpieces from various parts of Asia, such as an enthroned and crowned Buddha figure on a jeweled pedestal from 19th-century Burma. A 12th-century stone bodhisattva representing compassion, from China’s Song Dynasty era, remains in remarkably fine condition despite its age. By seeing these masterpieces, you can explore the diversity and range of the collection without feeling like you have to see everything. “When you walk into a gallery, there’s no doubt which is the masterpiece,” says Jay Xu, museum director and CEO. “You are drawn to it — and hopefully you start your journey of discovery.”
It also has unique exhibitions that represent the museum’s mission — part of which is to explore Asia’s global relevance, says Xu. “We did a show about Impressionism and Japanese art because every French Impressionist was influenced or inspired by the Japanese.”
Insider’s tip: Don’t miss the museum’s iconic treasure: an ancient Chinese bronze vessel in the shape of a rhinoceros in the Ancient China gallery on the third floor. The folds of the animal’s skin and its alert ears suggest the artist had seen a rhino, which existed in China when this piece was crafted more than 3,000 years ago. “It’s one of a kind in the world,” says Xu.
Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD)
Conceived in the late 1990s as a contemporary art museum to explore the Black experience in the U.S., the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoADSF.org) broadened its approach before its 2005 opening to encompass the African diaspora worldwide. You’ll find the museum on Mission Street in the South of Market district, about a mile from the Asian museum. Its sleek glass facade makes it easy for passersby to peer inside — a way of inviting everyone in — and reveals a three-story-high photo mosaic featuring the face of a young Ghanaian girl.
Plan Your Trip
Location: 685 Mission St.
Getting there: Nearby parking is available at the 125 Third St. Garage and at Tower Valet Parking at 680 Mission St. The museum is three blocks from the Powell Street BART (train) station.
Visit: Wednesday through Sunday (closed major holidays)
Admission: $12 for adults; $6 for adults 65 and older
Accessibility: MoAD is ADA compliant and fully accessible, with elevators serving all floors. One wheelchair is available (first come, first served) at no charge.
Venture in and friendly staffers warmly welcome you to this three-story Smithsonian affiliate, where sunlight pours through the windows on clear days. It’s a bright, modern space, with a museum redesign in 2014 offering it a fresher, more contemporary feel.
As you explore its galleries, salons and marketplace, you’ll see exhibitions that focus on the rich cultural heritage of the African diaspora, from the U.S. to the Caribbean to Brazil. Its temporary exhibitions include artists like David Huffman, whose show “Terra Incognita,” featuring futuristic, science fiction-inspired paintings, runs through September.
Previous exhibitions, viewable at moadsf.org, include “Finding the I in Diaspora,” a collection of intimate photographs of people around the world who are part of the African diaspora. These images are included in the photo mosaic that greets museum visitors.
Aimee Allison, founder of the national group She the People, an influential political network for women of color, recalls the first time she saw the mosaic: “It’s comprised of many, many different people and different faces. It’s profound. I was overwhelmed by that piece — the scale, the sense of how diverse people are in the Black diaspora, how powerful, how beautiful, how impactful.”
Allison describes MoAD as a “center of gravity” for the community. “For me, the Museum of African Diaspora has been a meeting place that has welcomed conversations among artists and intellectuals,” she says. “I think it was ahead of its time, and it’s right on time right now because there’s a heightened appreciation about how central and important Black expression, creativity and resilience are in the American story.”
Insider’s tip: Special events, from panel discussions to artist talks to cooking demonstrations, bring life to the museum. If possible, consider timing your visit to one of them (check the online calendar).
Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM)
Founded in 1984, the Contemporary Jewish Museum (theCJM.org) moved in 2008 to an audacious new home within a block of MoAD, also on Mission Street. Designed by famed architect Daniel Libeskind, there’s no other building in the city like it. From the outside, it appears as though geometrical shapes fell from the sky and landed on the points of their corners. Inside, the two main floors and three galleries challenge tradition with unconventionally shaped spaces, such as the Stephen and Maribelle Leavitt Yud Gallery between the ground floor and the lofty second-floor hall. The mid-level gallery is shaped like the Hebrew letter yud, a sort of trapezoidal shape.
Plan Your Trip
Location: 736 Mission St.
Getting there: Park in the Jessie Square public parking garage at 223 Stevenson St. (you exit the garage elevators in the plaza in front of the museum). Or take the BART; the museum is two blocks from the Powell Street station.
Visit: Thursday through Sunday (closed on New Year’s Day, the first day of Passover, Independence Day, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Thanksgiving)
Admission: $16 for adults; $14 for adults 65 and older
Accessibility: You can drop off and pick up the mobility impaired in front of the museum, and the parking garage has accessible parking. The museum is fully accessible, with elevators. Wheelchairs (first come, first served) are available at no charge. Large-print directories aid the visually impaired.
Originally built as a power station in the 1880s, the blue steel structure serves as a bridge from past to present; the preserved brick facade evokes the history of the South of Market neighborhood. The design aligns the Jewish idea of reverence for tradition with the CJM’s modern commitment to intellectual exploration and artistic innovation.
Chief operating officer Kerry King says the museum puts a “Jewish lens on art” but that it’s not just for Jews. About half the visitors aren’t Jewish, she says.
Adam Hirschfelder, programs manager for the Commonwealth Club, a San Francisco-based public affairs forum, notes that the CJM’s “significant and beautiful building” symbolizes the historic importance of the Jewish community in San Francisco.
Jews persecuted in Europe found a refuge in the city, Hirschfelder notes, to the point where the city’s oldest synagogue, Sherith Israel, has a stained-glass image of Moses carrying the Ten Commandments with Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome in the background. The message: For many contemporary Jews, San Francisco is the promised land.
Like MoAD, the CJM doesn’t have a permanent collection. Some exhibitions honor influential or popular Jewish figures — Stanley Kubrick, Gertrude Stein and Amy Winehouse, for example — while others entice with themes such as “Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress.” Some consider Jewish history, such as an exploration of the kibbutz movement; others are pure fun, such as a 2014 exhibition about the Chinese game mah-jong and how it was widely adopted by Jewish women starting in the 1930s.
In 2020, the museum featured an exhibition about San Francisco pioneer Levi Strauss. The German immigrant came to the city in the 1850s to open a dry goods store and later helped develop and market the blue jeans that became an international phenomenon. “It’s about telling a Jewish immigrant story,” says King, “but it’s also classically American. It’s embedded in the cultural fabric of San Francisco, and then it’s the story of blue jeans. So it’s universal.”
Insider’s tip: Don’t miss the Yud Gallery, where 36 diamond-shaped windows create fabulous natural light and provide inspiration, says King. “In Jewish culture, multiples of 18 are considered good luck, so the 36 windows are double good luck,” she adds. “The gallery was designed for great acoustics, so it’s a perfect spot to enjoy a talk or a performance. If you find yourself in the space and it’s quiet, just sing a few lines of a favorite song. You will not be disappointed!”
Michael Shapiro, a San Francisco Bay Area freelancer, has contributed to National Geographic Traveler, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post and many other publications.