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8 Under-the-Radar Museums in San Francisco

You’ve seen the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. Now visit these hidden gem museums in a city full of them.

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Hi, I'm Gianmaria!

Gianmaria Franchini is a writer based in Oakland, CA who makes his life between California and Italy. He’s a Senior Writer with Viator, and the in-house San Francisco expert.

Move over, MOMA. Take a seat, de Young. The Legion of Honor—you’ve been honorably discharged. San Francisco’s heavyweight museums have world-class collections that are worth exploring. But the City by the Bay is unconventional, and traveling off the beaten path will get you closer to its eccentric, beating heart. These lesser-known museums show other sides of the city—they examine and record unsung histories, celebrate unorthodox art forms, and honor the diverse ethnic groups that have built the local community. After seeing the highly acclaimed museums, visit the eight best under-the-radar ones.

1. Museum of the African Diaspora

The glass exterior of the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco.
Outside the Museum of the African Diaspora.Foto: Anne Czichos / Shutterstock

First stop: MoMA’s Yerba Buena neighbor.

The first two museums on this list are conveniently within one block of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in the Yerba Buena neighborhood near downtown. The Museum of the African Diaspora showcases contemporary art through the lens of Black culture exclusively from artists of the African diaspora, the global collection of communities descended from native Africans, predominantly in the Americas. The fine-arts collections, which rotate regularly, are scattered over two floors of galleries.

Don’t miss: “The Face of the African Diaspora,” a “mosaic” featuring thousands of photos taken by amateurs and artists from all over the world, though mostly in African countries.

2. Contemporary Jewish Museum

The red brick exterior of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
This museum has its own deli.Foto: Tada Images / Shutterstock

The only SF museum with an on-site Jewish deli.

Essentially across the street from MoAD, the Contemporary Jewish Museum strives to make Jewish lived experience and history relevant to the contemporary era. A typical visit might include: marveling at the museum store, which is housed inside an upended giant steel box; examining the life and works of Jewish-American intellectuals, such as writer Gertrude Stein and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick; and attending fascinating lectures and debates.

Don't miss: The front courtyard, ideal for sitting and people-watching in the heart of San Francisco, and the on-site Jewish deli serving lunch.

3. Randall Museum

Visitors head to the under-the-radar Randall Museum in San Francisco in California.
This museum is especially for the kids.Foto: Martin-J-G / Tripadvisor

This children’s nature wonderland perched above the Castro is free to enter.

One of San Francisco’s true hidden gems, this children’s museum perched atop Corona Heights Park is unknown even to many locals. Kids will be wowed by the hands-on exhibits dedicated to art, science, and nature. They can observe live reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals while learning about California's conservation efforts. Views from the top of Corona Hill, stretching out toward the Financial District and San Francisco Bay, are some of the best in the city.

Don't miss: The live animal exhibits or weekly drop-in science workshops for families, usually held on Saturday mornings.

4. The Beat Museum

The exterior of the The Beat Museum, which celebrates San Francisco poets.
Fans of On the Road will want to make a stop at the The Beat Museum.Foto: Tiago Seither Afonso / Shutterstock

Dedicated to San Francisco’s homegrown literary movement.

It would be remiss to visit San Francisco without learning about the counterculture movement, which likely started with the Beat literary movement in North Beach. The Beat Museum pays tribute to those writers and artists with original manuscripts, letters, photographs, and other literary ephemera. The small museum is across the street from the legendary City Lights Bookstore—get inspired by the collections, then shop for a book afterward.

Don’t miss: The 1949 Hudson roadster downstairs, used for the filming of 2012’s On the Road movie.

5. Cartoon Art Museum

A visitor looks at the exhibits at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco.
Charles M. Schultz helped form this museum.Foto: LiveAGr8Story / Tripadvisor

The only museum in the Western US dedicated to the preservation of cartoon art.

The Cartoon Art Museum was founded in part with the help of Charles M. Schultz, the legendary Bay Area cartoonist of Peanuts fame. It celebrates cartoon art in all forms, from superhero comics to political cartoons to manga graphic novels. The museum is located in a brick building one block from Aquatic Park, Ghirardelli Square, and the Hyde Street cable car turnaround, making it a great stop on a sightseeing tour.

Don’t miss: The museum store, which sells an impressive selection of underground, limited-edition, and signed comics.

6. Museo Italo Americano (Italian American Museum)

The red-roofed Museo Italo Americano (Italian American Museum), right by the water in San Francisco.
The Museo Italo Americano is set within Fort Mason.Foto: jejim / Shutterstock

Italian-American immigrant history and art—and Catholic saints.

Housed for many years above a North Beach cafe, the Museo Italo Americano is today nestled within Fort Mason. The small museum, among the first dedicated exclusively to Italian and Italian-American art and culture, explores the Italian-American experience through art and culture—often featuring Italian and Italian-American artists—and events and educational programs. In addition to a permanent collection of photographs, sculptures, and paintings, a historical archive tells the story of Italian immigration to California through the decades.

Don't miss: The Falassi Collection of statuettes of Catholic saints and religious figures made in various styles and materials, such as terracotta, papier mache, and sculpted wood.

7. Chinese Historical Society of America Museum

A dragon costume at the busy Chinese Historical Society of America Museum in San Francisco.
Get to know San Francisco's close connections to China.Foto: Chinese Historical Society of America / Tripadvisor

Where the history of San Francisco and Chinese Americans merge.

This museum is devoted to the history, art, and culture of the Chinese American community. The story of Chinese immigration is very much a part of the history of San Francisco, and visitors can expect to see artifacts and photographs chronicling events that shaped the city, from the Gold Rush to the 1906 earthquake and the rebuilding of Chinatown. The museum is inside the Chinatown YMCA, a beautiful brick building designed by famed SF-born architect Julia Morgan.

Don’t miss: The dioramas and small-scale recreations of Chinatown as it looked in the mid-20th century.

8. The Walt Disney Family Museum

Palm trees outside the The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco in California.
The Walt Disney Family Museum is set in a beautiful park.Foto: Sundry Photography / Shutterstock

A hidden gem in an urban forest.

It's hard to imagine that a museum dedicated to Walt Disney, the giant of American art and entertainment, isn’t on everyone’s radar. That may be because of its off-the-beaten-path location inside a former military barracks in the middle of the Presidio. The beautiful park setting is enough to warrant a visit, and the galleries chronicling Disney's life from boyhood to Hollywood and feature-film successes have enough fun and substance to entertain both children and adults.

Don’t miss: The scale model of Disneyland called “The Disneyland of Walt's Imagination.”

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