Free Museums in San Francisco: 10 Places with No Admission Fees

Jill at the Golden Gate Bridge

by Jill Loeffler  •

Discover the top free museums in San Francisco. Many of them are small, but feature interesting exhibits showcasing pieces of SF's history and other local topics.

Some of the most visited and well known include the Cable Car Museum, the Fire Department Museum, and the Octagon House. Read on to learn more about these and others that welcome you to visit for free.

Graphic with 10 Free Museums in SF

1. Cable Car Museum

This is one of the top free museums in San Francisco. It offers you the chance to learn all about the history of the cable cars in San Francisco, including all of the lines that used to run throughout the city.

You can also take a peek inside the powerhouse, where you can watch the wheels and cables in real time actually pulling the cars that still operate on SF's streets.

Make sure to head downstairs, too. This is where you can step into a historic cable car and learn a little more about how they are put together.

You will find this free museum in the Nob Hill district.

Learn More: Find out more about what it's like to visit

2. Fire Department Museum

Free Fire Museum in San Francisco

Head over to Pacific Heights to take a look at the history of the SF Fire Department. This lovely little spot has many interesting displays, including several historic engines.

One of my favorite exhibits here is about the 1906 earthquake and fire. In their display case, you get the chance to read some of the documents about this event and see several items that were burned in the fire.

Another interesting display is the one on Lillie Hitchcock Coit. She is the woman who donated money to the city to build a monument in her honor. They used it to build Coit Tower.

In addition, you get the chance to see one of the three first engines in service and climb into a more modern engine to ring its bell.

It's one of the great free museums in San Francisco for both adults and kids.

Learn More: See pics and find out when its open

3. San Francisco Maritime Museum

There are two free parts of the larger San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. One is the Visitor Center, located on the ground floor of the Argonaut Hotel in Fisherman's Wharf.

Inside, you will find interactive exhibits where you will learn all about the history of this famous district. You will learn about the first fisherman that called this place home and how it turned into the tourist destination it is today.

While I love the exhibits, one of my favorite parts is the light from the top of a local lighthouse. It's set up so you can see it in action and it's great that you can get close enough to really learn more about it. You will find it just inside the front doors. It's impossible to miss!

The other free part of the Maritime Museum is located in a Works Progress Administration building originally designed as the bathhouse for SF's Aquatic Park. This one features exhibits on navigation, naval history, ships and more.

Learn More: Visit this page to learn more about it and when you can visit

4. Octagon House

The McElroy Octagon House is a rare find. It was built in 1861 and is one of only two octagon houses still standing in San Francisco.

This blue and white beauty was saved by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in California in 1951. After they purchased it, they fixed it up and started offering tours.

Today, you can still visit for free (although they do request a small donation at the end of your tour). All tours through the house are guided, so you can ask as many questions as you would like.

This is also a quick stop, but one that you can't miss if you've never stepped inside an octagon house before. It's located in the Marina district at 2645 Gough Street.

Learn More: Find out more about visiting the Octagon House

5. Pier 24 Photography

Opened in 2010, Pier 24 Photography is one of the newer free museums in San Francisco. At this museum, you will see a variety of photography exhibits from around the world.

It's a wonderful place that isn't too crowded. It's free, but you do need to make reservations before you visit, which allows them to keep the numbers down.

It's located near the South Beach district in a remodeled warehouse building along the Embarcadero, right under the Bay Bridge.

Learn More: Read more about my experience at Pier 24

6. San Francisco Railway Museum

Railway Museum

Another one of the often-overlooked free museums in San Francisco is the Railway Museum. You will find it along the F streetcar line at the Steuart Street stop, just across from the Ferry Building.

Inside, you will find more information on these historic vehicles that run up and down Market Street. You will also learn more about when they came to San Francisco and get to watch a screen showing their live location.

It's a great way to learn more about this unique SF transit option.

Learn More: Find out more about SF's streetcars and when you can visit this attraction

>> Find more free Bay Area museums

7. Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco

ICA SF is also known as the Minnesota Street Project from its location at 901 Minnesota Street in San Francisco's growing Dogpatch neighborhood.

This free museum houses several galleries in three repurposed warehouse buildings. You can't miss the eye-popping design on the outside.

They are driven by the mission of providing an affordable space for local artists and students to feature their contemporary art. This is a non-collecting museum, so no matter when you visit, you'll find something new in their wide range of fascinating mixed media art exhibitions.

Learn More: Read more about this free museum, including visiting information

8. The Randall Museum

If you are traveling with kids, then make sure to add the Randall Museum to your itinerary.

This free kids' museum of "Science, Nature, and the Arts" tells the story of SF's local animals and some of its rich history. They offer camps, classes for all ages, and tons of fun hands-on activities.

You will find this newly remodeled museum at 199 Museum Way in Corona Heights near the Castro.

Learn More: Click here to learn more about the Randall Museum

9. Wells Fargo Museum

Another one of my favorite free museums in San Francisco is the Wells Fargo Museum. Inside, you will learn more about the history of the Pony Express, see rare documents from the 1800s and early 1900s, and enjoy their interactive displays.

They also offer special exhibits that showcase important times in SF's history including the anniversary of the Panama Pacific Exposition and specific events related to the Gold Rush.

It's located in the original Wells Fargo Bank in SF's Financial District and is open to the public during the week.

Learn More: Find out more about visiting

10. Museum of the Eye

The small but fascinating Truhlsen-Marmor Museum of the Eye is easy to overlook as an attraction, as it is found on the ground floor of the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

However, it's conveniently located in the heart of Fisherman's Wharf and worth a visit, as it's the only free, public museum in the world dedicated to the amazing science of sight.

Among the displays, you'll find a giant interactive eyeball and ancient artifacts, as well as high-tech educational exhibits and a VR experience.

Find them at the corner of Beach and Hyde Streets, across from the cable car turnaround.

More Free Things to Do in SF

In addition to the free museums in San Francisco, you will find dozens of other free options almost every day of the week.

10 Top Free Attractions: Some of SF's top attractions are free to visit. These include places such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, and the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square. Click here for the 10 top free attractions in SF.

Free Walking Tours: SF City Guides, part of the SF Public Library, offers five to ten free walking tours daily. They are offered by locals that have researched each location or district in great detail. It's the perfect way to learn more about SF's history and find some interesting hidden gems. Click here for the daily schedule.

Free Museum Admission Days: Many of SF's top museums offer free admission days either once a month or quarter. It's a budget-friendly way to see the top places such as the Asian Art Museum, the California Academy of Sciences, and more. Click here for a month-to-month schedule of free days.

More Museums You Might Enjoy

While visiting these free museums in San Francisco is a treat, you will also love the selection of other museums throughout SF. These are just a few I recommend you check out.

California Academy of Sciences: The California Academy of Sciences is four museums in one. With one ticket, you can visit the Steinhart Aquarium, the Planetarium, the Natural History Museum, and their four-story rainforest. You can step inside the earthquake simulator to feel what it's like to be in an earthquake and find out what causes them. You can also stop by to say "Hi" to Claude, their rare white alligator. Click here to see pics and find out what it's like to visit.

Tickets to the Cal Academy: (Ad) Book your tickets in advance for skip-the line-privileges to the California Academy of Sciences. The cost is slightly cheaper when you purchase in advance, and this way you won't have to wait in line when you arrive. Click here to pick up your tickets in advance today!

de Young: Right across the street, you will find the de Young. Within their exhibits, you will find more than 25,000 works from all over the world. Some of the top exhibits include the Native American Arts section, the Art of Africa area, and Art of the Americas. They also have several temporary exhibits running at the same time. You pay a little extra to see these, but they are worth the money.

Legion of Honor: The Legion of Honor is a sister museum to the de Young. Set inside a historic mansion modeled after the Palais de la Legion d'Honneur in Paris, you will find works that span more than 4,000 years. Most of the pieces are ancient and European works including items from well-known artists such as Rodin, Monet, and a unique piece by Picasso.

Asian Art Museum: The SF Asian Art Museum is another one of my favorites. This gorgeous museum features works from countries such as China, Japan, and Korea. You will also find interesting pieces from places such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. If you love Asian artwork, this is a must-see on your visit.

Free Days: While these popular museums generally charge admission, they do offer some free days throughout the year. Check out my calendar of free admission days for details. 

Full List of SF Museums: Are you looking for additional places to see? Find a list of all of SF's top museums.

Graphic for Pinterest for 10 Free Museums Page

Additional Pages to Help You Plan Your Visit

Comments? Questions? Suggestions?

I would love for you to join me in my private Facebook group

It's a great place to interact with me and others who know the area well.

You can ask questions, get advice for your upcoming stay, and then share your photos and advice with others when you return home. It's a great community and the fastest way to get answers to those nagging questions about your visit!

Come join the fun here!


As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Exclusive Member of Mediavine Travel

Copyright © 2009-2024 by All rights reserved.

This website does not sell any personal information. (See privacy policy)