SAN FRANCISCO’s BEST ●Attractions●Museums
American Bookbinders Museum 355 Clementina St./5th St., SOMA. Fee. Located on a narrow street that you would unlikely ever see without intent, this new museum has an interesting collection of fully-functioning 18th- and 19th-century bookbinding equipment. You can smell the ink in the air, and the fascinating tour provides the opportunity to learn how each antique piece was used and to see it actually operate. A free exhibit in front shows elegant samples of contemporary books, including one bound with a slate stone cover and silver staples. More images.
Beat Museum 540 Broadway/Columbus, North Beach. Fee. The late, great, and beloved San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen is credited with coining "beatnik" in 1956 to describe the followers of the Beat Movement who hung out in the coffeehouses of North Beach. This cool museum has existed before in a variety of venues, including a traveling bus. Now in the back of the former Figone hardware store, it displays book collections, manuscripts, and ephemera from Beat legends such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The merchandise in the front retail store is almost as interesting as the artifacts in the museum itself.
Boudin Museum 160 Jefferson St./Taylor St., Fisherman’s Wharf.
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Cable Car Museum 1201 Mason St./Washington St., Chinatown. Free. Located inside the lovely brick cable car barn and powerhouse dating from the 1880s, this museum lets visitors see the huge, noisy cable-winding machinery powering the underground cable that moves the cable cars along at 9½ miles per hour. Three retired cable cars--including one from the original 1873 fleet--and assorted artifacts are on display, and an informative film with vintage footage explains how the cable cars actually work. To complete the experience, catch a cable car across the street and take a ride downtown or to Fisherman’s Wharf.
California Historical Society Museum 678 Mission St./3rd St., South of Market. Fee. Founded in 1871, this society has a collection of artifacts documenting California’s history from the 16th century through the present. That adds up to more than 500,000 photographs and 150,000 manuscripts, as well as thousands of books, maps, paintings, and ephemera. Among the gems in this small museum housed within the former Hundley Hardware Building are Emperor Norton’s cane and a stereoscope--the precursor to today’s 3-D films.
Children’s Creativity Museum 221 4th St./Howard St., South of Market. Fee. The entire family can explore creativity and innovation through the arts and media at this high-tech museum. Creating videos, viewing performances in a state-of-the-art theater, and learning about animation as art are all part of the program. A playground with a giant slide provides outside fun.
A beautifully restored 1906 Looff carousel at the entrance formerly made rounds at the defunct Playland-at-the-Beach. It boasts 65 heavily jeweled, hand-carved animals--including camels, rams, giraffes, and a rare gray horse whose mouth is carved with closed lips--and now twirls inside a glass pavilion.
Chinese Historical Society of America 965 Clay St./Stockton St.
Contemporary Jewish Museum 736 Mission St./3rd St., South of Market. Fee. Retaining the original brick façade and some interior catwalks and trusses from the historic 1907 PG&E Jessie Street Power Substation building, this brand new museum has a very modern angular interior. Designed to explore Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas, the structure is filled with symbolism--for instance, the auditorium design is based on a map of Jerusalem. The museum has no permanent collection. A free cell phone tour is available, and a Family tour and drop-in art program occur each Sunday.
image courtesy of venue
Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen serves up Jewish classics and sandwiches. Meat is prepared in house and stacked high in the pastrami and corned beef sandwiches, and each includes a heaping side of delicious potato salad or coleslaw and some pickle spears. Rye bread, challah, and babka are baked fresh. It’s counter service here, and tables do fill up. Museum admission is not required.
GLBT History Museum 4127 18th St./ Castro St., Castro District.
Madame Tussauds San Francisco + The San Francisco Dungeon 145 Jefferson St./Taylor St., Fisherman’s Wharf.
Musée Mécanique Pier 45, Taylor St./The Embarcadero, Fisherman’s Wharf. Free; games 25¢-50¢. This “mechanical museum” filled with old arcade games--some date to the 17th century--is the world’s largest collection of antique coin-operated machines. For just a quarter it is possible to operate a miniature steam shovel and collect 90 seconds worth of gumballs or to see naughty Marietta sunbathing in 3-D realism. Highlights include several player pianos, a mechanical horse ride, and jolly Laughing Sal with her original soundtrack (she was rescued from the Fun House at the now torn-down Playland-at-the-Beach, where many of the games were originally). But the roller coaster made of toothpicks and the machines that make pressed-penny souvenirs are also quite special. Beeping modern video games are in the back, where they belong. Don’t miss the Arm Wrestler--the strength-tester beaten by Julie Andrews in the Disney film The Princess Diaries.
Museum of the African Diaspora 685 Mission St./3rd St., South of Market. Free. This museum celebrates the global influence of the African Diaspora on art and culture. (“Diaspora” refers to the settling of native Africans far from their ancestral homelands.) One particularly intriguing permanent exhibit depicts human adornment a la Michael Jackson’s famous face-morphing “Black or White” music video.
Randall Museum 199 Museum Way/Roosevelt Way, near 14th St., Corona Heights. Free. Located below Buena Vista Park, between the Upper Castro and Haight-Ashbury, this small children’s museum has an indoor Live Animal Exhibit inhabited by uncaged-but-tethered hawks and owls plus other small, accessible animals. Most are recovering from injuries inflicted in the wild. A highlight is the Touching Pen, where children can handle domesticated animals such as rabbits, chickens, and ducks. Permanent exhibits include a replica 1906 earthquake refugee shack and an operating seismograph. Nature walks and classes are scheduled regularly. An Outdoor Learning Environment has gardens kids dig exploring, including a native California plants garden that attracts local birds and butterflies. Picnickers can relax on a lush carpet of green known as the Great Lawn while taking in an expansive view of San Francisco below.
On Saturday, the Golden Gate Model Railroad Club shows off its layout in the museum’s basement. Free.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not! San Francisco Odditorium 175 Jefferson St./Taylor St., Fisherman’s Wharf. Fee. Among the 400-plus exhibits from Robert Ripley’s personal collection of oddities are a cable car made from 270,836 matchsticks and an authentic shrunken female torso from Panama once owned by Ernest Hemingway. All this, plus two floors filled with more curiosities—a wedding dress made from toilet paper, the world’s largest hairball (a 167-pounder), and a replica of The Lighthouse Man (a tour guide in Chung King, China, who guided American dignitaries through the streets with a lit candle in an actual hole in the top of his head!). It’s unbelievable!
Separate admission is charged for the Marvelous Mirror Maze, which is definitely amazing.
San Francisco Railway Museum 77 Steuart St./Market St., in Hotel Vitale bldg., The Embarcadero. Free. This tiny museum features historic artifacts and archival photography among its exhibits, including fare boxes, the Wiley "birdcage" traffic signal, and a replica of the front end of a Market Street Railway Company White Front car emerging from a mock-up of the Twin Peaks Tunnel’s west portal. A selection of San Francisco Transit gifts provide unique souvenirs.
S.F.F.D. Fire Museum 655 Presidio Ave./Bush St., Presidio Heights. Free. Antique fire apparatus found in this small museum includes engines from the hand-drawn, horse-drawn, and motorized eras of fire fighting. Of special interest is an ornate hand-pulled engine dating from 1849 that is San Francisco’s--and California’s--first fire engine. In addition, historical photographs, memorabilia, and artifacts combine to tell the story of fire fighting in San Francisco, beginning in 1849 with the volunteer department and emphasizing the 1906 earthquake and fire. Visitors are welcome to stop in next door at fire station #10 to see what modern rigs are looking like.
The Walt Disney Family Museum 104 Montgomery St., in The Presidio. Fee. No pets. Three 19th-century brick buildings that were formerly army barracks now house ten galleries devoted to telling the Walt Disney story. For baby boomers it is a step into the nostalgic past, while for younger people it is more educational and a bit of a history lesson. An elevator gives the sense of a “ride” into the interior galleries. As would be expected, creative use of film and video is used and cartoons are shown throughout. Framed videos mix in with walls of photos, and you’ll see plenty of Mickey Mouse collectibles. In addition to peeking into Disney’s magic-making, you’ll pick up a few fascinating factoids, such as that “Snow White” was the first feature-length cartoon, and that “Bambi” was the first to feature only animals. Near the end is a large model of Disneyland, and appropriately Mr. Disney’s credits roll continuously just before the exit door. A “Fantasia”-themed theater shows classic Disney films several times daily at additional charge. Museum admission is not required to see the special Oscar for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” displayed in the lobby, or to browse the well-stocked gift shop.
The museum Cafe is operated by Wolfgang Puck. Prices are reasonable, and menu items include some of Walt’s favorites--chili, Jell-O with fresh fruit, chicken cubes, SPAM and eggs with biscuits and honey, cupcakes, and cookies. The menu changes daily and sometimes is inspired by a movie playing in the museum’s theater. Museum admission is not required to access the café.
Wells Fargo History Museum 420 Montgomery St./California St., Financial District. Free. In homage to the Old West, this museum displays an authentic stagecoach complete with strongbox. Samples of various kinds of gold found in the state, a telegraph exhibit, and, of course, a re-creation of an old banking office also are displayed. The oldest bank in the West--Wells Fargo--is the sponsor, and the museum is set on the site of the bank’s first office.