7 FREE Museums in San Francisco

Save money by exploring 7 FREE museums in San Francisco!  Learn about the events that transformed San Francisco from a small settlement to a world class city.

1. Cable Car Museum

San Francisco boasts the last manually operated cable car system in the world.  Stop by the free Cable Car Museum to learn how it all works. Watch cables on giant, rotating wheels, drag cable cars up and down San Francisco's steep hills.  It's great to watch this ingenious (and very noisy) engineering feat in action.

Learn about the Cable Car Museum.

2. San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, Visitor Center

This free museum is an absolute gem, with award winning audio-visual displays that take you on a journey through San Francisco's colorful history with vivid depictions of important events.  It's just a block from the waterfront, housed in an old cannery warehouse, with a fabulous ambiance that transports you back in time. 

Learn about San Francisco's history, starting with Native America tribes who lived on the mudflats near Crissy Field, to the 1850s Gold Rush, and the immigrant fishing families who founded bustling Fisherman's Wharf.

One of the most fascinating exhibits is about the dozens of ships from the Gold Rush era, buried beneath reclaimed land along the San Francisco waterfront. 

Learn about the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park Visitor Center.

3. Maritime Museum San Francisco

The Free Maritime Museum is located at the Aquatic Park beach, about a ten minute walk west of Pier 39. The Maritime Museum was built as a depression-era project in the 1930s, in a streamline modern style, resembling a white ocean liner gliding across the water!  

This is a small museum, and only takes about 30 minutes to see the two floors. There are some miniature ship models on the spacious lower floor, but the most interesting exhibits are upstairs where you can read accounts of what life was like for 19th century fisherman and sailors who worked in the area.

Learn about the Maritime Museum San Francisco.

4. Fort Point

Visit a civil war era fortress, underneath the Golden Gate Bridge! Fort Point once protected San Francisco from the prospect of enemy attack from the French or Spanish, after the prosperous Gold Rush years.  This red brick fortress has four floors to explore, with secret rooms, hallways, and winding staircases. Climb all the way to the barbette rooftop where the cannons were once mounted, for incredible views of the Golden Gate Bridge.  

Learn about Fort Point San Francisco.

5. Presidio Officers Club

The breathtaking Presidio was once an old military fort, and has a number of fantastic attractions. The must-see Presidio Officers Club should be top of your list, and simply oozes history.  It features a free museum, restaurant and great hall for hanging out. It's a thrilling experience to step inside a beautifully preserved adobe, dating back to the Spanish army settlement in 1776.  If only these walls could talk!  Archaeologists have discovered many precious artifacts here.

The Moraga Hall is in the more modern wing of the building.  It was constructed by the U.S. Army and given a Colonial Revival look in the 1930s.  This is where officers relaxed and socialized, and today you can hang out and relax by the fire, or grab a meal in the restaurant next door.

The Presidio Heritage Gallery museum is up the back of the building, with engaging exhibits on the Presidio.

Learn about the Presidio Officers Club.

6. Presidio Visitor Center

Another great attraction at the Presidio is the excellent Visitor Center, which combines a museum, gift shop and visitor center into one complex, in a historic U.S. military guard house. Step outside for some awesome views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Visitor Center does a nice job of covering off the 10,000 year history of the Presidio, from the Native Indians, Spanish occupation in the 1770s, World Wars, and Cold War.  There's also a giant model providing a useful overview of the sprawling Presidio.

Learn about the Presidio Visitor Center.

7. Lands End Lookout

Head out to the rugged, northwest coastline of San Francisco for some spectacular coastline, steeped in history.  The free Lands End Lookout overlooks the ruins of the famous Sutro Baths, and has a cafe, exhibits on the cultural and natural history of the area, and a gift shop.  A wall of windows takes in amazing views of the Pacific Ocean and Sutro Bath.

San Francisco's dramatic, cliff-top Lands End Trail also starts here, taking you to well known destinations like the Cliff House, and Legion of Honor art gallery.

It's hard to imagine that a multi-story bathhouse once stood at the site of these ruins, with six saltwater pools and one freshwater pool, restaurants and entertainment. The Sutro Baths were constructed in 1896, but burned down in 1966.

Learn about Lands End Lookout.

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