by Lee Foster

The great museums of Northern California have two new enticements begging for your attention. The newly reopened San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) has been rebuilt to accommodate the donated Fisher Collection, with its many modern masterpieces, and to address other art-presentation needs. And, in Berkeley, the new BAMPFA–Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive–sparkles with innovation.

SFMOMA closed for a few years for a multi-story rebuild to accommodate the donated Fisher Collection and other needs. The international architecture firm Snohetta won the design contract. Beyond housing the Fisher Collection, more space for education, public programming, conservation, and interpretation was desired. The passions of “modern art” flow in a number of directions, proving that you can’t delight all of the people all of the time.

What impressed me in a recent walk-through were three subjects. Alexander Calder’s Big Crinky sculpture, next to the outdoor Living Wall art form, was as beguiling as his many mobiles in a room indoors. Andreas Gursky’s photos showing “structures of our world,” such as thousands of items for purchase in a modern supermarket, define one special aspect of our time. For the San Francisco nostalgia buff, including those who might have been there, the graphics of posters from Bill Graham concerts 1966-1970 are a major art form in themselves.

SFMOMA's New Look in 2016
SFMOMA’s New Look in 2016

At BAMPFA, expect to be surprised. For instance, can spiders create intricate three-dimensional webs that are themselves works of art? That is the vision artist Tomas Saraceno shows at the newly opened art museum in downtown Berkeley, California. BAMPFA is a striking architectural statement and a special collection of fine art and historic films. Innovation propels the museum into the stratosphere of the best museums to consider in California. When you walk along the street by the museum, you see a huge outdoor LCD screen showing a rotating display of clips from the historic film collection. (See the listing for BAMPFA below for more details.)

Overall, Northern California enlarges the notion of “museum,” especially if you focus on the top museums to consider.

Where but in California, in the heart of Silicon Valley, could one expect to find a museum devoted to up-to-the-minute technical advances? That’s the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. And where else, if one seeks out historic authenticity, would one find the premier museum to the railroad in the development of the American West than in Old Sacramento? From Sacramento the actual railroad first snaked its way east, across the Sierra.

Northern California’s great museums offer outstanding experiences of many kinds—art, history, technology.

Here are my nominees for the top museums to visit:

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco consist of both the de Young in Golden Gate Park and the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park.

The strikingly modern, copper-skinned de Young Museum, which replaced an earthquake-damaged earlier structure, is a major amenity in Golden Gate Park. The building, designed by Swiss architects Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog, features a cantilevered roof and a 144-foot-tall obervation tower that offers sweeping views of the park out to the Pacific Ocean.

Its Rockefeller Collection of American Art, with 140 of the finest pieces of American creativity, suggests the strength of the museum in American as well as European art. Classic paintings of George Caleb Bingham, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Eakins are on display. The basement gallery shows special exhibitions. Contact: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., San Francisco, CA 94118; 415/750-3600;

The Legion of Honor is at 100 34th Ave., San Francisco, CA 94121.

The Asian Art Museum

The Asian Art Museum, housed in the city’s former public library, is an intriguing repository. The architects retained the Beaux-Arts facade, grand staircase, and ornate card-catalog room, but the rest of the building is strictly modern. The Avery Brundage Collection assembles some 10,000 items, one of the world’s major accumulations of Far East and Near East art. Contact: Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; 200 Larkin St., San Francisco, CA 94102; 415/581-3500;


Designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta, the original building for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, at Yerba Buena Gardens, might be seen as the largest art object in its collection. The new building, by the international architectural firm, Snohetta, adds to the design delight. The clean, boxy, geometric structure, with its skylight and elevated walkway, provides a fitting home for the strong collection and for traveling shows. The new space allows SFMOMA to expand its services in multiple ways. Every explorer coming to San Francisco should put the museum on his or her must-see list.

One painting not to miss, for example, is Henri Matisse’s Femme au Chapeau (Woman with a Hat, 1905), which started the Fauvism movement. Another is contemporary German Anselm Kiefer’s Osiris and Isis, 1987, which transforms the ancient myth into a metaphor for modern power. Contact: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 3rd St.; San Francisco, CA 94103; 415/357-4000;

Monterey State Historic Park

Two hours south of San Francisco, the Custom House and Pacific House Museum in Old Monterey were part of the first capital of California, when the Spanish and Mexicans were in control. The museum shows fascinating trade objects that the young author Richard Henry Dana saw when he wrote his classic work, Two Years Before the Mast. In that pre-Gold Rush California, cattle hides were known as “California banknotes” and were in demand by New England shoe manufacturers.

A Path of History walk amidst the early adobes of Monterey and a Maritime Museum on the plaza heighten the museum interest in this seaside city. Contact: Monterey State Historic Park, 20 Custom House Plaza, Monterey, CA 93940; 831/649-7118;

The Tech Museum of Innovation

The technology magic of the Silicon Valley, south of San Francisco, comes alive in this San Jose museum, which celebrates scientific curiosity. This showcase of technological breakthroughs is largely a hands-on affair, where you can watch a robot perform household tasks, such as cooking food.

Guided by volunteer interpreters, you learn about modern developments transforming our lives in robotics, microelectronics, biotechnology, materials science, and space exploration. For example, the difficult ethical decisions in biotechnology are presented as a viewer becomes aware of how gene modification can create new plants and animals. Contact: The Tech Museum of Innovation, 201 S. Market St., San Jose, CA 95113; 408/294-8324;

Oakland Museum of California

The genius of the Oakland Museum is that it separates, on individual floors, the worlds of nature, art, and history in California. The Oakland Museum has been a leader in museum presentation, creating “environments” rather than static exhibits. Typically, you might find here a display of tide-pool life, explaining the complex web of life in the ocean-shore environment. This is no static “seashells of the world” exhibit. Innovators such as the Oakland Museum have changed the concept of what a museum can be. Contact: Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland, CA 94607; 510/318-8400;


The Berkeley Art Museum – Pacific Film Archive opened in January 2016. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the ingenious structure offers state-of-the-art theaters and galleries to display the best contemporary and historical art and film from around the world. Lectures, workshops, performances, and readings for all ages are part of the mission. An Art Lab and Reading Room encourage engagement with visitors. Dining is available at the Babette Cafe. Contact: BAPFA, 2155 Center St., Berkeley, CA 94704; 510/642-0808;

Spider web art by Tomas Saraceno at the new BAMPFA Museum in Berkeley, CA.
Spider web art by Tomas Saraceno at the new BAMPFA Museum in Berkeley, CA.

Old Sacramento

The cluster of historic buildings in Old Sacramento State Historic Park represents an alternative strategy for historic preservation. “Preservation for use” was the motto, re-creating the hustle and bustle of the post-Gold Rush scene along the Sacramento waterfront.

One special museum here is the California State Railroad Museum, which rises far beyond a mere fascination with rolling stock, even though they have 21 restored locomotives. The Railroad Museum tells the sociological story of the effect of the railroad on the development of California and the country. The museum will excite anyone who feels a slight tug at the heart when the whistle of a train penetrates the stillness of night. A visitor can lodge on an authentic riverboat, the Delta King, a museum in itself. Contact: California State Railroad Museum, 111 I St., Sacramento, CA 95814; 916/445-6645;

Beyond the great Northern California museums, what if you venture into Southern California? What would be some good museums to consider?

The Getty Center  

In Los Angeles this permanent collection of choice works of art, from all ages, treats a visitor to room after room of priceless treasures. You leave the 11th-century illuminated manuscripts and pass into a collection of art, such as Ruisdael landscapes from the Dutch 17th century. The Getty is, simply put, world class, a statement of good taste superbly funded. Contact: The Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Dr., Los Angeles, CA, 90049; 310/440-7300;


The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is known for the depth and range of its collections. It is considered one of the country’s major art repositories. Whether the subject is American Art or Fashion and Textiles, the museum has strong collections. The five-building complex also features a changing show or two, often of contemporary art. Contact: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036; 323/857-6000;

La Brea Tar Pits and Museum

It’s amazing to think that, in the heart of Los Angeles, a tar pit would yield some of the richest examples of ice-age fossils of mammals and birds. At the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, you see huge reconstructed mammoths on display. They are the real thing, not just a movie fantasy. They died when they came to drink at the tar pits and became trapped in the goo. Contact: La Brea Tar Pits, 5801 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036; 213/763-3499;

The Huntington Library

At the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, in San Marino, you will find a major cultural treat. If you’ve longed to get close to an original work of great literature, such as Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, in his own handwriting, or one of the first folios of Shakespeare’s plays, the Huntington can satisfy your desire. Their outstanding collection of rare books includes a Gutenberg Bible and the Ellesmere Chaucer. That’s only the beginning of the Huntington experience, which includes elaborate gardens and strong collections of paintings, especially 18th-century British. Contact: Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, CA 91108; 626/405-2100;

San Diego Museum of Art

The San Diego Museum of Art is located in Balboa Park. Attractions include both the permanent collection of Italian Renaissance and Spanish Baroque masters, plus the changing contemporary shows. Of special interest is the unusual situation that there are another dozen fine museums nearby, such as the Museum of Photographic Arts, with its innovative shows, and the San Diego Air and Space Museum, which salutes the aviation and space accomplishments to which Southern California has contributed. Contact: San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92102; 619/232-7931;

California’s great museums nurture the developing California temperament, always a restless sensibility. In their great museums Californians keep pondering: What can we learn from the cultural legacies of the past, who are we as Californians today, and what is notable about our current achievements? These great museums constantly renew themselves, challenge the citizens of the state, and delight guests who come to visit.

This article is one of 30 chapters in my book/ebook  Northern California Travel: The Best Options. California museums also figure prominently in my book/ebook titled The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco. Those volumes, including some more on California, can be seen on my Amazon Author Page. My further books on Northern California are Back Roads California and Northern California History Weekends.

See Lee’s four Northern California books/ebooks on his Amazon Author Page.
See Lee’s books/ebooks
on his Amazon Author Page and in independent bookstores, such as Book Passage in the San Francisco Bay Area


  1. Its a good posts and works as the survey report too and people can took the idea of what the states have and which places to visit for sure when visiting any state. I am planning to visit the colorade state so will sure for visit the museums which it has.

  2. This list bears a major mistake. The San Francisco Art Museums are NOT the de Young and the Asian Art Museum. They are the de Young and the Legion of Honor. The Asian Art Museum’s collections are owned by the city, and it is a fantastic museum, but it is not part of SF Art Museums. This is particularly important for tourists’ knowledge because passes purchased as SF Art Museums provide access to both the Legion of Honor and the de Young, but NOT the Asian Art Museum.

  3. Jennifer,
    Thank you for this helpful comment. I definitely need to update this article and will make those corrections when I do.
    Lee Foster

  4. I’m doing a report on 3 top museums in California…Do you think any of these will catch my Soc. Studies Teacher’s Eye??(:

  5. You forget the Phoebe A Hearst Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco. It was where Ishi lived in the final years of his life. The museum documented a great deal on Yahi culture, folklore, and language. A true representation of California.

  6. Tim,
    You make a very good point. The story of Ishi is one of the treasured stories in California history. To lead a dignified life as the last of your people is a remarkable story. Thank you for alerting viewers to this story and the museum.
    Lee Foster

  7. A story of Ishi’s in the Yahi language:

    ‘i’ri’ e’bil k’i’ri’maun
    k!u’ llil’ niw’lte’i
    nilo’ p.dji’
    domdjawa’ ldi’ k’ di’t’e!la
    o’k!audubalgu’ gi we’yump’a
    do’wayalte’idibil’ we’yump’a

    A Story of Lizard
    He made arrows
    he was engaged in his arrow-making.
    He desired to turn back.
    He went west across a stream
    he went to gather pine-nuts at west across a stream,
    he went westward up a mountain.
    He put down on the ground his quiver.
    He just cut out and pulled at deer horns.
    he carried about on his shoulders as quiver deer horns;
    He pounded out nuts with a rock.


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