San Francisco’s cold rainy summers and winters can thwart the best-intentioned visitor’s plans to tour the city by the bay. There may be a disappointing view out the window and a cancelled trip across the Golden Gate, but for the culturally inclined a quick walk can be rewarded with visits to these five must-see downtown museums. Between three blocks on Mission Street just south of Market, one can visit an architectural wonder, wander through the newspaper comic section of their youth, and feel the history and connection to all humans on Earth.
A three-story high black cube juts out of the brick side of the Jewish Contemporary Museum. To the visitor looking from the ground floor up at this converted Pacific Gas and Electric power station it may seem confusing and contrasting to understand the significance. Inside the Daniel Libeskind-designed building find the “aha” moment about the big black cube by reading the story of the building’s revival. Seen from above, the building’s sculptural form is in the shape of the Hebrew letter “chai” to capture the Jewish mantra “l’chaim” which means “To Life!” Go further inside to feel the life of the naturally-lit and high ceiling museum with exhibits that feature modern Jewish themes like Gertrude Stein’s life in five stories or a listening room to hear the combinations of African-American and Jewish music.
The Cartoon Art Museum is only one of a few graphic art museums in the world and the only one in the United States. In this art gallery setting, cartoon and comic book aficionados from around the world find hundreds of cartoon panels and rare illustrations from all eras. For those who used to read the Sunday funnies as a child, the museum offers a nostalgic trip with framed panes of Blondie, Nancy and Sluggo, and Garfield. Temporary exhibits run from the classical like “70 Years of Archie” to the daring illustrated version of Allen Ginsburg’s HOWL. With over 6000 works of cartoon art, the museum displays how the vast appeal of fun and sophisticated cartoon art.
A three-story tall young Ghanaian’s portrait by Chester Higgins Jr. looks out on Mission Street and greets visitors through the museums’ glass façade. It is the symbol of the Museum of Africa Diaspora and includes 2700 photos sourced from around the world. The pictures and museum tell the story of African influence around the world as a result of recent centuries’ of African dispersal. Dance and hum along in the Celebration Circle where stories of food family and movement are shared from around the world. Follow up with a visit to the hands-on multimedia display of how Africa influences these aspects of culture. Before moving onto one of the temporary exhibits, feel the words of African Slave freedom stories in the somber and Maya Angelou narrated Slavery Passages room.
At this expansive modern art museum one can marvel at over 27,000 works of art – you may see paintings by Matisse, sculpture by Duchamp, and photography by Avedon. The Art in the Atrium hosts a stunning Calder mobile and modern murals. The building’s unique black and white architecture pulls in the visitor with a focused staircase and draws the eye up to look at the fifth-floor gangplank – all at the same time. If a visit to SFMOMA just happens to occur on a sunny day, then climb up the black staircase for a visit to the rooftop garden for the too-big-for-inside installations and most immersive view of the city. The nearby Rooftop Coffee Bar serves snacks in a creative way – offering cakes and ice cream in the shape of showcased art. Try a Mondrian cake with that locally brewed Blue Bottle espresso.
Although not technically a museum, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is an art space and one that invites the same reflection and provocation. The YBCA brings the “now” to “here” with a gallery that hosts changing programs. It’s edgy performance and visual art interprets topics like San Francisco’s smut revolution from the 60s and 70s and cannabis reform. The vibe of this institution is seen in a welcoming quote to one of the exhibits, “Art deserves your full openness and presence. Leave your world behind. Chill. Focus. Energize.” If the rain breaks, the surrounding Yerba Buena Gardens is a unique place for picnic with large art installations and a wall of waterfalls.
All this cultural infusion in a few blocks in San Francisco may make a visitor pray for that rainy day. Since museums are typically closed one day a week, check the museum’s web sites for hours and visitor information. Get the full guide to all of San Francisco’s excellent museums at SFTravel.
By Kristin Zibell, editor and author of travel blog Takeyourbigtrip.com. After two years of traveling around the world, she is currently traveling locally in the city of San Francisco.