Two Very Different Museums in San Francisco

This month’s ArtSmart Roundtable is about “an art city,” and I’ve chosen to talk about my recent art experiences in my favorite U.S. city, San Francisco.

Art museums and small children are not always a good mix. On our many visits to San Francisco, we avoided the museums and opted for almost non-stop outdoor time in the city’s extraordinary green spaces. But on our recent 5-day stay in the City, I insisted on going to the two museums that I’ve most wanted to visit: the de Young and the Legion of Honor. These two museums are sister museums yet almost complete opposites, and I love them both. If you enjoy fine art museums, you should make time to visit these two very different museums in San Francisco.

Both the de Young and Legion of Honor Museums make up the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco ( These museums work together and, by the way, in 2012 they signed an agreement to collaborate with the Louvre through loans of art works. What strikes me about the FAMSF is that the two museums are so refreshingly different from each other. One reminds us of Europe and connects us to San Francisco’s past, while the other is very new, opened just in 2005 after being reconstructed following damage during the 1989 Loma Preta earthquake. The exteriors of the museums could not be more different (the Legion of Honor in the first photo, the de Young Museum in the second):


The two museums’ collections are also very different. The French neo-classical building of the Legion of Honor seems the appropriate setting for its collection of European painting and decorative arts, while the stark contemporary architecture of the de Young fits its often angular, monochromatic forms of the collections of modern, African, and Oceanic art.

The Legion of Honor sits on one of San Francisco’s most beautiful locations, a hilltop on Land’s End at the northwestern tip of the San Francisco peninsula. Below the museum are green hills that lead down to the Pacific Ocean, and the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands sit just a bit off in the distance. The hills of Lincoln Park make a beautiful place for a walk and sunset view after visiting the museum.

San Francisco Museums with Kids |This Is My HappinessDSC_0018-001-2 San Francisco Museums with Kids |This Is My Happiness

The California Palace of the Legion of Honor was constructed for the wealthy Spreckels family in 1924. It’s a replica of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris. It stands in memory of the 3600 California men who died in France during World War I.

San Francisco Museums with Kids |This Is My Happiness

One of the most noticeable features of the museum is Rodin’s Thinker, which sits just inside the courtyard of the museum entrance. However, there are many more works by Rodin inside the museum.

San Francisco Museums with Kids |This Is My HappinessSan Francisco Museums with Kids |This Is My Happiness

The Legion of Honor has a relatively impressive permanent collection of European paintings, including nice examples of work by masters such as Rubens, Rembrandt, Canaletto, Monet, and Manet.

DSC_0013-001San Francisco Museums with Kids |This Is My Happiness

The Legion of Honor also displays ancient art and European decorative arts, including stunning recreations of rooms from palaces and other fine architecture in Europe.

However, at the de Young Museum, there is very little evidence of Europe. Instead, the de Young’s contemporary design and collections focus on American painting and reflect a very different feeling and time.

DSC_0021DSC_0027San Francisco Museums with Kids |This Is My HappinessSan Francisco Museums with Kids |This Is My Happiness

One of the highlights of the de Young Museum is its permanent collection of modern art, which includes works by 20th century masters Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Frank Stella, and Georgia O’Keefe and local favorite, Wayne Thiebaud.

DSC_0013 San Francisco Museums with KidsDSC_0020

The 144-foot tower of the de Young is a must-visit, and you don’t need an entrance ticket to visit. Enter the museum, go right and to the elevators, take the elevator up to the Hamon Observation Tower for 360-degree views of San Francisco, the Bay, and Golden Gate Park.

San Francisco Museums with Kids

The de Young also has nice outdoor space that should be explored, and the highlight is the sculpture garden, which is free and open to the public.

San Francisco Museums with Kids

Visiting the Legion of Honor and de Young Museum with kids:

Which to choose? Of the two museums, my kids (ages 7 and 4) enjoyed the Legion of Honor more. Because the paintings and sculptures represent things they could recognize, they showed (some) interest by asking questions about who was in the paintings or how a sculpture had been made. They became quickly bored in the rooms of decorative arts, but my older son was mildly interested in the ancient art after he realized how old the pieces were.

The architecture of the Legion of Honor impressed them, and my older son actually became emotional when we entered the room of Impressionist paintings. He took my hand and said, “I love you. Thank you for bringing me to this place.” 🙂

It’s important to note that the de Young Museum has nice programs for children, including afternoon and weekend art classes. The de Young also has a kid-friendly cafe.

Both museums are located in parks, so it’s easy to let kids run around before and after visiting. This is especially true at the de Young, which is surrounded by walking paths, the Music Concourse, the Japanese Garden and the California Academy of Sciences.

San Francisco Museums with Kids |This Is My Happiness

Tips for visiting the Legion of Honor and the de Young Museum:

Admission to one museum includes admission to the other museum on the same day.

Both museums have nice museum cafes.

Limited free parking is available at the Legion of Honor. An underground parking garage is located next to the de Young Museum. This is the most convenient parking option when visiting the de Young.


de Young Museum: Tues.-Sun. 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m., closed Mondays and some holidays

Legion of Honor:

$10 for adult, children 12 and under are free, special exhibits are an additional fee.

Both museums are included in the San Francisco City Pass.

Discounts are given for advance online purchase and using public transport. More info here.

What’s coming up:

I already chose the exhibitions “Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Scotland,” beginning March 7, and “J. M. W. Turner: Painting Set Free,” starting June 20, as two exhibitions to see in 2015.

And you? What are your favorite art museums? What types of museums do you prefer?

Check out the other ArtSmart Roundtable posts about “an art city” here:


  • Pal says:

    “…my older son actually became emotional when we entered the room of Impressionist paintings. He took my hand and said, “I love you. Thank you for bringing me to this place.” 🙂 “- Very cute!

    And a nice introduction to what seems to be two great museums. especially curious about de Young now.
    Pal recently posted..Oslo’s Art Museums – The Booming Norwegian Art SceneMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      You’ll love them. Of course, your standards must be so high living in Amsterdam, but these are great museums. The de Young has a certain contemporary, cosmopolitan air that fits San Francisco.

  • Audrey says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience with kids at these museums. We recently took our kids to the Oakland Museum of California and they LOVED it! I want to introduce them to more museums, and these two were on my list but I was unsure how the kids would respond to them. I think we will give them a try!

    • Jenna says:

      It was a bit hit and miss with our kids at these museums, but if we had taken advantage of the kids’ programs, we might have had a better experience. Our expectations were pretty low–I just wanted to see as much of the museums as possible but knew I wouldn’t be able to go as slowly as I’d normally like. I haven’t been to the Oakland museum. Will check it out.

  • These both look great. I know we’d want to visit both next time we are in San Francisco. The only time we’ve been we didn’t have enough time to see more than just the highlights. It can be hard to visit art museums with kids. We are starting to find with our 8-year-old son that it’s getting harder to keep him engaged so we have to spread them out throughout a visit. We always bring a notepad for him to sketch what he sees.
    Lance | Trips By Lance recently posted..Baseball Spring Training Travel in PhoenixMy Profile

  • Lydian says:

    Both museums look like wonderful places to visit for the in- and outside! I love it how you introduce your children to the arts and reading how they respond to it. 🙂
    Lydian recently posted..Oslo’s Art Museums – The Booming Norwegian Art SceneMy Profile

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