Free Museums

San Francisco is expensive. Food and lodging in this city cost more than most places in the world, gas here is the most expensive in the country, and tickets to major museums and attractions typically cost $20-$30. It’s easy to spend a few hundred dollars on a day’s outing. Luckily, there are also lots of things to do here that cost nothing at all. There are free concerts and performances and parks and gardens and trails and parades and festivals. There are also several small but free museums.

1) Wells Fargo (Z28-6-100)

We’ve found a handful of worthwhile museums that are both free and easy to get to. Most are in the Financial District or at the Wharf. You can walk or take a bus, streetcar, or cable car to any of these and save your money for a pint of good ale at a nearby pub.

Wells Fargo History Museum

This delightful museum is on the site where Wells Fargo first opened for business in 1852. It has several exhibits from the California Gold Rush including gold nuggets, dust, and ore and a Wells Fargo Concord Coach that was used in the 1860s. Many of the exhibits are interactive and are very popular with school kids. There’s a replica stagecoach that you can climb aboard or pretend to drive and you can send messages on a working telegraph. There are also lots of old documents, photos, and paintings. (Located at 420 Montgomery Street)


2) Cable Car (Z28-6-148)

Cable Car Museum

This museum has interesting cable car related exhibits, but it is much more than that. This is the real cable car barn and powerhouse. The upper level has a large viewing area overlooking the engines and winding wheels that pull the cables under the streets. The cable car driver (called a gripman) operates a grip lever that grabs onto the underground cable. The moving cable propels the cable car up and down the city’s streets. A second viewing area downstairs allows you to see the large sheaves that guide the under-street cables. (Located at 1201 Mason Street)


3) SFFD Museum (Z28-6-122)

SF Fire Department Museum

This wonderful gem of a museum is housed in a room in Firehouse Station 10. The museum has two antique fire trucks and six antique fire wagons in the middle of its cavernous room. The walls, on all sides, are lined with display cases containing photos, paintings, and an incredible amount of memorabilia. The items on display range from Firemen’s personal effects (uniforms, helmets, badges) to firehouse equipment (buckets, tools, fireplugs) to artifacts from actual fires – including the fires following the 1906 earthquake. There is ample signage describing the items on display and a very helpful staff person who will answer questions. (Located at 655 Presidio Avenue (near Pine))


Levi Strauss HQ

The expansive lobby at Levi Strauss Headquarters houses a Visitor Center that is basically a small museum. There are several large displays in the main room. One chronicles the history of the company, its founders, and the evolution of its signature pants. Other displays have examples of Levi’s clothing through the years. One corner leads to a small room called The Vault, which has interactive displays (some on iMacs, of course), and lots of memorabilia, including clothing from the 1800s, documents, photos, posters, buckles, rivets, and much more. (Located at 1155 Battery Street (near Union))

4) Levi Strauss (Z28-6-185)


5) Bechtel (Z28-6-115)

Bechtel WaaTeeKaa

WaaTeeKaa is a replica of a rail car used by the Bechtel family on remote construction sites. This replica was a gift from the company to Stephen Bechtel on his 88th birthday. Stephen (the founder’s son and successor) and his wife Laura lived in the original WaaTeeKaa in the 1920s. (Located at 50 Beale Street (near Market))

WaaTeeKaa now sits in the large, well-landscaped plaza at Bechtel’s headquarters where it serves as a history museum for the corporation. Its four beautifully wood-paneled rooms contain photos and signage providing a chronological history of the company from 1898 until now. The museum covers some of Bechtel’s biggest and most diverse projects including works in National Parks, Hoover Dam, BART, and Tapline (the 1100 mile Trans-Arabian pipeline). Woven through the displays are histories of the four generations of the Bechtel family members who have led the company.

6) Railway Museum (Z28-2-414)


Railway Museum

The Railway Museum is smallish, but it does have interesting photos, displays, and artifacts illustrating San Francisco’s transportation history. They also have streetcar themed souvenirs and gifts like posters, cards, and calendars. This store/museum is operated by the Market Street Railway Preservation Group, which played a huge role in creating the F-Streetcar line (see Trolley Folly blog). (Located at 77 Steuart Street)


7) Laffing Sal (Z28-6-211)

Musée Mécanique

The museum has one of the world’s largest collections of penny arcade games, antique mechanical musical instruments, and more. This collection was created by Edward Galland Zelinsky and is now operated by his son. Many items in the exhibit are more than 100 years old, and most of them are still in their original working condition. While the museum is free, you’ll need to splurge 2-bits or 4-bits to operate the exhibits. Laffing Sal, a favorite, will greet you at the entrance for a mere 50 cents. (Located at Fisherman's Wharf)


8) Boudin Bakery (Z28-6-208)

Boudin Bakery Museum

We had lunch yesterday at Bistro Boudin and there was a sign at the museum entrance stating there is a $3 entrance fee (which is waived if you eat at the restaurant). In spite of the sign, people (including me) were walking in and out of the museum without being charged or questioned. On previous visits, there was no sign or charge. I’m guessing this is a pretty loose arrangement, but perhaps this museum is not always free.

This museum has a room full of displays and interactive exhibits that chronicle the history of Boudin Bakery, demonstrate how sourdough bread is made, and explain why sourdough is unique to San Francisco. The museum also has a catwalk overlooking the actual onsite bakery where you can watch bread being made and also watch employees create artistic loaves in shapes like crabs, lobsters, and alligators — oh my. (Located at Fisherman's Wharf)


All of these museums are small, so you probably won’t spend more than 30 minutes in any of them. But they are all worth seeing; they are easy to get to (especially without a car), and — like the best things in life — they are free.


© Virginia E. Vail 2012