California Academy of Sciences (credit: stanford.edu)
An expert guide can enhance your museum experience immeasurably. From National Park Service ranger to septuagenarian art historian, the docents of San Francisco provide some great content and fascinating anecdotal tidbits to keep museum fatigue utterly at bay. Their painstakingly researched accuracy and unmitigated passion make all the difference. Perhaps you’ve had a great tour at an East Bay or South Bay museum? We’re suggesting these five in the city.
55 Music Concourse Drive
Golden Gate Park
San Francisco, CA 94118
If you love the California Academy of Sciences, you’ll love it even more with an up-close and personal 60-minute Behind-the-Scenes tour. The only trick is choosing which highlights draw you in: the Aquarium for a deeper dive into marine life and the care for 38,000 resident animals or the Academy for digging into the gold nugget collection and seven hills of the living roof. Each tour includes express entry, a reserved planetarium seat, VIP entry to the popular Rainforest and Earthquake exhibits and a 10-percent restaurant and store discount. You can also make it a Thursday date night when cocktails and hors d’oeuvres are part of the NightLife VIP Tour.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
San Francisco, CA 94133
How is The Rock like the Statue of Liberty? Because tourists put the island at the top of their must-see list while natives and locals neglect visiting. Even the boat ride is a plus. If you haven’t been to Alcatraz lately, book ahead, grab a camera and warm jacket and head for Pier 33. Excellent interpretive walks guided by National Park Service rangers cover the island’s history, prison, nature, anecdotes and the 1969 Native American occupation. Inside, a 35-minute self-guided audio tour featuring narration by former inmates and wardens is not to be missed. Step into a solitary confinement cell, get the details of the gun battle and see where escapees chiseled through the cell wall with a spoon. Or, decide for yourself if Alcatraz is haunted by taking the evening visit.
200 Larkin St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Housed in a classically beautiful building is one of the world’s outstanding collections of Asian art. Spanning 6,000 years, among the 18,000 items on view is the oldest known dated Chinese Buddha in the world, inscribed 338 CE. Measuring only 15.5 inches, the untrained eye could easily miss this important object studied in art history classrooms everywhere. Whenever possible, choose a guided docent tour over a self-guided audio tour. The guides are extremely knowledgable and passionate about their Asian speciality, and it shows. The museum has a small army of volunteers from coat check to ticket desk to docent.
9th Ave. at Lincoln Way
Golden Gate Park
San Francisco, CA 94122
The oasis of Golden Gate Park is sprinkled with lush, green and fragrant escapes: the Japanese Tea Garden and the Conservatory of Flowers, the sunken AIDS Memorial Grove, Shakespeare Garden and Rose Garden. As a surprise to some locals, this 55-acre botanical garden and arboretum on the southern edge of Golden Gate Park is the biggest and the best outdoor museum of all, and it’s free to San Francisco residents. The docent tour is also free. Among the highlights are the bird watching at 8 a.m., the blossoming of the magnificent magnolia collection from mid-January through mid-March and the quarterly plant sales.
Legion of Honor
100 34th Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94141
Rodin’s “The Thinker” is deep in contemplation outside of the front entrance, but you shouldn’t hesitate. Docent-led tours are free, no reservations required, with museum admission on Tuesdays through Sundays. “Three Masterpieces in 30 Minutes” covers highlights of the permanent collection in snackable, bite-size pieces. Another choice, “Highlights of the European Collection,” includes crowd-pleasing masterworks such as a Claude Monet “Water Lilies” oil painting. Top off your tour through San Francisco’s loveliest museum with a stroll through the impressive Auguste Rodin galleries, a free live organ concert and a refreshment in the sun trap backyard café.