Call me the culture vulture. I swooped through San Francisco devouring its museums, from high-tech fun to high-brow art palaces. Last Sunday in the Travel section, I wrote about...

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Call me the culture vulture. I swooped through San Francisco devouring its museums, from high-tech fun to high-brow art palaces.

Last Sunday in the Travel section, I wrote about San Francisco’s kid-friendly museums, including the Exploratorium, the grande dame of North America’s hands-on science museums.

Today, it’s the adults’ turn. Here’s a look at three of the city’s world-class museums for grown-ups. (Children can go to these, of course, but they’re not kid-oriented.)

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San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Strolling through the soaring atrium of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I braced myself for an afternoon of way-out-there contemporary art.


Where to stay: If you’re on a museum mission, staying near Union Square — the downtown hub — puts you in easy reach of many. Or to get really close to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, stay at the luxurious Argent hotel or the trendy Hotel Palomar.

I stayed at the much more reasonable Hotel Beresford Arms, an old-fashioned apartment house converted to a hotel. It’s on Post Street a few blocks from Union Square. Rooms are spacious, especially the parlor suites with separate bedrooms and kitchens, although there is traffic noise on rooms facing Post Street.

Hotel and visitor information: For hotel information and bookings (including discount programs) plus general visitor information, contact the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau: 415-391-2000 for visitor information; 888-782-9673 for hotel reservations; or

Museum discounts: If you plan to be a culture vulture and can’t time your visits on the museums’ various free-admission days, the San Francisco CityPass will save you money. It includes discounted admission to SFMOMA and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor plus other museums (but not the Asian Art Museum) and attractions. It also includes a seven-day transit pass.

You can buy the CityPass in advance or at the first participating museum you visit. Adult, $36; youth, $28. 888-330-5008 or

I needn’t have worried. SFMOMA does have some aggressively abstract works — such as Robert Rauschenberg’s all-white painting or Robert Smithson’s pile of rock and mirrors and soil.

Mostly, however, the museum is a delight, with a thousands-strong collection of paintings, sculpture, drawings, photographs and mixed-media works that vividly showcase a century of modern art.

The airy, spacious galleries are a who’s who of modern artists. Scattered through the museum’s four floors are still-life paintings by Pablo Picasso and Georgia O’Keeffe; portraits by Frida Kahlo and works by her husband Diego Rivera; Henri Matisse paintings; and works by Andy Warhol, Paul Klee, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Piet Mondrian, Jasper Johns and many more major and less-known artists.

SFMOMA is particularly strong in photography, from Jacob Riis photos of the mean streets of 19th-century New York to Ansel Adams’ moody landscapes and Irving Penn’s sinuous female nudes.

The museum also mounts blockbuster temporary exhibits. An exhibit of 150 works by the French-Russian artist Marc Chagall opened yesterday. Many of the Chagall paintings, created between 1907 and 1970, haven’t been shown before in the United States.

Underlying the museum’s success is its 225,000-square-foot home. The brick-and-glass modernist building opened in 1995, rescuing the museum from its former cramped quarters and jumpstarting urban renewal in its South of Market downtown neighborhood

The museum is flooded with natural light from the atrium’s massive skylight; the galleries are spacious and pleasant to linger in; and SFMOMA’s collection is growing ever richer, fueled by generous and cosmopolitan Bay Area donors.

Info: 415-357-4000 or

Tips: • The Chagall exhibit runs until Nov. 4. The museum has extended its hours to accommodate crowds, with more evening openings. Separate tickets are needed for the Chagall exhibit; buy in advance through Ticket Web, 866-468-3399 or to ensure you get in when you want.

• General admission to the museum is free for children 12 and under; for adults it’s free on the first Tuesday of each month and half-price each Thursday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

• Don’t miss the museum’s gift shop which is packed with tasteful knick-knacks and art books. The museum’s trendy cafe has tasty, light meals.

Asian Art Museum

San Francisco’s latest museum reincarnation is the Asian Art Museum, which re-opened in March. The museum left its cramped quarters of 35 years in Golden Gate Park for its new home in the lavishly renovated former Main Library in downtown San Francisco, across from the even more lavish century-old City Hall.

This is one of the biggest museums in the West devoted to Asian art, spanning 6,000 years of Asia’s cultures. From its vast collection — ranging from tiny Chinese jade carvings and monumental stone statues of Buddha to Islamic illustrated manuscripts, Japanese armor and a traditional Korean bridal gown — about 3,000 works will be displayed each year.

The museum’s dominant theme is Buddhism. The religion, central in the past or present to much of Asia, has spurred a wealth of artwork in which the museum’s collection is particularly strong, although Hindu, Islam, Sikh and other religious and secular arts also are displayed.

Galleries are organized mostly geographically, devoted to China, India, Japan, Persia, Southeast Asia and more. One of the most striking spaces is devoted to Tibetan Buddhism, where deep red colors set off the sandstone-colored sculptures.

The former library’s ornate lobby and grand staircase dominate the center of the museum. Constrained by the building’s original layout and architectural preservation, the three-story museum’s galleries are narrow and strung along the side of the building.

On busy days, the galleries feel crowded and it can be hard to find elbow room to read the extensive plaques on the subtly-lit display cases. But persevere; the written commentary is smart and informative, and helps put the art in its cultural context.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s extensive collection is housed in a modernist building.

A few touch-screen computers are scattered around the museum with information and videos on Asian cultures and areas, but mostly the museum’s style is traditional, like its stunning collection. However, the new Asia Alive programs which began this month offer hands-on craft and art-making displays.

Info: 415-581-3500,

Tips: • Until the end of this year, free admission is offered on the first Tuesday of each month.

• If you walk to the museum from San Francisco’s Union Square area (about a 20-minute walk), you’ll skirt the Tenderloin, San Francisco’s down-and-out neighborhood. It’s a gritty contrast to the wealth of the museum.

• If you’d rather ride, rely on public transit rather than a rental car; San Francisco’s public transit is excellent and parking is hard to find and expensive in the city. Vintage street cars run near the museum along Market Street, the main downtown thoroughfare, on what’s called the F-Line. You also can use the street car to go between the Asian Art Museum and SFMOMA (two blocks off Market, with about a 10-15-minute trip between the museums) or continue on to Fisherman’s Wharf.

See for San Francisco transit information, including cable cars, buses and the vintage street cars.

California Palace of the Legion of Honor

Darn. I should have worn pearls, not jeans, for a visit to this most refined of San Francisco’s museums.

At the new Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Cynthia Gouw, of Oakland, Calif., gazes at part of the jade collection.

Elegant women of a certain age staff the volunteer desk and serve as docents in the gleaming-white building overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Golden Gate Bridge. The atmosphere is hushed and reverential, a classic museum building with a rich collection of classic European paintings spanning the 14th to 20th century, including works by Rembrandt and Claude Monet.

Built in the style of an 18th-century Parisian palace and dedicated to Californian soldiers who died in France during World War I, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor opened as a museum in 1924, a gift to the city by a wealthy industrialist couple.

Besides its bounty of European paintings, its collection includes Egyptian and Greek antiquities plus a wealth of prints, drawings and illustrated books, from 16th-century European engravings to 20th-century American watercolors.

The museum’s signature piece, “The Thinker,” by 19th-century French sculptor Auguste Rodin, sits outside in a classically columned courtyard. It’s one of Rodin’s early bronze casts, and inspired the name of the museum’s pioneering Web site:

The site gives free access to a database of more than 60,000 images from the museum’s graphic-arts collection (one of the largest in the U.S.) including prints, engravings and photographs.

The California Palace of the Legion of Honor has a devoted following for its permanent collection and wide-ranging special exhibits.

“Lovers in a Red Sky,” an oil painting by Marc Chagall, is one of the works in the Chagall exhibit that was scheduled to open yesterday at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The show continues through Nov. 4.

Upcoming temporary exhibits include “Reverie and Reality,” 120 historic photographs of 19th-century people and places in India (Sept. 14 to March 7, 2004).

It’s followed by a rare exhibit of 73 bronze sculptures by 19th-century French impressionist Edgar Degas (Oct. 18 to Feb. 8, 2004). Loaned by a Brazilian museum, it’s one of only four complete sets of the artist’s bronze sculptures.

Info: 415-863-3330,

Tips: • Admission is free on Tuesdays. Docents give regular tours of the museums and special exhibits, and self-guided audio tours sometimes are available.

• The museum’s recently renovated cafe has outdoor tables in a pleasant, small garden. Nab one for lunch or afternoon tea.

• Its sister fine-arts museum in San Francisco, the de Young, is closed until 2005 while its new building is constructed in Golden Gate Park. The de Young is known for its major collection of American paintings and decorative arts and crafts, from colonial times through the 20th century. For construction updates, see

Kristin Jackson: 206-464-2271 or