California Bear

California’s 5 Finest Free Museums 

From a close-up of a working cable car museum in San Francisco to a renowned museum showcasing the work of European and American artists in Los Angeles, discover some of the state’s treasured museums—all without spending a dime.

Cable Car Museum

Cable Car Museum

Located in San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood (and a convenient stop on the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde line), the working museum shows the interior and powerhouse of the world’s only street-running cable cars. Opened in 1974, the museum highlights the inception of the cable car in 1873 by inventor Andrew Smith Hallidie; mechanisms like the grip and carrier pulleys; and antique cars from the late 1800s including the oldest cable car in the world, Clay Street Hill Railroad car No. 8.

Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, Head of France, 1925 (top right). Gift of B. Gerald Cantor. Photo by Joshua White, courtesy of the Hammer Museum. Other photos by Iwan Baan, courtesy of the Hammer Museum.

Hammer Museum

Conceived in 1990, the museum at UCLA features collections including the Armand Hammer, aptly named for the museum’s founder, with works by European and American artists such as Paul Gauguin, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, and Camille Pissarro, and the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden with more than 70 outdoor pieces by Auguste Rodin, Barbara Hepworth, and Alexander Calder.

Photo courtesy of the Musée Mécanique

Musée Mécanique

Lined with quirky “Magic Hat” fortune-telling machines; large-scale dioramas depicting intricate log cabins and farms; hand-cranked Swiss music boxes; old pianos from 1915; and retro arcade games spanning Star Wars and Whac-A-Mole (ranging from 25-cents to $2), the family-run emporium in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf lures guests from around the globe with an impressive collection of more than 300 working coin-operated arcade games and artifacts. 

The Broad. Photos by Mike Kelley.

The Broad

Situated in Downtown Los Angeles, the three-story building—distinguished by an ultra-modern, white honeycomb-esque exterior—showcases more than 2,000 works of art and installations by artists including Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and two Infinity Mirror Rooms by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. (Advanced reservations required for Kusama’s 2013 Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away).

Giant Forest Museum. Photo by David Fulmer.

Giant Forest Museum

Tucked amidst towering trees in Three Rivers, the museum is housed in a building listed on the National Register of Historic Places is perched at 6,500 feet. With hikes including Big Trees Trail and the General Sherman Trail originating directly from the building, the museum features a series of exhibits with detailed information about conifers from lifespan and height, to preservation, history, and ecology of the Sequoia National Park.

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