San Francisco is a city with wonders tucked away in every alley. A simple google will show you dozens of “Weirdest San Francisco Museums” posts, but they’re mostly clones telling you to go to the same places. We’ve looked at those lists and have tried to go a little bit deeper. This list attempts to get you off the beaten path and look for not only the weirdest San Francisco museums, but also some rather bizarre collections tucked away in unassuming locales. Here are 11 of San Francisco’s (and two of Berkeley’s) most unique museums and interesting collections.
Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Cafe
12 Williams Place
2018 is the 50th Anniversary of this historic North Beach bar. Hidden in an alley across from City Lights Books it features a random collection of…well…stuff. There’s no single theme uniting what hangs on the walls other than providing dozens of objects to ogle while throwing back a beer. Yes, that is a walrus penis.
Located in North Beach, the Beat Museum, as the name suggests, is dedicated to all things from the Beat Generation. North Beach is considered the birthplace of the beats. This is where the likes of Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Allen Ginsberg first started making waves in the poetry world. This museum, which features a collection of paintings, rare books, and other artifacts belonging to the beats, tells the story of the movement in the context of 1950s America. Conveniently for those interested in having a Beat history tour, it’s located directly across from two other landmarks of Beat Generation history: City Lights Books and Vesuvio Cafe.
326 Fell Street
It all started in 2002 when Isotope: The Comic Book Lounge hosted a party celebrating the work of writer and illustrator Brian Wood. Wood, who may have had one too many, proceeded to vandalize the shop’s bathroom. Isotope proprietor James Simes told the SacBee, “When we were cleaning up, we wanted to save the toilet (seat) because we are (a) appreciators of fine original art; (b) fans of Brian’s work; and (c), it’s hilarious.” He put it on the wall and when comic creator Rick Remender randomly stopped by and saw it he wanted one of his own.
814 Post Street
Sure, it’s a bookstore first, but KAYO Books is also the largest collection of vintage pulp fiction in Northern California – and possibly the United States. The shelves are stacked from floor to ceiling with hard-boiled mysteries, counterculture fiction, gay and lesbian exploitation, hippies, pure sleaze, and beyond. Some of the classic titles you’ll find on the walls include Satan Was My Pimp, The Marijuana Mob, and Twice As Gay. Heading upstairs you’ll find a robust collection of horror and science fiction including piles of Analog Science Fiction Digests and similar publications.
It isn’t all obscure pulp. Kayo has a large selection of first editions from authors including Raymond Chandler, Phillip K. Dick, and John Steinbeck.
1201 Mason Street
Not to be confused with the SF Railway Museum (see below) the Cable Car Museum is dedicated to the cabled vehicles which have been carrying people over the peaks of San Francisco for more than a century. The museum is located in the Washington/Mason cable car barn where you can see the cables in action and sit on three antique cable cars from the 1870s.
77 Steuart Street
The SF Railway Museum explores the history of the city’s rail transit. It’s an extension of the historic streetcars you see riding the rails down Market to the Ferry Building and along Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf. The museum goes in-depth about the history of those streetcars while taking visitors back in time. Inside you’ll find a full-sized replica of a motorman’s platform from a 1911 streetcar.
1435 Grant Avenue
Maps! So many maps! Tucked away on North Beach’s Grant Avenue this map store is full of vintage maps and prints of vintage maps. The staff are incredibly knowledgeable and are always happy to dig into the archives to show off rarities.
1767 Waller Street
While not the largest collection of vintage pinball machines in the Bay Area, that distinction goes to the Pacific Pinball Museum on Alameda, this is the largest collection on the peninsula. At any one time, Free Gold Watch can have as many as 50 pinball machines clanging and clacking in the print shop. Most of the machines are from the 90s with a handful of gems from the 80s and late-70s.
781 Beach Street
The Cartoon Art Museum has one of the largest collections of original cartoon art in the country. Unfortunately, as of this article’s publishing date, the museum is in between spaces. At some point this year, CAM is expected to reopen on Fisherman’s Wharf at 781 Beach Street this summer.
The Internet Archive isn’t on this list because it’s digitizing every bit of cultural ephemera including vintage LPs, 8-bit video games, and even random VHS tapes. No, they make the list because of the collection of 120 ceramic sculptures of current and former employees sitting in the Archive’s main room. According to Atlas Obscura, “created by artist Nuala Creed and inspired by the statues of the Xian warriors in China. Among the figures is internet pioneer Ted Nelson, the late genius hacktivist Aaron Swartz, as well as Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle.” Free tours are offered every Friday at 1 p.m.
420 Montgomery Street
This is Wells Fargo’s flagship history museum. Inside you can learn how to drive a stagecoach, see vintage banking machines, use a working telegraph to contact other Wells Fargo museums, and learn about history during the gold rush. Banking’s never been so much fun!
Bonus: Two from Berkeley
2201 Fourth Street
A fine compliment to Schein & Schein’s Antique Maps, this shop sells vintage posters from Europe. Eras include “the Belle Epoque, the Art Deco Period, military posters from both of the World Wars, the Post War Era, as well as the modern and contemporary periods.” You won’t find any reprints here, so don’t expect to find a replacement for the “Le Chat Noir” poster you used to have on your dorm room wall. They’re open “most” Tuesdays and Wednesday between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. (call ahead).
1827 Fifth Street
Berkeley has the oldest and largest herpetological store in the country. The shop is filled with not only reptiles and amphibians, but also arachnids like tarantulas and scorpions. It is an impressive resource for anyone seeking an alternative to mammalian pets.