The secret to seeing half a dozen world-class museums in San Francisco for free is to visit them on the first Tuesday of the month, when they don't charge admission.
In a single day of gallery bingeing, one can save around 70 bucks while checking out some of the smartest art collections in the U.S.
Most visitors see only the top three -- the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (the latter closed until 2016). But there are other, smaller ones that are fascinating and lots of fun.
And most are within walking distance of each other -- or a short train ride away.
The exception is the relatively far-away Palace of the Legion of Honor (100 34th Avenue), in far west S.F.'s Lincoln Park, worth visiting as much for its art as for its grounds -- acres of hilly parkland, sculpture gardens and golf courses that lead to dramatic Pacific Ocean cliffs.
The art starts before the entrance with a bronze cast of Rodin's, "The Thinker," in the courtyard. Inside are other Rodin classics and paintings by (among many others) impressionist and post-impressionist masters.
To the east of the Legion of Honor, in Golden Gate Park, is the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum (50 Hagiawara Tea Garden Drive). It has a vast collection of colonial-era American art, among its many diverse gems.
The front of the de Young.
After the de Young, check out the next-door Conservatory of Flowers, a museum devoted to exotic plants from all over the world (and, when I was there, a collection of dazzling butterflies!)
Downtown, near Third Street on Mission Street, there are several museums you can see in one fell swoop. The best is The Contemporary Jewish Museum (736 Mission Street),one of the most imaginative in the Bay Area. Its art includes a Rothko, an early Pollock, a Rauschenberg, several Klees -- and even a Muslim prayer rug re-imagined as a work of art.
A few blocks east is the Cartoon Art Museum (655 Mission Street). It's said to be the only collection in the western U.S. of comic books and cartoons. Lots of rarities on display.
Also in that neighborhood is the Yerba Buena Museum of the Arts (701 Mission Street). Though its collection is not too extensive, its exhibitions are consistently interesting.
And finally, let's not forget the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 Third Avenue), which is currently undergoing a major renovation. One of the world's top modern art museums, it has works by virtually all the giants of modernism.