12 Offbeat Museums in the Bay Area to Visit This Fall

11 min
A Selection of Exhibits at the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents (Courtesy of Mandy Aftel)

In honor of this week’s Bay Curious episode looking at small or unusual museums in the Bay Area, we asked listeners to contribute their favorite unconventional local spots and received a handful of great recommendations. With listener support we present a short list:

Aftel Archive of Curious Scents
The collection is run by Mandy Aftel, a perfumer who has curated more than 300 fragrances for visitors to smell. The archive includes 100-year-old scents alongside their modern counterparts, the raw botanical material used to create scents and perfume books from the turn of the century.

The Bay Model
This scale model of the San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta system was completed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1957. At roughly 1.5 acres, this three-dimensional hydraulic model is capable of simulating tides and currents. It was built to study public works proposals, like a plan to dam the South Bay (it proved that idea was ill-advised). It's no longer used for research, but still works! In the age of computer modeling software, the Bay Model is quite the sight.

The rendering of the Bay Bridge as part of The Bay Model, 320-feet by 400-feet wide, scale model of the Bay Delta watershed.
The rendering of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge as part of the Bay Model, a 320-by-400 foot scale model of the Bay Delta watershed. (Olivia Allen-Price/KQED)

Bigfoot Discovery Museum
Skeptics and believers alike will find all things related to Bigfoot (or, if you prefer, Sasquatch/Yeti) here at this tiny museum just outside of Santa Cruz, from archive photo "evidence" and artifacts to Bigfoot memorabilia and pop culture clippings.

Letterform Archive
San Francisco
If you love lettering, typography, calligraphy and graphic design this place is for you. On the shelves you'll find a style book for NASA, stamps from the iconic 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico, original Fillmore posters and hand-drawn holy manuscripts from the 1400s. The nonprofit center allows visitors hands-on access to a curated collection of over 50,000 items.

The Lick Observatory peaking through the snow dusted top of Mount Hamilton.
The Lick Observatory peaking through the snow dusted top of Mount Hamilton. (Gordon Wrigley/flickr)

Lick Observatory
Mount Hamilton
Sweeping vistas of the Santa Clara Valley will greet you in the parking lot, inside you can peruse informative exhibits and at night you can explore the sky using one of the major telescopes used to discover extrasolar planets. The observatory opened in 1888 as part of the University of California. It was funded by James Lick and according to the website, “Lick's gift of $700,000 was the largest philanthropic gift in the history of science and would amount to $1.2 billion by today's standards.”


Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum
A stone's throw away from where Charlie Chaplin made movies at the turn of the century, this theater is dedicated to preserving and showing silent films. The exhibits and theater stand in what was once the town of Niles (now a historic district in Fremont), which has been called the first Hollywood. The museum has weekly showings and for October they’ve curated some spooky options.

Musée Mécanique
San Francisco
The Musée Mécanique houses over 200 coin-operated machines on Pier 45 in Fisherman’s Wharf. You can find all the coin-operated classics from your childhood, no matter when you were a child. It’s got whack-a-mole, Addams Family pinball, arm wrestling, coin-operated peep shows, loads of fortune telling devices and a variety of musical machines including, a wurlitzer (it’s a type of machine you can find in the middle of werry-go-rounds) built in 1915 with 130 pipes in it, orchestra bells, a bass drum, a snare drum and a symbol. Learn more about it in this week's Bay Curious episode.

Machines at Musée Mécanique
Machines at Musée Mécanique (Maggie Galloway/KQED)

Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment
From Atari to the PlayStation 3, from old classics to new classics, “The MADE” houses thousands of playable video games, offers free programming classes for kids, lectures, tournaments, game development parties and community events like “Cosplay Comedy.”

The Museum of International Propaganda
San Rafael
In a former children’s shoe store, the museum displays 20th and 21st century political art from places like North Korea, Russia, Iran, China and the United States. The exhibits are grouped into several themes, techniques and styles of propaganda.

New Almaden Quicksilver Mining Museum
San Jose
Learn the history of mercury mining in the area, the technology used and the culture of various mining communities. Mining at New Almaden began in 1845, when a Mexican Cavalry officer found the red rock used by the Ohlone to paint the walls of the Santa Clara Mission contained mercury. The mercury could be used to process silver in Mexican mines.

The local order of Rosicrucians is planning a new museum to focus on alchemy.
The local order of Rosicrucians is planning a new museum to focus on alchemy. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum
San Jose
This museum boasts of a vast collection of artifacts: sculpture, jewelry, tools, ritual objects and, yes, mummies — both human and animal. There are also several high-quality replicas on display, including a cast of King Tutankhamun’s golden sarcophagus and the Rosetta Stone. As you’ll hear in our 2017 Bay Curious episode on the museum, many visitors say their highlight is the life-size tomb that is a composite replica of several real tombs in Egypt.

Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
Santa Cruz
Inside the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, which commemorates a surfer who died surfing at nearby Pleasure Point, this small museum covers over 100 years of surfing history in Santa Cruz. A plaque details how visiting royal Hawaiians kicked off the craze in 1885. You can learn more about it in this week's Bay Curious episode.