From trains and planes to artwork and artifacts, explore the Peninsula’s past and present

Don’t forget to look up: The glass dome of the San Mateo County History Museum in Redwood City. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

There’s nothing wrong with the Cantor — we enjoy Rodin’s Gates of Hell as much as the next guy — but if you’ve already visited a handful of times perhaps it’s time to switch things up.

The Peninsula’s lesser-known museums are hiding in some delightfully unexpected places. You might just stumble across one in a mall, a log cabin, a retired county courthouse, or even an airport. Sure, they’re smaller, but they have plenty to offer in eye-catching exhibits and intriguing historical displays.

Here are our nine favorite local museums for under $10:

The Moffett Field Museum is home to an array of aircraft and NASA memorabilia. (Photo by Michelle Le)

Moffett Field Museum

Moffett Field Museum in Mountain View holds a number of incredible aircraft and NASA memorabilia, as well as a treasure trove of historical info on the airfield and the hulking metal exoskeleton of Hangar One. So take a voyage through the site’s diverse aviation and national defense history to learn about its role in electronic warfare as well as its past as the NASA Ames Research Center. Your docent might even be a veteran once stationed here.

Fun fact: Hangar One’s most famous resident is the USS Macon. This aircraft carrier was a whopping 784 feet long … to put that in perspective, that’s 12 feet longer than quadruple the length of the White House!

Jewelry by trivial PURSUITS is among the works by local artists featured at the Palo Alto Art Center’s Holiday Studio Sale on Saturday, Dec. 4. (Courtesy Palo Alto Art Center)

Palo Alto Art Center

There’s a neighborly friendliness about the Palo Alto Art Center. It starts with the sculptures surrounding the building like benevolent guardians and continues within its rooms. This plucky community art hub not only hosts frequent community art shows, but a number of art classes in a sunny, large-windowed classroom (feel free to peek in on the artmakers or join in the fun — the center offers programs in everything from metalsmithing to fiber arts and printmaking). The center is at its most magical in the fall, when local glass blowers send thousands of glass pumpkins spilling across the lawn in a technicolored pumpkin patch. 

As the center’s latest exhibit wraps up, a new show titled “Creative Attention” will address anxiety and its many manifestations (as well as art’s ability to give those facing it a voice and a tool to heal). A licensed therapist/board-certified art therapist is partnering with the center to empower the community to do likewise. Look for it from January to June.

Los Altos History Museum has ongoing and new exhibits that delve into the past and present of Silicon Valley. (Photo courtesy Los Altos History Museum/Yelp)

Los Altos History Museum

Did you know that before the Peninsula was known for its tech, it was known for its trees? Long before it became a part of Silicon Valley, Los Altos flourished as an agricultural area called “Valley of Heart’s Delight.” Los Altos History Museum delves into our captivating past with rotating exhibits downstairs and a permanent “Crown of the Peninsula” display on the second floor. This upstairs gallery introduces visitors to the indigenous peoples, Mexican land grantees, early California settlers, and apricot growers who once called the area home. Out in the courtyard, a preserved windmill and various pieces of farming equipment also evoke images of a time when the area was awash with apricot orchards.

A trip to the Woodside Store will take you back to the 1800s, with goods that a teamster or blacksmith might want. (Photo courtesy Reynette F./Yelp)

Woodside Store 

Curious about life as an 1800s lumberjack? Woodside Store has answers. This little house museum is well-stocked with tools of the trade once employed by teamsters, wagon-makers, blacksmiths, and lumbermen. The place is decorated to transport you to Woodside’s logging heyday, back when the building served as the area’s general store, post office, stagecoach stop, and dental office. The multiplicity of the store matched the man who ran it. Dr. Tripp was not only the area’s postmaster, dentist, and public administrator, but also a San Francisco county supervisor, San Mateo County deputy sheriff, and library custodian. Talk about a Jack of all trades.

The exterior of the San Mateo County History Museum in Redwood City, which features neoclassical architecture and a stained-glass dome along with its exhibits. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

San Mateo County History Museum 

If you appreciate your architecture, San Mateo County History Museum (previously, the old county courthouse) will do your heart good. Set on rivaling the grandeur of San Francisco’s City Hall, the architect behind this neoclassical beauty incorporated grand mosaic tile floors and a dramatic stained-glass dome. But beyond its pleasing aesthetic, the San Mateo County History Museum covers the area’s rich regional heritage with a wide range of exhibits, such as a display in honor of Foster City’s 50th anniversary and the Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame. You’ll learn about the area’s immigrants and entrepreneurs, its surfers and its suffragists, its criminals and its constables.

The Museum of San Carlos History is devoted to restoring, exhibiting and collecting items related to the history of San Carlos. (Photo courtesy city of San Carlos)

Museum of San Carlos History

The Museum of San Carlos History might be a single room, but it’s welcoming and well-stocked with an eclectic array of artifacts. Like a 1930s ball gown. Or electronic equipment from the 1950s. Or a 1920s firetruck smack in the middle of the room. After browsing old photos and historical maps, settle down to watch the half-hour overview of San Carlos’ history to imagine living here “back in the day.”

 “Gaia” a linoleum block print by Melissa West, an artist featured in the “Women Eco Artist Dialog (WEAD)” show at the Peninsula Museum of Art. (Photo courtesy Peninsula Museum of Art)

Peninsula Museum of Art

After losing its Burlingame location mid-pandemic, the Peninsula Museum of Art got inventive by moving to the mall. So instead of Tanforan’s newest vendor hanging yet more outfits from more metal racks, they’re hanging vibrant paintings. The museum’s choice in locale has caused its accessibility to skyrocket—it’s certainly a new take to bringing art to the people. And once visitors admire its colorful canvases, they can admire the art of fashion over at Charlotte Russe and De Masque.

Braniff International Airways uniforms from the 1970s, part of the exhibit “Flight Patterns” at the SFO Museum. (Photo courtesy SFO Museum)

SFO Museum 

Speaking of odd museum locales … How about seeking your next arts and education fix at the airport? With 58 million travelers and 30,000 workers navigating SFO’s terminals each year, the airport felt a responsibility to represent San Francisco’s thriving arts and culture scene. Their rotating exhibits cover aviation (luxury airliners of the ’30s and ’40s and flight attendant fashion, for instance), but they span a variety of other art and history topics as well. You might learn about early American motorcycles and televisions from the Antenna Age, or Japanese ceramics and glass blowing. Luckily, visitors won’t need a boarding pass to achieve their passport to knowledge: Only 10 of the museum’s 30 galleries are beyond the security checkpoint.

The Millbrae Train Museum is home to historical automobiles as well as trains and train-related memorabilia. (Photo courtesy Ann S./Yelp)

Millbrae Train Museum

A century ago, the site of the Millbrae Train Museum served as the local train depot, transporting folks to the thriving streets of San Francisco. These days, the depot holds a collection of caboose lanterns, train maps, newspaper clippings, old equipment, and other objects that tell of the history of the railroads crisscrossing Millbrae, the Peninsula, and the West Coast. The highlight of your visit is sure to be the refurbished 1941 sleeping car from a luxury streamliner known as the City of San Francisco.

The train museum is temporarily closed due to the pandemic. If you’re willing to go on a drive, stop by the Niles Depot Museum or South Bay Historical Railroad in the meantime.

A few more places to visit:

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Johanna Harlow

Journalist with a fondness for micro-cultures and all things quirky.

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