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8 Must-See Art Stops in San Fracisco

By Nick Dudler

The cityscape of San Francisco is a canvas. The seaside city has been a refuge for thinkers, makes, and artisans for virtually its entire existence. These artists have left their mark on the city, making it one of the best cities to travel to for inspiration.

Whether you are looking for modern art galleries, street art, or just downright unique installations, this city has something for everyone. Sometimes, it’s marked with a bright sign. Other times, you have to work to find it. Whatever art experience you’re looking for, we’ve got all the bases covered, no matter your taste or budget. The refined, the quirky,

the perplexing, and everything in between—you’ll find it here!

1. Clarion Alley Mural

Clarion Alley, San Francisco, CA 94110

After perusing the thrift stores and eclectic restaurants of the Mission district, your stomach is satisfied and your wallet is feeling light. You take a walk, eager to explore the bustling neighborhood. Walking along the shops, a quote, scrawled onto an faded green garage, catches your eye. It reads, “Worldwide there is a dark cloud on the horizon.”Intrigued, you venture further. A picture emerges. It depicts a scene of red and blue ants fighting, with a human head lying on the ground just beside them. The man is sweating profusely, and a cell phone is mixed among the ants. Hues of vibrant blues and red paint a vivid picture—a cartoon-like drawing of some kind of apocalyptic ant-driven world. This kind of scene is common to the Clarion Alley. It is updated every year with dozens of new murals, some playful and childish, others loaded with criticisms of the government, social institutions, and the like.

Tours are also available. An understanding of the alley requires a look into its history. The creators of the mural debuted the alley in 1992 to voice artists’ objections to San Francisco gentrification. As one of the Alley’s founders’ stated, “We always felt like this alley was supposed to be between the problem and the solution. So we just started painting the hell out of it.” Since its inception, the scope of the mural grew to feature a variety of local and national issues, and a vibrant dialogue bloomed alongside its myriad masterpieces.

Admission: Free

Best item to bring: An open mind

How long to stay: 15 minutes-1 hour

2. Wood Line and Spire

Presidio Park, between Presidio Blvd and Arguello Blvd

More inspired by nature than the city streets? Go ahead, escape into the woods. Get a breath of fresh air. Art is found most readily in nature—especially if you look for it. This natural art installation is over 1200 feet in length and features more than 38 cypress trunks,

each measuring more than 90 feet tall. The art piece is conveniently located in Presidio Park, known for its stunning views of the Golden Gate and wealth of running trails.

​Imagine yourself strolling through Presidio Park, marveling at the glory of the Golden

Gate and meandering through the eucalyptus forest. You turn to an open clearing, and spot a group of children playing on what looks like a trail of… tree branches. You follow the twisting array, and your eyes are immediately drawn upwards. A spire of cypress logs, strapped together like hands reaching upwards, greets you.

Standing at its base, you wonder at its purpose and function and marvel at its boldness in the plain clearing that surrounds it. The installation is the work of one of the world’s premier artists, Andy Goldsworthy. His pieces in Presidio Park – Spire,  Wood Line, Tree Fall​, and Earth Wall  – can be explored together in a three-mile hiking loop. You can view the map in the Goldsworthy in the Presidio brochure.

The inspiration for this piece stems from the city’s history. In the late 1800s, the Army planted eucalyptus with rows of cypress in between them, as part of a campaign to maintain the Presidio. The cypress then died out, leaving open spaces where Goldsworthy later filled in the gaps.

Admission: Free

Best traveling companions: Kids, dogs

How long to stay: 15 minutes- 2 hours, depending how far you wander in the Presidio.

3. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 3rd St, San Francisco, CA 94103

Located in San Francisco’s bustling Soma district, this Bay Area gem is a must see for any SF traveler. Immediately across from the Yerba Buena gardens, its graceful presence draws the ire of the art enthusiast and casual traveler alike. Come here to relax, unwind, and be inspired by over 33,000 works of painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, design, and media arts. With exhibitions dedicated to photography, video, performance, digital art, and industrial design, the curious mind can spend hours perusing these galleries. The MOMA is a staple of the San Francisco art scene. In 2016, it doubled in size with a $305m expansion, making it the largest

institution dedicated to Modern and Contemporary Art in the country.

You might think you are still in the galleries when your main course arrives from MOMA restaurant In Situ. Corey Lee, the head chef and an artist in his own right, plates his own interpretation of some of the world’s most famous dishes.

Price of admission: $25 (Free if you’re under 18)

Hours: Friday–Tuesday 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and Thursday 10 a.m.–9 p.m.

How long to spend here: 1-3 hours

4. Savernack Street Gallery

2411 24th St, San Francisco, CA 94110

Not the kind of person to spend an entire day inside a museum? At this one of kind gallery, you don’t even get to go in the front door! In fact, the gallery’s entire works are observed only through the lens of a peephole.

You need a keen eye just to find the place—it’s only a single room! It might be one of the world’s smallest galleries, with only a few pieces of art on display at a time. The perks? You get the room all to yourself, and it’s small enough that you can stop by on your morning commute. The theme changes every month, featuring animals, nature, and time. Curated by Carrie Sinclair Katz, this (literal) hole in the wall was created with the aim of forcing perspective to the viewer. The viewing angle is created by an analog video surveillance camera, with a wide frame of view designed originally to assess the safety of strangers. Some passersby find this view constricting, but if you have the right perspective, you just might leave with some new insights.

Opening Hours: 24/7

Price: Free

How long to spend here: 5-15 minutes

5. The Wave Organ

83 Marina Green Dr, San Francisco, CA 94123

A musical instrument made only from repurposed cemetary stones and the waves on the seashore? Ponder, listen, and opine while sitting by these symphonic steps, and you just might become more attuned to nature’s unique effect on this port city. Somehow, exploring San Francisco would not be complete without paying homage to the water whose presence is so integral to the city’s existence.

After all, how can one ignore the scent of that spectacularly salty ocean breeze?

Sitting at the edge of the seashore, the impact of the waves against the marble pipes creates a subtle and peaceful tone, working in harmony with the natural sounds of the waves as they lap against the beach. Children traverse the natural feature, kicking the sand and jumping from pipe to pipe with giddy smiles.

You sit at the natural border between land and sea, and this instrument is your bridge between the two, connecting the earth beneath you with the movement of the ever-changing tide.

The Wave Organ is located on a jetty that forms the small Boat Harbor in the Marina District. The concept was conceived and built by Peter Richards using carved granite and marble repurposed from a demolished cemetery. Nearby you can venture to the Palace of Fine Arts and Chrissy Field, two worthy destinations of their own.

When to go: High tide (the sounds are best captured when the waves are highest)

How long to stay: 15-30 minutes

6. De Young Museum

50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118

Containing over 27,000 pieces of world art, the De Young Museum is home to one of the most diverse and significant, as well as one of the most visited, art collections in the western United States. Located conveniently in the confines of Golden Gate Park, the De Young is a must-see!

Peruse the towering palms and eucalyptuses of the Golden Gate park. Watch from the patio gardens as the fog rolls into the San Francisco Bay. Marvel at the Maori portraits of Gottfried Lindauer’s New Zealand. Explore contemporary Muslim fashion. The De Young is situated perfectly in the heart of Golden Gate Park.

Marvel at the wonders of land, space, and water in the California Academy of Sciences.

Take a break and explore the Botanical Garden nearby. Pause for a cup of tea at the Japanese Tea Garden. Tickets to the De Young Museum include admission to the Legion of Honor, the De Young’s sister museum, which features works of European art. The Legion of Honor is located just 10 minutes drive away in Lincoln Park.

When to visit: Tuesday-Sunday, 9:30am-5:15pm

Price: $15 ($6 for students)

How long to stay: 1-3 hours

7. Cartoon Art Museum

781 Beach St, San Francisco, CA 94109

Feeling animated for a different kind of museum? Puns aside, there is something to be said

about cartoon art for its universal appeal. With over 6000 original cartoons and animations, the Cartoon Art Museum is the only place west of the Mississippi dedicated to this unique art form. Even if you don’t watch cartoons, the creative process on display is remarkable in its own right. The museum features preliminary sketches and the creative process from designers of comics, digital animation, illustration, and video games. Located

centrally on Beach Street, just one block from Aquatic Park, the Maritime Museum, Ghirardelli Square, and the Hyde Street cable car turnaround. The beauty of the museum is in its variety. Cartoons not only capture the imagination, but since they are unlimited in their creativity, they also have the power to take on topics of society and current events. Over the past 30 years, the museum has produced nearly 200 exhibitions on topics ranging from politics and sports to children’s literature and Latino culture.

When to visit:  11am to 5pm – Thursday through Tuesday

Price: Adults – $10; San Francisco Resident – $7

How long to stay: 30 minutes - 1 hour

8. Musée Méchanique

45 Sausalito - San Francisco Pier 41, San Francisco, CA 94133

​Step right up! This one-of-a-kind museum is all about antique games and mechanics. Pinball machines and arcade games are available to be played or simply marveled at. Step into this

unique establishment, but beware: you might just spend the day trying to beat that Star Destroyer high score and forget about sightseeing altogether! If you find beauty in the mechanical, this is the place for you. Located on Pier 45 at the foot of Taylor Street in San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, this collection of antiques was started by an 11-year old in 1933. Many of the games are rudimentary, but you might be surprised at the thrill you get from spinning a wheel as

fast as you can and seeing if a bike attached to a wire behind a screen travels around a circle faster than your partner’s. If you’re one of those people who gets intensely frustrated when pinball machines cheat you out of small change (like me) and feel like the machine robbed you of not just your money but also your dignity (also like me), then you might want to leave some quarters at home. However, should you change your mind, there are coin machines on the premises.

Price: Ranging from 1¢ (yes, actually) to $1 per game

Hours: 10am-8pm, every day of the year

How long to stay: 30 minutes - 1 hour



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