Public art in San Francisco

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Discovering and appreciating public art in San Francisco

Few American cities are as renowned for public art as San Francisco. Sculptures, murals, paintings, digital graphics, and mosaics – you name the medium and you likely can find it here. Because all of this artwork is free to enjoy, my wife and I try to take our daughters to see at least one or two pieces every time we visit. And considering we’re in San Francisco two or three times per month, we’ve managed to see a lot of art over the years.

Our absolute favorites of the bunch are about as public as it gets – a series of murals on the walls of stores, churches, and apartment buildings in the Mission District. One of our regular stops in the area: Balmy Alley, a narrow street lined with 30 colorful and larger-than-life murals on garages, fences, and buildings. Other murals in the neighborhood tell the stories of Mexican mythical figures, political movements, and bustling street scenes.

A mural (on a garage door) in Balmy Alley.

Elsewhere in the city, at the top of the hill in North Beach, we also love the murals inside Coit Tower, involving politically-charged images that were commissioned through the federal Public Works of Art Project. These murals are remarkable for their attention to detail; my younger daughter in particular (age 2) loves the lifelike faces, and has been known to plant kisses on some of them.

Viewfinder Tip: Take a walking art tour of San Francisco’s Mission District.

The girls are equally interested in some of the city’s public sculptures. My older daughter (age 4), who loves dancing, adores Keith Haring’s famous “Untitled” sculpture that sits out in front of Moscone Center on the corner of Howard and Third streets. This piece is famous for its simplicity: three silhouettes, one in each of the primary colors, dancing. It’s also famous because of what Haring has meant to the gay rights movement in San Francisco and around the world. We also love “Cupid’s Span,” a giant sculpture of a bow-and-arrow sticking into a sliver of grass east of the Ferry Building along the Embarcadero.

In recent months, we even have fallen in love with some of the city’s newest works of public art. The Bay Lights, for instance, a 25,000-LED light installment that sparkles nightly on the San Francisco Bay Bridge, mixes the bravado of Broadway with the wonder of a glittering Christmas tree. Somehow, although the work comprises the world’s largest LED sculpture, artist Leo Villareal has managed to program the lights so their patterns never, ever repeat.

Another of our faves: the Fog Bridge, a 150-foot pedestrian bridge west of the Exploratorium between Piers 15 and 17. Every few minutes, hundreds of nozzles lining the bridge turn seawater from below into mist, creating a cloud of fog you can actually walk right through. The experience is unbelievable, exhilarating and disconcerting at the same time. Because the piece makes fog, it’s quintessentially San Francisco. Which is precisely what makes it so great.

What kind of public art do you seek out when you visit a new city?

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Matt Villano

In more than 20 years as a professional journalist, Matt Villano has had articles published in outlets including TIME, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic Traveler, Sunset, Coastal Living, and Entrepreneur, to name a few. He currently blogs about family travel at, and occasionally covers family travel for Family Fun and Scholastic Parent & Child magazines. Villano also wrote the family travel blog for Parenting magazine, and an adventure travel blog for (a one-time website of Brand USA). In addition to travel, Villano’s areas of expertise are business, technology and gambling. When he’s not working at his stand-up desk, Villano is chasing after his three daughters, both of whom are future New York Yankees fans. His favorite destination on Earth is his (adopted) hometown of Healdsburg, California. No. 2 on the list: Vancouver Island, British Columbia (specifically Tofino). For more about Villano, visit

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