San Francisco Mural and Street Art Tour
Last updated: June 2010
From the International Orange span of the Golden Gate Bridge and the green hills of Twin Peaks to the blues of the Bay and brightly colored rainbow flags flapping above the streets of the Castro, San Francisco is one colorful city. But the most colorful attractions gracing the City by the Bay are without a doubt its public murals.
Spending a day visiting local mural sites not only brings an eyeful of free art, but also offers a visual narrative of key cultural, historic and creative forces responsible for making San Francisco the city it is today.
To complete this tour in one day, you'll need at least four hours, including a break for lunch, and an extra hour for the optional final stop. Because weather can change drastically from one end of the city to the next, we recommend wearing layers -- and, of course, a comfortable pair of kicks during this tour.
Here are some videos that you might want to watch to give you a better background on mural and street art in the Bay Area:
We've created a preview slideshow that you can watch at flickr.com.
We recommend Coit Tower as the tour's starting point. One of the city's most famous landmarks, Coit Tower was built by wealth heiress Lillie Hitchcock Coit to show her appreciation for local firemen's gallantry. Inside, 19 of the city's most historic murals await, though the ones located on the walls flanking the tower's spiral staircase are only open to the public during guided tours. Created during the 1930's under the New Deal's Works Progress Administration (WPA), the fresco style murals were heavily influenced by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and reflect the Depression-era themes of working class struggle and the changing conditions of increasingly crowded and industrialized urban centers.
Next, traverse the six hilly blocks to the San Francisco Art Institute and its Diego Rivera Gallery, home to one of only four murals by the artist in the Bay Area. "The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City" (1931) is well known for its story-within-a-story depiction of workers, artists and patrons collaborating on the creation of a grand urban display of public art. A trompe l'oeil wooden scaffold separates the piece into six sections featuring people at work on a mural-in-progress beyond. The figure sitting alone in the upper central section is Rivera's rendering of himself. The resulting effect is one that highlights the connection between the artist and laborer to the art itself -- a key theme in Rivera's work. During your visit to this gallery, be sure to explore the ongoing exhibitions of student art work often on display here.
Now that you've spent the morning among the historic murals of North Beach, head clear across town to the Duboce Bikeway Mural, located on a car-free section of Duboce Street between Church and Market Streets and behind the Safeway. Created by celebrated local muralist Mona Caron and sponsored by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, the 340-foot public mural is an outward expression of locals' love for the two-wheeled, non-polluting mode of transportation it showcases.
Next, walk two blocks on Church Street, crossing Market Street in the process, to reach the Market Street Railway Mural, also by Caron. Considerably smaller in stature but no less tied to the cityscape, this 12-foot by 38-foot stretch takes viewers on an historical journey from San Francisco's early days to its present as it depicts the length of the city's main artery. Scenes from important moments in history appear along the mural's length. Look closely for the 1934 "Bloody Thursday" riot, 1920s streetcars, Harvey Milk, deserted dot-com office buildings and recent protests against the war in Iraq.
For your next tour stop, travel five more blocks -- and into the Mission neighborhood -- to Clarion Alley. More than 100 murals pepper this alley and the streets immediately surrounding it. But what's more striking than the sheer number of different works here is the diversity the collection represent. Stroll along the alley's length, and you'll find public displays by professional artists alongside youth organizations, futuristic abstract panels beside narrative political works and graffiti sharing space with impossibly detailed photo-realism.
Less than a block from Clarion Alley, the "Maestrapeace" mural adorns the facade of The Women's Building, a non-profit community center offering programs that support and empower women and girls. Painted by seven women artists during the mid-1990s, the work depicts influential females from Georgia O'Keefe to Audre Lorde, important moments from women's history and symbols from cultures spanning the globe.
Feeling hungry? If refueling is on your mind, continue the mural tour at Jay's Cheesesteak on 21st Street. Murals featuring local artist Sirron Norris's futuristic cartoons cover the walls inside this Mission neighborhood destination for cheap and tasty eats -- including vegetarian "cheesesteaks."
Now it's time to head to Balmy Alley, quite possibly the best-known stretch of mural-spotting the city has to offer. While an array of works graces this block-long expanse and new ones crop up in empty spaces each year, the alley is best known for its politically-charged panels inspired by the experiences of the surrounding neighborhood's Latin and South American communities. Around the corner, the Precita Eyes Mural Arts & Visitors Center offers daily tours of the many murals in the surrounding neighborhood, as well as maps and art supplies for purchase.
Once you've tackled these Mission neighborhood spots, you've reach a logical end to the tour. If you've got an extra hour or two to spare (it will take about an hour to get to via Muni), we recommend bringing this survey of San Francisco's top mural spots full circle by trekking to one last destination on the city's western edge. Beyond the borders of Golden Gate Park and just across the scenic Great Highway from windy Ocean Beach, the Beach Chalet & Visitors Center building, opened in 1925, houses Depression-era fresco murals by Lucien Labaudt throughout its lower level. Upstairs, a restaurant and brewery offers a perfect spot for reflecting upon the tour over a pint of handcrafted beer and unobstructed views of the sun setting atop the Pacific Ocean.
Congratulations! You made it through the San Francisco Mural Art Tour!
Below you'll find contact information for each venue as well as our suggestions for public transit and parking for some of the destinations.
Where: 1 Telegraph Hill Blvd.
When: Daily from 10am-5pm
Cost: Free admission. Elevator to observation deck: $4.50 adults, $3.50 seniors 65+, $2.00 children 6-12, free children under 6
Parking: Available at tower but limited and can be packed on weekends.
Public transit: The "39 Coit" bus goes straight up the hill. Board at Stockton and Beach St. in Fisherman's Wharf. Those who walk should expect a steep, but short climb.
SFAI: Diego Rivera Gallery
Where: 800 Chestnut St. (between Leavenworth and Jones)
When: Daily from 9am-7:30pm
From Coit Tower, walk 1 block North to Chestnut, then 5 blocks west on Chestnut.
Duboce Bikeway Mural
Where: Duboce Ave. (behind the Safeway at Church and Market)
Public transit: From SFAI, walk 1 block east to Columbus Ave. and Taylor St. Board the "#30 Stockton" bus at SW corner. Exit at 4th St. and Market St. Walk to Powell Street Station and take any inbound MUNI underground street car to the Church Street Station. For all Metro lines (except N-Judah), walk 1 block north. For N-Judah, exit at Duboce and walk east. The mural is behind Safeway.
Market Street Railway Mural
Where: 300 Church Street (at 15th St.)
From Duboce Bikeway Mural walk 2 blocks south on Church.
Where: Clarion Alley is between Valencia and Mission Streets and is parallel to 17th St. and Sycamore.
Parking: Street or the parking garage on Bartlett between 21st and 22nd Streets.
Public transit: Walk south to 16th St. Board the "#22-Fillmore" bus and get off at 16th and Valencia Street. Walk south past 17th Street and Clarion Alley will be on your left. Or forego public tranist and walk 3 blocks east to Valencia Street, and then 2 blocks south past 17th Street to Clarion Alley.
The Women's Building
Where: 3542 18th St. (between Guerrero and Valencia)
From Clarion Alley, walk 1 block south on Valencia, then 1 block west on 18th Street.
Where: 3285 21st St. (between Valencia and Lexington)
When: Monday-Friday from 9:30am-9pm, Saturday from 9:30am-9pm, Sunday from 10am-7pm
From the Women's Building, walk back to Valencia and go 3 blocks south and turn left onto 21st Street.
Where: Balmy Alley is between 24th and 25th Streets and is parallel to Treat and Harrison.
Public transit: From Jay's Cheesesteak, walk a half of a block east to Mission, board the #49 or #14 buses going outbound. Exit at 24th Street and walk a few blocks east on 24th and Balmy Alley will be the street on the right just past Treat Street.
Precita Eyes Mural Arts And Visitors Center
Where: 2981 24th St. (between Harrison and Alabama)
When: Monday-Friday from 10am-5pm, Saturday from 10am-4pm
Phone: (415) 285-2287
Cost: Mural Walks: $12-$15 general, $8 students, $5 seniors and youth (age 12-18), $2 under 12
From Balmy Alley, go to 24 Street and walk 1 block east.
Beach Chalet And Visitors Center
Where: 1000 Great Highway (between Fulton and Lincoln Way)
When: Monday-Thursday from 9am-10pm, Friday from 9am-11pm, Saturdy from 8am-11pm, Sunday from 8am-10pm
Phone: (415) 386-8439
Parking: Beach Chalet has a parking lot
Public transit: From Precita Eyes, walk a half of a block to 24th and Harrison, board the "#48-Quintara/24th Street" bus. Exit at 46th Avenue and Quintara. Board the "#18-46th Avenue" bus and exit at La Playa St. and Fulton.
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