Creative Things To Do In and Around San Francisco
San Francisco is known for its temperate climate, Golden Gate bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf. There are so many sights to see and places to visit to spark your creativity. Stay an extra day to drive north to visit the wine country.
A visit to the de Young museum will be a feast for your creative soul, including their collection of fiber art that includes works from Adela Akers, Liz Whitney Quisgard, Deborah Corsini, K. Lee Manuel and more, using a variety of techniques from weaving, to costumes, quilting and stitching. The new facility integrates art, architecture and the natural landscape to showcase their collection.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is the first museum on the West Coast focused exclusively on 20th century art. You can discover works from artists around the world, and hope that a piece from Andy Warhol, Julie Mehretu, Gerhard Richter or Frida Kahlo is on display during your visit.
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The Asian Art Museum collection includes over 18,000 examples of Asian art – from jade to pottery and ceramics and contemporary art. The museum is located in the heart of downtown San Francisco with a vision to make Asian art and culture essential to everyone.
For a little fun and whimsy, visit the Cartoon Art Museum where you’ll find comic strips, comic books and political cartoons. Their collection includes about 7,000 pieces in their permanent collection.
The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM) displays traveling exhibitions in partnership with national and international cultural organizations, including art, music, film and literature to provide new perspectives on Jewish culture, art, history and ideas.
Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) is located on the ground floor of the St. Regis in the Yerba Buena arts district of San Francisco. Be inspired by contemporary art that celebrates Black cultures and start conversations.
The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) is located near Moscone Convention Center in downtown San Fransciso and is housed in both the Gallery & Forum building that includes art galleries, film screening room and offices, as well as the Blue Shield of California Theater that has a world-class stage for performing arts.
The Museum of Craft and Design is a non collecting museum that provides hands-on programs and design-focused exhibits to inspire creativity, building a path for future creative expression.
Visit the International Art Museum of America, dedicated to highlighting art from all over the world, providing a global lens for people to appreciate art and culture from seemingly disparate worlds. The goal is to promote peace and harmony among people.
Walk through the life of Walt Disney, the creator of the iconic brand at the Walt Disney Family Museum. You’ll see the early workings of Mickey Mouse as an animated character with lots of interactive and year-round exhibits. Read the inspiration behind each character and their cultural implications. Beware, you might feel like bingeing on Disney films after your visit.
Hear the music of the ocean from the Wave Organ
The Wave Organ, by artist Peter Richards, is a wave-activated acoustic sculpture that amplifies the sounds of the bay waves. Built in 1986, the organ’s jetty features carved granite and marble from a demolished cemetery. The instrument contains more than 20 PVC and concrete pipes; the air in the pipes constantly changes as the water moves in and out, changing the sound’s pitch. The park setting has breathtaking views of San Francisco’s Marina District, downtown San Francisco’s skyline, the East Bay hills, Sausalito, Mt. Tamalpais, the Presidio, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands.
Climb the 16th Street Staircase
The 16th Street tiled steps have 163 steps of brightly colored mosaic tiles in the quiet Sunset district. The stairs ascend from sea level to the sun, each step decorated with donated tiles. When you climb the stairs, look back for sweeping views of the city, and enjoy a beautiful garden and native butterfly habitat. The site is an important waypoint on the Green Hairstreak butterfly corridor. Collette Crutcher and Aileen Barr built the project with inspiration from the Selarón staircase in Rio de Janeiro. Completed in 2005, neighborhood volunteers helped built it.
Slide down the Seward Street Slide
Two slippery downhill slides tucked away in a neighborhood park you will find this caution: “No adults unless accompanied by a child”! Built in the 1960s and designed by a local teenager, the slides are a tribute to neighborhood activism. In 1963, the Corwin Community Garden and Seward Mini-Park sat on a vacant lot slated for development. Local residents and growing families from nearby streets organized and protested the disappearance of open space. They fought development and, in the end, turned the lot into a park. Their efforts also contributed to changing city legislation now requiring a minimum amount of open space in new development projects.
Get some Chocolate at Ghirardelli Square
Located on Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square is home to some of the world’s best chocolate. The Italian founder made his way to San Francisco by way of Peru in the 1800s and settled here. Although the main production has moved, Ghirardelli still produces on a small-scale at this location. The storefront remains an iconic symbol of the area. Have a chocolate sundae or pick up a chocolate bar. Be sure to visit some of the eccentric shops and restaurants nearby.
While at Land’s End, walk the labyrinth
San Francisco artist Eduardo Aguilera, inspired by other historic labyrinths, created his own along the rocky shoreline of Land’s End, lighting candles and creating a small shrine to “peace, love and enlightenment”. The stone outline follows the classic seven-circuit Chartres labyrinth. Destroyed twice, a team of volunteers rebuilt the labyrinth each time. The labyrinth’s location is naturally peaceful and majestic and has amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Get Fresh Fish at a Fisherman’s Wharf Sidewalk Stand
Fisherman’s Wharf has eight sidewalk stands spread across San Francisco. If you’re visiting during the crab season in November, it’ll be the best time possible to have your crab fix! Pick up a cracked crab and a loaf of sourdough bread for a picnic. Find a wonderful selection of fresh seafood to pick from if crab is not your thing. Fisherman’s Wharf is San Francisco’s most famous waterfront spot and a great place to let the sea lions entertain you!
Eat Your Way Through the Ferry Building Marketplace
The Ferry Building was a central point in transportation for those arriving in San Francisco, especially during the Gold Rush. By the 1950s, the Ferry Building was barely used. However, in the early 2000s it was restored and reopened as a food market. Eat your way through the marketplace at some of the tastiest restaurants with the most talented chefs in San Francisco.
Hike the oldest footpath in the Presidio and experience Wood Line
Wood Line is a snaking sculptural installation of eucalyptus trunks and branches. It covertly follows Lover’s Lane, the oldest footpath in the Presidio. The eucalyptus grove, planted decades ago, was once infiltrated by Monterrey Cypress trees; they later died, leaving a void in the woods. The artist Andy Goldsworthy filled this with fallen dead trees, rescued from construction in the Presidio, referencing the life cycle of nature. He described Wood Line as something that “draws the place”. Like much of his earth work, it incorporates natural materials from the landscape, and will decay over time by design. The shaded curving turns of Wood Line follow up and down a slope, blurring the line between art and nature.
Be careful of the carnivorous plants at the Golden Gate Conservatory of Flowers
Golden Gate Park’s Conservatory of Flowers is home to over 2,000 plant varieties, including a collection of tropical carnivorous pitcher plants. The aquatic plant pond dominates the East Wing, home to giant Amazon Lilies. The largest of the lilies are said to be strong enough to support the weight of a child. Climbing overhead, the Nepenthes pitcher plants (also known as ‘monkey cups’) survive on a diet of insects lured into their flower-like opening. They trap bugs on their slick walls and lower them into the digestive enzymes in the base of the cup. Nepenthes gets its name from the mythological elixir of the Egyptians gave Helen of Troy to erase her sorrows in Homer’s Odyssey; the name means ‘without sorrow’ in Greek.
The building, part of the property of a wealthy businessman, was donated to the city in 1879 and restored in 2003. It is now the oldest wood & glass conservatory in the western hemisphere. The World Monuments Fund named the Conservatory one of the most endangered sites; it is part of the national Save America’s Treasures program.
Have Afternoon Tea at the Palace Hotel
You will feel like royalty sipping tea at the Palace Hotel. The Grand Court Tearoom’s setting is a beautiful glass atrium with beautiful furniture, chandeliers and greenery. Tea is served on china; the menu includes English classics such as scones with Devonshire cream, finger sandwiches, and assorted pastries. A pianist is usually playing the grand piano in the center of the Court. The hotel has a rich history, and has served San Francisco since the early 1900s.
Find peace in the Japanese Tea Garden
The 1894 Midwinter Exposition included a Japanese and tea house. When the fair closed, Japanese landscape architect Makoto Hagiwara and superintendent John McLaren reached a gentlemen’s agreement, allowing Mr. Hagiwara to create and maintain a permanent Japanese style garden as a gift for posterity.
The story is that Baron Hagiwara invented the fortune cookie to accompany the tea served in the Garden. Mr. Hagiwara expanded the garden to approximately 5 acres. He and his family lived there until 1942 when the federal government forced them, along with approximately 120,000 other Japanese Americans, to evacuate their homes and move into internment camps. Following the war, the government did not allow the family to return to their home in the park. The house and the Shinto shrine were demolished; however, the Drum Bridge and lovely gardens are open for visitors.
See the Dutch Windmill
Spend the afternoon with family or friends by the windmill surrounded by the fields of the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden. The North Dutch windmill and its sibling, the South Murphy Windmill, exist for aesthetics today; they once irrigated the park by pumping water from wells deep below. The windmills are preserved as part of the history of Golden Gate Park.
Visit Coit Tower
Stop by the Coit Tower to see the artwork, then take an elevator to the top for a 360 degree view of the city. The building was built at the of request Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy woman and eccentric socialite. She left a large sum of her fortune to the City of San Francisco with a parting note. She wanted the money used “for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city I have always loved.”
Smell the flowers at the San Francisco Botanical Garden – Fragrance Garden
The Fragrance Garden will delight all of your senses – from smell to visually. Designed in 1965 for handicapped persons and the visually impaired, the garden allows a full experience through smell and touch. Above a small pond, a sculpture of the patron saint of San Francisco, Saint Francis, protects the gardens. Clara Huntington, the adopted daughter of Collis Potter Huntington, who is known for the American Railway, created the gardens.
Walk carefully in the ruins of the Sutro Baths
Low stone walls and twisted, rusty steel supports are all that remain of the enormous glass-enclosed public baths at Point Lobos. The baths were the labor of love by gold-rush millionaire engineer and one time mayor Adolf Sutro. He wanted to provide low-cost, wholesome entertainment to the people of the city. Sutro made his millions by saving the Comstock silver mines in Nevada from flooding. His tunnel design saved lives and released even more silver and made him enormously wealthy.
Starting in the 1880s, Sutro began to acquire land along the Pacific coast. He built lavish public gardens, rebuilt the Cliff House into a gingerbread Victorian icon of the city, and began work on what he first called his ‘aquarium’. The first stage was a relatively modest artificial tide pool in a natural cove next to the Cliff House. He then built an extraordinary public bath house covering three acres. Six tide-fed seawater pools housed under enormous glass arches cost $1 million in 1896 dollars. They included 500 tiny dressing rooms and observation bleachers with seating for 3700. A promenade overlooking the pools featured a museum of curiosities collected on his travels.
In 1966 it was destined for demolition, but it caught fire and was completely destroyed. The area is now a part of the National Park Service. You can still walk along the sea wall to see the remains of the deep diving pool. The ruins are publicly accessible, but the terrain is rough.
Watch the Parrots of Telegraph Hill
The parrot flock began around 1990 when one pair of escaped cherry-headed conures found a home on Telegraph Hill. The parrots of Telegraph Hill have grown to a flock of more than 200. You can spot them all over the city, even as far south as Brisbane. Winding down the hill are the Filbert steps; residents on both sides of the staircase have wonderful gardens with fragrant flowers with the wild parrots flying overhead. It is a lovely urban jungle. The steps are quite steep, so be prepared!
Step back in time at the Palace of Fine Arts
In 1906, an earthquake nearly destroyed much of San Francisco. On February 20th 1915, on grounds created from earthquake rubble, the Panama Pacific Expedition opened to celebrate the rebuilding of the city and the completion of the Panama Canal. The Pan-Pacific Exposition was a triumph of temporary design. It boasted gardens and fountains and massive classically-inspired buildings rising on the waterfront. Exhibits included a telephone that could call New York City, a historic steam locomotive and a model of the Panama Canal. Only one building remains: Bernard Maybeck’s classically-inspired Palace of Fine Arts. The original building was constructed using temporary materials and techniques in 1915. It was designed to last only the duration of the fair. In 1964, the entire structure was rebuilt.
Take in the Book Club of California
The Book Club of California, in the heart of Union Square, is home to Western writers. In 1912, a poet, a book collector, a printer and a book store owner proposed an exhibition of fine printing for the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition. However, they could only be accepted as an organization. So they established a “clubhouse” in San Francisco and appointed it like a literary version of an explorer’s club. The Club devoted itself to championing printing and writing from California and later, the West. Today the Book Club has published over 200 fine books, amassed a collection of rare books related to printing, the history of the book and literature and history of the West.
Pay your respects at the Mission Delores de Asís Cemetery
The oldest cemetery in San Francisco, the tiny burial ground at Mission Dolores, established in 1776, was once part of a larger cemetery. It is the final resting place of city founders, criminals and thousands of Ohlone Native Americans. The plot size has been repeatedly reduced, moving some remains to mass graves or relocating to other cemeteries; the modest site is all that now remains. A statue of a Mohawk maiden, Kateri Tekakwitha memorializes the unmarked burial sites of approximately 5,000 Ohlone natives. Notable San Franciscans buried at Mission Dolores include the first Mexican governor of Alta California, the boxer and ballot-box-stuffer James Yankee Sullivan, the politician and assassin James P. Casey and the notorious madam Arabella.
See the art deco architecture at 450 Sutter Street
Architect Timothy L. Pflueger designed the 26-story building at 450 Sutter Street. Mayan-inspired terra cotta spandrels adorn the front, but you need to take a few minutes to go inside. Walk in the bronze and glass doors to find ceilings lined with carved and cast bronze panels depicting Mayan characters and designs. You’ll find elaborate art deco designs and accessories everywhere you look.
Completed in 1929, it was the second tallest building in San Francisco at the time. It was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 2009.
Have a drink, or just experience a speak easy at the Bourbon & Branch
In order to visit this speakeasy, you need to know how to find the unmarked door, and you must know the secret password! The building has functioned as a bar since 1867. John J. Russell opened his bar in the basement of the building, with “JJ Russell’s Cigar Shop” upstairs as the legitimate front. Once you entered the cigar shop, if you requested a specific cigar, a trap door would be opened. You would then be escorted downstairs to the speakeasy.
From 1921 to 1933, the speakeasy operated illegally through Prohibition and managed to remain unnoticed by federal agents. Working with Canadian bootleggers in Vancouver, the bar was never short on illegal spirits. The five secret underground tunnels once used for a quick and safe exit still exist.
Revisit your childhood at the Full House house
The Tanner Family is alive and well, in reruns. The show ended in 1995, and the home used to set the scene is a private residence. If this was one of your favorites, you can still drive by and have memories of Uncle Jesse, Joey and the girls.
Take a ride on the Leroy King Carousel
The Leroy King Carousel is in San Francisco’s Children’s Museum. It was built by Charles Looff in 1906 and was to be placed in San Francisco. The fires and earthquake stood in the way, and it was installed at Luna Park in Seattle instead, and was the only attraction at the park to survive a fire in 1911. In 1913, the carousel moved from Seattle to San Francisco to a park which later closed. In 1998, the City of San Francisco bought the carousel and restored it. It now is home at the Children’s Creativity Museum.
See the Balmy Alley Murals
The block long alley in the Mission District holds the most concentrated collection of murals in San Francisco. Renowned for their political import and reverential maintenance, Balmy Alley has become a destination for street art and political culture. The murals spring from an area of the city with a history of political activism. A two-woman team who referred to themselves as the Mujeres Muralistas painted the first murals in 1972. These original murals formed the foundation for Balmy Alley’s present incarnation; it references multiple Latin American countries and cultures within a single, unified visual aesthetic.
Walk through the Tenderloin National Forest
In a previously rundown alleyway in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood is now the Tenderloin National Forest. In 1989 an artistically driven nonprofit, the Luggage Store Gallery, negotiated a lease with the city and transformed the alley with murals, trees, herbs and flowers.
Experience Cayuga Park
Cayuga park includes children’s play areas, and a walk through the gardens includes sculptures by former park gardener Demetrio Braceros. Many carvings transform dead stumps where they protrude from the ground into eerie forest Gods or figures. This mystical garden is located near BART tracks — an urban gem.
Visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s prototype at 140 Maiden Lane
Now home to Italian luxury brand ISAIA, located in downtown San Francisco is a building that Frank Lloyd Wright designed in 1948 as a remodel of an existing structure. Wright used the renovation to prove a concept for the circular ramp inside of the main room at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The furniture inside the building, most of it constructed of black walnut, was also designed by Wright. In 2007 the American Institute of Architects listed it as one of the group’s 150 favorite buildings in America.
See the Beach Chalet Murals
Originally built in 1925, the Chalet was a city-run restaurant with beach changing rooms. The WPA era murals depicting scenes from everyday life of the city were added in 1936-1937. During the Great Depression, the Federal Art Project employed many artists to create murals across the city. The fresco murals on the first floor depict important San Francisco figures of the time, including Park Superintendent John McLaren. American artist Lucien Labuadt painted them in the traditional wet plaster technique. Arnold Bray, Farrell Dwyer and James Wyatt assisted. The original restaurant closed in 1940; since then the Chalet has been used for various purposes. In 1987 it was renovated as a museum (home to a scale model of Golden Gate Park) and a restaurant.
While you are in the Bay Area, take the time to visit some fabric shops in and around San Francisco.
More of a collector of yarn? Visit these yarn shops in and around San Francisco.
A lot of creative projects can use some extra bling. Visit these bead shops in and around San Francisco.