One of the things I’ve enjoyed doing over the last year is reconnecting with San Francisco by revisiting its popular public art installations. After all, the city is filled with them: murals, sculptures, large-format structures - you name it, they’re everywhere. And plus, getting outside sure beats scrolling listlessly through social media pics of #DogsDoingThings, and binging all 10 seasons of CSI: Miami for the second time in a year.
Now that the city is heading “back to normal” (an overly simplistic phrase that fills me with stomach-turning anxiety), I’m sharing this guide. It has five of my favorite public art installations in SF, plus what to eat nearby. Think of this as your chance to keep the slow, reflective life going, all while enjoying some fresh air and exploring city art on foot.
Suggested Restaurant Nearby: Lily
Located in the Presidio near Lovers’ Lane, Andy Goldsworthy’s installation is made of large eucalyptus trunks that wind through a eucalyptus forest. Sound like an enchanted fairytale? It is, but with a lot more fog. Once you’ve reestablished your connection to nature, head to Lily on Clement Street. The new Vietnamese restaurant is a six-minute drive away, is open for takeout and indoor dining, and serves everything from pho to spring rolls. Don’t miss the duck confit chao, a warm rice porridge topped with pomegranate seeds, cilantro, scallions, and a massive duck leg that easily falls apart with a spoon.
16th Avenue Tiled Steps
Suggested Restaurant Nearby: um.ma
The mosaic-tiled sea creatures that decorate the 16th Avenue steps are cute, but it’s where these stairs take you that matter. Start from the bottom at 16th and Moraga, and ascend and veer right on Noriega after you reach the top. You’ll find even more stairs, which will usher you to the top of Grandview Park. The 360 views here are some of the best in the city - bay, bridge, ocean, and the entire Golden Gate Park sprawled out below. You’ll probably have an appetite after all the climbing, so grab a meal at um.ma. The nearby Korean restaurant in the Inner Sunset has a lovely heated back patio with picnic tables for you to enjoy bibimbap, an excellent seafood pancake, grilled pork belly, or silken tofu soup. You can order takeout, too.
Suggested Restaurant Nearby: Harborview
Vaillancourt Fountain. Love it or hate it. I fall into the “it always intrigues me camp” - the twisting concrete square tubes with water gushing out of all ends. It reminds me of a menacing Transformer. Also, the Embarcadero Freeway used to run right next to the fountain before it was knocked down after the ’89 quake, and those photos intrigue me too. Point is, this strange, stark behemoth makes me feel things. When you’re done gazing at it, head up the stairs of 4 Embarcadero Center to Harborview. The Cantonese restaurant has an extensive menu of dim sum, stir fries, barbecue, seafood, and rice and noodle dishes. You can get it all for takeout and post up at the public tables in Embarcadero Plaza, or dine-in on their outdoor patio overlooking the Ferry Building, and, you guessed it - Vaillancourt Fountain.
Suggested Restaurant Nearby: Stonemill Matcha
When’s the last time you took a stroll down Clarion Alley? For me, a really long while. And on my most recent visit, an optimistic melancholy took over as I stared at the bright, big murals. Each one depicted messages of hope and resistance, filling me with a sense that despite all the ugliness of “The Dumpster Fire Year,” we will get through this, somehow. Half a block away is Stonemill Matcha. The Japanese cafe excels at matcha drinks and beautiful pastries, and also makes a great katsu sandwich with panko-crusted pork loin, house-made tonkatsu sauce, and shredded cabbage.
Excelsior Hillside Tiled Steps
Suggested Restaurant Nearby: Excelsior Coffee
Technically called the Athens Avalon Greenspace, this area in Excelsior consists of a rainbow-hued stairway and a garden teeming with native plants and flowers. This vibrant spot injects beams of pure joy into the bloodstream, and is also an ideal place to take a beat on the bench and forget about the world - preferably with a latte or an ube pastry from Excelsior Coffee in hand. The motorcycle-themed coffee shop is a 13-minute walk down the hill, and is one of my all-time favorite spots to caffeinate in the area.