A Guide to San Francisco’s Art Scene

A Guide to San Francisco’s Art Scene
Culture & Art
Virgin Hotels Profile Image
By Virgin Hotels

By: Jennifer Agress

Photo: Courtesy of Yelp. Clarion Alley.

What brings a city to life is its culture, and in San Francisco, there’s enough to resurrect the whole state of California. As if its tantalizing restaurants and bars, booming tech industry, pastel-hued houses, iconic Golden Gate Bridge and close proximity to wine country wasn’t enough, the SF art scene is, in a word: awesome. 

But with so many galleries, museums, street art, art activations, film screenings and festivals to choose from, it’s hard to know where to start exploring it. That’s where we come in! Read below for our top four, can’t-miss art exhibits and events in the Bay Area. Bonus? They’re all less than a 20-minute drive from Virgin Hotels San Francisco. 


Go on an art walk.

San Francisco is home to a bevy of art walks, but none are as long-running as the First Thursday Art Walk. A tradition in downtown San Francisco since 1993, this community art walk is a Lower Polk and Tenderloin neighborhood staple. On the first Thursday of every month, over 30 galleries keep their doors open long after normal working hours, and invite the public to peruse the art on their walls, chat with gallery owners, have a drink and maybe even purchase a piece of their own. This repeat event is still hosted by its original founder—the San Francisco Art Dealers Association, an organization created to protect and promote San Fran’s gallery scene—and always runs from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Every gallery is locally-owned, and their displays run the gamut from sculptures and paintings to cutting-edge photography. Some popular stops include: Hungerart Gallery, Get High On Mountains Artist & Creative Studios, LOOK Gallery and Open Studio. 


Tip: With so many galleries, it’s impossible to see them all in one night. Instead, we recommend starting with Union Square and tackling each area one by one. 

Distance from Virgin Hotels San Francisco to Union Square: 6-minute drive.


Check out the futuristic exhibits at SFMOMA.

It would be impossible to talk about the San Francisco art scene without mentioning the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), one of the largest museums of modern and contemporary art in the United States. Home to works by artists from around the world—including greats like Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol—this art hub has 10+ rotating exhibits, an outdoor sculpture garden, a theater, a fine-dining restaurant and a 30-foot living wall, all right in the heart of the City By The Bay. Right now, SFMOMA has a few exhibits you don’t want to miss. Check out Far Out: Suits, Habs, and Labs for Outer Space, where architects, artists and designers (including some from NASA!) have designed space suits, habitats and laboratories for the future, one they believe will include life beyond Earth. Then there’s Soft Power, an activation that uses art, artist discussions and even day-long symposiums to explore the influence of art on politics, society and power around the world. Finally, don’t miss The Chronicles of San Francisco. For two months, French-born artist and international superstar, JR, set up a mobile studio in 22 locations around San Francisco, where he filmed and interviewed almost 1200 individuals of every race, age and societal hierarchy. He turned this footage into a digital mural, which now shines a light on the unrecognizable faces and untold stories of everyday people. 


Tip: Tickets start at $19 per adult, but there are FREE public spaces on Floor 1 and 2 that open at 10 a.m. daily and do not require a ticket. 

Distance from Virgin Hotels San Francisco: 4-minute drive.


Don’t miss the murals on Clarion Alley.

For a peek at some of the best art in San Francisco, just take a stroll through the Mission District. In between a mix of old-school taquerias, lounges with live music, craft cocktail bars, tattoo parlors and Dolores Park, you’ll find Clarion Alley: a one-block alleyway that doubles as a blank canvas for the city’s best, and most controversial, street artists. The art here leans political, with nods to the area’s immigrant history. (The Mission District was founded 4,500+ years ago when Yelamu Indians were living there, and it’s been a hot spot for immigrants from all over the world ever since.) Here, bright, bold, jaw-dropping murals are painted on concrete and wooden fencing, patches of which are “owned” by participating artists until they give it away to a new artist.


Tip: Clarion Alley is hidden between Mission Street and Valencia Street on one side, and 17th Street and 18th Street on the other.

Distance from Virgin Hotels San Francisco: 13-minute drive.


Get nostalgic with your favorite cartoons.

Whether you’re a die-hard Hanna-Barbera fan or a South Park aficionado, everyone has their favorite cartoon. But there’s only one place where you can really revel in it, and that’s at the Cartoon Art Museum. Founded in 1984—first as a traveling “pop-up” museum, and later, as a permanent structure made possible by an endowment from Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz—the Cartoon Art Museum is the only museum in America dedicated to the preservation of cartoon art. With 7,000 original pieces in its permanent collection alone, this whimsical peek into history has something for everyone, from comic strips, comic books and anime to political cartoons, graphic novels and even underground comics. Go there and immerse yourself in your own creativity. Guests can see original cartoon art in both print and film, take comics and animation classes, explore the cartoon library and even meet professional cartoonists. Speaking of professionals, the work hanging on its walls is by a “who’s who” of the cartoon world! Think: Dr. Seuss, Dan DeCarlo, Will Eisner, Trina  Robbins and Wally Wood. Today, the Cartoon Art Museum is housed in a historic 1912 building on Fisherman’s Wharf, where it’s been since 2017. 


Tip: The museum is closed on Wednesdays, and the first Tuesday of every month is “Pay What You Wish Day.” Residents of different Bay area counties also get discounts on select months.


Distance from Virgin Hotels San Francisco: 20-minute drive.

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