Much can be said of San Francisco, California‘s fourth-largest city, where culture abounds and the crowded streets afford ample opportunity to wander and find gems along the way. Strewn about are art institutions, small galleries, and coffee shops—and the independent ones are often on par with the better-known destinations. They’re scattered throughout the city, up and down its steepest hills and in the trenches of its most hidden streets. Devising a plan for popping into each worth seeing requires a bit of patience, and plenty of mapping out. As such, we’ve limited our suggestions to two neighborhoods: SoMa and the Mission District. Within the bounds of both there are a variety of offerings, and we have listed some of our favorites here.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
With collections focused on everything from architecture and paintings to spacesuits and photography, SFMOMA is San Francisco’s most notable institution—and for good reason. Though unrelated to the newly reopened New York outpost, SFMOMA was the first of its kind on the West Coast, pioneering the curation of 20th-century art exclusively. The airy 45,000-square-foot space is truly dedicated to educating and inspiring, and hosts its fair share of public programs for artists and attendees of all ages and levels. Their current exhibitions include a visual survey of spacesuits and materials used for scientific applications and film adaptations, and a poignant collection of works referencing the softer parts of society (including arts, culture, and everyday life), aptly titled Soft Power.
First Amendment Gallery
Three blocks from SFMOMA lies First Amendment Gallery, an independent space offering interesting exhibitions that express and push the boundaries of Freedom of Speech. Both art and art education are crucial here. Monthly featured exhibitions often include works by local and international artists, some of whom are producing commissioned works for the space. Previous exhibitions have included graffiti, murals, and sculptural ceramic work that lies at the intersection of street art and gallery art. Plus, the 1AMSF arm of the gallery offers custom mural work and team-building exercises centered on the demystification of urban styles of art.
Sightglass Coffee (inside SFMOMA)
On the museum’s third floor, local provider Sightglass Coffee has its own impressively designed stand. The half-moon-shaped bar provides customers with unobstructed views of their coffee’s preparation and ample room to wait. Plus, once you have your order, you’re encouraged to take it with you into the newly revamped Photography Interpretive Gallery or the museum’s airy main atrium.
Saint Frank Coffee
By abstaining from commodity market sourcing methods, Saint Frank (named after its beloved home city) works directly with small-scale coffee producers from all over to bring their beans stateside. Since the shop positions itself as “the final step, the face and translation of a greater story that starts with artisans and specialists at the farms and in the mills,” the emphasis is on the quality of the coffee itself and the precision of its preparation. Espresso pulls here are lush and complex, and the drip coffee is just as good. Plus, the morning bun, courtesy of Black Jet Baking Company, must be had—if there are any left.
Founded in 1974 as an outlet for an upstart collective of artists and photographers, SF Camerawork today is a physical destination for discovery, experimentation, and exchange—of ideas, inspiration, and more. The space’s directors consider the community’s opinion and involvement and work to be both innovative and inclusive. Plus, the gallery is WAGE-certified, meaning they voluntarily set a minimum payment standard for participating artists and photographers. A current exhibition SF-based photographer Kari Orvik “offers a glimpse into the Outer Mission neighborhood at the corner of Mission Street and Geneva Avenue,” where Orvik’s studio is located.
San Francisco Marriott Marquis
Central to all of the destinations on this list is the newly redesigned Marriott Marquis, a sprawling property with ample space for working and working out (plus, finding respite from both) and incredible vantage points to scope out the day’s itinerary. The rooms, which are modern and expansive too, sit high enough to afford a bird’s eye view of the streets below and the setting skyline in the distance. If your room doesn’t give you the right angle, the hotel’s rooftop bar and restaurant, The View Lounge, with its art deco-influences and floor to ceiling windows, surely will.
Run by SF coffee industry veteran Bobby Valentino, Pentacle Coffee serves delightful espresso and baked treats with Latin flavor. Pentacle also hosts events for, promotes, and donates to a number of LGBTQ+ organizations. Events on site include PUFF (a queer- and 420-friendly performance), rotating art shows, and fundraisers for asylum-seeking families. A permanent mural by Nathan Rapport sits in the entryway, and sets the tone for the space.
Pier 24 Photography
Situated alongside the water, and in the heart of the Embarcadero, Pier 24 Photography provides a serene setting for viewing photographic works. Always free to visit, the space is sprawling and typically offers two exhibitions a year. Their current show, LOOKING BACK: TEN YEARS OF PIER 24 PHOTOGRAPHY shows work spanning 120 years of the medium, courtesy of the Pilara Foundation’s collection and includes mugshots, works by unnamed photographers, iconic images, and various important pieces from the gallery’s last decade of exhibitions.
Hero image by Evan Malachosky