San Francisco is a city with art woven into its fabric.
It’s one that celebrates history and fights to preserve the unique identities of its many ‘hoods, most of which have a distinct rainbow flavor created by its huge percentage of LGBTQ residents and visitors.
This has often been through colorful street art, murals, and designated landmarks.
Check just a few of the best below…
1. Harvey Milk Mural and Plaza
Harvey Milk is one of San Francisco’s most famed gay sons. The former city supervisor, the first openly gay man elected to office in California, was assassinated in 1978, just months after taking up his role. His story is told in the 2008, Oscar-winning movie, Milk. You’ll find this distinctive mural of him on The Cafe at 18th and Castro. It was painted by Paraguayan artist Oz Montania and unveiled in 2018.
Harvey Milk Plaza is San Francisco’s Castro Muni Metro subway stop. The Castro Muni Metro station was opened in 1980, and its associated transit plaza was renamed in 1985. You can’t miss it: a giant rainbow flag flies above it and can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. At the top of a nearby building that overlooks the Plaza, Milk’s famous word, “Hope will never be silent,” are immortalized in bright lights that shine each night.
The lawmaker and LGBTQ rights hero is commemorated elsewhere in the city. In 2019, San Francisco Airport reopened its refurbished Terminal 1 and renamed it the Harvey Milk Terminal 1. It handles domestic flights from within the US. In March 2020, the terminal unveiled a permanent display highlighting images from Milk’s life.
2. The Rainbow Crosswalks
San Francisco’s Department of Public Works installed the Castro district’s eye-catching rainbow crosswalks in October 2014. Quite distinctive from rainbow crosswalks in other cities, the design was decided by a public vote held earlier that year. A popular spot for selfies, you’ll find the four crosswalks at the intersection of Castro and 18th Street.
3. Pink Triangle Park
If you’re checking out the Castro, do swing by Pink Triangle Park. It was the first memorial in the US to the gay people persecuted by the Nazis in the Second World War. The 4,000-square-foot park sits above the Castro Street Station, across from Harvey Milk Plaza, and features triangular granite columns, dedicated to the tens of thousands killed. The park was dedicated in 2001.
4. ‘Gear Up’ outside Moby Dick
This new mural went up outside the iconic, long-running Castro gay bar Moby Dick in 2020. Painted by local Haitian-American artist Serge Gay Jnr., it features a leather jacket adorned with pins depicting black, queer heroes, including James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, and Marsha P. Johnson. You’ll find it on the corner of 18th and Hartford streets, in the heart of San Francisco’s LGBTQ district. It was created as part of the Castro Arts Project (CAP).
5. Spunk Salon
These window boards were decorated last year by the San Francisco artist Tanya Wischerath, again in collaboration with the Castro Arts Project and Project Artivism. You can find them at Spunk Salon hairdressers (4147 19th St.). They celebrate the late activist Martha P. Johnson and homeless advocate Margo Antonetty.
6. The AIDS Memorial Garden
The National AIDS Memorial Grove can be found in Golden Gate Park. It was conceived in 1989 when the city was in the grip of the AIDS epidemic. Its aim is to provide a healing sanctuary for those impacted by HIV and the loss of loved ones. It remains a beautifully tended woodland grotto to explore and a place of quiet contemplation. As you find yourself walking beneath the fronds of giant ferns, you’ll spot the many rocks engraved with the names of those lost to AIDS.
7. Juanita MORE! Murals
Drag queen, party impresario, activist, and philanthropist Juanita MORE! is one of San Francisco’s most beloved residents––So much so, she’s been celebrated with not one but more than half a dozen different street murals!
You’ll find her immortalized in SoMa (Elliott C. Nathan‘s Loads of Love at the Powerhouse), the Castro (by J. Manuel Carmona, outside Unionmade), Polk Gulch (by Serge Gay Jnr, on the exterior of Lush Lounge at Fern and Polk streets), Steiner Street at Grove (by J. Manuel Carmona and Guilherme Lemes Cardoso e Silva) and also outside the revived Love Shack by SPARC at 502 14th St., in the Mission (again by Gay Jnr.).
8. The Transgender District
San Francisco became the first city in the world to have a legally designated transgender district in 2017, when the city approved the Compton’s Transgender, Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual (TLGB) District.
It’s in the Tenderloin, near the site of the former Compton Cafeteria. The venue was the site of an LGBTQ uprising when raided by police in 1966, three years before Stonewall. The district is marked with transgender street markings. Last year, it also made headlines when a large mural, created by artists Xara Thustra, Sen Mendez, and Kin Folkz, was painted on the road stating “Black Trans Lives Matter.”
9. Lower Polk Street and Polk Gulch
Like The Mission, Polk Gulch is another San Francisco neighborhood traditionally rich with street art. It’s also been dubbed San Francisco’s “first gay neighborhood”, with a thriving scene running from the 1950s to late 1970s when it was eclipsed by the Castro. It might not be quite as gay as it used to be, but street art continues to flourish. This is a recent piece by Serge Gay Jnr, which can be found on Post Street and Larkin Street.
10. The Women’s Building
The Women’s Building is a women-led non-profit art and education community center on 18th Street. Its three-story facade is covered in detailed artwork that celebrates women leaders and feminine icons. Entitled MaestraPeace, this mural was painted in 1994 by seven women artists. Besides the figures depicted in the artwork, it carries the names of 600 women in calligraphy. It is one of the city’s biggest and best-known public artworks.
11. Clarion Alley
Clarion Alley is between Mission and Valencia Streets and 17th and 18th Streets. It’s famed for the many murals painted by the Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP). Many of these are political in nature, touching upon the history of the area, the challenges faced by the local Latinx community, and how the neighborhood has been changing. This small, unique alley is believed to attract around 200,000 visitors a year.
Check here for more info on San Francisco for LGBTQ visitors