Arts & Culture
San Francisco is rich with culture. Extensive support from local government, corporate and private patrons has made the City’s galleries, museums, music halls and historical institutions respected throughout the world. In fact, today the arts comprise the fourth largest growth industry in the City. Attracting highly educated and talented workers to the region’s labor force and feeding a range of creative industries, San Francisco’s superlative artistic and cultural institutions are key to its booming innovation economy.
At the epicenter is the War Memorial Opera House, home to the San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Ballet—the largest and oldest ballet company in the U.S. Nearby, the Davies Symphony Hall houses the renowned San Francisco Symphony. The American Conservatory Theater’s performance, education and outreach programs have garnered national acclaim. And perhaps most importantly, the area’s rich avant-garde and impromptu scene—at festivals and bookshops, at poetry readings and street fairs, emanating from global bloggers and social networkers—have made the San Francisco Bay Area a cultural incubator for well over a century.
San Francisco is a vibrant city for the Performing Arts. There are many opportunities to enjoy theater, comedy and music of all types with the San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Ballet Company, San Francisco Symphony, American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the region’s extensive small performance spaces.
Among the most notable performing arts venues in San Francisco:
The San Francisco Opera is the second largest opera company in North America. The company performs at the War Memorial Opera House, which holds 3,146 seats and 200 standing room places. Thanks to a $5 million donation from philanthropist Dede Wilsey, the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera opened early 2016 in the Veterans Buildings fourth floor and basement. Purposed for art performances, this new venue houses a shared community performance and rehearsal space, as well as an educational studio.
The San Francisco Ballet, founded in 1933, is the first professional ballet company in the United States. It is also one of the three largest ballet companies in the U.S. and has consistently been ranked among the top three American ballet companies, along with the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet. Most recently, it was nominated by the 2014 National Dance Awards as an Outstanding Company.
The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra was founded in 1975 to serve as San Francisco Ballet’s official permanent orchestra. It holds a rare position of being one of three major orchestras in a single city. The orchestra became known by the 1990s as one of the finest ballet orchestras. In 2016, Ask Your Mama earned three GRAMMY® nominations in the classical music category and took home 2 awards: one for Best Engineered Classical Album and the other for Classical Producer of the Year at the 58th GRAMMYs.
The San Francisco Symphony, which performs in the beautiful Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, boasts a level of excellence in musical performance that is admired around the world. To fill the gap left by cuts in school music programs, the Symphony provides the most extensive education and community programs offered by any American orchestra today. In June of 2014, musical director Michael Tilson Thomas and the SF Symphony released a live recording of the first-ever concert performance of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, including the musical talents of the Broadway cast, along with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus.
The San Francisco Conservatory of Music offers a unique musical education through program performance and study. The conservatory’s two Civic Center locations net almost 73,000 square feet, in order to encompass its many acoustic studios, practice rooms, performance spaces, classrooms, and libraries.
The Fillmore Auditorium is the legendary auditorium where acts like Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead played their greatest concerts. It was a musical center for the counterculture movement in the 1960s and continues to host many concerts.
The American Conservatory Theater is a local theater troupe known for its outreach programs and both its classical and contemporary productions. Notable alumni of the group include: Denzel Washington, Annette Bening, and Nicholas Cage.
The San Francisco Jazz Organizationis one of the world’s leading presenters of jazz and related forms of music, with over 100 performances each year. Founded in 1983 as a concert presenter under the name of Jazz in the City, SFJAZZ is now one of only two major year-round organizations in the country dedicated to cultivating jazz as a living art form with rich past. The SF Jazz Organization hosts the annual San Francisco Jazz Festival.
The San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center hosts all types of performing arts events from opera, symphony, theatre, reception to gala events. Following a two-month-long United Nations conference in the Opera House, the United Nations Charter was signed in the Veterans Building’s Herbst Theatre by the group of 50 founding nations in 1945. The Center has also been host to U.S. Presidents and foreign heads of state and in 1990 the Center was chosen to host the first Goldman Environmental Prize ceremony.
The Orpheum Theatre was built in 1926 and has featured vaudeville, silent films, motion pictures, musical comedy and other theatrical entertainment. Located in San Francisco’s Civic Center the theatre has been determined a Locally Designated San Francisco Landmark. In addition, after two major renovations the theatre was revamped and is now able to host large-scale Broadway productions such as the two year sit-down of the musical Wicked.
The Golden Gate Theatre first opened in 1922 as a vaudeville venue and later became a major movie theatre. Now owned by the theatrical company, SHN, the theatre has been established as a performing arts venue. Notable Broadway shows such as A Chorus Line, Sweeney Todd, Mamma Mia!, Chicago, and Rent have run successful productions at the Golden Gate Theatre.
The Warfield Theatre was a popular location in the 1920s, that featured vaudeville and other major performances, such as Louis Armstrong and Charlie Chaplin. Throughout its years, the venue hosted many sold-out shows for notable artists like: Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead, Guns N’ Roses, and Green Day. The Warfield has an appeal as a rock concert venue because it has more intimacy and better sound quality than an arena, yet has an occupancy of over 2000 persons. The venerable hall has been rocking ever since.
Museums & Galleries
San Francisco boasts over 25 major museums and galleries and hundreds of smaller exhibit and performance spaces. They form an eclectic center combining both established, traditional humanities institutions with the sort of street and performance art that drive innovation.
A few of San Francisco’s most notable museums and galleries:
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA): The first museum on the West Coast devoted solely to 20th-century art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art opened in 1935 in the South of Market District. There are four subdivisions within the museum for modern art enthusiasts to enjoy: photography, painting and sculpture, architecture and design, and media arts. Permanent collection exhibits by renowned artists Pollack and Picasso draw large crowds. SFMOMA is closed for expansion through early 2016. The collection includes over 27,000 pieces of contemporary and modern art which are temporarily housed at multiple sites around San Francisco. SFMOMA has been (and will be in 2016) one of San Francisco’s newest and coolest art museums in a striking building.
M. H. de Young Museum: Located in Golden Gate Park, the de Young is San Francisco’s oldest museum. Its collections include American paintings, decorative arts and crafts, and arts from Africa, Oceania and the Americas, as well as western and non-western textiles. Long known as the City’s Museum, the de Young is particularly recognized for its many educational arts programs for children and adults. The de Young re-opened in a state-of-the-art new facility in Golden Gate Park on October 15, 2005. In its April 2012 issue, The Art Newspaper noted that the de Young museum was the most visited art museum west of the Mississippi, the sixth-most-visited art museum in North America, and the 35th-most visited in the world. Following its renovation, the modernized de Young now sits in a perfect location for visitors and residents alike.
Legion of Honor: Built to commemorate Californian soldiers who died in World War I, the Legion of Honor is a beautiful building located in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Golden Gate Bridge and all of San Francisco, the Legion is most noted for its breathtaking setting. Its collections include Rodin’s Thinker, which sits in the museum’s Court of Honor, European decorative arts and paintings, ancient art, and one of the largest collections of prints and drawings in the country.
Asian Art Museum: Over the past 35 years, the museum has been a leader in the presentation of special exhibitions and dynamic public programs that have helped fulfill its mission of leading a diverse global audience in discovering the unique material, aesthetic and intellectual achievements of Asian art and culture. The museum contains over 17,000 artifacts and pieces of art that span 6,000 years of history. The Asian Art Museum is at the Civic Center, after relocating from its original location at Golden Gate Park in 2003. It can now boast that it is the largest museum in the western world devoted to Asian art.
Zeum-Children’s Art & Technology Museum: Zeum is a non-profit multimedia arts and technology museum. Its mission is to foster creativity and innovation in young people and their families. Individuals of all ages combine hands-on use of animation, digital technology, electronic media, traditional and non-traditional materials, and the power of their imaginations to create high quality stories, movies, performances, music, art and more.
California Academy of Sciences: The City’s newest cultural jewel, The Academy of Science is located in the heart of Golden Gate Park and includes the Kimball Natural History Museum, the Steinhart Aquarium and the Morrison Planetarium. The Academy houses over 400,000 square feet of exhibition space and three acres of new green space—including a living roof and a 4-story living rainforest.
The Contemporary Jewish Museum: Housed in a dramatic new building by architect Daniel Libeskind, The Contemporary Jewish Museum presents exhibitions and hundreds of programs exploring the Jewish spirit and imagination.
The Museum of the African Diaspora: The Museum of the African Diaspora is the first major museum in the world focused on the African Diaspora culture and on presenting the rich cultural products of the people of Africa and of African descendant cultures across the globe.
The Yerba Buena Center: The Yerba Buena Center is a multidisciplinary art center that features visual arts, performing arts, film, video and education programs. The exhibits change periodically and feature works of art from various cultures, countries and artists. Located in the Yerba Buena Gardens, it has been open since 1993 and has a 755-seat, state-of-the-art theater.
The Exploratorium: The Exploratorium is a science-themed museum and has hundreds of interactive exhibits for all ages. The Exploratorium is now open in a spectacular new location at Pier 15 on the Embarcadero at 330,000 square feet, five times the size of its former location at the Palace of Fine Arts. There are 150 new exhibits for a total of 600, indoors and out, including many beloved classics; a Bay Observatory; a bigger focus on tinkering and social science.
The Walt Disney Family Museum: The Walt Disney Family Museum is an American museum that features the life and legacy of the entertainment pioneer and mogul. It is located in The Presidio, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco. The museum tells the inspirational story of Walt Disney, a rags to riches tale of animation, innovation, and remarkable success.
For more information on area museums and attractions, please contact SF Travel at www.sftravel.com.
The Bay Area’s rich network of history museums is complimented by hundreds of historical and genealogical societies that research,showcase and celebrate the area’s eclectic past. A partial list is included below.
In 2012, a modest but meaningful interior remodel opened up the Mission Street-facing spaces and brought in award-winning Heyday books into its book store and community gathering space. Also, the exterior received new layers of paint-in SherwinWilliams’ International Orange, the color of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge-to welcome a stunning exhibition CHS mounted as its part in celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the famous rust-colored suspension bridge.
Festivals & Fairs
San Francisco features more than 100 festivals throughout the year that celebrate everything from jazz to chocolate. They present an eclectic array of educational and recreation opportunities highlighting the diversity of the City.
San Francisco Chinese New Year Festival and Parade A two-week festival that takes place every year in the spring, The Chinese New Year celebration is encapsulated by the Chinese New Year Flower Fair and the Chinatown Community Street Fair. The festivities conclude with the Chinese New Year Parade. It is the largest parade in San Francisco of its kind and ranks in the top ten in the world.
San Francisco Sketchfest Nationally recognized comedy festival that mixes national headliners, local favorites and the best up-and-coming groups from throughout North America for a month of sketch, improv, stand-up and alternative comedy.
Black Choreographers Festival All-community event offering performances, mentoring, master classes, symposia and special events celebration African American art and culture.
San Francisco Beer Week Local craft beer legacy and culture celebrated with as many as 150 events including beer dinners, cheese and beer pairing events; meet the brewer evenings, demonstrations, music and films from Monterey to Sacramento and beyond.
St. Patrick’s Day Parade One of San Francisco’s largest annual parades and one of the longest-running parades in the U.S. is celebrated with live music, dance, beverages and traditional Irish cuisine.
Macy’s Flower Show This annual floral tribute is a spring tradition; the two-week celebration includes guest speakers and special in-store events.
San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) The 60th annual event is an extraordinary showcase of cinematic discovery and innovation. Since its inception in 1957, the SFIFF has hosted hundreds of prominent guests from Spike Lee to Bette Davis and presented almost 7,000 films from more than 120 countries to nearly two million filmgoers.
Opening Day on the Bay Kick off sailing season on San Francisco Bay with a festive boat parade and the blessing of the fleet.
Bay to Breakers A 12k run that starts at the San Francisco side of the Bay Bridge, the ‘Bay,’ and ends at the end of Golden Gate Park, the ‘Breakers.’ The end of the race features a costume contest and “Footstock” music festival.
Carnaval Celebrating its 39th anniversary San Francisco’s version of Mardi Gras, one of its largest annual public events, features exotic Carnaval dancers with a mixture of Latino, jazz, samba, Caribbean influences. Festive parade on Sunday morning draws upon a broad cultural pageantry.
North Beach Festival This outdoor arts and craft festival in the heart of San Francisco’s little Italy brings together food and music each summer in June. It features alternative, rhythm and blues, Latin rock, pop rock, reggae, salsa and swing music, as well as a cooking stage with celebrity chefs, and street art.
Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Pride Parade and Festival The festival’s mission is to commemorate the heritage and celebrate the culture of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community of San Francisco. The annual festival takes place at the Civic Center and hosts a world-famous parade along Market Street.
Fourth of July Waterfront Festival The City’s annual Independence Day Festival celebrates with fireworks, live entertainment, food, and arts and crafts along the City’s Embarcadero waterfront.
Fillmore Street Jazz Festival A large, free concert with three separate stages featuring several musical performers and over 12 blocks full of artwork and food.
San Francisco Outside Lands Festival With its inaugural year in 2008, the 3-day outdoor music festival takes place in August at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Noteworthy performers have included Radiohead, Jack Johnson, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, and Tom Petty. The Festival also hosts many wine and food vendors to provide them with a chance to market their business. Outside Lands also takes an active approach in ensuring that the festival can be as environmentally sustainable as possible, using a solar-powered stage, refillable water bottles, promoting biking and public transportation as means to arrive to Golden Gate Park, and inviting non-profit organizations to educate festival attendees.
San Francisco Shakespeare Festival Starting each year in July and offering programs until October, the festival is put on by a regional theater company. They offer free Shakespeare in The Park throughout the Bay Area, live performances through Shakespeare on Tour and Bay Area Shakespeare Camps, and Midnight Shakespeare—a program for at-risk youth.
Bay Area Brew Festival The annual beer festival attracts many beer lovers from all over the world to gather and enjoy the beverage. In addition to presenting beers from abroad and domestic areas for visitors to taste, the event also features some of the best local food.
Ghirardelli Square Chocolate Festival An opportunity for the public to taste- test many different samples of San Francisco’s finest chocolates from both Ghirardelli and other local restaurants hotels and chocolatiers.
Opera in the Park The San Francisco Opera hosts a free outdoor concert every September at Sharon Meadow in Golden Gate Park. The SF Opera is accompanied by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.
Fleet Week The US Navy brings 3,500 sailors to San Francisco each fall. During this time, the public is able to view several naval ships. Fleet week also features air races and aerial acrobatics by both private groups and the Blue Angels.
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass A free music festival in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco featuring music from the blues, bluegrass, and indie rock scenes. A wide variety of food from the Bay Area is also available at the festival.
Tree Lighting Celebration at Pier 39 Engage in fun for the whole family with interactive exhibits, holiday sing alongs and more. Pier 39’s majestic tree, adorned with glistening ornaments and twinkling lights will be lit at 5:30 p.m. in the Entrance Plaza; festivities begin at noon.
Green Festival Held at Pier 35, Green Festival® is a vibrant, dynamic marketplace where companies and organizations come to showcase their green products and services, and where people go to learn how to live healthier, more sustainable lives.
San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker “Nutcracker” performed by America’s oldest ballet company presents Tchaikovsky’s beloved family classic every year.
Light the Menorah Ghirardelli Square lights a nine-foot menorah and celebrates with music and good company.
For a full calendar list of events in 2017, please see the San Francisco Travel Website: Festivals and Special Events 2017.