Nature as Muse: San Francisco's 9 Natural Attractions Not to Miss

San Francisco’s spectacular natural setting is an endless source of creative inspiration.

San Francisco occupies a picturesque peninsula surrounded by scenic hills and dynamic waterways, so it makes sense that the natural environment would also inspire some of the city’s most beloved destinations. From oversized sculptures made with tree trunks to sound art triggered by churning waves, you’ll find unexpected nature-themed gems across this urban landscape.

SFMOMA Living Wall

In 2016, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) completed a 10-story expansion that nearly tripled its gallery space. Measuring 150 feet wide by 29 feet tall, the museum’s exterior living wall provides a natural counterpoint to the white galleries and blonde wood floors within. Designers from San Francisco’s Habitat Horticulture selected more than 20 Northern California native plant species for the wall, which serves as both a backdrop to the Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terrace and a multisensory exhibit in its own right. About 19,000 individual plants—including yerba buena, huckleberry, western sword fern and pink flowering currant—gently wave when breezes move through the wall’s third-floor terrace home.

The Wave Organ
The Wave Organ (Courtesy Exploratorium)

The Wave Organ

Anchoring a jetty on San Francisco’s northern shore, the Wave Organ is a creative acoustic sculpture that’s hidden in plain sight. Exploratorium artists-in-residence Peter Richards and George Gonzalez used concrete and 25 PVC pipes to create this larger-than-life instrument in the mid-1980s, situating the installation on a structure made with granite and marble salvaged from a demolished cemetery. As water rolls in, out and against the pipes, it creates low, subtle melodies that change with each wave. The sounds are strongest at high tide, and the sights are always a draw. Views from the Wave Organ extend across the San Francisco Bay, Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, to the city’s northern neighborhoods and beyond.

Potted Plants Gallery at the Conservatory of Flowers

San Francisco’s Conservatory of Flowers opened to the public in 1879. Today, the facility’s Potted Plants Gallery honors those late-1800s Victorian roots with rare and gorgeous blooms on display. The tropical gems are native to far-flung locales like Australia, El Salvador and Sri Lanka, while a few carnivorous North American pitcher plants have origins a little closer to home. With titles like dancing lady ginger, scarlet jungle flame and South American slipper orchid, many of the plant names are as fanciful as the flowers themselves. And, they’re potted in artsy vessels with singular stories, including an urn from San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition and ceramics from Burkina Faso.

16th Avenue Tiled Steps

On the western side of San Francisco, where hilltop overlooks showcase sweeping views of Golden Gate Park and the Pacific Ocean, a set of stairs connects 15th and 16th avenues at Moraga Street. Here in Golden Gate Heights, neighbors came together to support a tiled mosaic project that outfitted those 163 steps with shooting stars, sea life, sunbeams and other brilliant, playful patterns. Artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher collaborated on the stairs, creating a community-inspired, Instagram-friendly showpiece flanked by flourishing gardens. Rich with succulents and California native plants, the hillside plots provide vital habitat for local butterfly populations.

California Academy of Sciences
California Academy of Sciences (©Tim Griffith)

Nature on Display at the California Academy of Sciences

Since the California Academy of Sciences opened its LEED Platinum-facility in 2008, one of the big attractions has been a living roof outfitted with approximately 1.7 million plants: think California fuchsia, Big Sur manzanita, Douglas iris, sky lupine and other species that provide habitat for birds, bees and butterflies. The roof doubles as an outdoor classroom and a picturesque perch for viewing the surrounding Golden Gate Park. Looking for additional connections between art and nature? Head inside to the Naturalist Center, where hundreds of pelts, bones, shells and other specimens are on display. Or, register for activities such as this year’s Unlocked Art Labs workshops. Led by local artist Tiffany Bozic, the painting and drawing sessions take place in conjunction with select Thursday NightLife events.

Fog over the bay in San Francisco
The Fog Bridge (Courtesy Exploratorium)

The Exploratorium’s Fog Bridge #72494

In a city so famous for fog that the misty marine layer makes jokes from its @KarlTheFog Twitter account, it’s no surprise that visitors can experience coastal clouds even on sunny days. The Exploratorium’s Fog Bridge #72494, an installation by Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya, pumps fabricated fog across a 150-foot-long pedestrian bridge that links Piers 15 and 17. More than 800 nozzles distribute a mist of desalinated San Francisco Bay water to create the immersive, ephemeral exhibit. The Fog Bridge is active daily at 10 am, noon, 2 pm and 4 pm, and at 7 pm on select Thursday and Friday evenings. It’s part of the Exploratorium's wider Over the Water series, which presents large-scale installations in the facility's outdoor space along the San Francisco Bay.

Andy Goldsworthy Installations in the Presidio

Renowned British artist Andy Goldsworthy creates sprawling, site-specific exhibits influenced by the natural world. Four of his installations are on view in the Presidio, the 1,500-acre military post-turned-national park on San Francisco's northwestern shores. His first piece here, "Spire," incorporates more than 35 cypress trunks felled on site and fastened together to create a 100-foot-tall steeple surrounded by young cypress trees. "Wood Line," Goldsworthy's second Presidio installation, positions eucalyptus branches from the park in a 1,200-foot S-curve that snakes through the trees near the Lovers' Lane footpath. Two additional exhibits, "Tree Fall" and "Earth Wall," explore the interplay between the natural and built environments.

Hands-on Classes from Flax Art & Design

Founded by members of the Flax family 80 years ago, Flax Art & Design has long served local artists with a selection of supplies, tools, gifts and related goods sold at locations in San Francisco and Oakland. More recently, the stores have added interactive workshops that dive into artistic techniques and, often, take their cues from the natural world. During urban sketching classes, for example, participants might capture fog framing the Golden Gate Bridge or waves crashing against Alcatraz Island. Other gatherings focus on plein air painting, printmaking, kids crafts and more. Visit the website for a list of upcoming courses open to all skill levels.

The Gardens of Alcatraz

Lush gardens thrive on the infamous island known as “The Rock.” Members of the military first hauled soil across the San Francisco Bay and established gardens on Alcatraz in the mid-1800s. A 1920s beautification project added additional trees, shrubs and flowers, including many planted and maintained by prisoners. The gardens were abandoned after the federal prison closed in 1963, but subsequent efforts brought roses, dahlias, daylilies, geraniums, daffodils and other blooms back to the landscape.

Flowers at Alcatraz (©Shelagh Fritz)