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San Francisco Hidden Gem: Fort Mason Center

Live theater, multicultural museums, music festivals and more, right on the bay.


San Francisco Hidden Gem: Fort Mason Center
Photo by Ocean Malandra
Sandwiched between Fisherman's Wharf and the Marina District on San Francisco's northern waterfront lies one of the city's most precious cultural treasures: Fort Mason Center.

The former military base was transformed into an arts and cultural center in the 1970's and it now houses over 50 diverse and innovative museums, theaters, think-tanks and non-profit organizations. Perched on the cliffs above the historic port buildings that make up the Fort Mason Center lies Upper Fort Mason, a verdant urban sanctuary that contains several off-the-beaten-path jewels of its own.

Museums and Art Galleries

Although often missed by visitors due to the sheer number of world-class museums in San Francisco, the small museums of Fort Mason are well worth the visit. Besides their spectacular bayside setting, they represent the incredible diversity of the city itself, and best of all; they are free of charge:
  • The Mexican American Museum Hosts over 12,000 items from pre-colonial times to modern works by Chicano artists in several different exhibition halls.
    Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 12pm to 4pm. Admission: Free. www.mexicanmuseum.org
  • Museo Italo Americano: Large collection of fine art works by Italian American artists as well as a robust calendar of public events including film screenings, language classes, lectures and even guided trips to Italy.
    Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 12pm to 4pm. Admission: Free. www.museoitaloamericano.org
  • SFMOMA Artist's Gallery: This extension of the monumental San Francisco Museum of Modern Art focuses on Northern Californian artists; both well-established and up-and-coming.
    Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30am to 5:30pm. Admission: Free. www.sfmoma.org/visit/artists_gallery

Theater and Performing Arts

A variety of small, but well regarded, theater companies call the Fort Mason Center home:
  • The Magic Theater: One of the nation's most prominent producer of new plays, the Magic Theater has been a cornerstone of the San Francisco theater scene for over 40 years.
  • Young Performers Theater: Presents a full season of shows for children by children and also offers acting training for kids starting at 3 years of age.
  • BATS Improv Northern California's oldest Improv comedy school and theater company produces a different show every weekend by its own students in the Bayfront Theater.

Food and Drink

  • Greens Restaurant Opened in 1979 and run by Zen Buddhists from the San Francisco Zen Center, Greens was the first high profile vegetarian restaurant in the entire country. It's excellent food, which focuses on organic and locally produced ingredients, and stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands have landed it on our Best Waterfront Restaurants in San Francisco list.
    Open for lunch and dinner daily, brunch on the weekends. www.greensrestaurant.com
  • Fort Mason Sunday Farmers Market Every Sunday morning the Fort Mason Center buzzes with local residents on the prowl for the best produce from a variety of small local farms. Although not as massive or impressive as the Ferry Building Farmer's Market, live music, hot food vendors and a very local scene make it more than worthwhile.
    9:30am to 1:30pm, Sundays.

Upper Fort Mason

Climb the steps up the cliff from the Fort Mason Center to the Eucalyptus and Monterrey Cypress studded bluffs that tower over the water. Upper Fort Mason not only has spectacular views of the bay but offers several other attractions for visitors:
  • The Great Meadow: This expansive park is almost always tranquil and uncrowded except when there is a live concert or festival taking place. Make sure to check out the Benny Bufano sculpture entitled Madonna Protects the Children of the World.
  • The Fort Mason Community Gardens: Located just above the Great Meadow and almost hidden from view, the garden contains over 125 plots and is entirely managed by members of the community.
  • Golden Gate National Recreation Area Headquarters: Housed in a three story structure (Building 201) you will find an information desk that provides maps to the entire Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which includes Fort Mason, the Presidio and large swathes of the wild coastlands of Marin County.
  • The HI Fisherman's Wharf Hostel: One of the city's best kept cheap lodging options, especially because of its misleading name, this backpacker's hostel offers million dollar views on a shoestring budget. Alcatraz and the bay are visible from almost every room and an on-site cafe serves lunch and dinner daily.
  • Black Point Battery: Built in 1864 to defend the San Francisco Bay from ships coming through the Golden Gate, these ruins have picnic tables and dramatic views over the bay. If things become to calm and bucolic for you, just follow the stairs from here down to Fisherman's Wharf, where there are literally tons of things to do.

Events and Festivals

The Festival Pavilion and the Herbst Pavilion at the Fort Mason Center as well as the Great Lawn in Upper Fort Mason play host to a variety of conventions, art expositions, festivals and other events throughout the year. Some are even worth planning a trip around:
  • The SF International Beer Fest: Sample hundred of local and international small and micro-brews at this boisterous festival that also features live music and niche food carts.
    Late April www.sfbeerfest.com

  • The Renegade Craft Fair: Hands on crafts workshops, food, live bands and 250+ indie and DIY craft artisans from across the country converge for the weekend.
    Late July. www.renegadecraft.com

  • The San Francisco Fine Art Fair: With over 70 galleries from all over the world showcasing the best artistic talent they have available, this event draws in mega crowds of art buffs every year.
    Mid-May. www.sffineartfair.com
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