California is home to a lot of world-class museums, but the state also offers proof that you don’t need conventional buildings to house great art. Cities and towns across the Golden State are increasingly offering more opportunities to experience public art—whether it’s murals that illuminate the history of a destination, or fanciful sculptures that enhance the sweeping landscapes. Next time you’re in these places, listed north to south, don’t miss these photo-op-ready (and mostly free) outdoor artworks.
Bears and Paul Bunyan, Del Norte County
This North Coast county uses public art to celebrate its connection to nature: Crescent City is dotted with murals (like one commemorating even a long-ago tsunami), while the bridge over the Klamath River features a pair of bears that were painted gold in the 1950s as a prank. At Klamath’s Trees of Mystery, walk the Trail of Tall Tales to see chainsaw carvings of Paul Bunyan, Babe the Blue Ox and other characters, rendered from redwood timbers.
Phoenix Rising, Butte County
In the Shasta Cascade region, Butte County’s public art scene looks both backward and forward. In Chico, murals are scattered around downtown, while Oroville’s murals tip their hat to the area’s Gold Rush history. In nearby Paradise, don’t miss the phoenix sculpture outside the town’s new Building Resiliency Center, made with donated keys from homes lost in the Camp Fire.
Alleyway Art Project, Fort Bragg
This Mendocino County project sought to bring beauty to “overlooked” spots around town, so today you can explore the back end of downtown Fort Bragg with its colorful depictions of rhododendrons, a sea monster, and a vivid mural inspired by an Indian folk tale.
Gold Panner Statue, Auburn
Visit the historic district in the Placer County town of Auburn to see the 45-ton Claude Chana, Gold Panner monument which honors the prospector who first discovered gold here in 1848. Fun fact: It was created by a local dentist who sculpted other local works in the 1970s.
Wide Open Walls, Sacramento
These ever-expanding murals in the capital city started as an annual festival, but you can see the impressive works year-round, from landscapes to abstract pieces, giant bunnies, and Johnny Cash. Create your own tour using its website to sort by neighborhood or each year’s collections.
Sculpture Trail, Sonoma County
The Sonoma County towns of Cloverdale and Geyserville are home to more than 30 large outdoor sculptures, known as the Cloverdale Sculpture Trail. The current assortment (which changes every two years) includes plenty of abstract works, as well as a giant candy apple and a whimsical “pigasus.”
Napa Art Walk
This biennial exhibition of juried sculpture rotates every two years, and is displayed around Downtown Napa. Take the free, self-guided audio tour (available on the Otocast app), vote on your pick for the People’s Choice Award, and stop in at nice diversions that happen to be located near sculptures, such as the Oxbow Public Market.
Sidewalk Art, Benicia
Look down as you stroll the sidewalks of downtown Benicia and you’ll see mosaic tiles by local artist Guillermo Granizo illustrating the historic landmarks, people, and events that have shaped the North Bay town. Start at J Street, then follow along First St.
Todos Santos Plaza Utility Boxes, Concord
If you visit the Farmer’s Market in the East Bay town of Concord, notice the colorfully decorated utility boxes that surround Todos Santos Plaza. Next, head down Salvio Street to see the mural depicting a July 4 celebration from 1894 featuring the town founders, the Galindo family.
Mission District, San Francisco
The Mission District is home to literally hundreds of murals and painted fences, often with themes of social justice or environmental issues. An easy first stop: The Women’s Building on 18th St., and its MaestraPeace Mural, which was painted by seven female artists in 1994 to celebrate women’s contributions around the globe.
Murals of Santa Cruz
Pedal around this bicycle-friendly town to see the city’s public art, including the 49 murals, sculptures, and more along Pacific Avenue. Make it a game by doing the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History’s free scavenger hunt, or just by seeking out these public murals, including the museum’s colorful outdoor plaza Abbott Square.
Mural District, Fresno
Dozens of murals and sculptures line downtown Fresno, saluting everyone from Cesar Chavez to the X-Men and the city of Fresno itself (don’t miss the giant Postage Stamp mural). On Fulton Street, another mural helpfully IDs the city’s Brewery District.
Art on Fire Hydrant Walk, Visalia
Explore the Central Valley town by way of its 18-block Art on Fire display. Check out the 22 colorful fire hydrants painted with flowers, gumball machines, and even a dalmatian. At the western end, stop and smell the flowers at the Ralph S. Moore Rose Garden.
Creamery Marketplace, San Luis Obispo
Cows are a vital part of the Instagram-ready public art scene in San Luis Obispo. Not only do painted cows still dot the streets thanks to a previous Cow Parade, but a local artists’ gallery is housed in the Creamery Marketplace building, emblazoned with the fabulous cow mural dubbed SLO Irresistible.
Bruce Munro: Field of Light, Paso Robles
The rolling terrain of Paso Robles makes a good foundation both for excellent vineyards and this stunning light show. Take an evening stroll around this 150-acre light installation created by Bruce Munro, comprised of 58,000 colored-light spheres and accented with live music. Enhance your viewing with food and wine from local vendors. Runs through Jan. 3, 2021.
Downtown Murals, Ventura
The diversity of this Central Coast town shows in its downtown murals. Start at the mural illustrating Ventura’s history outside the San Buenaventura Mission, then check out the Tortilla Flats Mural, the China Alley Mural, and Amaterasu (a Shinto sun goddess), all of which celebrate some of Ventura’s different communities. Amaterasu is just outside Fluid State Beer Garden, a great example of Ventura’s beer scene.
Murals of Burbank
It’s home to many production and animation studios, but the L.A. County town of Burbank offers yet another form of entertainment by way of its growing collection of murals and mosaics. Follow the map of public art to look for a portrait of Frida Kahlo, a work by acclaimed muralist Alex Gonzalez, and one crowd-pleaser mural depicting iconic characters including Darth Vader, James Bond, and Mr. Spock.
Arts District, Downtown Los Angeles
You can spot murals all over L.A.—like Richard Wyatt Jr.'s mural of music legends at the Capitol Records building. But the biggest concentration may be in Downtown L.A.’s Arts District. Don’t miss the Container Yard section along 4th St., including the couple touching noses or the Americana-meets-California piece featuring a cowboy, a low-rider, and palm trees.
Umbrella Alley, Redlands
This San Bernardino County town nods to a few European cities with similar installations: Orange Street Alley has 420 blue, yellow, green, and pink umbrellas hanging over the alley entrances between Fifth Street and Orange Street. Enjoy both ambience and shade while browsing local businesses such as Sugarbee Cake & Bake Shop.
Even though the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival runs for only two weeks in the town of Indio, one souvenir of the iconic April festival remains year-round in downtown Coachella: the luminous wire-mesh sculpture Etherea, created for the 2018 festival, which nods to Baroque and Neoclassical architecture. Don’t stop there: The rest of Greater Palm Springs is lined with interesting murals, sculptures, and fountains.
Art Walk and Murals, Costa Mesa
To see why this Orange County town takes pride in being a “City of the Arts,” take the Art Walk of sculptures that surround the Segerstrom Center for the Arts (including Joan Miro’s bronze-bird Oiseau). Keep strolling the town that is home to dozens of murals and painted utility boxes, including a number of pieces at shopping center LAB Anti-Mall.
Oceanside's Street Mural Walk
Seeing dozens of murals is a good way to explore this north San Diego County town that was recently named a California Arts Council Cultural District. Most are by locals (such as pro skater Kris Markovich), and many are on the sides of great places to shop, eat, or drink, such as Revolution Roasters and Masters Kitchen and Cocktail.
The Stuart Collection, La Jolla
Take a self-guided tour of the campus of the University of California San Diego that focuses on its unique collection of 20 works. Some pieces even blend into the university architecture—like Fallen Star, a tiny blue house that perches precariously on a campus roof, or Vices and Virtues, which flashes messages from a lab building.
Balboa Park’s Sculpture Garden, San Diego
The May S. Marcy Sculpture Garden, outside the San Diego Museum of Art, nicely blends art with nature. Not only does it feature 19th- and 20th-century sculptures, but it also offers nice views of Balboa Park’s California Tower, built for the 1915–16 Panama-California Exposition. The tower is a work of art in itself—a medley of Baroque, Plateresque, Churrigueresque, Rococo, and Gothic styles.
Chicano Park, San Diego
The Barrio Logan neighborhood has long been a hub for San Diego’s Mexican-American community, but its artistic nerve center sits beneath the San Diego-Coronado Bridge overpass, which was named a National Historic Landmark in 2017. The bridge’s pillars provided the canvas for 80 murals—the largest concentration of Chicano murals in the world.
Ricardo Breceda’s Sky Art Sculptures, Borrego Springs
A road trip into the desert town of Borrego Springs and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park takes on an otherworldly ambience, thanks in part to the 130 sculptures by renowned artist Ricardo Breceda that populate the area—dinosaurs, horses, a dragon, and more. Chart your path using the map that’s color-coded by prehistoric creatures, local history, or fantasy.