The 16th Avenue tile stairs in San Francisco’s Sunset District went from utilitarian, if long, neighborhood steps to beautiful, instagrammable attraction, regularly drawing tourists to walk the length and photograph. The sunset neighborhood tile stairs is actually one long stair mural, made up of layers of smaller stair murals in vibrant colors. Creation of this project drew the community together to create a work of art out of the mundane. Now, people come from all over the world to see this wildly successful beautification project a group of neighbors had the vision to build on a hillside.
16th Ave Tile Stairs: A Stair Mural of Stair Murals
The utilitarian concrete stairway that linked the Sunset District to the aptly named Grand View Park has been around since 1926. Today, the colorful climb that now calls to photographers is hardly recognizable as the same steps! Today, the 163 steps are actually made up of 163 tile mosaic panels that, when viewed from the bottom, come together into one beautiful, long stair mural. The full effect is a sea-to-sky design with multiple themed sections. At the bottom is a stair mural of sea creatures and swirls of ocean water, and as the steps continue upward this turns to beach creatures, to birds, and eventually to tile mosaics of the moon and sun at the top. When taken as a whole, the individual stair murals blend into one continuous work of art, climbing to the top.
Neighborhood Necessity Becomes Art
The Tile Stairs Project
Like most of the many stairways around famously steep-hilled San Francisco, the 16th street steps were functional and useful, but nothing special to look at. Then, Jessie Audette and Alice Yee Xavier decided they wanted to change all of that, and create the work of art that now climbs the hillside. But creating something beautiful in their neighborhood wasn’t their only motivation – they also wanted to bring their neighborhood together. To create more a community.
To that end, the women began, in 2003, working on a neighborhood collaboration. Members of the community came together and sponsored individual, hand-made tiles with names on them, and thus provided the majority of the funding for the project. But then, making it even more of a community building neighborhood project, tile mosaic workshops were held so that all could participate in the making of the 163 stair mural panels that make up the tile stairs.
The Stair Mural Opening Ceremony
Once the tile stairs were completed, an opening ceremony was held on August 27th, 2005. Chinese lion dancers danced, and the Nguyen Dance Company performed. The day was declared “16th Avenue Tiled Steps Day” by Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, and the ribbon was cut by Francesco Pignataro, Mayor of Caltagirone, Italy!
It may seem a bit of a disconnect to have the mayor of an Italian town cut the ribbon for the San Francisco tiled stairs. But, Caltagirone, Italy has it’s own stair mural, the Scalinata di Santa Mario del Monte Steps, and the two sets of stairs have been declared sister steps! In fact, one of the Scalinata’s artists created an inscribed tile to be included in the 16th Street stair murals.
The Stair Mural Gardens
The beautification of the area didn’t stop with the stair mural, though. On the south side of the steps, Dr. Christopher Xavier, and Alice Yee Xavier donated the gardens that line the tile stairs. Then in 2006, San Francisco Beautiful gave a grant for the north side, a garden area made up mostly of succulents and plants native to California. Further plants were donated in 2010 by members of San Francisco Succulent Society.
As if all this wasn’t enough in one set of stairs, one more surprise awaits those energetic enough to make it to the top. The View. It’s really a breath-taking surprise. From the top of the 16th Avenue stair mural, you can see over the rooftops of western San Francisco, to the Pacific Ocean, and north to the Golden Gate Park. It’s absolutely worth the decorated climb to the top.
Pro-Tip: If you use Uber, or another ride service – have the driver drop you at the TOP of the tile stairs, on 15th Avenue. Then you can enjoy the view, and walk DOWN.
How to visit the 16th Avenue Tile Stairs
The 16th street steps are between 15th and 16th Avenue, in line with Moraga Street, on the west side of Grand View Park.
- If you drive to the area, there is parking in the neighborhood at the bottom of the steps, but pay attention to the parking signs so you don’t get yourself in trouble.
- As for public transportation, just take the “N” line Light Rail along Judah Street to the stop at 15th Avenue, walk to 17th Avenue, and then up the hill to Moraga Street. Turn Left (East) at Moraga and you will see the stairs. (Technically you can follow 16th Ave up from Judah St., but 16th branches off a few times and climbs some other garden steps… 17th is just a straighter path.)
- Anywhere in San Francisco, Uber is your friend. We used Uber all over the city, and never waited longer than 4 minutes for a pick up. Bonus for this option? Have the Uber drop you at 15th Avenue, at the top of the steps – and you can just walk down!
For an extra treat: from the top of the stair mural, walk south and climb up to Grand View Park. This park has impressive 360 degree views of the city.
Hoping to head to San Francisco and explore soon? Check out this post on the Ferry Building and its History.
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