San Francisco City Hall (credit: Laurie Jo Miller Farr)

Illuminate SF Festival of Light is the annual light show from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day that focuses a spotlight on San Francisco’s public art scene. It’s free of charge — you just need to know where to look for the coolest installations, as they’re a bit off the beaten track. Guided and self-guided walking tours add to the appeal. Don’t overlook City Hall’s illuminated exteriors and Chinatown’s Grant Avenue, where lanterns hung across the street brighten up the local scene nightly.

Flaming Lotus Girls” (credit: Laurie Jo Miller Farr)

Pier 14
Embarcadero at Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94111

First seen at Burning Man, “Flaming Lotus Girls” is a fanciful, interactive LED sculpture installed in 2009 by the edge of the bay just south of the Ferry Building. It performs when you approach it. You’ll see two communicating neurons connected by an axon bridge. The cell body of a neuron is called a Soma (unlike South of Market Street), with branching dendrites that project at angles, forming a flower-like design. It’s illuminated from 10 minutes after sunset until 2:00 a.m. nightly. Come soon, as the temporary work is here through July 2016 only.

North Beach
Broadway and Columbus Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94133

Amongst the traditional Italian-style Christmas decorations, it’s easy to overlook “Language of the Birds” overhead at the intersection of Broadway and Columbus, above a pedestrian plaza that links North Beach to Chinatown. Installed in 2008, the permanent mobile of suspended books mimics birds in flight, according to artists Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn. Look down to see more from California’s first solar-powered public artwork. Words and phrases are embedded in the plaza floor, representing pages fallen from the books written in English, Italian and Chinese.

Yerba Buena Center For The Arts
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 978-2787

Step into the museum entrance to view Murmur Wall, part of a Future Cities Lab installation. The fascinating illumination is well-suited to its name; a fiber-optic light, steel and ever-changing digital data piece of art that reflects what San Francisco is thinking and feeling. Words are harvested from trending search engine results and momentarily displayed on the wall. You can contribute to the “conversation” by submitting “Murmurs” at The illumination, installed in May 2015, is on view for two years.

San Francisco General Hospital
1001 Potrero Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94110

There’s no need to go inside, as”Ethereal Bodies 8″ is on display at the hospital’s main entry drive at 23rd Street. Best described as nine vertical, undulating stainless steel sculptures lit by multicolored LED lights at night, the installation’s stainless steel rods range in height from 14 to 22 feet tall. By day, sunlight acts to create dancing prisms of color off of the steel surfaces. Artist Cliff Garten’s 2015 contribution to the permanent civic collection lends itself to enlighten a holiday mood for its first Christmas since its creation.

Market Street
Westfield Shopping Centre
865 Market St.
San Francisco, CA 94103

Begin under the illuminated dome Westfield Shopping Centre, where San Francisco Ballet’s “Nutcracker” scenes are projected, and continue with a self-guided illumination walk along Market Street. All of the 202 five-foot-tall LED illuminated snowflakes create a “Path of Gold” by complementing Market Street’s signature historic lamp poles, originally lit in 1916. They glow from Steuart Street to Castro Street and continue through mid-January 2016.

Laurie Jo Miller Farr loves walkable cities. A tourism industry professional and transplanted New Yorker by way of half-a-lifetime in London, she’s writing about the best of the bay and beyond for Bay City Guide, AXS, Examiner and more.