DAVIS -- You can get to downtown Davis by car or by train. Either way, you'll find yourself in a town that feels like it's just the right size with an ambience that's both hip and laid back, reflecting the intellectual vibrancy of a world-class university campus, as well as the old-timey agricultural heritage of its Central Valley location -- with almost as many coffee shops per square inch as San Francisco's Mission District.

Even better, you'll find yourself in the middle of a unique, interactive outdoor museum.

If you come by train, the first thing you see when you walk away from the station along H Street are rivers of red, yellow and blue paint that seem to pour out of the side of a building, drenching a group of figures in primary colors, then pooling on the sidewalk at their feet.

Painted by Kerry Rowland-Avrech, the figures in the "Splash" mural are some of her colleagues on the Davis Mural Team, who painted this and nine other murals on buildings in downtown Davis in 2012. The red figure in the center is John Natsoulas, a local gallery owner and the prime mover behind the Davis Art Walk, which has expanded from those 10 murals and a few other pieces to include more than 40 works throughout downtown Davis and the adjoining UC Davis campus.

You can pick up a detailed map of the walk and descriptions of the art at the Natsoulas Art Center on the corner of First and E streets. And you can enjoy your first cup of coffee at Pachamama Coffee Cooperative, which shares the building with its spacious gallery, bookstore and conference center and sells organic coffee sourced directly from family farms in Central and South America.


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If you're driving to Davis, the Natsoulas Center for the Arts is the first thing you'll see as you emerge from the Richards Boulevard underpass off Interstate 80, which serves as the unofficial gateway to the town. Locals and university students have disparaged the little tunnel for years, dubbing it the "Armpit of Davis." But it serves its purpose, which is to get cars, bikes and pedestrians smoothly across the railroad tracks without having to stop for oncoming trains.

Legendary faculty

If you park in the huge city-owned garage a couple of blocks away, you might pause to look at the mural that sprawls across one entire wall on the second floor. This monumental work traces the history of the town's culture with depictions of artists Robert Arneson, Wayne Thiebaud, William T. Wiley and others who were part of the legendary faculty in the 1960s and '70s, when UC Davis boasted one of the top university art departments in the country. Painter Roy De Forest got left off the big mural, but there's a nearly life-size portrait of him on a side wall, and images based on his iconic smiling dogs are all over the place. The big mural also shows some of the art buildings on campus and the original home of the highly respected Davis Art Center in the town itself.

And those hippies and children picnicking on the grass? They represent the first Whole Earth Festival, held in Davis in 1970, which has morphed into Earth Day, now celebrated all over the world.

The mural is one of several that grace the otherwise ugly parking structure that the city turned over to the Davis Mural Team -- with carte blanche -- to beautify. Natsoulas and his friends officially dedicated the building as the Davis Art Garage this winter, and more art is promised for its gray walls.

A leisurely stroll around Davis will present a feast for the eyes and yet another surprising gateway. Cross First Street in front of the Natsoulas Center and you'll come to the Davis Commons, a cluster of shops and restaurants watched over by Finley Fryer's spooky metal "Stealth Angel." Grab a quick lunch and enjoy it on the spacious front patio they all share. If you're there at the right time, there might be a singer entertaining the crowd. Or walk through to the back of the shops and across the parking lot. There, on the bike and pedestrian path that links downtown Davis with the campus arboretum, you'll pass under Christopher Fernell's spectacular "Shovel Gateway." Formed entirely of old rusty shovels donated by townspeople, who call themselves "Davisites," the surprisingly graceful structure resembles a delicate leaf bower elegantly linking town and gown.

A work in progress

Continue down the path, bearing left, and you'll come to an underpass that has nothing in common with the Richards Boulevard "armpit" except that it, too, takes you under the railroad tracks, linking downtown with the rapidly growing south Davis area. Both entrances to the tunnel, along with the walls and ceiling, are covered with muralist Caryl Yasko's colorful "Quercus," depicting local fauna and flora. Like the Davis Art Garage, "Quercus" is still being worked on by members of the Davis Mural Team and other local artists -- a reminder that the Davis Art Walk is still very much a work in progress.

And it's a work that viewers can not only look at, but also interact with. Many of the sculptures and murals are embedded with microchips, so if you download the Microsoft Tag app onto your smartphone (http://tag.microsoft.com/home.aspx) you'll be able to view videos of the artists and their works and leave messages, poems, even songs and videos of your own, for others to see.

Natsoulas calls the experience a Transmedia Art Walk. He says that as far as he knows, the use of this near-field technology to enhance the experience of viewing public art is a first.

"The greatest thing about it is that it got the students to look at the art ,because they all have the phones, and this is how they communicate with each other," he says.

This interactive dimension makes it hard to judge how much time to budget in order to "do" the art walk. The official map says to allow an hour and a half if you're walking, half that time if you're doing it by bike -- and Davis just might be the best bike-riding town in America. It's completely flat, the streets are wide and populated with drivers who seem to be perfectly comfortable giving bicycles the right of way. Except for weekdays on campus, nobody seems to be in too big a hurry. Davis residents pride themselves in having more bikes than people in their town, and if there's anything that outnumbers the coffee shops, it would be bike stores.

A full day to explore

So you could certainly cover the terrain in 45 minutes by bike or 90 on foot. But that's using the old map; the new one is rolling off the presses soon with expanded art offerings. Then there are those videos to watch, and you might want to "tag" one or more work with an electronic response. Some works just take longer to look at than others. And those coffee shops beckon, as do the beer halls, and the restaurants that serve Indian, Thai, Nepalese, Chinese and Italian, as well as American food, some of it on an all-you-can-eat basis, befitting a college town. And on Saturdays, the town's Central Park hosts one of the first -- and best -- farmers markets in Northern California.

I'd give it a full day -- and then come back, pick up what you missed the first time and enjoy another round.

Contact Peter Magnani via travel@bayareanewsgroup.com.

IF YOU GO
Natsoulas Gallery: A sensible starting point for the Davis Art Walk, the gallery has free maps of the walk and exhibitions by local artists connected with the walk. Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday,
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. 521 First St., 530-756-3938; www.natsoulas.com
Other galleries: For those who prefer their art hanging on interior walls, Davis is blessed with a vibrant selection of art galleries, including the Davis Art Center, Pence Gallery and Richard L. Nelson Gallery downtown, and the Carl Gorman Museum, Craft Center Gallery and Design Museum on the UC Davis campus. They're all listed on the Davis Art Walk map, along with the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame.
Coffee shops: The Davis wiki lists 19 coffee shops in Davis, and that's probably just a sampling. There's also a tea room, the Tea List, with a charming patio off the street, 222 D St.
Restaurants: Four fast but high quality eateries share an outdoor patio at the Davis Commons, directly across from the Natsoulas Gallery: Pluto's, Habit Burger, Mikuni, The Melt -- and, for frozen yogurt, Pinkberry. For something a little classier, but still casual, Bistro 33 inhabits the space that used to be Davis City Hall, 226 F St. And the Orangecourt complex, at 129 E St., houses a number of small Asian restaurants and a hot dog place in its jumble of off-street cottages.
Essential websites: Download the map and other information at www.davisartwalk.com. To use the transmedia features, download a Microsoft Tag app at http://tag.microsoft.com/home.aspx. And for all things Davis, past and present, go to http://daviswiki.org.
-- P. Magnani, Correspondent