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Downtown San Francisco neighborhood guide

Find the best restaurants, bars, shops, attractions and things to do in Downtown San Francisco with our insider’s guide to the area

Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Callum Thompson
City Hall in Downtown San Francisco

San Francisco’s Downtown area saves the city from being seen simply as a series of villages. With a high concentration of cultural attractions and a substantial shopping district, its cosmopolitan character exceeds its modest size, yet the compact urban center is easy navigate on foot. Once a pro-Union rallying point during the Civil War, Union Square is a handsome plaza surrounded by upscale hotels and department stores; shoppers gather on its benches and lawns for retail respite. Just east of Union Square, Maiden Lane, once a notorious red-light district, is now a decoratively gated alleyway lined with designer boutiques. Further west, tech money is funding much-needed revitalization projects on long-neglected mid-Market Street, with new high-rise offices, luxury condos, high-end restaurants and ACT’s renovation of the historic Strand Theater due to open in 2015.

To the east, the Financial District has been San Francisco’s business and banking hub since the 1849 Gold Rush. Its northern edge is overlooked by the iconic spike of William Pereira’s 1972 Transamerica Pyramid (600 Montgomery Street) and the Jackson Square Historical District, the last vestige of San Francisco’s notorious Barbary Coast, once a seething mass of low-life bars and brothels.

There are two competing stories as to how the gritty Tenderloin district got its name. The first is that police who worked the beat there in the 19th century were paid extra for patrolling the tough neighborhood, so they could afford to buy better cuts of meat. The second is that the cops got their extra cash in the form of prime-cut bribes from local hoods. Panhandlers and drug addicts still cluster on street corners, but the area’s character is changing with the ever-growing presence of trendy bars, music venues and excellent ethnic restaurants.

Southwest of the Tenderloin, Civic Center is a complex of imposing government buildings and immense performance halls grouped around manicured Civic Center Plaza. Beaux Arts 1915 City Hall stands on its west side, capped with a gilded dome modeled on St. Peter’s in Rome. Lying opposite is Gae Aulenti’s spectacular Asian Art Museum, carved out of what was once the city’s Main Library (the library is now around the corner in a modern-day Beaux Arts edifice designed by James Ingo Freed). On the edge of Civic Center, United Nations Plaza hosts a regular farmers’ market and the gourmet food-truck coalition, Off the Grid.

Things to do in Downtown San Francisco

Ferry Building Marketplace

Recommended

The Ferry Building Market is a required weekend pilgrimage for both tourists and locals. The building itself is a gorgeous feat of architecture, with a second-story walkway commanding views of the action below. Though the Ferry Building is best known for the world-famous Cuesa farmers market, it's also packed with a range of browseables beyond food. Within the main hall, admire beautiful glazed ceramics and home decor at Heath Ceramics, Gastboards cutting boards and gardening tools at the Gardener, and dozens of varieties of honey alongside beeswax candles at Beekind. Out front, an open-air artisan market pops up every Saturday, where dozens of vendors peddle their art, jewelry, clothing, leather goods and other handcrafts. Though the shops close at 6pm, the building itself (and some of the restaurants therein) are open until 10pm. At dusk, admire the Ferry Building's iconic clock tower backed by the glittering Bay Lights.

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Downtown

John Berggruen Gallery

Recommended

Founded in the mid '70s, Berggruen, with its smooth white walls and sleek blond floors, has played host to some of the biggest names in contemporary art, including Ellsworth Kelly, Alexander Calder, Robert Rauschenberg, Brice Marden, Georgia O'Keefe, Wayne Thiebaud, Willem de Kooning, Frank Stella and Henri Matisse.

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Union Square

Asian Art Museum

Recommended

The country's largest showcase for Asian art, the museum once housed the Main Library. Extensively and beautifully redesigned by Gae Aulenti, the architect responsible for the Musée d'Orsay conversion in Paris, the museum retains remnants of its previous role, including bookish quotes etched into the fabric of the building. The Asian has one of the world's most comprehensive collections of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Indonesian and Southeast Asian art, spanning 6,000 years of history with more than 15,000 objects. Artifacts range from Japanese buddhas and Indonesian shadow puppets to sacred texts and porcelains from the Ming Dynasty. The café, open only to visitors, serves Asian-inspired dishes, and the gift shop is well stocked with high-quality stationery, decorative items and a good selection of coffee table books.

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Civic Center
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Fraenkel Gallery

There is a stately air to the Fraenkel, a photography gallery established in 1979. The warm space, inspires quiet contemplation and the gallery's impressive roster of photographers, including Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Nan Goldin and Robert Frank, elicits respect and reverence.

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Union Square

Robert Koch Gallery

Representing contemporary giants like Edward Burtynsky, Sally Mann, David Parker and Bill Owens, Robert Koch's gallery has a bit of a museum feel. Specializing in modernist and experimental photography from the early to mid 20th century, Koch's shows can feel revelatory.

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Union Square

Restaurants and bars in Downtown San Francisco

Blue Bottle

Recommended

If San Francisco has an artisan coffee “grounds” zero, it is undoubtedly Blue Bottle. What started as a kiosk in a Hayes Valley alleyway has grown into outlets all around town, with its own café on Mint Plaza, as well as a walk-up stand in the Ferry Plaza Marketplace. The downtown café tempers caffeine highs with light fare for breakfast and lunch (frittatas, soups, salads, sandwiches). The main draw, though, is single-origin small-batch and ridiculously fresh coffee, with nothing more than 48 hours out of the roaster. The fascinatingly complicated coffee-making equipment is part of the appeal: A five-light siphon bar is the first of its kind in the United States; the beakers and flasks that drip Kyoto-style iced-coffee are something out of a mad scientist's lab. Order a Gibraltar (you have to ask; it's not on the menu)—the perfect blend of espresso and foam served in a short glass.

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Downtown

Tadich Grill

Recommended

Established in 1849, Tadich is the city's oldest restaurant, and still one of its most popular. Power-lunching politicians, techies and tourists alike belly up to the classic mahogany horseshoe bar and tuck into old-school San Francisco dishes such as crab Louis, shrimp a la Newburg, Hangtown Fry (oysters and eggs), and giant bowls of San Francisco cioppino (shellfish stew) accompanied by a big hunk of sourdough bread. If you prefer more private seating, let one of the white-coated waiters usher you into a wooden booth (with service bell). No reservations are accepted and there's invariably a line out the door, but it's worth it to experience a bit of Barbary Coast San Francisco.

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Financial District

Michael Mina

Superstar chef Michael Mina created a stir when he uprooted his Union Square restaurant and relocated back to the spot in the Financial District where he got his start (the former Aqua). He hasn't lost a step. His menu approach has scrapped the signature three-way preparations in favor of French-influenced food made with Japanese ingredients. Less frou frou than its predecessor, it's still dining on a grand scale (and at a grand price), but one taste of the ahi tuna tartare, Maine lobster pot pie, or Wagyu shabu shabu and you'll whip out your credit card without a second thought.

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Financial District
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Mikkeller Bar

This Tenderloin beer oasis draws hops heads from all over the city. The centerpiece of the brick-walled canteen and bar is an epic 42-tap setup, augmented by a specialized bottle selection. The draft menu comfortably stretches over a wide and generally affordable range of European and domestic suds, featuring about ten of Mikkeller's house brews including IPA, pale ale and lambic. Beers are lovingly stored at precise temperatures appropriate for each style using a custom system. Mikkeller is also one of the few places in the city that serves cask-conditioned ales. To pair, a sturdy food menu features beer-friendly standbys: charcuterie, cheeses, house-made sausages and more. The spacious bar zigzags around the cavernous back area and there's seating for diners up front.

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Tenderloin

Tradition

Though it's located in the heart of the gritty Tenderloin, Tradition is one of the most beautiful bars in San Francisco, with a paneled grandeur that evokes a 19th-century train station. An elaborate wood-and-glass bar hangs from the tall ceiling, dwarfing the half dozen suspenders-sporting bartenders hustling to dispense drinks to the throngs. The bar has three levels: the main space on the ground floor that gets packed at weekends; a quieter mezzanine providing a bird's-eye view of the action below; and, between the two, a series of slightly elevated “snugs.” Couples and groups of up to eight people can reserve one of these semi-enclosed booths, which have table service and an extended menu. As suggested by the mishmash of vintage posters from various decades adorning the walls, the cocktail program takes you through the history of American tippling with drinks from each era, spanning everything from Prohibition old-fashioneds to tiki-bar mai tais, made with quality spirits (no Smirnoff in the wells here) and fresh fruit.

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Tenderloin

Music and nightlife in Downtown San Francisco

Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall

Recommended

Formed to boost public morale shortly after the 1906 earthquake and fire, the San Francisco Symphony performed its first concert in 1911. Today, under the dynamic direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestra is internationally recognized for its innovative work, winning several Grammy awards in the process. Davies Hall is a fitting venue for this lauded orchestra—a striking, multi-tiered, curved-glass edifice with flawless acoustics and clear sightlines. There isn't a bad seat in the house, and that includes the 40 in the center terrace section behind the orchestra that start at a mere $15 for most performances.

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Civic Center

The Warfield

Recommended

Opened in 1922 as a vaudeville theater, the Warfield has operated in its current incarnation since the 1980s. The ornate room, which has a 1,800-seat balcony and an overall capacity for 2,300, retains its original splendor, though the venue now showcases a variety of musical genres. From titans of rock revisiting classic releases to the new wave of rap artists touching the stage for the first time, bookings are diverse but tend to stick to popular movements. Even the back balcony seats have good views of the stage in the well-designed space. Those lucky enough to get backstage may also get a glimpse of a portion of the underground speakeasy once operated by Al Capone, who had an office in the building.

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Tenderloin

War Memorial Opera House

Recommended

The SF Opera, inaugurated in 1923, is based in the War Memorial Opera House, a grand Beaux Arts building designed by City Hall architect Arthur Brown Jr. and built in 1932 as a memorial to the soldiers who fought in World War I. The 3,176-seat auditorium and cultural landmark is modeled on European opera houses, with a vaulted ceiling, a huge art deco metal chandelier and a marble foyer. An $84-million revamp in 1997 not only restored the elegant building (workers found clouds painted on the ceiling when they scraped away the grime), but installed up-to-date electronics and stage gear. The fall season runs early September to December; the summer season from May to July. In addition to opera, the venue provides a stage for the San Francisco Ballet, various concerts, lectures and special presentations.

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Civic Center
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Great American Music Hall

Originally a bordello and gambling establishment called Blanco’s when it opened in 1907 through the Great Depression, then a highfalutin nightclub called the Music Box operated by notorious fan dancer Sally Rand, the grande dame of the city’s live venues is as beautiful today as at any point in its century-long history. The lavish room, done out with enormous mirrors, rococo woodwork and gold-leaf trim, became the Great American in 1972 and has seen performances by the likes of Sarah Vaughn, Count Basie, Van Morrison, the Grateful Dead and Arcade Fire. These days, it’s run by the owners of Slim’s, who present a cutting-edge roster of well-regarded local and touring musicians (many of the indie-rock ilk). Try to snag one of the coveted seats on the upper balcony.

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Tenderloin

Rickshaw Stop

Since 2004, the Rickshaw has brought life and fun to an otherwise desolate strip near Civic Center—it's a place to discover new music and movements along the indie/dance spectrum and beyond. A crash-pad decor of mod plastic loungers, foosball table and novelty lighting gives it a collegiate/rec room vibe, but the venue serves as a gathering point for different generations. It's now home to the long-running 18-and-over dance party Popscene and retro party Club 1994, in addition to several all-ages shows and regular 21-plus events. Cash only.

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Civic Center

Shopping in Downtown San Francisco

Ferry Building Marketplace

Recommended

The Ferry Building Market is a required weekend pilgrimage for both tourists and locals. The building itself is a gorgeous feat of architecture, with a second-story walkway commanding views of the action below. Though the Ferry Building is best known for the world-famous Cuesa farmers market, it's also packed with a range of browseables beyond food. Within the main hall, admire beautiful glazed ceramics and home decor at Heath Ceramics, Gastboards cutting boards and gardening tools at the Gardener, and dozens of varieties of honey alongside beeswax candles at Beekind. Out front, an open-air artisan market pops up every Saturday, where dozens of vendors peddle their art, jewelry, clothing, leather goods and other handcrafts. Though the shops close at 6pm, the building itself (and some of the restaurants therein) are open until 10pm. At dusk, admire the Ferry Building's iconic clock tower backed by the glittering Bay Lights.

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Downtown

Barneys New York

Though the store is full of designer wares, the floor-plan at Barneys New York makes it feel more manageable and easy to navigate than the other Union Square heavy-hitters. The main entryway draws shoppers into the jewelry and bag salon, where in-the-round, glass-topped counters allow for easy browsing (and attentive customer assistance). An iron spiral staircase leads the way to the women's shoe salon, where you'll find heels, booties and flats from Alaďa, Chloé, Miu Miu, and Barneys' in-house line. The women's designer and contemporary collections are arranged on labeled rolling racks positioned on the checkerboard-tiled floors. Another winding staircase leads up to the top floor men's salon, where shirts of every shade are shelved in orderly rows. The impeccably dressed store clerks are known for efficient service.

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Union Square

Neiman Marcus

In a city square flanked on all sides by luxury retailers, the Neiman Marcus building is arguably the most impressive. Though the revolving doors feed shoppers directly into the bustle of the cosmetics department, first-timers often stop in their tracks to gape at the opulent rotunda. The structure is topped by an elaborate stained-glass dome, which was salvaged from the famed (and since demolished) department store City of Paris. As you ascend to the two levels above, floor-to-ceiling glass windows afford views of Union Square. Escalators to each floor reveal a central shopping corridor with the season's latest offerings, and designer shops line either side. (Offerings include Prada, Chanel, Gucci, Oscar de la Renta, Stella McCartney and many more.) Head all the way to the top for the home and kids section, where you'll find fine crystal, china and a colorful array of toys and clothes for tots.

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Union Square
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Alden

The first thing you notice upon entering this store is the heady scent of leather. Not just any old leather, mind you: That's shell cordovan leather that's been tanned for six months to achieve the ideal pliancy and durability. Though they're not flashy, these are handcrafted, high-quality kicks for the man who takes his shoes seriously. The brand's stand-alone store offers the full collection of dress and casual shoes, from dapper wingtips and monk strap loafers to ruggedly classic boots. The gleaming leather is hand-stained and polished, arrayed in rich shades of mahogany, caramel, and oxblood. These shoes have stood the test of time: many browsers are already wearing burnished pairs of their own from the brand. And the longtime sales staff is attentive and knowledgeable. This is footwear worth an investment.

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Financial District

The Archive

This is not the store for guys who live in jeans and T-shirts. It's a men's boutique for adventurous dressers and fashion followers (more L'Uomo than GQ) with disposable income to spend. Luckily, San Francisco has never been short on those. The white-walled shop is clean and modernist, with black and white photos of the current collections posted along the wall. The racks are draped with over 30 Japanese, Italian, German and American designers, many of whom are exclusive to the Archive in the Bay Area. That translates to finds like asymmetrical button-downs and crinkled leather jackets by Boris Bidjan Saberi, white calf-leather sneaker boots by Song for the Mute, luminescent parkas by Devoa, and charred acetate eyewear with mirrored lenses by Kuboraum. But the real specialty here is leather. Moto jackets, coats, and luxe hoodies come in reindeer hide, vegetable-tanned buck, crinkled lambskin, calf, and more.

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Union Square

Hotels in Downtown San Francisco

Taj Campton Place

Recommended

San Francisco has only a handful of five-star hotels, a ranking dependent upon a long list of amenities, facilities and services that few can deliver. And then there's Taj Campton Place, officially a four-star for its lack of a spa and swimming pool, but in every other way a bona fide luxury hotel, with service on par with the city's best. Elegant and correct in their restrained design, all 110 rooms are done in soothing shades of neutral ecru, with walls of pear wood and high-end furnishings, including leather-top writing desks. Beds are dressed in silky-soft Frette linens, and the limestone bathrooms are stocked with high-end products and chenille robes. Entry-level "California rooms" have the same finishes and fixtures as larger rooms, but because of their compact size feel a bit crammed; consider upgrading to a larger room. Downstairs the eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant, Campton Place, serves three meals daily, and the same kitchen provides room service to guests.

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Union Square

Hotel Vitale

Recommended

Built from the ground up in 2005, the five-story Vitale overlooks the city's magnificent eastern waterfront and the Bay Bridge's dazzling light display. The aesthetic is hip and sexy, a play on midcentury modern design, with swoop-back chairs and low-slung sofas in a lobby of limestone and wood. Rooms are styled in soothing shades of periwinkle and gray, with low-slung platform beds dressed with custom high-thread-count Italian linens. Bedside tables are like light-up dioramas: Beneath their glass tops, a layer of inset stones glows when you turn on the light inside the cabinet. The least-expensive rooms face an interior courtyard—whisper-quiet for their lack of street noise, they're ideal if you're here for work. But if you're here for fun, definitely book a bay-view room. Or splurge on a top-end "circular suite," with walls of windows and gadgets like remote-controlled blinds. The small rooftop spa offers massages, facials and two rooftop soaking tubs for aromatherapy bathing rituals. Downstairs, the ever-happening bar Americano gets overrun at cocktail hour with twentysomethings on the make; if you're noise-sensitive, book an upper floor.

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Financial District

Hotel Carlton

Recommended

One of the city's best-value midrange hotels, the Carlton got a total makeover in 2013, but because it's just beyond the usual tourist path, rates are lower than at comparable Union Square-area hotels. This is an older building, built in the 1920, with fire-sprinkler pipes running along the hallway ceilings, but there's nothing old-fashioned about the finishes in the rooms, which include iPod docks, multiple surge-protected outlets, and Keurig coffeemakers. The design aesthetic draws inspiration from Morocco, with lush jewel tones playing off white-on-white bed linens. The subway-tile bathrooms are compact, but have enough room to unpack your things. If you're a light sleeper, request a high floor and a room without a connecting door.

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Downtown
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Palace Hotel

The city's most storied hotel opened in 1909, and has hosted multiple presidents, including Woodrow Wilson, who gave his League of Nations speech here in 1919, and President Warren Harding, who died upstairs in 1923. Presidents no longer stay here (there's no underground security access), but still the Palace remains one of the city's grandest addresses—and one of few with an indoor swimming pool. The Garden Court dining room is among the most beautiful in all California, an 8000-square-foot space with domed glass ceiling, 16 Ionic columns of Italian marble, and 20 Austrian crystal chandeliers weighing 750 pounds each. Walls of mahogany rise behind the reception desk, and an original Maxfield Parrish mural adorns the Pied Piper Bar. Guest rooms have high ceilings, crown moldings, and sumptuous beds, but the mass-market furniture and poly-blend upholstery are decidedly business class. Still, for a glimpse of San Francisco history, you can't beat the Palace.

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Financial District

Hotel Monaco

The flagship of Kimpton hotels, the Monaco exemplifies the brand's playful spirit and exceptional service, with eye-popping design elements, unexpected amenities, and a welcoming staff eager to help. The grand lobby of the 1915 building is dominated by a sweeping marble staircase, rising beside a walk-in fireplace of comic-book proportions. Guest rooms are a riot of color and textures, with stripy wallpaper in bold primary colors, filigree prints, red-lacquered side tables, white plantation shutters, and indigo-blue walls. Long desks, copious outlets, and swiveling leather task chairs appeal to business travelers, but cheetah-print bathrobes, in-room yoga kits and goldfish bowls complement functionality with fun. The on-site fitness center is better than average, and adjoins a small spa with sauna, steam and Jacuzzi available to guests for no additional charge.

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Union Square

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