Following the devastation of the 1906 earthquake and fire, the streets south of Market Street became an industrial wasteland of warehouses and sweatshops, and stayed that way for much of the 20th century. With the dotcom boom of the 1990s came rapid regeneration: Warehouses were converted into high-end loft apartments, swanky bars and restaurants opened to serve the new locals, and SoMa, the acronym, took off. Today, a new generation of techies work in SoMa alongside a growing residential class, occupying scores of high-rise apartments and condos in the China Basin and South Beach areas, near the new campus of the University of California San Francisco and AT&T Park.
In the 1980s and ’90s, a city-funded project converted a dilapidated square block bounded by Mission, 3rd, Folsom and 4th streets into the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Gardens. Attractions and businesses are housed in a series of structures that are half above and half below ground. Within the gardens is an urban park with sculpture walks, shady trees and the Revelations waterfall, constructed in 1993 in memory of Martin Luther King Jr. The view from the top of the waterfall offers a comprehensive survey of SoMa’s dramatically changing architecture, with old St. Patrick’s Church juxtaposed against modern offices and Daniel Libeskind’s striking Contemporary Jewish Museum. A skywalk over Howard Street at the south end connects Yerba Buena to the Moscone Convention Center and the Children’s Creativity Museum, ice rink and playground. Flanking either side are other prominent museums, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (currently closed while undergoing expansion), the Cartoon Art Museum, and the California Historical Society.
Things to do in SoMa
The cultural equivalent of a superhero, 111 Minna has a dual identity: art gallery by day, dance club by night. It draws an unusual hybrid clientele. Tech workers rub elbows with the Burning Man set, and art collectors butt up against a hip party crowd in the bar. The gallery consistently features local and international artists, and during the frequent Friday and Saturday events, when the place stays open until 2am, the music skews toward dub, techno and hip-hop. The bar itself is a work of art: a 25-foot-long rolled steel and copper creation by local sculptor Jud Bergeron.
The camera that was used to create the first animation for television (Crusader Rabbit produced 1949–51) graces the lobby of this SoMa museum, which features more than 6,000 pieces of cartoon and animation art, from editorial cartoons and Sunday funnies to graphic novels and original animation cels. This is the only museum in the Western U.S. dedicated to the art form. The bookstore contains a large and eclectic selection of books, 'zines, periodicals and coffee table tomes covering everything from erotic photography to Asterix.
The world's leading publisher of etchings, Crown Point Press invites domestic and international artists to use its studios to explore etching and printmaking, assisted by master printmakers. The results are then displayed in the gallery. Since 1962, artists including Richard Tuttle, Laura Owen, Chuck Close, Richard Diebenkorn, Nathan Olivera and other internationally recognized names have worked in its on-premise print studios.
If you absolutely, positively have to see a just-released blockbuster in 3D IMAX with the latest sound system technology, this is the theater to visit. Always at the cutting edge of movie screening technology, the Metreon is either a feast for, or an assault on, the senses—probably depending on your age.
Eight arts organizations banded together to bring the work of independent filmmakers to the public, resulting in this state-of-the-art facility. Look for screenings from organizations including San Francisco Cinematheque, LGBT film group Frameline, the Center for Asian American Media and more.
Restaurants and bars in SoMa
Not since the giddy days of the dotcom boom has San Francisco seen anything this glamorous South of Market. The name refers to the address—down an obscure alley in a 1917 meat-processing warehouse. Inside, the huge bi-level space combines original brick and exposed timbers with glass and polished metal. A slick bar and lounge with steel ski-lodge fireplaces occupies the lower floor; upstairs diners view the kitchen through glass panels, where chef Matthew Dolan crafts intricately composed plates of local, seasonal ingredients. If you can tear yourself away from all the fabulousness around you, try offerings such as seared ahi tuna with radish gazpacho, foraged mushrooms, arugula and smoked eggplant. The extensive bar menu includes a Bavarian soft pretzel Gruyčre fondue and crispy duck wings.
Sister to Epic Roasthouse, Waterbar takes full advantage of its Embarcadero waterfront location with panoramic views of the Bay from both inside and the outdoor patio. A pair of 19-foot-high circular aquariums anchors the main floor, filled with all-manner of fish and marine creatures. A glass caviar-inspired chandelier and a horseshoe-shaped raw bar offers dramatic seating for the sustainably harvested seafood menu, which includes a full oyster menu and seasonal selections such as wood-oven roasted Alaskan halibut with fresh pole beans and mussels en papillote.
The aromas coming from the steamed and fried dumplings at Yank Sing are so tantalizing, you'll likely gobble them down before finding out what's in them. Exceptionally fresh and flavorful dim sum is undoubtedly what keeps this longtime restaurant thriving in an unlikely corner of a massive office complex. Ordering is half the fun: Just point at what looks good as the waiters roll their carts past your table. Favorites include shanghai dumplings with pork, scallion, ginger and a shot of hot broth, stuffed crab claws, and goldfish dumplings filled with crunchy shrimp and bamboo shoot tips.
Get funky at this self-proclaimed “party mixology” bar in the SoMa district. Furnished with mismatched sofas, chandeliers and old-fashioned globes, the eclectic space is a prime weekend destination for hipsters and tech workers. Deliberately disorienting, the quirky design is modeled after Villa Nellcôte, the Côte d'Azur mansion where the Rolling Stones partied and recorded in 1971. Easy-to-gulp original cocktails feature unusual ingredients such as mole bitters, tobacco tincture and maraschino liqueur infused with Indian curry spices. Meanwhile, throwback drinks (Grasshoppers, Between the Sheets, daiquiris), beer-and-shot combos (rye plus lager, or the popular cinnamon Fireball liqueur served with cider) and “social” drinks (punch bowls and oversized shakers served tableside) meant for four to seven people can jumpstart idling conversation. Soak up the boozy excess with nibbles including truffle fries, sliders Asian-style tacos and charcuterie. Those looking to amp up their night can hop upstairs to sister bar Audio Discotech, a DJ nightclub pimped out with premium audio equipment and bottle-service booths. There's no menu—drinks are tailored to demand, which often means fast-poured club cocktails like vodka sodas, AMFs, whiskey sours and old-fashioneds—made with craft cocktail ingredients and flair.
This literary-themed bar combines two of life's great pleasures: booze and books. Wall-spanning shelves of color-coordinated classic tomes punctuate the strikingly modern black and white interior. The design foreshadows a seasonal cocktail menu that nods to beloved literary characters such as Romeo and Juliet, Mary Poppins, Ichabod Crane and others. The Emma Woodhouse, for instance, a bright and refined mix of gin, peach liqueur, Aperol, dry vermouth, Peychaud bitters and maraschino liqueur, pays homage to Jane Austin's heroine. Another novel touch is the bar's punch program. Crafted in bulk using the labor-intensive traditional method, it's available on tap in six strong and delicious seasonal flavors, organized by the main liquor. Choose your poison (gin, pisco, tequila, rum, corn whiskey, or the house recipe made of three different types of whiskey) and order it by the cup, the flight or the pitcher. With plenty of space for lounging on large armchairs or low sofas, Novela is a popular happy hour destination for techies from nearby startups and a nightcap spot for well-heeled residents of nearby apartment buildings. Boisterous groups gather on weekend nights. The bar frequently hosts events, such as movie nights and “oysters and bubbles,” so check the website for the latest.
This très French café on the corner of the little green oasis of South Park is always crowded with locals who queue for the fresh-made breakfast pastries, croque monsieurs, charcuterie and crępes. Tuck into pain au chocolat or sip a Pernod while chatting with Pierre, the amiable owner.
Music and nightlife in SoMa
Local, national and international DJs and live acts hold court on the main stage of this 900-capacity club, which has two long bars bordering the ample dancefloor and a lofty space upstairs. Though it's become an increasingly hip-hop friendly place over the years, this is still the definition of a multipurpose club and you never know what might be happening on any given night. You could catch a throwback act like Boyz II Men in the same week as the latest electronic sensation from abroad or a Southern rap act. Its size and multilevel layout make it a prime pickup and people-watching spot too. Cash only.
San Francisco's legendary biker bar is best known for its Sunday afternoon beer busts, when leather-clad bears, muscle men in tanks, twinks in tight tees and gal pals in trucker caps pack the huge outdoor patio to get shitfaced before sundown on $12 all-you-can-drink beer. This is the melting pot, the place local gay men and party-hardy lesbians come to connect with their tribe. Friday and Saturday nights bring various monthly events, from cigars and spanking to drag queens and dance parties; live bands play Thursday nights, drawing a mixed straight-gay crowd. Monday to Wednesday it's dead.
When the other SoMa bars are dead, there's always someone at Powerhouse, possibly the most popular gay bar in the city, perhaps because of its notorious back smokers' patio, where poppers provide an acrid counterpoint to cigarette smoke. DJs spin house most nights, and the shirtless crowd occasionally dances, especially on Fridays. Several nights a week, there's some sort of contest, whether a wet-jockstrap or smelly-armpit competition, promising free drinks and a hundred bucks to the winner. Thursday night's underwear party is always a scene. If you're looking to pick up, this is the place. Leave your girlfriends at home.
Going strong for nearly 50 years, the Stud is one of the city's most illustrious bars, referenced in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City and the birthplace of legendary drag show Trannyshack. A special late-night license allows it to operate till 4am, and once other bars have closed at 2am, the Stud stays open—at least on weekends. Best events are Friday's "Some-thing" ($7 cover after 10pm), an art and drag party, when the pool table becomes a craft table, queens perform numbers, and the upbeat crowd dances till the wee hours; Tuesday's "Meow Mix," an anything goes cabaret and burlesque show; and the first Saturday of the month's disco party, "Go Bang!"
The 550-capacity Slim’s isn’t one of San Francisco’s most comfortable venues. Most patrons have to stand, sightlines are compromised by the floor-to-ceiling pillars and, on busy nights, it gets pretty steamy. Still, it’s one of the few places in the city for all ages (well, six and up) to enjoy a concert and therefore remains a rite of passage for local music fans. The schedule is mostly made up of rock bands, who play alongside a smattering of hip-hop acts, reggae groups and rootsy singer/songwriters.
Goth kids have flocked to SoMa for all manner of musical fetishes and countercultural indulgences for years. And no night is complete without a stop at longtime fixture DNA Lounge, the home of leading goth/industrial synthpop night Death Guild. But this isn't a place where darkness reigns—it's also home to the playful, long-running mashup Bootie, where the partygoers' outfits are as creative (and incongruous) as the sounds. The wonderful stage set-up, which can be viewed from both the dance floor and the recessed mezzanine, has turned even hip-hop acts on to this gem of a nightspot. And the upstairs lounge has its own dark, sexy and intimate area for dancing. Cash only.
Headquarters of the weekly party Housepitality and a venue of choice for international house and techno DJs, Monarch is a beacon of friendly dance vibes in a still-tense stretch of Sixth Street in SoMa. The club opened in 2011 and has since been reimagined to incorporate a newer upstairs craft cocktail bar area called Emperor's Drawing Room, a hideaway within the larger space that has a sliding wall for privacy and is open to the public and for private events. A custom Void Acoustics sound system is considered one of the best in San Francisco—and it's appropriately plated in gold.
Shopping in SoMa
Badge-holding florists arrive at this marketplace well before dawn to scoop up the best botanicals at wholesale prices. The warehouse-like market opens to the public at 10am, when you can ogle (and inhale the scent of) hundreds of blooms from local growers under one roof. The overflowing tubs include roses, orchids, tulips, ranunculus, lilies and dozens of exotic flowers you've never heard of. The stems can be purchased singly or arranged in bouquets, and prices vary from booth to booth. (Some purveyors are amendable to haggling.) Many of the vendors here grow locally, which means the blooms last longer than the grocery store variety, and the prices are typically cheaper as well. Wear a jacket—the building is kept cool to preserve the plants' freshness.
Bright, clean, and inviting are not adjectives typically synonymous with a sex shop. But this may be the least sleazy sex shop you're ever been to. The local chain has four locations in the city, and all are uniformly immaculate. (The Polk Street store, however, is the only one to tout a Vibrator Museum.) While the wood interior is complemented by pops of pink, don't be fooled: The store caters to both men and women, and the offerings range from bachelorette party novelties to the truly hardcore. There's a full wall of strap-ons, rows of vibrators, an array of bondage accessories, floggers, cuffs, plugs, rings, condoms, lube, erotic books, porn movies and more. Most every item for sale has a display model, so you can test the item in your hand before buying. The pleasant staff doesn't hover, but they know their stuff: Tell them what you like and they'll make informed suggestions.
Hotels in SoMa
A giant Plinko board rises in the lobby of this art-filled downtowner, whose mezzanine games room befits the overworked Silicon Valley techies who are its target market. Built in 1903 and completely gutted in 2013 by the Viceroy Group, the 116-room hotel is up to date with all the latest gadgets. The design theme plays off salvage and rescue (which is also the name of the lobby bar), and repurposed materials are everywhere, as in the lobby's tiered chandelier of cast-off eye glasses. Rooms are bigger than average, uncluttered and whisper-quiet, with giant butcher-block architect's desks, plush beds with 500-thread-count sheets, and Bluetooth pairing to link your electronics with the 47-inch TV and Jambox speaker. The onsite Cavalier gastropub serves stick-to-your-ribs cooking that will keep you working all night.
This simple hotel plays to an under-30 demographic, with a dorm-room aesthetic and an emphasis on green—salvaged-wood bed frames, fleece bedspreads made from recycled soda bottles, and repurposed-glass chandeliers. The look is playful, fun and decidedly non-generic. Most rooms are in a five-story 1911 building, converted in 2008, with multiple bed configurations, perfect for groups of friends traveling together. An adjoining two-story 1950s-era motel has rooms with air-conditioning; these are best if you have a car and want easy access to onsite parking. The in-between neighborhood can be sketchy, but it's generally safe, close to the Muni metro, and walkable to Union Square.