Most major cities have a district of sex shops. But San Francisco is the only one that also boasts a Moorish revival-style castle devoted to BDSM pornos. (Flags mounted atop the imposing structure symbolize leather pride and gay pride.) In this sexually liberated city, local zine Sex & Design hosts regular events, and lube can be purchased by the gallon Costco-style, so it’s not surprising that the sex shops are more inviting than illicit. SF chain Good Vibrations has locations in four San Francisco neighborhoods—including Downtown and the Mission—all featuring toys and fetish gear against a modernist backdrop of white walls and blond wood. The erotic emporiums interspersed with Castro Street’s gay bars cater to gay men, and their open-door policies and close proximity make for easy comparison-shopping. Whether your preferred degree of kink is whips and chains or Dita Von Teese-style bullet bras, there's something for every fetish in San Francisco.
San Francisco’s best sex shops
This is an unparalleled boudoir for Bettie Page fetishists and wannabes, filled with pin-up inspired lingerie from the '30s to '60s. The voluptuous mannequins are draped in silk, satin and lace; you'll find no itchy polyester or garish rhinestones here. Though the bulk of the merchandise consists of peek-a-boo bras, panties and vintage slips, you'll find all manner of alluring extras, including tassels, garters, corsets, lace thigh-highs, girdles and feathered toys. The sizing flatters women of all sizes, from A- to G-cups. Forget Spanx: Bettie packs the largest array of vintage shapewear in the city, from waist-cinchers (for faking that hourglass figure) to girdles. In addition to dead-stock vintage attire, the shop also carries pin-up inspired styles from contemporary brands like Mary Green, What Katie Did, and Felina & Jezebel. If you fall for the Dita Von Teese aesthetic, check out Dollhouse Bettie's sister store down the block, Bettie Page, where you'll find retro frocks to complement your new underthings.
Welcome to the castle of kink—literally. This 20,000-square-foot palace houses the studios of Kink.com, a porn production company specializing in BDSM and bondage videos. The building, originally built in 1914, was formerly home to the National Guard; now porn actors and voyeurs roam its cavernous halls. Tours happen every day (consult the website for times), during which you'll be led through various sets by a guide who may or not be a Kink.com “model.” Most of the filming happens in the basement, where you might encounter a human-sized cage or dungeon-like set. Expect to see a proportionate number of whips, chains and kinky sex toys. Tours conclude in the velvet-walled, Victorian-style salon on the fourth floor, which is suggestively furnished with X-rated art.
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.
There are many sex shops in the Castro. But Rock Hard stands apart from some of its cavelike contemporaries with an extensive selection, welcoming atmosphere and helpful staff. The majority of the clientele here is gay and male, and the merchandise is largely geared toward its neighborhood base (if the Pride flag displayed in the front window wasn't already of a tip-off). You'll find an assortment of sex toys, bondage accessories, strap-ons and lube (by the gallon!), neatly displayed against neutral gray walls. Though relatively small, the shop is well lit and inviting—the door is often left propped open on warm nights—and store clerks are adept at answering questions or offering suggestions. Beyond inexpensive lube, the store is also known for showcasing exhibits of erotic art.