Union Square, San Francisco, CA
best shopping, theater, tourist attractions
Besides being the one of the largest shopping areas in all the U.S., the Union Square Shopping District is also a major tourist destination and center of SF’s theater district. It is also has an unusual bustling mixture of upscale shoppers, buses full of foreign tourists, local service workers, and high-end hotels located immediately adjacent seedy neighborhoods.
To help you figure out exactly where to go to make the most of it, below is a guide to the top attractions which even jaded locals enjoy. Also see location map.
In December Union Square, SF, is dressed in its finest for the holiday season. It’s a great place to go if you want to get into the holiday spirit!
Christmas Holidays at Union Square
Christmas holiday season is definitely the best time to visit Union Square Shopping District. We enjoy:
- The hundreds of retail stores completely decked out in Christmas finery.
- It’s the shopping peak of the year so retail inventory and staffing are at their max. Still, if you shop before noon, the stores are not overcrowded and service has always been excellent.
- The 83′ tall Christmas tree (with 33,000 LEDs and 1,700 strobe lights) and winter ice skating on Union Square. The air is often crisp in December which adds to the holiday feeling.
- Opera-trained carolers on Maiden Lane. Only in San Francisco is the quality of street musicians so high. They must be professional musicians just doing it for fun.
- Christmas brunch with the sea gulls (see video) on the outdoor terrace high above Union Square at Macy’s Cheese Factory restaurant, is another novelty we enjoy. Get there early to find a table from which you can see the Union Square action below.
- Westfield San Francisco Centre three blocks away at Powell/Market. The largest urban mall west of the Mississippi is also at its best during Christmas season.
Shopping ON Union Square
Upscale national chains on Union Square include Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Ave, and Macy’s Flagship Store. Tiffany & Co, Levi Strauss, Louis Vitton, Williams Sonoma Flagship Store, and the Westin St Francis Hotel are some retailers located on the Square.
Shopping EAST OF Union Square
One block east of Union Square, between Stockton & Grant Streets (or you can go one block further to Kearny), is more good shopping. Just follow your eyes to the most interesting stores, many of which cannot be found in suburban malls, as well as upper-class art galleries and unusual businesses. Here are some places to walk.
- Maiden Lane was once the center of SF’s red-light district where murders occurred every week. See SF history for more details about this era. After it was leveled by the 1906 earthquake retail merchants converted the lane into a 2-block pedestrian mall which is now lined with botiques and restaurants. They also changed its name from Morton Lane to Maiden Lane, after high-end shopping areas in England and New York.The fancy botiques now on Maiden Lane include Mark Jacobs (25 Maiden Lane/Grant); Diptyque (171 Maiden Ln/Stockton); and Xanadu Tribal Arts (140 Maiden Lane/Grant) whose building is a San Francisco designated landmark designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1948 as one of the prototypes (it has a spiral ramp inside) for the Guggenheim museum in NYC.We’ve noticed that the stores and restaurants tend to open later in the day here even during the holidays. Another tip is that during Christmas holidays you can often find professionally-trained singers singing for tips at Maiden Lane/Grant.
- Along Post Street. E.g., Gump’s (135 Post/Kearny), is a historic source of SF luxury housewares; Brooks Brothers (150 Post St/Grant); Shreve & Co., a big jewelry store found in most malls.
- On Sutter Street. E.g., Wilkes Bashford (375 Sutter/Grant), has $1000 jackets, $500 cashmere sweaters, and Jimmy Choo shoes.
- On Geary Street. E.g., Chanel Botique, 156 Geary St/Grant.).
- Side Trip: Take this quick round-the-block walk from Union Square to experience off-Union-Square shopping:
- From Stockton/Maiden Lane
- go East 1 block to Grant
- go North 1 block to Post
- go West 1 block to Stockton
- go South 1 block back to the starting point at Stockton/Maiden Lane.
- Side Trip: Surprisingly close to Union Square, only 3 blocks away at Grant/Bush, is Chinatown’s Dragon Gate. This is a nice little side trip if you have not been there yet.Just across the street from the Dragon Gate is Cafe de la Presse (352 Grant/Bush), a Parisian-style cafe with nice atmosphere. It marks the eastern edge of SF’s French Quarter where the first French immigrants, about 3000 of them sponsored by the French Government, settled in 1851. Now French Quarter restaurants, with their outside tables and European flair, can be found in the alleyways east on Bush (e.g., The Irish Bank Bar, 10 Mark Lane; Cafe Claude, 7 Claude Lane; Cafe Bastille, 22 Belden Place; Cafe Tiramasu, 28 Belden Place). They tend to be open mainly weekdays (for the financial district crowd) and evenings.
Shopping SOUTH OF Union Square
Three blocks south, down Powell St along the cable car line, is Westfield San Francisco Centre, 865 Market St/Powell. This giant mall is anchored by Bloomingdales and Nordstroms.
One block south of Union Square, down Stockton St and near the corner of Stockton/O’Farrell St, you will find such stores as Barneys New York, Macys Men’s Store, Apple Store, Armani Exchange, The Ferrari Store, Bed Bath & Beyond, and more. During the holidays you can also see Macy’s Christmas window displays here at this corner.
Westfield San Francisco Centre
This enclosed center at Market/Powell is the largest urban mall west of the Mississippi. Bloomingdales(2d largest in the country after NYC) and Nordstroms Bay Area Flagship are just two of over 200 stores, restaurants, and theaters located on 6 different levels.
The Nordstroms side of the mall features a modern-looking 5-story vertical mall with one of the most spectacular spiral mall escalators in the world. Many smaller stores, in addition to the Nordstroms along one side, are to be found on every floor. Food is also available on the lowest level of this side in addition to the larger Food Emporium adjacent Bloomingdales.
On Bloomingdales side of the mall look for the historic (1908) 102′ wide glass dome at the top. Starting about 5 pm there are short light shows to music using the dome as a backdrop. The big Food Emporium on the lowest level of this side, adjacent Bristol Farms Gourmet Grocery, has some excellent upscale eateries not found in a normal mall. You also have very easy indoor access to BART and can walk under Market St from here.
Tourist Attractions on Union Square
Of course, historic Union Square (est. 1850) is a busy tourist bus stop so it is often packed with out-of-towners. The general hub bub, cable cars, and flower stalls at the corner of Geary/Powell are an unusual atmosphere to experience. See the rest of this guide for best things to do nearby.
The Geary/Powell corner is a good place to get a feel for the excitement of cable cars. Usually they are filled to the brim so, to get on for a ride, you must walk 3 stimulating blocks south down Powell St to the Cable Car Turn Table. There you must still wait in long lines if you are determined to add riding a cable car to your life experience list. We recommend the Powell-Hyde Cable Car line for the steepest, most exciting and beautiful ride; it also passes by the Cable Car Museum Powerhouse Barn at Washington/Mason but don’t get off there or you will lose your seat.
Westin St Francis Hotel (335 Powell St/Geary) across the street, has been a hub of San Francisco social life since it opened in 1904. Many monarchs and presidents have stayed there over the years. It is less interesting now that security has become so tight; for example, riding the exterior glass elevators to the top used to be a classic SF adventure but they were closed in 2012 except to hotel guests.
Union Square Plaza is at the center of SF’s main theater district and you can often get theater tickets for half price the day of the show at the TIX Box Office (350 Powell/Geary) on the Plaza.
American Conservatory Theater (ACT), SF’s largest theater company, is located one block west of Union Square in the historic Geary Theater Building (405 Geary/Mason). Next door is Curran Theater(445 Geary/Mason). Both reside in beautiful but old buildings so legroom can be very tight. Most businesses along the way cater to tourists including several over-priced art galleries and Lefty O’Doul’s(333 Geary/Powell), a historic bar with baseball memorabilia and average hofbrau food you may like. In this direction you are approaching the seedy Tenderloin part of town so there is not much else nearby we recommend.
Parking and other notes
In general, start early in the day or expect parking hassles and crowds … especially during the holiday season.
Parking is usually best & least expensive at the multi-story Sutter-Stockton Garage, 444 Stockton/Sutter; go north on Stockton to enter. A relatively traffic-free way to this garage from Hwy 280 (by the Ballpark) is to go north on 3rd St continuing on past Market St to what becomes Kearny St. Stay in the left hand land and 3-4 blocks past Market turn west at Sutter St. Then take a right at Stockton and a very quick right into the garage.
The Union Square Garage, the world’s first underground parking garage at 333 Post/Powell, is more often full or difficult to access due to traffic. At the big Fifth & Mission Garage, 833 Mission/5th just south of Westfield SF Centre, we have found that the lines of cars waiting on the street to get into the garage can get long.
For those who are comfortable with public transportation, the Powell Street BART Station, Market/Powell, is an excellent option.
- Side Trip: Glide Memorial Church, 434 Ellis St/Jones, is only 4 blocks away in the Tenderloin, one of SF’s seediest neighborhoods. 934,000 meals were served by Glide last year to the city’s poor, homeless and hungry, through just one of their many social programs.Glide is one of the most famous and most prominent liberal churches in America, especially if you are into Gospel Choirs. (Auditions are held every Wednesday at 6pm for their 100 person ensemble … you’d better be great to keep up.) People like Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffett, Diane Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi often drop by Glide’s rocking Sunday morning service celebrations (9am and 11am, come at least 1/2 hour early to get a seat).
- Strangely enough the unique, tasty food San Francisco is famous for can be a bit difficult to find around Union Square. Too dense and too many tourists probably. We suggest looking elsewhere in San Francisco for better food experiences.
We hope this guide helps you really enjoy the time you spend at Union Square. Though it is not a place we visit often Union Square is a different, more commercial side of San Francisco that can be a lot of fun, especially at Christmas time!
- Christmas Brunch overlooking Union Square
- Map to Union Square
- Top Shopping Malls and Map – Here are the best shopping malls in the San Francisco Bay area.
- Chinatown and Map – The southern Dragon Gate entrance to Chinatown is only 4 blocks from Union Square.
- Back from Union Square Shopping to SF Neighborhood Guide
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