The best things to do in and around San Francisco’s Union Square
San Francisco’s Union Square gets a bad rap.
Though it’s where you’ll find the vast majority of the California city’s hotels and it enjoys the aesthetic advantage of a historic cable car trundling past, locals turn their noses up at mere mention of this palm-fringed public plaza in downtown’s heart.
Blame the open-top bus tours or the glut of designer stores, but Union Square has — in recent times, at least — been Bay Area kryptonite.
A new influx of hot addresses, however, might just change all that.
In 2018, the area welcomed a new music venue, August Hall, which has both revitalized an 1890s Victorian playhouse and brought those reluctant locals back to Union Square, with suitably cool live acts like former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr.
Peer further into the gaps between tourist traps, and you’ll find plenty to recommend itself beyond Sears Fine Food and Macy’s sales. Here’s where to find the best things to do around Union Square when you travel here.
In the area
The Museum of Ice Cream, a “pop-up” that arrived in the fall, has proven so popular, it’ll be sticking around until September 2018 — at least. Less a history of the foodstuff, and more an elaborate Instagram backdrop, there’s no end of opportunities to strike a pose: perhaps in a pool of sprinkles, or next to an over-sized popsicle.
Better still, there are samples ranging across various styles, from San Francisco’s own Ghirardelli ice cream, to Mexican-style La Michoacana and Japanese-inspired My/Mo Mochi.
For more adult refreshment, Pacific Cocktail Haven is a neighborhood bar beloved by San Francisco bartenders; owner Kevin Diedrich has been anointed a “bar star” by the San Francisco Chronicle in recognition of fun, approachable cocktails that are nevertheless expertly made.
The Leeward Negroni, with coconut-washed Campari, is a masterclass in bitter-sweet; on a hot day (yes, San Francisco has a few of them), a draft Japanese hi-ball will quench a thirst. Plus, staff are unusually friendly for such a high-caliber cocktail spot, and the neon-yellow P.C.H sign begs for a selfie.
Catch the next big theater sensation before it hits the headlines at Curran, a 1922-built, Beaux-Arts beauty that reopened last year after a major restoration. In typically progressive San Francisco style, the theater states its mission as showing “bold, daring work”; currently, that involves a vision of Hillary Clinton twerking on a Big Mac in its latest stage show, Soft Power.
It’d be easy to miss this cool little gallery on Geary, one block south of the square, but rock ‘n’ roll fans in particular should make a pilgrimage to the San Francisco Art Exchange. Poking around its disorderly nooks turns up some fantastic pop culture photography, with subjects ranging from Johnny Cash to Robert F. Kennedy.
The SFAE got its start showing the work of pin-up painter Alberto Vargas as fine art (you can still find some upstairs). An archway on the ground floor, daubed with the words ‘Storm’s Arch,’ is a nod to Storm Thorgerson, known for painting Pink Floyd’s album covers: in the gallery’s early days, he’d demanded they install an arch to aid the “flow” of his exhibition.
Museum of Ice Cream, 1 Grant Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94108, +1 (855) 258-0719
Pacific Cocktail Haven, 580 Sutter Street, San Francisco, CA 94108, +1 (415) 398-0195
Curran Theater, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA 94102, +1 (415) 358-1220
San Francisco Art Exchange, 458 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA 94102, +1 (415) 441-8840
Five minutes away
A quick stroll across main thoroughfare Market Street and into the new-build SOMA neighborhood, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art recently tripled its exhibition space after an extensive renovation — including the Pritzker Center for Photography, the largest space permanently dedicated to photography in a United States art museum.
In keeping with the city’s culinary reputation, SFMOMA also has a Michelin-starred restaurant in Situ, where the kitchen reproduces dishes by world-famous eateries, including NYC’s Eleven Madison Park and Italy’s Osteria Francescana.
Tea break? Across the road from SFMOMA, Samovar Tea Lounge is a sedate oasis above the downtown bedlam, tucked into an upper terrace of the Yerba Buena Gardens arts and culture complex.
Climbing the assault course of construction to get here is richly rewarded (access is tricky owing to the building of a new pedestrian bridge).
Samovar’s small-batch teas are sourced from artisan farmers all over the world, and you can sip on anything from a calming turmeric, ginger and licorice herbal infusion, to a full-blown tea-tasting flight paired with food.
Japanese craft beer brand Hitachino Nest chose a spot just east of the square to open its first US restaurant, which pairs suds and sake with a wagyu-heavy menu: hence the unflinchingly literal name, Hitachino Beer & Wagyu.
It’s the spot for a splurge — high-grade Hitachino beef comes at a price — but it’s every bit as worthwhile to just take a seat at the bar and try a few brews, which are deliciously unique (see the ancient red rice ale, or yuzu-infused lager).
The sake here is top-notch, too: Kiuchi Brewery, which produces Hitachino Nest, has been making sake since 1823.
SFMOMA, 151 3rd Street, San Francisco, CA 94103, +1 (415) 357-4000
Samovar Tea Lounge, 730 Howard Street, San Francisco, CA 94103, +1 (415) 227-9400
Hitachino Beer & Wagyu, 639 Post Street, San Francisco, CA 94109, +1 (415) 624-3580
Ten minutes away
Speakeasy-style bars are a dime a dozen these days, but Bourbon & Branch was an early pioneer of the trend, and even carries the distinction of an authentic speakeasy past.
During Prohibition, it was run as ‘JJ Russell’s Cigar Shop,’ but was in fact one of the city’s premier drinking dens — and so it remains today, in its new guise.
Reserving ahead scores you a password to the main bar, hidden behind a nondescript door, under an ‘Anti-Saloon League’ sign.
No reservation? Try your luck at another unmarked entrance around the corner, where a none-too-incognito bouncer lurks. Inside, there’s a small bar decked out like a library; the password is “books.”
Liholiho Yacht Club is the darling of San Francisco’s burgeoning ‘Tendernob’ district: halfway between the notorious Tenderloin neighborhood and affluent Nob Hill.
Its California-meets-Hawaii menu is an innovative marriage of chef Ravi Kapur’s tropical upbringing and the Bay Area’s fresh, clean ingredients. Though it’s been around since 2015, you’ll still struggle to get even a weeknight booking before 10 pm.
Downstairs, the affiliated basement bar, Louie’s Gen-Gen Room, serves the likes of pineapple Negronis and bone-marrow butter waffles.
Bourbon & Branch, 501 Jones Street, San Francisco, CA 94102, +1 (415) 346-1735
Liholiho Yacht Club, 871 Sutter Street, San Francisco, CA 94109, +1 (415) 440-5446
Fifteen minutes away
It’s worth the extra walk to get your hands on a cruffin: Yes, that’s right, this is a cross between a croissant and a muffin.
A limited number are served from 9 am every morning at Mr Holmes Bakehouse, another Tendernob favorite — and maybe the city’s most stylish bakery, with its trendy white tiles, and ‘I got baked in San Francisco’ spelled out in pink neon.
Cruffin flavors vary day to day, but expect anything from guava cheesecake to lavender mousse.
Who says San Francisco style is all hoodie-wearing schlub?
Only steps from that cruffin, Hero Shop is a fashion boutique owned and curated by a former Vogue staffer Emily Holt. Her picks span everything from statement pieces by Rosie Assoulin to SF’s very own luxury loungewear label, Stevie Howell.
Better still, the store donates a portion of profits to nearby social services, such as the at-risk family support organization, Raphael House.
Mr Holmes Bakehouse, 1042 Larkin Street, San Francisco, CA 94109, +1 (415) 829-7700
Hero Shop, 982 Post Street, San Francisco, CA 94109, +1 (415) 829-3129