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San Francisco, California, United States

Union Square and SoMa

Shops, museums, parks and dining in Union Square and South of Market Street

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Difficulty: Easy
Length: 1.6 miles / 2.6 km
Duration: Half day
Family Friendly
Overview: San Francisco's famous shopping, culture and cuisine begin with a trip to Union Square. There is so much more to see just off the main plaza, however. This trip may start with high levels of retail punctuated by loud (yet endearing) cable car bells, but it then takes the visitor south of Market Street to the SoMa district, where world-class and lesser-known museums, an amazing park, great food and drinks and plenty of family-friendly (and unexpected) sites await.

Tips: Wear comfortable shoes and dress in layers, because San Francisco weather is not only unpredictable and unseasonable, but it changes from neighborhood to neighborhood.

This is a flat journey, so no need to worry about the city's famous hills.

Points of Interest


Union Square

The square was built in 1850 and named in support of Union troops when the Civil War began. This is the heart of San Francisco, where tourists and locals mingle every day. The square is used for all kinds of public and private needs, such as open markets (flowers, art), demonstrations and rallies, and general sunning, lunching, meeting and enjoyment.

For visitors, Union Square is an ideal place to get your bearings, take in the sights and sounds of the city and begin your day. If you face Macy's, you will see cable cars rumble by to your right on Powell Street. Beautiful hotels and high-end boutiques and department stores surround the square on all sides. Of note: the century-old Westin St. Francis (Powell) and its famous red awnings survived the 1906 earthquake; it features an opulent lobby, antique grandfather clock and one of the city's best restaurants, Michael Mina (Michelin two-star).

If you enjoy shopping, allow plenty of time to roam around the square. Beyond the mammoth Macy's are: Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany, Williams-Sonoma, Nike and Neiman Marcus (Geary and Stockton), which has a grand rotunda topped with an impressive stained-glass dome. During the holidays, the store brings in an enormous six-story Christmas tree. It's well worth exploring Post Street, Maiden Lane and Geary Street to the east for smaller, but equally important boutiques.

This guide recommends heading down quaint Maiden Lane next, which is reserved for pedestrian traffic only.

Maiden Lane

After the rush of Union Square, heading east on Maiden Lane can be a welcome break for your senses, especially the ears. While today the lane is packed with chic boutiques and cafes, in the early 1900s it was known for bordellos!

At 140 Maiden Lane, take a look at Xanadu Gallery. The building was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and inspired his work on the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, which he designed at the same time.

You can continue down Maiden Lane until it ends at Kearny and then backtrack a block to Grant Avenue. Head south on Grant to where it meets O'Farrell and Market streets.

Cafe Madeleine

If you have worked up an appetite (and didn't stop for a bite at one of the bistros on Maiden Lane), Madeleine is worth a stop.

This bakery and sandwich shop serves breakfast, lunch, desserts and some of the best espresso and hot chocolate around. Of note, homemade chocolate-flavored whipped cream is a decadent and necessary addition to any cup of hot cocoa on a windy San Francisco day.

After Madeleine, continue west on O'Farrell toward Stockton for some more shopping options and a change of scenery.
43 O'Farrell St.
(Between Grant and Stockton, across from Macy's Men's Building)
Monday-Friday 7am-6pm,
Saturday 9am-5pm

San Francisco Shopping Centre (Westfield)

Across Market Street is the massive San Francisco Shopping Centre (Westfield). It is basically a large mall in the center of the city, with an enormous selection of shops from monster retailers like Old Navy, Nordstrom, Banana Republic and Abercrombie & Fitch to smaller shops like Kiehls, Michael Kors, Vans and Aveda, to specialty retailers like Mai Do, Godiva and Cocoa Bella Chocolates. There is also a movie theater and a wide variety of "mall food" in the base of the center.

Unless you have the urge to shop at stores most Americans can find in any major city, it's likely not worth your precious time in San Francisco.
Westfield San Francisco Centre
865 Market St.


After crossing Market Street, Stockton becomes Fourth Street. Pass the opulent Four Seasons and Marriott hotels (on your left) and cross Mission Street to enter the Metreon at the southeast corner of Mission and Fourth.

Originally built by Sony in 1999, the Metreon's website boasts that it is "a state of the art technology and entertainment marketplace covering over 350,000 square feet on four levels." It was intended as a hip showcase for gamers and gadget/movie/arcade/tech-lovers, and the architecture and layout certainly support that mission.

It is a beautiful building, full of glass, light, metal and unexpected twists and turns that overlooks stunning Yerba Buena Gardens. However, perhaps in part due to the dot com bust, the space became one without a clear purpose. Inside, it feels sort of vacant and content light, and after my first quick walk through after it opened, I felt I had seen everything it had to offer. I lived across the street between 2001 and 2004, and I rarely frequented the place, except to see a movie or have an occasional lunch or dinner, preferably to-go, so I could enjoy the outdoor beauty of the gardens just outside the steel-and-glass Metreon doors.
Metreon Shopping Center
101 Fourth St.

Beard Papa's Cream Puffs

Cream puffs? Yes, these cream puffs are so worth the stop for your sweet tooth. The freshly made puffs come in the following flavors: vanilla bean, chocolate, caramel, pumpkin, green tea, coffee and strawberry. The flaky crust is an excellent vehicle for the light, not-too-sweet cream filling. I was never interested in cream puffs until I tried these, and now, well, I wouldn't pass by this shop for all the clam chowder or sourdough bread at Fisherman's Wharf.

Beard Papa's is next to St. Patrick's Catholic Church, an impressive brick cathedral overlooking Mission Street and Yerba Buena Gardens. There is a pedestrian cross-walk midblock on Mission, so you can easily dart across the street from YB Gardens to pick up a to-go order of cream puffs for some tasty park lounging. You will be a hero to anyone touring San Francisco with you.
99 Yerba Buena Lane
(Between Third and Fourth streets off Mission Street)

Yerba Buena Gardens & Zeum Children's Museum

Yerba Buena Gardens, housed between Mission, Folsom, Fourth and Third streets, sits in the heart of the greater Yerba Buena district. The latter is an 87-acre area that extends all the way to Harrison Street to the south and Second Street to the west.

The gardens feature a suprising number of installations and sites for the young and young at heart, including a carousel, an ice-skating and bowling center, and an incredible man-made waterfall. Visitors can walk behind and on top of the waterfall. Up top is the Samovar Tea Lounge, a beautiful spot that serves "fresh, organic, and fair-trade teas, herbal infusions and Bay Area cuisine."

The gardens are great for kids for yet another reason: Zeum, an amazing children's museum that features "a hands-on, multimedia arts and technology experience."

Yerba Buena is often the site for cultural and artistic festivals, performances and fairs such as regular Thursday lunchtime concerts, a Latin jazz series and Weekend Sessions, which feature music from all over the world.

Nearby and within the Yerba Buena district visitors also will find the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the Museum of the African Diaspora, the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Moscone Convention Center and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), which is the next stop on this guide.

Hours: 6am - 10pm
Admission: Free

SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

The SFMOMA is definitely one of, if not the, highlight of a visit to SoMa. Unlike many musems, which are intimidating or stuffy, the SFMOMA is refreshingly approachable. There is no shortage of friendly staff on hand to answer questions or point you in the right direction.

The exhibits are thoughtful and provacative as well as timeless--everything from Georgia O'Keeffe and Ansel Adams to Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall to Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. The museum takes care to help the layperson actually learn about modern art, not just pretend to understand or give themselves a pat on the back for braving the domain.

The building features an impressive entrance with dramtically lofted ceilings and an open, airy feel. From the outside, the museum's "signature turret and oculus skylight" are eye-catching.

The museum's store is also well worth some of your time. In addition to a fantastic selection of modern and contemporary art books, the store has unique presents for family and friends from home decor and unique salt and pepper shakers to jewelry, toys, furniture and children's products.

Finally the cafe is also very good. The menu and indoor/outdoor seating are dynamite.
Address: 151 3rd Street
Phone: 415-357-4000

Closed Wednesdays
Mon-Tues: 10 am-5:45pm
Thurs: 10am-8:45pm
Fri-Sun: 10am-5:45pm

Other Resources

W Hotel

The W Hotel is the first of a few nearby, suggested options in SoMa to pause for a drink and/or dinner. Some of these options are more family friendly than others.

The W and its bar, cafe and restaurant weigh more heavily toward adults than children. This is a swishy place with lots of black and purple lighting, where you can people watch all night long. The food, drinks and service are very good.
181 Third St.

Thirsty Bear Brewing Co.

As you pass the W and continue east on Howard, you will get to the Thirsty Bear within a block. While this is a casual bar that happens to serve amazing, organic house brews like Polar Bear Lager and Howard St. IPA, I would not write this spot off for bringing the kids. They serve a wide variety of meals, including tapas (or small plates) for vegetarians, meat-eaters and picky-eaters (as many children can be). There is also an upstairs and back room for billiards and darts, which can be a welcome distraction for impatient patrons. If you have children, go on the early side, before it gets too crowded and noisy. If you are without kids, the local after-work vibe is fun and friendly.
661 Howard St.

Hours: Monday through Thursday 11:30am - 10pm; Friday 11:30am - 12am; Saturday 12pm - 12am; Sunday 5pm - 10pm
Other Resources
Thirsty Bear

111 Minna Gallery & Nightclub

111 Minna is a gallery, bar and nightclub all in one. The hip, urban space occupies 4,000 square feet on tiny little Minna Street, between Mission and Natoma and New Montgomery and Second streets. The gallery features local and international artists, well-respected DJs, live performance and film screenings. Wednesday is the big (but early) night at 111 Minna. Not a place to bring children. Gallery viewing hours are Tues-Sat noon-5pm and happy hour starts afterward.
111 Minna St. (at Second Street)

Roy's Hawaiian Fusion Restaurant & Bar

Two words: pineapple martini.

When the bartender first recommended this cocktail, I thought, "Not for me. Sounds fruity and weird." I was wrong. Very wrong. They are amazing, smooth, tasty and not at all too sweet. But be warned: They go down very easily and can catch up with you.

If you are without children, then sit at the bar, check out the happy vodka bathing in multiple large glass casks of tropical fruit and relax. If you have children with you, then you can get a table in the main dining room. The drinks, food (fresh fish, pork that falls off the bone, creative vegetable dishes) and service are phenomenal, and you will feel like you escaped to Hawaii for an hour or two. A great way to end your day (or begin your night).

While not at all formal, Roy's is a nice restaurant, and folks in shorts or very casual clothing might feel a little bit uncomfortable in the dining room. The bar is likely a better option if you feel under-dressed.
575 Mission St.
Monday through Friday 5:30pm - 10pm
Saturday and Sunday 5pm - 10pm
* Lunch Served Mon-Fri 11:30am-2pm
* Aloha Hour: Sun-Fri 4:30-6:30pm
Pictures in this guide taken by: joost, tevadar, tomaszdunn, hobomanbo, krbose, Yiping, jimsky7, ascardoso

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