True, the heart of downtown San Francisco is Union Square, where there is plenty of tourist activity and chain store shopping. Ring-a-ding-ding go the cable cars’ bells, shoppers grab a seat for a cappuccino under the palm trees in the square, doormen nod to visitors rushing in and out of their hotels. The ubiquitous red Macy’s logo is seen on the bags adorning many a shopper’s arm, an occasional robin’s egg Tiffany blue appears among other big name brands such as Neiman Marcus, Saks, Barneys.
Beyond the chain stores
Union Square department stores aside, San Francisco is really more about independent retailers in fairly far flung pockets within the city measuring only 49 square miles. Tree-lined streets of small shops and boutiques in Victorian buildings away from the financial district’s skyscrapers suits the European feel and pace of the city. The scale is approachable, the shops are unique, there are cafés and restaurants in the mix, buses conveniently trawl their routes along the shopping beats. There is no denying that some of the hills are steep, yet pedestrians abound.
Along a dozen blocks, mainly north of Geary Boulevard, Fillmore Street is a great neighborhood for boutiques, gift shops, jewelry, ethnic accessories, home furnishings, resale stores, health and beauty outlets, coffee shops, pizzerias, restaurants, and the famous jazz venue, Yoshi’s. Named one of “America’s Best Shopping Streets” by U.S. News, locals love it, too. Pull up a chair at a sidewalk café and do a little people-watching; this is the real San Francisco.
Stroll along tree-lined Sacramento Street from Broderick to Spruce Streets where some of the city’s finest independent retailers are found behind pretty storefronts. Find fashion and accessories for men at Henry Beguelin and for women at Sarah Shaw, toys for children, home décor, jewelry designers, antiques, art galleries and custom framers, specialty gift items. Pause for a coffee, a gourmet burger at Spruce or a bite in the private garden at Magic Flute or Sociale. Sacramento Street is mostly flat, nestled below two posh residential neighborhoods, Pacific Heights and Presidio Heights.
We’re “Victorian in setting, contemporary in spirit” Union Street tweets about itself. Once the site of dairy farms (hence its location name Cow Hollow), the street is currently home to quaint inns, cozy stores, trendy fashion shops, and plenty more to keep a fashionista busy between Van Ness Avenue and Divisadero Street. Find Ambiance, often voted one of the city’s favorite boutiques.
From Union Street, it’s an easy walk four blocks north toward the bay, where the Chestnut Street shopping district is a popular one. Visitors will feel the neighborhood vibes on an eclectic street where shopping and eating weigh in equally. It’s home to an Apple Store and Gap, but also dozens of small, independent retailers. This is the Marina District. It’s more mainstream than edgy, providing very good retail therapy without being a mall.
Once home to The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and Jefferson Airplane, today’s Haight-Ashbury is still lively. Haight Street is the heart of Haight-Ashbury, famous since the beatnik days of the 60s. Find something different and have fun doing it.
San Francisco is only seven miles by seven miles. So, you can leave the car. Be prepared to encounter hills where the bonus is frequently a panoramic view. Wear comfortable shoes. Bring a jacket, always, and look for the sunny side of the street.