Union Square, San Francisco Travel Guide
Union Square Summary
- A hub for all means of public transportation
- San Francisco's premiere shopping district has major department stores, upscale boutiques, and all manner of stores for the serious shopper
- The square itself often features performances, concerts, art exhibits, etc., and gets all decked out for the holidays
- San Francisco's theater district
- Numerous art galleries
- Vestiges of old San Francisco like John's Grill and the Gold Dust Saloon
- Public access to great views from atop Macy's, the Grand Hyatt, and the Sir Francis Drake
- Great people-watching, especially around lunchtime
- Quick trip to the Financial District for business travelers
- To the west, Union Square area bumps into the seedy Tenderloin.
- Nightlife is limited
- Heavy crowds, especially on weekends and around lunchtime
- Expensive parking
- Nonshoppers may find the area rather bland
What It's Like
Like the earthquakes that shaped the city, San Francisco has an epicenter, Union Square, the 2.6-acre palm-tree-lined concrete patio in the heart of the city. Designed as a public plaza in 1850 by Jasper O'Farrell, Union Square got its name from the boisterous, sometimes violent, Civil War rallies. Residential in its infancy, Union Square reemerged as San Francisco's primary shopping district after the great 1906 earthquake, and remains a consumer paradise to this day. The bronze goddess Victory overlooks the stream of folks clutching their shopping bags as they go in and out of stores like Macy's, Niketown, Saks, Prada, Brooks Brothers, Neiman Marcus, and just about any other retailer one can think of. It gets crowded and hectic, but Union Square also serves as both an oasis of calm when sitting at the outdoor café watching the wheels of commerce go round, and a thriving performance space with numerous concerts and art shows throughout the year.
Beyond the retail trade, the broader Union Square area is popular with out-of-towners because it's a transportation hub for getting around both San Francisco and the greater Bay Area, making it a fine home base. It offers easy access to cable cars, buses, trolleys, BART trains, Muni light rail, and even the occasional cab.
And though Union Square isn't the most happening or dynamic of neighborhoods, it offers a few of its own attractions as well. In addition to the shopping, it's home to San Francisco's theater district (including the venerable A.C.T. theater company), high-end art galleries, and some renowned restaurants like Belden Place and Michael Mina (at the Westin St. Francis). Visitors may not want to venture too far west, however, into Tenderloin. Though many stories circulate on the origin of the area's name, the most popular claims that policemen assigned to the area are given "hazard pay" and thus can afford tenderloin dinners. Although Tenderloin is in the process of gentrification, it is known for it's high crime rate.
Where To Stay
Union Square offers lodging options in just about any price range. They range from the large places like the Grand Hyatt to any number of boutique spots like the Kensington Park. One of the grand dames of Union Square is the Sir Francis Drake, which walks a fine line between historical preservation and kitsch, but the 360-degree views at Harry Denton's Starlight Room are always welcome, especially after a long day of bargain hunting.