Nothing could be more festive during the holidays than to wander down a city street aglow with decorations and lights and bustling with crowds of shoppers. And, on the West Coast, there's no better place to do this than Union Square, the epicenter of San Francisco's premier shopping district. From the lighted 80-foot tree that graces the square to the old-time carolers strolling through Neiman Marcus, Union Square is truly the picture of cosmopolitan holiday time.
The area is also home to San Francisco's poshest hotels, its small but vibrant theater district, and some of the city's finest restaurants. And, of course, there's the square itself, a 2½-acre park which was donated to the city in 1850 by its first mayor. Recently reopened after a $25 million face-lift, the square is now the sort of urban oasis and cultural hub that downtown San Francisco has needed.
Everything about the renovated park draws visitors in. Its north side now boasts an amphitheater large enough to hold an orchestra and public seating for 2,000. Grab an espresso at the café on the east side or get half-price theater tickets on the west side at TIX. The square even features granite pedestals upon which street entertainers can perform.
The blocks surrounding Union Square are a holiday shopper's playground. You'll find such upscale retailers as Tiffany & Co., Hermès, Christian Dior, and Gucci.
Of course, you'll also want to browse Macy's, Niketown, and the new Levi's store, which is a must-visit for the custom-fit jeans that staffers will make for you.
A short walk from the square, you should be able to find something for everyone on your list. For the kids, head to FAO Schwarz, the legendary toy store that stocks everything from the latest Star Wars Episode II action figures to Madame Alexander dolls. For your favorite clotheshorse, there's Emporio Armani, where an Italian-tailored cotton shirt goes for $200, or Loehmann's, a discount store where you can pick up a Donna Karan blouse at a fraction of its normal price. For a real deal on shoes, visit DSW Shoe Warehouse, where BCBG and Anne Klein shoes sell for up to 50 percent off department store prices. At Gimme Shoes, the latest European fashions will run you around $200.
For the men on your list, go to Wilkes Bashford to purchase a Brioni tie for $135 or to Thomas Pink, an English store that sells brightly colored men's shirts for $115 to $155. Looking for a truly one-of-a-kind gift? Try Gump's, which features exclusive high-end items, such as handmade Patricia Breen Christmas tree ornaments for $40 to $200.
There's also plenty to do in the area that doesn't involve shopping. Take a walking tour called San Francisco Then . . . and Now. The 2½-hour tour immerses you in San Francisco's history, from the Barbary Coast to the Beat generation. Then catch a ride up the intimidating hills from the cable car turnaround at Powell and Market streets.
History buffs will also enjoy Maiden Lane, home of San Francisco's only Frank Lloyd Wright building, the Xanadu Gallery. Designed in 1948, the interior is note-worthy for its spiral ramp, which evokes Wright's design for the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
For San Francisco's theater district, you'll want to visit Geary Street just west of the square. The American Conservatory Theater can be found at 415 Geary. Book ahead for tickets to Lackawanna Blues, a play by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, running during the holidays. And next door stands the Curran, a historic theater that features the latest hits from Broadway.
When in the city, however, you may simply want to partake of the good food. Though it's a decidedly New World town, San Francisco offers a number of Old World-style afternoon teas; one of the most elegant can be found in the Compass Rose at the Westin St. Francis, built in 1904 and famous for its brown butter scones. The Rotunda Restaurant in Neiman Marcus also hosts a lovely tea under a soaring stained glass dome.
Perhaps views and vino are more your cup of tea?
For a stunning view of Alcatraz, Coit Tower, and the bay, visit Grandviews Lounge atop the Grand Hyatt. The most elegant cocktail lounge in the city, however, can be found closer to sea level, at the Philippe Starck-designed Redwood Room in the Clift Hotel.
If there is one activity that San Franciscans love best, it's eating. For breakfast, venture off the square to Dottie's True Blue Cafe for huge servings and homemade chile-cheddar corn bread. Farallon, which has an underwater-themed interior that Captain Nemo would envy, serves some of San Francisco's most sophisticated seafood, from oysters Farallon (with caviar) to a lavender-crusted Hawaiian yellowfin tuna. Asia de Cuba, in the Clift Hotel, offers up vividly seasoned Chino-Latino fare, such as scallops with chile lime espuma. At Campton Place, you can sink into a plush gold velvet booth while savoring the Gascon- and Basque-inspired cuisine of chef Laurent Manrique.
If you'd like to spend a little less, try Puccini & Pinetti, an Italian restaurant featuring panini, pizza, and pasta. Or, for less expensive eats, head to Macy's Cellar, an eclectic food court where you can grab sushi or a Wolfgang Puck pizza.
After a full day of shopping and feasting, you'll be screaming for a bed. Union Square offers deals, particularly during the holiday season. Check out the Triton, on Grant Avenue, with its Carlos Santana and Jerry Garcia suites. Scholars and book lovers may enjoy Hotel Rex, on Sutter Street, where hundreds of volumes are available to patrons.
But no matter where you stay, when you wake up you'll be in San Francisco, a city where the holidays are just another excuse to celebrate. Even Santa never had it so good.
Planning Your Trip
All phone numbers are area code 415. Pick up AAA’s San Francisco map. For more information, contact the San Francisco Visitors Bureau at 900 Market St., 283-0177, or visit www.sfvisitor.org.
Hotel Rex, 562 Sutter St. $145–$199. 433-4434.
Hotel Triton, 342 Grant Ave. $139–$179. 394-0500.
Hotel Union Square, 114 Powell St. $99–$165. 397-3000.
Asia de Cuba, at the Clift Hotel, 495 Geary St. Entrées $29–$64. 929-2300.
Campton Place, 340 Stockton St. Entrées $17–$28. 955-5555.
Compass Rose, at the Westin St. Francis, 335 Powell St. Afternoon tea $28–$43. 774-0167.
Dottie’s True Blue Cafe, 522 Jones St. Breakfasts and homemade breads $5–$10. 885-2767.
Farallon, 450 Post St. Entrées $24–$32. 956-6969.
Grandviews Lounge, at the Grand Hyatt, 345 Stockton St., 398-1234.
Macy’s Cellar, basement of Macy’s, 170 O’Farrell St. Various vendors. 397-3333.
Puccini & Pinetti, 129 Ellis St. Entrées $11–$19. 392-5500.
Rotunda Restaurant, at Neiman Marcus, 150 Stockton St. Afternoon tea $18.50. 362-4777.
Things to see and do
American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., 749-2228, www.act-sfbay.org.
Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., 551-2000, www.shnsf.com.
San Francisco Then . . . and Now walking tour, $25. Reservations required. 317-8687 or www.sfhistorytour.com.
Union Square Association, Union Square events. 781-7880.
DSW Shoe Warehouse, 111 Powell St., 445-9511.
Emporio Armani, 1 Grant Ave., 677-9400.
FAO Schwarz, 48 Stockton St., 394-8700.
Gimme Shoes, 50 Grant Ave., 434-9242.
Gump’s, 135 Post St., 982-1616.
Loehmann’s, 222 Sutter St., 982-3215.
Thomas Pink, 255 Post St., 421-2022.
Wilkes Bashford, 375 Sutter St., 986-4380.
Photography by Terrence McCarthy
This article was first published in November 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.