San Francisco's culture zone delivers opera, ballet, and a few surprises.
Topped by the world's fifth-largest dome, San Francisco City Hall reigns over Civic Center Plaza and a landmark ensemble of public buildings. But for Joan Kugler, a docent, this stunning beacon on Polk Street also evokes a silly tongue twister.
On a recent Friday, visitors trailed her across the floor of the sunlit City Hall rotunda lined with Tennessee pink marble and past the offices where Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated in 1978. Describing the $300 million renovation that followed the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, Kugler talked about the installation of steel-and-rubber base isolators under the building that allow it to move more than two feet in any direction. "You might say the whole building floats," she said, "on rubber baby buggy bumpers."
Like City Hall, which serves as its focal point, the Civic Center is worth a second look. Sure, it's known for the San Francisco Ballet, Opera, Symphony, and Asian Art Museum, and its reputation as an urban zone with a bit of grit is deserved. But within three or four blocks of City Hall you'll also find an oyster po'boy to make a Louisianan weep, an 11th-century crusader's sword, and talks by renowned authors.
In December the San Francisco Ballet presents a top-notch Nutcracker. Upwards of 93,000 Sugar Plum Fairy fans flock to performances at the Opera House, as well as to such restaurants as Indigo (the three-course precurtain dinner at $356 is popular) and Max's Opera Café, for its heaping pastrami sandwiches and decadent desserts.
The Civic Center was reborn after the 1906 earthquake and fire left the former City Hall in ruins. San Francisco rebounded and placed civic and cultural institutions in neoclassic buildings near a central plaza. The new City Hall, opened in 1915, stood 14 inches higher than the U.S. Capitol. Work on other structures continued into the 1930s; two of them—the twinned Opera House and Veterans Building—hosted the 1945 founding of the United Nations.
In 1980, the 2,743-seat Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall opened its doors, and in 2003, famed Italian architect Gae Aulenti (who had turned a defunct Paris train station into the Musée d'Orsay) transformed the old main library into new digs for the Asian Art Museum. With more than 18,000 works spanning 6,000 years, the museum is home to Buddhas and other gems of the East, as well as to Cafe Asia, serving such dishes as Tamil braised lamb.
Nearby eateries include Gyro King, which offers shish kebab among its eastern Mediterranean specialties, and Ananda Fuara, where you can get red lentil soup and other vegetarian fare. About five blocks away, Brenda's French Soul Food touts beignets, po'boys, gumbo, and more New Orleans treats.
The Veterans Building contains the Herbst Theatre, a 928-seat jewel box venue that hosts concerts and lectures. The fourth-floor Museum of Performance & Design mounts theatrical exhibits; its permanent exhibit highlights 3-D miniatures of theaters from around the world.
In the Trophy Room check out astounding military artifacts such as a brass-and-ivory-handled sword presented by George Washington to Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben in 1778. From a first-floor window, you can see a patch of lawn that is considered sacred ground by many. It contains soil taken from every battlefield in France where U.S. soldiers fought and died during World War I: yet another aspect of the hidden Civic Center.
Check out the rest of our San Francisco  package:
Chinatown/North Beach:  History, ambience, and cappuccinos
China Basin:  Gourmet burgers and a handsome ballpark
Union Street:  Boutiques and bistros
Yerba Buena:  Downtown park and museums galore
Pick up the Northern California & Nevada TourBook and San Francisco map. For more information, contact the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau: 900 Market St., (415) 391-2000, onlyinsanfrancisco.com . Area code is 415 unless noted.
City Arts & Lectures 401 Van Ness Ave., 563-2463, cityarts.net . Orpheum Theatre 1192 Market St., 551-2000, shnsf.com . Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra 401 Van Ness Ave., 252-1288, philharmonia.org . San Francisco Ballet 301 Van Ness Ave., 865-2000, sfballet.org . San Francisco Conservatory of Music 50 Oak St., 503-6275, sfcm.edu . San Francisco Opera 301 Van Ness Ave., 864-3330, sfopera.com . San Francisco Performances 392-2545, performances.org . San Francisco Symphony 201 Van Ness Ave., 864- 6000, sfsymphony.org , sfskids.com , and keepingscore.org .
IN THE GALLERIES
Museum of Performance & Design 401 Van Ness Ave., 255-4800, mpdsf.org . Trophy Room Open Mondays and Wednesdays. 401 Van Ness Ave., 861-4920.
City Hall Tour Free, docent-guided visits. 554-6139, sfgov.org/cityhall . Performing Arts Center Tours 552-8338, sfwmpac.org . San Francisco City Guides Free guided tours of the Civic Center. 557-4266, sfcityguides.org .
EATS AND DRINKS
Ananda Fuara 1298 Market St., 621-1994, anandafuara.com . Brenda's French Soul Food 652 Polk St., 345-8100, frenchsoulfood.com . Cafe Asia 200 Larkin St., 581-3630. Citizen Cake Patisserie and restaurant. 2125 Fillmore St., 861-2228, citizencake.com . Gyro King 25 Grove St., 621-8313. Indigo 687 McAllister St., 673-9353, indigorestaurant.com . Jardinière 300 Grove St., 861-5555, jardiniere.com . Lalita Thai fare. 96 McAllister St., 552-5744, lalitasf.com . Max's Opera Café 601 Van Ness Ave., 771-7300, maxsworld.com . Mr. Smith's Bar and club. 34 Seventh St., 355-9991, maximumproductions.com . 2 G Japanese Brasserie 601 Van Ness Ave., 292-9997.
Holiday Inn Civic Center From $99. 50 Eighth St., 626-6103, holidayinn.com . Hotel Whitcomb From $149 for AAA members. 1231 Market St., 626-8000, hotelwhitcomb.com . Inn at the Opera From $155 for AAA members. 333 Fulton St., (800) 325-2708, innattheoperahotel.com .
Carmen Nov. 6-Dec. 4, 2011. 864-3330, sfopera.com . Anita Hill and Robert Reich Dec. 12, 2011. On-stage conversation at Herbst Theatre. 563-2463, cityarts.net . Nutcracker Dec. 9-27, 2011. 865-2000, sfballet.org .
Photography by Mitch Tobias
This article was first published in November 2009 and updated in October 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.