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Civic Center in San Francisco

San Francisco's culture zone delivers opera, ballet, and a few surprises.

San Francisco City Hall
Photo caption
City Hall's dome rises 307 feet six inches.

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.

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.

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