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Union Square

It’s Christmas time in the city, and you’ll find the best of the season here: tinsel and lights, shopping, hotels and restaurants, music, and theater.

Union Square on a sunny day with people seated at tables, image
Photo caption
On a sunny day, Union Square beckons people to sit, read, and enjoy the people-watching.

It’s that time of the year again, when skylines are defined by strings of lights, windows are lavished in red and green, party invitations are in the mail, and holiday roads lead to Union Square, San Francisco. Within a few blocks, a visitor can spend generous amounts of money in upscale boutiques, gawk at extravagant decorations, attend concerts and theater, and indulge a taste for luxury at many a fine hotel and restaurant.

To experience fully the holidays at Union Square, well, a weekend is just not enough. Nor could we cover it all in these pages: Every block has hotels, restaurants, shops, entertainment.

Ah, we did come here to shop. Union Square is San Francisco’s 5th Avenue with major department stores, designer boutiques, art galleries. You’ll find Gucci and Saks Fifth Avenue (and a bonus, a brand new Saks Fifth Avenue Men’s Store), Chanel and Tiffany, Coach, and Gumps in its new-ish digs on Post Street.

Megastores reside here too: Disney and Borders Books, NikeTown USA and the Virgin Megastore, and always a glittering toyland: FAO Schwartz. Sightseers crowd the windows at Macy’s and the sky-high Christmas tree in Neiman Marcus.

To see it all: a guided tour of Union Square. Roger’s Tours offers a festive holiday walk called "The Brilliance of Christmas." You wander past fabulous store windows, in and out of the big hotels; learn who designed each elegant Christmas tree, stroll down Maiden Lane (once the Barbary Coast’s red light district—today home to some of the most upscale boutiques and shops in town), through the grand lobby of the St. Francis.

Every year since 1880 a magnificent tree has stood in Union Square, the tradition started (supposedly) by decree of the City’s great eccentric, Emperor Norton. This year the Macy’s tree lighting ceremony at Union Square will be November 28. The Union Square Menorah will be lit from December 23 through December 28. Sadly, as of press time, no ice rink is planned this year.

As for the main attraction, Union Square was once a sandy hillside next to a stream running down a steep ravine. Today, cable cars clang up and down that steep ravine, and most of us forget that Union Square itself is actually a large building. In 1941 the 2.6-acre Union Square park was dismantled and put back together on top of a parking garage. The 97-foot column, with Victory posing on top, commemorates Commodore George Dewey’s defeat of the Spanish Fleet at Manila in 1898. (It stood through the 1906 earthquake.) The origins of the square’s name lie in a series of pro-Union demonstrations staged there on the eve of the Civil War. The look of today’s square, however, may soon change. The City recently held a contest asking for new designs for the area. At press time it was not known whether the winning design would be implemented.

Dining around the square can consist of exquisite cuisine at many restaurants such as Postrio, Kuleto’s, Farallon, and AAA’s 5-diamond Campton Place. Dining with a view of Union Square: Cafe Saks Fifth Avenue (lunch only), the Compass Rose in the Westin St. Francis, the Plaza in the Grand Hyatt. Tourists flock to Planet Hollywood on Powell. Hidden in the folds of the store fronts and awnings around the square are many food/entertainment spots that are immensely popular and relatively cheap, such as Sears Fine Foods, famous in San Francisco for breakfast, or Biscuits and Blues with live music.

Important: For dinner or lunch in the best restaurants, get reservations.

And how lovely, at the end of a shopping day, and in just a few blocks, you can rest those aching arches. Practically every block here has at least one hotel. If you’re here to shop, choose a hotel that offers a stay/shop holiday package, such as the Westin St. Francis, the Handlery Union Square,

the Grand Hyatt, or one of a dozen small "boutique" hotels managed by the Kimpton Group: The Sir Francis Drake, the Prescott Hotel, the Villa Florence Hotel, the chic Triton Hotel, and others.

Many of these same hotels offer a busy program of holiday events and lavish decorations. Even if you’re not staying overnight, you could spend a day hotel-hopping. The elegant lobby of the St. Francis seems Christmassy year-round. It’s even better with choral groups, scheduled to sing in the lobby throughout the season, and the hotel’s exhibit "Meet St. Nicholas at the St. Francis," of over 1,000 Santa figures from around the world. Or, enjoy the Royal Tea served daily from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Compass Rose.

The Grand Hyatt is holding the Nutcracker Lighting celebration on November 24, a Santa School Graduation on November 26, and is showcasing a Snow Village winter wonderland collection through January 5. At dusk, enjoy the spectacle of city lights at one of the high-view lounges such as Harry Denton’s Starlight Ballroom atop the Sir Francis Drake, Oz atop the St. Francis, or the Sherlock Holmes restaurant and lounge at the top of the Holiday Inn.

Or, spend the evening at the theater. Many of SF’s major stages are just a few blocks from Union Square. As usual, the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) offers its annual production of the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol,from November 29 through December 28.

Also a short walk, Christmas Cavalcadeat Marines Memorial Theater is a singing and dancing show of everything from "White Christmas" to "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus."

Tickets to these and other local theater shows are available at Tix Bay Area on Stockton Street.

And if this isn’t enough, fan out to explore the rest of the world’s favorite city.

Note: Like most big cities, San Francisco has some big-city problems. Be alert to your surroundings, especially away from crowded areas at night.

Photography courtesy of Aude/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in November 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.