As should be obvious by now, I ADORE my home city of San Francisco. I feel incredibly lucky to live here, as a result of both my own observations and experiences here, as well as comments I've heard from others while traveling abroad. Whenever I tell someone where I'm from, I inevitably get one of two responses: "San Francisco is the best place I've ever been!" or, "I've always dreamed of going to San Francisco!" And comments like that really help a person not to take their city for granted. I've been to a lot of wonderful places, but in the end none of them really feels like home the way San Francisco does for me.
So, having gotten a few requests from readers for a post about what to see and do while visiting San Francisco, I present to you this mini travel guide to my own beloved home town. This will be a series in several parts, spread out over a couple of weeks. For the first installment I figured I'd focus on the topic foremost in many of our minds: shopping. I won't claim that this will be a comprehensive guide; it's just a collection of some of my favorite spots in town.
Before I even get started talking about Haight Street, let me just make one thing clear: while the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood was once the mecca of hippies, and while a handful of stores in that area are still trying to capitalize on that history, San Francisco is NOT a hippie far-out peace-and-love granola-eating town where everyone is high all the time and there are vegan restaurants on every corner. I HATE that fucking image! Why can no one do a show about San Francisco and not mention hippies and tie dye and bongs? THE SIXTIES ARE OVER. I wish everyone could just let them go.
That said, if you really want to see the dregs of what's left of hippie culture, I suppose the Upper Haight is the place to do it. Sigh. Despite that though, there really is some fantastic shopping in that area; I'd recommend going during the week if possible or before noon on the weekends of you want to avoid the crowds. If you want to get the full spectrum of Haight Street shopping in one day, start in the Upper Haight, and when the streets start to fill up with tourists and hipsters (or are those homeless people? It can be hard to tell.), make your way to Lower Haight to finish there (for more descriptions of Upper and Lower Haight, see this post).
Some of my favorite shops in the Upper Haight: Ambiance (huge variety of designers and price points), Held Over (vintage clothing), Shoe Biz, John Fluevog, Goodwill, Decades of Fashion (high end vintage), Ruby (carries many local designers), Ceiba Records (steampunk/Burning Man styles), and Skunkfunk. As you go from Upper to Lower Haight, take a short detour down Divisadero Street to Swankety Swank (local designers), Prairie Collective, and Backspace. In Lower Haight proper there's a great import store called P-Kok, Lower Haters (locally-made art, clothing, and accessories), and new shops that seem to keep cropping up all the time.
The Mission District
The Mission District, once a largely Latino neighborhood, has morphed into Hipster Central in recent years. That doesn't mean it isn't worth checking out though; the hipsters rightfully love it because it's got cool bars, the best weather in the city (you'd be amazed how the weather can vary neighborhood to neighborhood in a city of only 7x7 miles), a wide variety of high quality restaurants, and you guessed it: great shopping. It also has one of the prettiest parks in town (Dolores Park), the old mission (which was one of the locations in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo), and lots of beautiful murals that adorn the walls around the neighborhood. I'll cover eating, drinking, and sights in other posts, but for now let's talk shopping.
Along the Valencia corridor between 15th and 17th Streets is the heart of the Mission's shopping area. Between Guererro and Valencia on 16th Street you'll find two of my favorites, Sunhee Moon and Candystore Collective; round the corner onto Valencia Street and you'll find Five and Diamond, which has the best variety of steampunk clothing in the city. Further along are MultiKulti, Weston Wear, and Therapy. In the other direction down Valencia (towards 15th) is a clothing-by-the-pound store, and ADS Hats. If you wander outside the 15th to 17th Street center, you'll find additional shops in the 21st to 24th Street area.
Tiny Patricia's Green park, which interrupts Octavia Street where it meets Fell Street, is at the center of the Hayes Valley shopping district. Once a neglected corner of the city that decayed beneath a freeway off-ramp, the neighborhood had new life breathed into it when the ramp was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the city opted to tear the structure down rather than rebuild. Since then, Hayes Valley has undergone a complete transformation, and is now one of the most sought-after neighborhoods in town. Here you'll find high end shops mixed with neighborhood drinking establishments, excellent restaurants, some of the city's finest coffee served out of an old auto shop, and an innovative ice cream shop created from a ship's cargo container. Patricia's Green also features temporary art installations that made their debuts at Burning Man; the installation above is called "Ecstasy."
Along Hayes Street between Laguna and Gough are a bunch of great shops: Bulo (shoes), Lava 9, Duke et Duchesse, and several others. Just around the corner on Octavia Street, local designers Lemon Twist have a charming little shop. A few blocks away on Gough (pronounced "Goff") Street, you'll find the best place to buy a San Francisco souvenir: Gangs of San Francisco. Forget about those dumb sweatshirts they sell down at Fisherman's Wharf; GOSF creates clothing that memorializes forgotten institutions of San Francisco's past, such as the Sutro Speedsters speed skating team, and the Bear Flag Rebels. Along the edge of the Patricia's Green is a tiny alley called Linden, where you can shop for the finest custom corsets in town at Dark Garden, and perhaps see some of my own hat creations as well.
Read more about the SF phenomenon known as the parklet here.
Among locals, Noe Valley is known for its suburban feel; it's a little further away from the bustle of the city center, and it feels cleaner and quieter than other parts of town. People who can afford to stay in San Francisco after they have kids generally end up either here or in the Marina District. As much as I like to poke fun at people who live there, it really is a charming part of town, and one that's pretty well off the tourist path. It also boasts one of the finest restaurants in town; like I said I'll cover food in another post, but it bears repeating that Incanto is not to be missed. Make a reservation far in advance, spend an afternoon shopping in Noe Valley, and end the day enjoying one of the most phenomenal dinners you'll ever eat.
Along 24th Street between Castro and Church Streets is where you'll find most of Noe Valley's shops. There's another Ambiance store there, a number of other small clothing boutiques, as well as some cute antique shops, used book stores, and interesting handmade jewelry at Qoio.
Thrift Shopping in San Francisco
Some great thrift shopping can be done in San Francisco, but in general, expect to pay more than you're used to elsewhere. My favorites are the Goodwill flagship store on Mission Street, Clothes Contact (the aforementioned clothing-by-the-pound store), the Goodwill on Haight Street, and Out of the Closet at Church and Duboce. There's also Thrift Town on 16th and Mission Streets, but in my experience it takes a little more patience to find any real treasures there. The first two, as well as Thrift Town, can be wrapped into a Mission District shopping day (though the flagship store is a few blocks' walk away from all the rest); the Haight Street Goodwill is in the Upper Haight and Out of the Closet is a couple blocks away from the Lower Haight.
Another option would be one of several local flea markets. Every Sunday there's the Alemany Flea Market, which is free. On the third Sunday of each month is the massive Candlestick Park Antiques and Collectibles Faire, which is well worth the trip if your visit happens to coincide. There's a $5-10 admission to get in, but the selection is amazing and the prices are surprisingly good. Many vendors sell vintage clothing as well as other antiques. Finally, across the bay on the first Sunday of each month is the Alameda Point Antiques Faire, which is one of the largest flea markets around.
Well, I think that ought to keep you busy; if you need more after all that, you're a far more dedicated shopper than I am. One final thought: I didn't cover the obvious shopping mecca that is Union Square, where you'll find all the big department stores, chains such as All Saints, Desigual, Urban Outfitters, and H&M, and high end designers such as Prada and Louis Vuitton. But my feeling is that you can get that same shopping experience in any big city; if you don't have those stores back home then it's worth a visit, but if it's a uniquely San Francisco experience you're after, you need to get away from downtown and head into the neighborhoods.