San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace (credit: Randy Yagi)
For people visiting San Francisco for the first time, there will likely be certain places that will be high on their must-see list. This may include world-famous attractions like the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf or Chinatown, Union Square and North Beach. But while enjoying these spots, many visitors will also want to do some shopping, whether it’s for souvenirs to take home, purchasing new clothing or something unique for the home. Whatever the preference, this shopper’s guide highlights the best San Francisco neighborhoods for shopping in addition to information on 10 of the best shopping centers.
Each of the following neighborhoods are among the most popular for visitors and may be near their hotel or vacation rental. While three of these neighborhoods are close together, the other two may require public transportation or a taxi ride. However, each of these neighborhoods are easily accessible by public transportation services like San Francisco Muni and BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), as well as taxis and private transportation companies like Uber and Lyft, both headquartered in San Francisco.
The Chinatown in San Francisco is the oldest in North America and home to the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. Located between North Beach and Union Square, Chinatown is one of the city’s most famous and most visited neighborhoods. The primary shopping area is along the eight-block stretch of Grant Street, between the Dragon Gate at Bush Street and the northern border at Broadway. Along Grant Street, there are dozens of family-owned retail businesses such a gift shops and antiques for visitors to explore, in addition to several Chinese restaurants such as Great Eastern Restaurant and Z & Y Restaurant. Any neighborhood store is a fascinating experience in itself, but among the most popular are Canton Bazaar, Old Shanghai, The Wok Shop and Far East Flea Market. Grant Street is the quintessential example of life in Chinatown, but other streets to visit are Stockton Street, where the bulk of fresh produce is sold daily, and down Clay Street at historic Portsmouth Square, the site of the first public square in San Francisco.
Like Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf is among the most famous attractions in the city. Perhaps best known for the world famous crab stands that line Taylor Street and ferry boats to Alcatraz Island, this neighborhood is primarily a mixture of souvenir shops, retail stores, tourist attractions and restaurants. But there are also upscale shopping centers and hotels like Argonaut Hotel, Fairmont Heritage Place and the recently opened and tech/pet-friendly Hotel Zephyr. Heading further west along Jefferson Street, visitors will discover Anchorage Square, a dining and shopping complex. Minutes away is another, perhaps more famous, shopping center of Ghirardelli Square, the site of the original Ghirardelli chocolate manufactory, as well as several upscale retail stores and restaurants. Visitors, especially those in San Francisco for the first time, should not miss Pier 39 four blocks east of Fisherman’s Wharf. Featuring waterfront dining, a wealth of interesting retail stores, more attractions and more fabulous views, Pier 39 is one of the best and most visited family-friendly entertainment complexes in the city.
San Francisco’s oldest neighborhood is known for its rich and vibrant culture and a wealth of phenomenal dining choices. But the Mission is also one of the best spots in the city for chic vintage clothing and contemporary fashion designs from hip boutiques. Valencia Street, between 18th and 25th Streets, is the first place to go for used apparel, with popular spots like Buffalo Exchange, Painted Bird, Retro Fit Vintage and Stone Pony all within walking distance of the 24th Street Mission BART Station. However, there are just so many other things to see in the Mission, including Mission Dolores, the oldest structure in the city, the always buzzing Dolores Park and the busiest and arguably most popular section near the 16th Street BART Station on Mission Street. Several more vintage and discount clothing stores can found within a few blocks of the 16th Street station, in addition to family-owned businesses and world famous taquerias such as La Taqueria, known for serving the “world’s best burrito,” Taqueria El Farolito and on Valencia Street, Taqueria La Cumbre, credited as the “birthplace of the Mission burrito.” Other must-see spots in the Mission include Bi-Rite Grocery, Bi-Rite Creamery, Tartine Bakery and Clarion Alley, the city’s top spot for street art.
This iconic neighborhood, more famously called Haight-Ashbury,will be forever known as the epicenter of the hippie/counterculture movement of the 1960s. Nearly 50 years later, the head shops are still there although smaller in number, as are an impressive collection of record stores, upscale vintage clothing and specialty stores with a particular emphasis on psychedelic clothing and counter-culture art and memorabilia. The largest concentration of eclectic shopping on Haight Street can be found along six blocks between Central Avenue and Stanyan Street, bounded by the eastern edge of Golden Gate Park. For vintage clothing, visitors should check out places like Buffalo Exchange, Haight Ashbury Vintage, Held Over, Relic Vintage and The Wasteland. For record collectors, two of the city’s biggest record stores — Amoeba Music and Rasputin Music — are just footsteps apart, but there are other great stores in the Lower Haight, including Vinyl Dreams, Rooky Ricardo’s Records, Groove Merchant and Jack’s Record Cellar.
Located in the heart of the city, Union Square is the premier shopping destination in San Francisco. Bolstered by several retail stores of many of the world’s most famous luxury brands and upscale department stores, Union Square is the single most important place for one-stop shopping and high-end clothing and jewelry. Tiffany & Co., Gucci and Louis Vuitton are all there, as are Vera Wang, Christian Dior and Saks Fifth Avenue. But for the best one-stop shopping, visitors will enjoy leading department stores like Macy’s, Neiman Marcus with its stained-glass atrium and Barney’s New York. Also not to be missed in Union Square are leading art galleries like 49 Geary Art Galleries, San Francisco Art Exchange and Maiden Lane, a two-block, pedestrian-only stretch featuring the largest concentration of luxury retail in the city with names like Hermes Paris, Chanel and Prada.
Other Popular Neighborhoods
These following five neighborhoods all feature a nice assortment of specialty stores and outstanding boutique stores, such as Cary Lane and Azalea in Hayes Valley, Heidi Says and My Roommate’s Closet on Fillmore Street and any of the family-owned businesses at Japan Center in Japantown. One exceptional destination for food lovers that shouldn’t be missed is the Ferry Building Marketplace, located at the eastern end of Market Street at The Embarcadero, with sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay. The 19th-century building is one of the city’s most prominent structures and currently houses nearly 50 restaurants, retail stores, fresh produce, seafood and artisanal foods.
Major Shopping Centers
Union Square may be the city’s leading spot for shopping, but arguably the most popular destination for one-stop shopping is a few blocks south at the Westfield San Francisco Centre on Market Street, directly across from the world-famous Powell Street cable car turnaround. Anchored by Bloomingdale’s West Coast flagship store and Nordstrom, the enormous, nine-floor complex features more than 150 retail stores and restaurants in addition to a nine-screen theater complex. Over in the Lakeside neighborhood near Lake Merced and the San Francisco State University campus is Stonestown Galleria, the city’s second largest shopping complex featuring more than 100 restaurants and stores including Macy’s and Nordstrom.
First-time visitors may also enjoy shopping at the Metreon in the SoMa (South of Market) neighborhood, near Moscone Center, the city’s largest convention facility. Featuring 25 retail stores, the Metreon hosts the city’s largest Target store, a 16-screen movie complex and outstanding restaurants like Buckhorn Grill and Jillian’s. The Metreon is also located near the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), scheduled to reopen in May. Some other major shopping centers are:
Randy Yagi is an award-winning freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he received a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com