Insider's Guide: Union Square

Union Square in San Francisco

TripSavvy / Melissa Zink

Union Square is San Francisco's epicenter: a central downtown neighborhood filled with ample shopping options, including buzzing Westfield Shopping Centre, stand-alone flagship stores, and unique boutique shops, a multitude of lodgings, and restaurants and bars, all centered around a vibrant center plaza where you'll find everything from a seasonal ice skating rink to a day of free tulips, depending on time of year.

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Map of Union Square, San Francisco

Right in the heart of downtown, Union Square is easily accessible from any form of transportation. Simply hop on BART from spots like SFO, the Embarcadero, or the East Bay or Muni from multiple SF locales and ride it until the Powell Street stop. The neighborhood is also within walking distance to places like Chinatown and the SFMOMA.

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Photoquest/Getty Images

Union Square Plaza was once used for the occasional sandlot baseball game and later, as a campground for prospectors during the Gold Rush before becoming the center if one of the city’s most fashionable neighborhoods in the late 1800s. At one point Union Square's pedestrian-only Maiden Lane thrived as the center of the city’s red light district, but the great 1906 quake and fire basically destroyed everything, save for the St. Francis Hotel. After that, retail became the neighborhood's financial saving grace. Today Union Square is San Francisco’s largest shopping district. 

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christmas shopping center
SF Citizen

The Westfield Centre (865 Market St.) is a go-to for nearly all shopping needs, with two department stores (Nordstrom and Bloomingdales), countless shops, and a massive subterranean food court. For more of a “San Francisco experience" head to over to Maiden Lane. Closed off to cars from 11AM to 6PM, this little side alley boasts designer shops like Marc Jacobs and Hermes. Stand-alone stores throughout Union Square include Guess, Apple, Britex Fabrics, and Williams-Sonoma, as well as Macy's and Sax Fifth Avenue.

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What to Eat for Breakfast

Transport yourself to a Parisian café for breakfast at Café de la Presse, on the cusp of Chinatown. Grab a seat inside under palm fronds or opt for the sidewalk seating and enjoy the people watching while munching on an omelet du jambon (ham omelet, for those who don’t speak French). 352 Grant Ave.; 415-398-2680

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What to Eat for Lunch

Light fluffy breads, fresh, juicy tomatoes, and crispy, crunchy lettuce? Estela’s Fresh Sandwiches are truly fresh. Order like a pro and get the albacore tuna salad on sourdough. Order to go and take your sandos down to Union Square to eat on the steps while watching the people fly by. 891 Bush St.; 415-440-9500

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What to Eat for Dinner

Tucked into the back corner of the Parc 55 Hotel (really, it can be hard to find) Kin Khao is a hidden secret of the San Francisco food scene. The menu changes through Thai classics on a pretty regular basis, but you can always expect a lot of spice and different cuts of meat. For those who get lost easily: go to the corner of Ellis and Mason Streets and then enter through what looks like mall doors. The restaurant (did we mention it's Michelin-starred?) is on the right-hand side when you walk in. 55 Cryril Street; 415-362-7456

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What to Drink

For Beer: Bar games abound in this massive bar, Golden Gate Tap Room. Shuffleboard, skee ball, arcade games, pool tables, and projector TVs are everywhere you look. It’s a great place for groups and big ticket games (super bowl, anyone?). It might be difficult to choose one of the 100 beers to sip on while you’re playing though. 449 Powell St.; 415-677-9999

For Wine: Just off of bustling Market Street, Press Club is like an entirely different world. Step through its doors and the chaos of the shopping district melts away with lounge music taking its place. Saddle up to the bar or find a cozy corner to snuggle into with some friends. Try a wine from artisan winemakers from around the Bay Area and beyond and order the cheese plate for the ultimate tasting. 20 Yerba Buena Lane; 415-744-5000

For Cocktails: Cocktails are the name of the game at Local Edition. Part of the same bar group as cocktail havens Tradition and Bourbon & Branch, Local Edition is in the subterranean level of the Hearst Building, once home to the San Francisco Chronicle. So naturally, everything in this bar is newspaper-themed. While reservations aren’t necessary, we do recommend you snag one just to ensure you get a seat at the bar. 691 Market St.; 415-795-1375

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How to Play

Christmas scene with giant tree, crowds, and an ice rink
Union Square Ice Rink

There’s a lot going on in Union Square come the holidays. There’s the tree lighting held the Friday after Thanksgiving, the Safeway Ice Rink opens up in early November and stays there through January. But everyone’s favorite holiday tradition is going to see the Macy’s SF SPCA Kittens. In the display windows at the corner of O’Farrell and Stockton Streets, the department store swaps its displays for adorable kittens and puppies—all up for adoption through the SF SPCA, who conveniently have a booth inside the store in case you fall in love on sight. 

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