Unlike Manhattan, San Francisco is a city that does sleep, but this doesn't mean you won't find plenty of nightlife goings-on, both during the week and on the weekends—they're just a bit more 'morning alarm-clock' friendly overall. From iconic live music venues to cool cocktail lounges, SF offers a plethora of options for spending an evening out. What it doesn't have in late-night dining haunts and after-hours bars it more than makes up for in comedy clubs, storytelling events, and museum nights. Just a word of warning: the BART, which provides public transit to the East Bay and spots like Colma and SFO, stops running at 12am, and while MUNI runs its citywide buses all night, its metro switches to bus service in the early morning hours.
San Francisco is home to a every type of bar imaginable, from a neighborhood dive dishing up vegan cuisine to a Tenderloin gay bar known for its cheap drinks and drag shows. Good neighborhoods to go bar-hopping (and each with its own distinct vibe) include the Mission, the Marina, North Beach, and Hayes Valley—which is home to Smuggler's Cove, a cocktail-forward tiki bar that's ushered in a whole new city- (and country-) wide Polynesian-themed era. For the ultimate in creative imbibing, don't miss Trick Dog, one of the city's most innovative libation spaces, while beer lovers will want to hit up spots like Lower Haight's Toronado and The Beer Hall, between SF's Hayes Valley and Mid-Market neighborhoods. Rooftop bars like Charmaine's and El Techo are the places to go on one of the city's clear nights, Irish bars include the long-running Dubliner in Noe Valley and The Plough & Stars on Clement Street, and some of SF's best dives are Chinatown's Li Po Cocktail Lounge and Zeitgiest, where the bloody marys and the outdoor picnic tables reign supreme. On the corner of Market and Castro streets, Twin Peaks is an iconic gay bar and the first such place to have huge glass windows—beckoning the whole world to see inside.
Cocktail Lounges and Wine Bars
Whether it's a speakeasy-style space like Bourbon & Branch, tucked away in a nondescript corner spot just east of Union Square, a classy hotel lounge like The Gibson, or even one of San Francisco's legendary top-floor venues like Nob Hill's Top of the Mark or the newly opened Lizzie's (formerly the Starlight Room) atop the completely renovated Kimpton Sir Francis Drake, this fancier type of cocktail bar or lounge abounds throughout the city. These are spots where the décor is more upscale and the libations are often taken to a whole new level—like Comstock Saloon in North Beach and the Haight-Ashbury's Alembic. The city's wine bars are as equally as stylish, with places like downtown's Verjus, Blush! in the Castro, and Hayes Valley's Riddler, where the champagne selection is top-notch.
Depending on what you're up for, you can spend a night grooving to the tunes of a seven-piece jazz band or work your salsa moves at bars like El Rio in the Mission and the Richmond District's Neck of the Woods. The Haight's always-fun Club Deluxe hosts live bands—mostly jazz, blues, and brass—seven nights a week—while down the street at Milk Bar you can move to the music of local bands and DJs spins. SOMA'a long-running 1984 dance party at the Cat Club has been drawing in crowds for decades, but it's the aptly-named End Up that entertains all the way through to sunrise. Other popular clubs include the multi-level Black Cat for jazz, NOPA's Madrone Art Bar for Mowtown Mondays and Prince & Michael Jackson tribute nights; and SF Oasis for drag shows and full-out dance-a-thons. Gay club QBar has a ladies' night on Tuesdays, and the Castro's Cafe nightclub caters to all walks with a newly remodeled nightclub interior and a decidedly younger crowd.
San Francisco may not have New Jersey's array of 24-hour diners, but for a city that goes to sleep relatively early (this is for you, New Yorkers!), there are still a good number of spots where you can get a meal well into the night, and even a few places that stay open around the clock. If it's diner grub you're after at all hours of the late night/early morning, swing by Pinecrest Diner or Lori's Diner—both in Union Square—or the Castro's Orphan Andy's. It may not be open 24 hours, but It's Tops Coffee Shop along mid-Market Street screams East Coast old-school in every other way, and its peanut-butter banana pancakes are otherworldly. Nopa along Divisadero Corridor and The Mission's Monk's Kettle and ABV are your stops for after-hour gourmet meals, while iconic spots like Grubstake Diner and North Beach's Golden Boy Pizza will easily satisfy your 1am weekend cravings. Taquerias such as Taquería El Farolito and Taqueria Cancun keep wee-morning hours, and if you've been partying at the bars on Polk Street, there's no better place than Bob's Donut & Pastry Shop—a 24-hour institution where sticky buns, chocolate bars, and raised glazed donuts are all the rage.
San Francisco is a hot-bed of live music venues, from Nopa's no-frills Independent—which has long been hallowed grounds for emerging musicians like Green Day and Beck—to North Beach's historic Saloon for a straight-shot of blues. Some of the city's most iconic performance spaces include The Warfield, The Fillmore, and the Great American Music Hall, while spots like Slim's and Bottom of the Hill are known for their cutting-edge shows, including the latter's 1996 surprise Beastie Boys appearance—one that almost caused a riot. Big names like Phish and Tenacious D fill up larger halls such as the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, just a few blocks walk from Hayes Valley, and Nob Hill's The Masonic—right across the street from the impressive Grace Cathedral. For cabaret-style showtunes, don't miss Feinstein's at the Nikko in Union Square.
The crowds to catch local girl Ali Wong and Emmy-winning John Oliver are so large that these big name comedians regularly sell out shows at The Masonic, but there are plenty of more intimate SF clubs and rooms dedicated to comedy where the laughs come just as easily. Cobb's Comedy Club in North Beach and and the Financial District's Punchline are two of the best known, but there's also Cheaper than Therapy at Union Square's Shelton Theater, which also hosts The Secret Improv Society on Weekends, and Marrakech Magic Theater—combining comedy, magic, and mentalism—to help keep SF's same high level of comedic caliber set by legends like Robin Williams and Lenny Bruce.
Events and Activities
Let's face it: evenings offer a lot more activities then we give them credit for, beyond the traditional dining and imbibing. In San Francisco alone, you can embark on a night-tour of Alcatraz, go weekend roller skating at The Church of 8 Wheels, catch stories of travels gone awry and Muni meet-ups at PianoFight and Public Works, and play rounds of mini-golf at Urban Putt and Stagecoach Greens (last tee off is 9pm). Karaoke bars run the gamut from The Mint on mid-Market Street to Nob Hill's Encore Lounge, but if standing on stage isn't your thing, Japantown has plenty of karaoke spots where they pass the mic around. Many of the city's museums host after-hour events once a week, like the California Academy of Sciences' Nightlife, with a new theme every Thursday night, but if it's a conversation between illuminating figures you're after, the Sydney Goldstein Theater's City Arts & Lectures has hosted everyone from Gloria Steinem to Bruce Springsteen casually sharing their thoughts onstage. From old school arcade games at Emporium SF to Gamescape's board game nights, one-man theatre shows to Broadway plays, there are plenty of cool ways to experience SF once the sun goes down.
With an array of music, comedy, film, and community festivals year-round, it's inevitable that some of these festivities will keep going (or are just getting started) well past twilight. The city's beloved (and free!) Hardly Strictly Bluegrass concert in Golden Gate Park, held each October, features associated nighttime performances throughout the Bay Area that help raise money for a notable cause. Venues in 2019 included The Chapel and Amnesia, both in the Mission. Literary lovers won't want to miss the annual Litquake, which closes with a 'Litcrawl' of reading events that place in the Mission's cafes, bars, laundromats, and art galleries on the festival’s final Saturday night. Comedians take over spots like the Castro Theatre, Cafe du Nord, and The Mission's Brava Theater for SF's annual Sketchfest each January, while events like June's Gay Pride Weekend and autumn's Folsom Street Fair make sure that there's plenty going on well past the official day-time festivities.
Tips for Going Out in San Francisco
San Francisco is a casual city, so dress code is almost never a concern. Except in a few rare cases, you won't be turned away for wearing sneakers or (gentlemen) not donning a sports coat, though some places do have a fancier-dressed clientele than others. Do you research, then dress however you feel most comfortable.
Some other things to remember when going out in S.F.:
- Bars (and all-night) supermarkets must stop serving alcohol by law by 2am, but many close much earlier on the weekdays.
- Ubers, Lyfts, and taxis are readily available throughout SF, though remember that prices surge when there's a high demand. For instance, at 2am when the bars close...
- Last call is typically around twenty-minutes before closing, and many bars do set their clocks slightly ahead.
- Glass containers and hard alcohol are strictly prohibited in public, though there are some places where you can drink beer and wine legally, such as John McLaren Park and the Mountain Lake Park Picnic Area. While the law is not always readily enforced in other parks—as long as you're being discreet—there is always a chance that you can be fined. Use common sense (and plastic cups!).
- San Francisco is a relatively safe city, but even safer when you keep your wits about you. Always keep an eye on your belongings and be aware of your surrounds, especially in neighborhoods like the Tenderloin and Mid-Market at night.
- Covers at bars and clubs range from a few dollars to $20, depending on the entertainment and crowds expected that night, though there are plenty of places that don't charge a cover at all—especially if it's a weeknight or you slip in early.
- Standard tipping is usually a dollar per beer or glass of wine, a buck or two more for cocktails. Show your appreciation for the work involved!
- Cannabis (weed, pot, grass, dope, refer, straight-up marijuana...) is legal in California for those 21 and over, but again, be discreet. It's technically illegal to smoke or consume weed anywhere that cigarette smoking is illegal. You're also not allowed to possess weed on federal lands, such as Ocean Beach and Alcatraz Island.