From intimate clubs to high-capacity arenas, San Francisco has no shortage of venues that cater to the city's insatiable love of music. Whether it's a legendary performer or a unknown artist you're looking to catch, SF has the perfect place for you. Here are 15 San Francisco spots where seeing music is a seeing much more than a show — it's an experience.
Known for its opulent style and extraordinary elegance, the Great American Music Hall (GAMH) is one of San Francisco's most picturesque music venues. The Tenderloin-based rock club was built right after the city's 1906 earthquake and fire as a restaurant and bordello, and later became a jazz club after WWII. It served as a Moose Lodge for a time. By the early '70s the building was in serious need of repair and almost met the wrecking ball, however with a last-minute reprieve it became the Great American Music Hall in 1972. Refurbished, repainted, and ready to go, the 470-seat concert hall has since welcomed everyone from legendary jazz artists Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan to Arcade Fire and Social Distortion's Mike Ness. Along with its lavish interior features — like ornately decorated balconies, thick marble columns, and ceiling frescoes — GAMH also boasts a large oak floor for both seats and standing room, two full bars, and a state-of-the-art sound system.
Well-known R&B artists Boz Scaggs opened Slim's in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood in the late '80s, looking to create the “R&B nightclub of his dreams,” though in the 30 years since it's become so much more. Over the last three decades the 500-capacity nightclub has seen performances by Nick Lowe, Curtis Mayfield, Patti Smith, and Pearl Jam. In 1996, Metallica played a show for its fan club that was invite-only, and Radiohead held their first Bay Area shows here. Most nights of the week the performers are lesser-known, but still impressive, and range from hard-core punk to hip-hop. Slim's features a main-level open floor for general admission, and an intimate balcony where reserved-ticket guests can enjoy a three-course sit-down meal with the show. Downstairs, show attendees linger around a large L-shaped bar pre-show before joining the large throng of revelers in front of the stage. Fun fact: Slim's has been GAMH's sister nightclub since 1988.
What was once an old mortuary is now one of San Francisco's newest music venues. The Chapel opened in 2012 as a West Coast home for New Orleans' Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who occasionally perform in residence. The “all-ages” (6 and up) venue includes a converted chapel with a 40-foot-high arched ceiling and separate mezzanine, where shows take place, as well as an 85-seat restaurant and outdoor patio. The Chapel is located along Valencia Street in the city's buzzing Mission District, at the heart of Valencia Street, and welcomes everyone from English singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock to the musical genre-morphing rock band NRBQ for shows that take full advantage of the venue's updated sound system, lighting and projection.
One of San Francisco's most venerable music venues, The Fillmore is a cultural icon. First opened in 1912 as an Italianate-style dance hall and later used as a roller skating rink, it's been welcoming some of the world's top music acts for nearly 65 years. The Fillmore has a ton of history, from its connections to the "Mayor of Fillmore," Charles Sullivan — and later Bill Graham — to its collectible psychedelic concert posters handed out for free at sold-out shows. In 1997, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played a string of 20 sold-out concerts at the legendary space (capacity is approximately 1,315 guests), which has also hosted the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and hundreds more iconic performers. The venue is also known for its innovative light systems — first employed in the '60s as part of Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a series of multimedia acts featuring The Velvet Underground and Nico. At the end of a show, be sure and grab your free apple upon exit.
Better known simply as "The Warfield," San Francisco's Warfield Theatre is another of the city's most revered musical venues. It's a stunningly ornate space along Market Street that originally opened in 1922 for vaudeville performers. It's reputation as an iconic concert hall was solidified when Bob Dylan kicked off his 1979 "Gospel Tour" with a 14-show run here, then followed it up with another 12 shows at the end of 1980. That same year the Grateful Dead played a 15-date engagement, and the Jerry Garcia Band later became the venue's own house band. Over the years The Warfield has also hosted the likes of Louis Armstrong, David Bowie, Prince and U2, and is known for its superb acoustics as well as its intimate feel, despite having a capacity of 2,300. The main floor is general admission (The Warfield's seats were removed in the '80s) and there's a balcony for reserved seating.
When Oracle Park (then Pacific Bell Park) first opened along San Francisco's Embarcadero waterfront in March 2000 as a new home for the Giants baseball team, it completely transformed the city and brought a bonafide concert stadium within city limits. The venue itself is stunning, with views overlooking San Francisco Bay. There's even a free viewing area for passersby by right field. In addition to ballgames, the park is known for hosting some of the world's most legendary performers: like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Metallica, Lady Gaga, and The Eagles. The stages for most of its shows are located in the outfield, with both field-level seating and three levels of tiered stadium-style seating, though you can always lay out a blanket on the exterior grass and listen to the music for free. An added bonus: valet bicycle parking.
Just beyond the city limits in nearby Daly City, the Cow Palace is another local music venue that's synonymous with the Grateful Dead: the band recorded a live show here on New Year's Eve, 1976. It's a bonafide agricultural arena, first opened in 1941 with the Western Classic Holstein Show — a showcase of Holstein dairy cattle — as its inaugural event. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Cow Palace became a troop assembly center for the military, before later serving as the home of the San Francisco Warriors NBA team. But it is its role as a legendary concert arena that really put the Cow Palace on the map, hosting acts such as Elvis Presley, The Jackson 5, The Rolling Stones, and Nirvana throughout its history. The Beatles played the opening night of their first U.S. tour here in 1964, and the indoor arena was the final stop of their second U.S. tour in 1965.
Although it's steps away from San Francisco's iconic Haight & Ashbury street-corner, Club Deluxe is well removed from the neighborhood's legendary hippie culture. This divey martini bar is all dim lights, wood-paneling, and vinyl booths, and was at the core of the city's swing revival in the 1990s. Former owner Jay Johnson, who passed away in 2015, bought the property in 1989 and turned it into an intimate showcase for swing, jazz and blues artists, including Johnson himself — who often took to the bar's raised stage to belt out Sinatra tunes. The bar hasn't changed much since Johnson's passing, with live music and/or performances seven nights a week (free Sunday through Thursday), ranging from burlesque shows with DJ Big Jimmy Spinner to the rollicking rockabilly and honky tonk sounds of Mitch Polzak and the Royal Deuces, along with jazz, blues, and even comedy.
There's not much to see at this long-time music venue along Divisadero Street in the city's NOPA/Western Addition neighborhood save for the acts themselves. Big names like John Legend, Beck, and Vampire Weekend, and comedian Dave Chappelle have played The Independent, and bands such as Nirvana and Jane's Addiction performed when it was called The Kennel Club. This beloved performance space got its start in the late '60s as a neighborhood watering hole and later became a jazz club where legends Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis once held court. It spent some time as a hip hop club called The Justice League and even as a punk rock venue before its current incarnation, a nondescript space with an elevated stage, a large open floor with limited seating on either side, and a bar in back, with a stage-left balcony that's typically VIP only. Despite its no-frills décor, The Independent remains a top spot for catching indie and upcoming acts in an intimate setting, and the neighborhood can't be beat.
A neighborhood bar on the first floor of a 1911 two-story Edwardian, Bottom of the Hill catapulted to legendary status in 1996 just five years after opening, when a local radio station leaked what was supposed to be a surprise Beastie Boys performance (under the name of Quasar) and nearly caused a full-on riot. In the years since, this live music club — a 350-person space literally at the bottom of Potrero Hill — has remained much more low key, welcoming everything from rock-a-billy to funk with a special penchant for indie rock. Shows typically take place seven nights a week and include a range of up-and-coming acts and both local and global artists. Show-goers can chow down on hot dogs, quesadillas, and burgers from the onsite kitchen until 11 p.m. or midnight, and there's a back patio from which smokers can still see the stage.
Not only is The Saloon — first opened in 1861 — San Francisco's oldest bar, it's also one of the city's most revered blues venues, The Saloon is a small corner space in the heart of North Beach that hosts top-notch blues musicians nightly. Many of the performers are locally known and attract a stalwart following, who come to hear their favorites perform in a relaxed and low-key setting. The venue itself has an impressive history. It was built during the city's notorious Barbary Coast days and is one of the few neighborhood buildings that survived San Francisco's 1906 earthquake and fire. In the late 1960s and '70s it was one of numerous blue clubs in the area. Myron Mu is the dive bar's proprietor, and is a staunch blues supporter.
Bill Graham Civic Auditorium
Centrally located in San Francisco's Civic Center neighborhood, making it easily accessible by both BART and Muni transit, the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium is a multi-purpose venue that — like the Cow Palace — once served as home to the Warriors NBA basketball team. These days the auditorium is much more music-centric and, with a capacity of 8,500, is quite large for a downtown concert space making it popular with big name musicians who draw large crowds like Jack White, Phish, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The venue has two floors—a typically packed main floor and a less crowded balcony—and multiple bars. It's one of several San Francisco sites built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, In 1992 the auditorium took on the name of legendary rock concert promoter Bill Graham, who died in a helicopter crash a year earlier.
SF Masonic Auditorium
Perched atop Nob Hill within the larger California Masonic Memorial Temple, the AF Masonic Auditorium or “The Masonic” first opened in 1958 and is today both a meeting space for the California Freemasons as well as a mid-sized, 3,300-admission capacity Live Nation concert venue. It underwent a complete renovation in 2014 and reopened with the Beverly Hills-based venue operator at its helm, complete with a new concert stage, a sound-system specifically designed for the space, and a tiered levels that can accommodate both seats and open floor space as needed. Joan Baez, Elvis Costello & the Imposters, and Broadway's Sarah Brightman ("Phantom of the Opera") have all recently performed here, along with comedians like Conan O'Brien and San Francisco native, Ali Wong. The Masonic is known for its Mid-Century Modernist architectural style, as well as a massive lobby mural made of everything from seashells to grass that illustrates the history of California Masonry.
Music lovers are treated to a two-in-one at this historic Market Street venue, which hosts life music on both its upper (Swedish American Hall) and lower levels (Cafe Du Nord). Built in 1907, this beloved local venue began as a gathering spot for the Swedish Society of San Francisco. The upper hall, with its grand ballroom and balcony, has been hosting consistent Noise Pop concerts since 2015, while the subterranean Du Nord—a former speakeasy—is known for it's more intimate indie performances and gastro pub fare. Notable acts such as The Decemberists, Rilo Kiley, and Mumford and Sons have played at one of the two venues over the years.
Opened in January 2013 at the cusp of San Francisco's Hayes Valley and Civic Center neighborhoods, the SFJAZZ Center is the home of SFJAZZ, an organization that hosts jazz-related workshops, photography exhibits, concerts and more. This includes shows by the SFJAZZ Collective, an eight-person ensemble made up of all-star jazz artists that embodies that organization's “commitment to jazz as a living, ever-relevant art form.” Recent performers have included jazz pianist, composer, and "artist on the rise" Pascal Le Boeuf, Rosanne Cash and Ry Cooder, and the Joey Alexander Trio, led by the teenage Alexander.