San Francisco Shopping for the Holidays 2013

Published Date Author: , December 13th, 2013
by Scott and Mark, Purple Roofs

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San Francisco Panorama

Union Square at ChristmasSan Francisco is always a great place to visit, but it’s especially magical during the Holiday Season. While there’s no snow, the Christmas decorations come out, it seems like there’s music on every corner, and holiday cheer abounds.

We took our annual holiday shopping trip in The City last week, to head down to The City to see what this holiday season had to offer. The weather was cold (and wet the first night) this year – but after the rain passed on Friday, we had two beautiful, sunny days.

San Francisco at Night

You’ll find many of our favorites here – Union Square, Union Street, The Castro, The Embarcadero/Ferry Building, and Hayes Valley.

If you haven’t been to The City before, it may come as a surprise how walkable SF is – if you are in good shape, you can easily walk from Union Square to the Castro, or to Fisherman’s Wharf or North Beach. You just need a good map and a little situational awareness.

EmbarcaderoIn our opinion, the main place to avoid is the Tenderloin – a sketchy district that sits between Union Square and the Civic Center, where city hall is located. While this is labeled an “up and coming” district, with companies like Twitter locating their offices there, it still has a long way to go. We’d strongly suggest not going there at night, and if you can avoid it during the daytime, do.

The theater district borders on the Tenderloin, but is generally ok during the busy showtimes when there are lots of people around. And we’ve often walked Market Street between 5th and Van Ness during the daytime… just have someone with you and be cautious.

San Francisco Bike ShareNow about that situational awareness thing – smart phones are regularly stolen in The City. And victims often make it easy by peering at their phones and not paying attention to the world around them. So exercise caution when using your cell phone on the street, especially in busier neighborhoods, and be aware of the situation around you.

But enough said about the “dangers” – all in all, the city is very safe for such a large metro area.

There’s a new bike share service in the city – it’s still being expanded, but you’ll see the light blue bikes at various places around town.  More details here.

SF Bag lawOne more note – last year, San Francisco basically banned plastic bags in city limits – the intent being to cut back on the plastic that goes into landfills and out to sea to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – stores can no longer give you plastic bags (unless they are biodegradable), and if you want a paper sack, you have to pay an extra 10 cents.  So be prepared, or bring your own bags with you when you shop.

Now on to shopping!

Hayes Valley

We’ll start with Hayes Street, a cute three-block shopping district that we only found by chance – that is, a chance encounter with a friend and her daughter at the Apple store a few weeks back.  Her daughter had a really cute Mexican purse, and when we asked where she bought it, we found out about Polanco, a great store on Hayes Street specializing in Mexican art.  Back to that in a minute.

Hayes Valley ParkHayes Valley was divided for many years by a freeway offramp that plit the neighborhood in half.  Damaged in the quake of 1989, the segment was demolished, giving way to a narrow, cute little park and bringing the neighborhood back together.  Over the last twenty years, Hayes Valley has seen a renaissance, with great results for us in 2012.

Polanco Gallery, Hayes Street, San FranciscoHayes Street shopping is located on Hayes Street, just a few blocks north of Market street, and just west of Van Ness.  It’s really close to our favorite gay theater in the city – the New Conservatory Theatre.

Now back to Polanco Gallery – this is a fascinating store.  In the front, there’s a big Christmas tree filled with colorful Mexican ornaments – not gay, per se, but you’ll find many rainbow colors here. The store also offers a beautiful selection of Mexican pottery, silver picture frames and jewelry boxes, gaily colored wooden statuettes, and a myriad of whimsical gift ideas.

F Dorian, Hayes StreetAlso here on Hayes Street, you’ll find F. Dorian (at right) – another shop full of cute gifts just across Hayes Street from Polanco – another great place to find ornaments from a local SF vendor, as well as pottery, kitchen ware, and other fine art.

Minimal, Hayes Valley, San FranciscoAlso on Hayes Street, you’ll find Flight 001 – a cute little travel store with innovate, interesting products; Marlena’s lesbian bar (fully decorated for the season); and Minimal (pictured at left), another great boutique store filled with home decor, including decorative pillows, candles, kitchen ware, and other kitschy elements.

Patxi's Pizza, Hayes Valley, San FranciscoWe also found a great place to eat here – Patxi’s Pizza (“patchees”) – serving Chicago-style pizza on Hayes Street.  Serving both thin-crust and deep-dish Pizza, Patxi’s has a nice ambiance, and the deep-dish pizzas are really, really good.

Christopher ElbowFor dessert, pop into the Christopher Elbow chocolate shop – they have some amazing chocolate treats as well as a great selection of drinking chocolates. Try something exotic like a pear chocolate or a basil chocolate square, or go more traditional with one of their peanut butter chocolates or turtles.

As we mentioned above, the New Conservatory Theatre Company offers some great entertainment just around the corner.  Located in the basement of a building at Van Ness and Market Street, the NCTC offers some great gay theatre.

This year, we saw a play we’ve been dying to see for years – Avenue Q.  Now that the national tours are done, they’ve finally gotten the rights to do it at the NCT, and they did a great job with it.  The cast was fantastic, and you even forget, sometimes, that the puppets are puppets.  Though puppet porn is now indelibly etched into my memory. It’s on through January 12th.  Also there – My Beautiful Laundrette.

And if you’re in town on Christmas eve, get tickets for the Gay Men’s Chorus – they’re doing a fantastic holiday concert this year called Shine – we saw it last weekend, and it was fabulous – 400 male voices in unison (along with two pianos, two harps, and a soprano opera singer).

Embarcadero/Ferry Building

Hyatt Regency San FranciscoWe love to visit the Hyatt Regency lobby, especially at Christmastime.

It’s one of those Hyatts with the huge interior space, and this time of year it’s a winter wonderland filled with long threads of white lights, rainbow-colored lights on the iconic elevators.  It’s a lot of fun – if you are in the area, be sure to stop in to see the decorations.

San Francisco Ferry BuildingBut our main destination is always the Ferry Building Marketplace.  If you’ve never been, you’re in for a treat – it’s like a huge indoor farmer’s market (although there’s an actual farmer’s market there too on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday) filled with local shops and artisans.

Ferry Building Farmer's MarketWe found some amazing things here, and only the fact that we were staying in a hotel prevented us from leaving with arms full of cheeses, crackers, jams and jellies, cured meat, and much more.

There’s even an outdoor Farmer’s Market there on Saturdays that wraps around the building – it’s huge, and all food – fruit and vegetables, of course, but ale olive oils and pastries and all kinds of other wonderful foodstuffs.

If you have time, give yourself an hour or two to wander through the Ferry Building – there’s so much here to see (and buy).  Here are a few other things we ran across:

San Francisco Ferry BuildingSan Francisco Ferry Building

San Francisco Ferry BuildingSan Francisco Ferry Building

Exploratorium San FranciscoNot too far up the waterfront from the Ferry Building, at Pier 15, is the new Exploratorium Museum.  It’s an SF staple – a place where kids and adults can explore the sciences in a hands-on fashion.  It used to be on the other end of town at the Palace of Fine Arts, but the new location along the wharf suits it perfectly – there’s even a section devoted to the life sciences and the San Francisco Bay.

Exploratorium SFThe new facility is amazing – our favorite part was the section dealing with sound and sight.  There are so many hands-on exhibits here – we tried a bunch of them and even at our advanced ages (much older than five) we had a great time and learned a few things.

Tickets were $25 for adults, but if you’re from one of the 7 Bay Area counties, you get a $5 break on the cost of admission.

Union Square

Union Square at XmasMoving on to Union Square.  This is the premier shopping district in The City, and is home to Sachs, Neiman Marcus, Macy’s, Tiffany’s, and a host of other retail stores, including one of our favorites, the Apple Store (and this one is HUGE).

There’s also the San Francisco Center just across Market Street – a beautiful shopping center with a large food court, Nordstrom and Bloomingdales, and a few high-end restaurants to boot.

For holiday shopping, here are our picks in Union Square:

Chorous at Macy'sMacys: Their ornaments (on the 7th floor of the “women’s” store – yes, there are TWO Macy’s here), are already discounted and they have some great things (tho, alas, no “gay” ornament tree AGAIN this year). There are a number of great SF-centric ornaments here, too.

If you’re lucky, you might hear a little live Christmas music – when we were there on Sunday, a chorus from Walnut Creek was there to sing.  We stopped and watched for a few songs – helped to get us in the mood.

They have an annual Christmas window display, and every year, they showcase pets in need of homes.  Soooo cute.

Tout SweetAlso check out Tout Sweet, a cafe and sweets shop on the third floor of the Macy’s women’s store, overlooking Union Square, by openly gay chef Yigit Pura, the first gay man to win Top Chef – it’s filled with beautiful (and probably sinful and deadly) treats, and is worth a stop.

Apple StoreNext, try the Apple Store – this must be one of the largest Apple Stores on the west coast. While actual discounts are rare here, this is the must-stop store for your gadget purchases, with the new iPhone 5, the iPad mini, and a host of accessories and other toys.

Urban Outfitters Union SquareAlso check out the little stores tucked into the nooks and crannies of Powell Street, just south of the actual Square. One we liked (and had never actually visited before) was the Urban Outfitters store – we thought they were just for clothing, but the whole downstairs of this store is filled with interesting gifts and gadgets, along with a small selection of Christmas ornaments (at right), including the first T-Rex ornament we saw this trip. :)

San Francisco Center - Emporium DomeAt the SF Center just across Market Street, there’s a Go Games store in the former Borders store location – they sell calendars, puzzles, and games,.

And once again this year, check out the awesome lighting under the old “Emporium” dome here in the SF Center – this side of the mall was once the Emporium, and the renovation preserved this beautiful architectural feature.

There’s also a movie theater here if you want to catch a flick between bouts of shopping.

For gadget lovers, check out the Brookstone store while you’re at the SF Center.

Target MetreonJust south and east of the Galleria is the Metreon – when it opened in the late nineties, it was intended to be the modern, new millennium answer to the old-fashioned shopping malls – but instead it flopped badly.  The only remnant of those halcyon days is the movie theater on the top floor.  Now the Metreon has been repurposed in a more practical manner – the entire second floor is now a Target.

We visited it to see the changes – and it’s so bizarre to see the huge second floor, that once was full of cutting edge stores now replaced with this (at left). Makes me sad.

HatsOut along the streets we saw a number of vendors selling these cute hats (at right).  Now granted, they’re probably made en-masse in a factory in China, but they were cute…

SF Street EntertainerWe also ran into this guy – we’ve seen him here before – he’s a street entertainer, and although he probably has a tough life, he always brings a little joy to visitors to Union Square.

Acoustic ScupltureFinally, we found something new on Market Street this year – a piece of acoustic art.  Made of two big upended dishes and some architectural flourish, the sculpture will transmit sound from one dish to another across a wide distance, even if you speak at a regular conversational volume.  It’s on the south side of Market between 3rd and 4th.  Give it a try!

Gingerbreat at the Marriott MarquisJust around the corner at the Marriott Marquis (aka the Jukebox), they have a gingerbread House contest going in the lobby – each department in the hotel fashioned their own – come by and see a miniature Transamerica Building, among many others.

Want something to eat while you’re here? There are some great options.

Caffe BelliniFor breakfast, try Caffe Bellini, on Powell Street just half a block south of the Square on Powell Street. We’re in love with the idea of a true Italian caffe – a beautifully appointed place where the Italians stop in for a delicious pastry and a hot coffee on the way to work.

And Caffe Bellini delivers on this premise, with a case full of gorgeous pastries, real Italian coffee (Lavaza), and a nod to the American palette with full breakfast meals as well. The ham and egg bagel sandwich was particularly tasty and filling here.

Another great find is Cafe La Taza, half a block west of the Square on Post Street – a little cheaper than Bellini, Cafe La Taza serves a great mix of options, from pastries to breakfast croissants and burritos to french toast and oatmeal. he staff was really friendly (and fast), and the two of us got out of there for $20 for breakfast.

La BoulangeAlso, if you’re near the Metreon, there’s La Boulange, a local chain, on the ground floor with a view out to Yerba Buena Park (and outdoor patio seating for whe. it’s warm out).  Nice selection of pastries here, as well as a good quiche (needed a little salt) and really good fresh-squeezed OJ and coffee.

You may notice that the city recently added a series of sitting areas along Powell Street on the two blocks south of the Square – modern metal railings, planters, benches and tables – rest your weary self between stores here.

For lunch, try the Cheesecake Factory – yes, it’s a chain, but it has a HUGE menu with something for everyone, and hands-down the best view of the Square, form the top of the Macy’s building. Get there early – they open at 11 or 11:30 – and ask for a table on the rail overlooking Union Square. The Cheesecake Factory fills up fast.

Another, more low-key option – Boudin – a local SF chain – that serves some of the best sourdough bread around. We love their salads, their turkey avocado and turkey cranberry sandwiches, and the chile and clam chowder – served, of curse, in a bread bowl. Boudin is on the south side of the women’s Macy’s Building, with its own entrance form the street.

Colibri RestaurantFor dinner, one of our local favorites is Colibri – a modern Mexican restaurant serving things like squash blossoms, prickly pear cactus, and other exotic treats. The cuisine includes some down-to-earth dishes, too, so don’t be scared – they have a fantastic filet, and the chicken huitlacoche dish is fantastic.

This restaurant is owned by the same folks who used to run Zazil, one of our favorites in the SF Center that closed a couple years back. Colibri is on Geary, one and a half blocks west of The Square, across from the Curran and ACT theaters – and often fills up quickly because of these two theaters on play nights. Make a reservation as early as possible.

We also like the Lark Creek restaurant in the SF center – great steak, though a little pricy.

Another great (and low-cost) thing to do for entertainment during the holidays – watch the ice skaters in Union Square. There’s a viewing platform here, and it’s surprisingly entertaining to watch the brave souls skate by – young couples in love, arrogant professional skaters weaving in and out of the crowds, and the occasional (entertaining) fall, usually preceded by vigorous arm waving. And if you wanna brave the rink yourself, they even rent the skates!

Get a hot chocolate and come watch the skaters at night – it’s magical, and the music selection is fantastic too.

There’s another ice skating rink over at Justin Herman Plaza, by the Embarcadero (just walk down Market to the Bay).

Union Street

Let’s move on to Union Street. Although it shares part of its name with Union Square, it’s halfway across town.

Huntington Park FountainIf you’re up for the walk, it’s a nice one – take Powell up to California Street, and then go west on California, and you’ll pass through the Nob Hill district (it is a bit of a climb up Powell and California streets), with its fancy (and beautiful) hotels, Huntington Park (a great place to sit and people watch for a few minutes – and check out the “manly” fountain in the middle at right), and then north on Polk Street.

Polk has its own cute little shopping district, as well as a Peets Coffee – a local SF chain that’s a great alternative to Starbucks.

Union StreetWhen you reach Union, turn left (west), and cross Van Ness to Union Street’s shopping district (you’ll have to go a block or two past Van Ness before you find the good stuff).

One note: you’re really close to Lombard Street here (you know, the really curvy one), if you want to walk back that way, but that’s a BIG hill).

For shopping:

Susan Miller Art GalleryCheck out the Susan Miller Gallery – Susan’s a local artist who has her own gallery, and specializes in watercolors – specifically, locations around North Beach and Union Street, and fashion art from local store windows.

She’s gay friendly, and the prices are reasonable – most framed prints run around $135 each. She also offers art classes on-site… find her in a basement flat off the north side of Union Street.

Twig San FranciscoAnother really cool store is Twig – a local boutique with all kinds of great knick-knacks – art, ornaments, clever signs, and creative toys for kids. Yeah, so,e things are a bit pricey, but remember, this is a local store, and you’re supporting the local economy.

Octagon House MuseumThere’s also a new museum – The Octagon House – showcasing Federal and Colonial art, but it’s only open limited hours – second Sundays and Second and Fourth Thursdays from 12-3 PM.

For local eats:

We really liked Ottimista, an Italian restaurant on the north side of Union Street with a great atmosphere and good food. But there’s also Perry’s – if you’re a Tales of the City Fan, you’ll recognize this long-time SF tradition as the place where Brian worked… the food’s basically pub quality food – burgers, fries, etc – but it’s fun just for the history.

The Castro

F-Line San FranciscoWe’ve saved the best shopping for the last – The Castro – the geographic and metaphoric heart of San Francisco. From Union Square, you can walk here in about 35-45 minutes – just go straight up Market Street. Or take the F Line (at left) – historic rail cars brought into SF from all around the world and restored – there’s even one from Milan, still filled with Milanese signage.

You can catch these at any of the bus stops on Market Street, and they’ll give you a transfer good for a couple hours for the return. Or take the MUNI underground line – K, L, or M – which will whisk you under Market Street to the Castro in just a few minutes.

Castro Christmas TreeYou’ll know you are in the Castro by the huge Rainbow Flag that flies over Harvey Milk Plaza – the rallying point for the Castro since Milk’s day in the seventies, when he would call community meetings there.

The city recently closed off the street across from Harvey Milk Plaza to make a little “park” – really just a sitting area.

And there’s a gorgeous, gay Christmas tree at the B of A plaza at Castro and 18th.

Here are some of our favorite places to shop for the Holidays in the Castro:

Under One RoofFirst and foremost, Under One Roof – not just for the great selection of Christmas ornaments, gay/Castro merchandise, and other cool knick-kacns – not just for the prices, which are pretty good – but also because the store exists to provide monetary support to people living with HIV and AIDS.  It’s one of two places we found with actual gay ornaments – rainbow flags, gay snowmen, and much more.

This store is a mandatory stop for us when we visit the City, and we always buy something here. There’s a really cool line of t-shirts, mugs, etc from SF mercantile that the store carries – when we wear our Castro shirts, we always get compliments. Under One Roof is on Market Street, between 18th and 19th.

Although the main store closed last year, they opened a new, smaller location across the street this year.

Does Your Mother KnowAnother long-time favorite – Does Your Mother Know. Formerly a card shop, the store has morphed into more of an erotic boutique – lots of toys and lube – but they also carry a great supply of gay-centric cards – from romantic to naughty – hard to find outside of the Castro. DYMK is on 18th, half a block west of Castro.

Cliff's Variety - The CastroAlso on Castro, you’ll find one of the oldest stores on the street – Cliff’s Variety  (at left).  Originally a hardware store, Cliffs still caries all the hardware basics – tools, nails, etc – but also carries games and toys, housewares, and through the newer storefront next door, great home decor and gift items.  Nice ornament selection here, too.

Gay Christmas Cards at Wild Card San FranciscoA new favorite – Wild Card! – just around the corner from Twin Peaks Bar (the first bar in the US with windows, showing the world we were here). This store is HUGE – far bigger than you’d think from the front – and had three main draws for us:


Card selection – thousands of cards, many gay-themed and/or erotic – and the only place this trip that had a decent (ok HUGE) selection of gay-themed Christmas cards (sorry the pic’s a little fuzzy).

Giant Wooden Penises: Yes, you heard that right – the store has two man-sized wooden penises tucked away in the back of the store. Take a picture with one, and your mamma will know!

Pornaments: Yes, we finally found them – gay porn ornaments. A whole row of them on a string behind the counter – create the Christmas tree of your gay erotic dreams!

There’s also the HRC store – in the old Harvey Milk Camera Store storefront between 18th and 19th – HRC-branded merchandise, including the cutest teddy bears in rainbow colors!

Want something to eat while you are here?

FirewoodTry Firewood – two blocks west of Castro Street on 18th – a local chain with a fantastic salad, and a really good rigatoni. Sit in the front room and people watch, or find a place in the sunny back room.

For breakfast, try Orphan Andy’s at the corner of Market and Castro for filling, delicious, unassuming fare, or the Patio a block down market.

GLBT History MuseumAlso of note: the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender History Museum, on 18th half a block east of Castro, has a fascinating collection of gay history memorabilia, including photos, posters, some of Harvey Milk’s personal effects and much more.

Their windows were smashed last year by vandals, so we’re sure they would appreciate your business.

Castro Window DisplayCheck out this only in the Castro store window. 🙂

Another great thing to do while you’re here – take one of the Cruisin’ the Castro tours – we did the Harvey Milk one this time, and loved it – it focused on sites around the Castro where Milk lived, worked, and is commemorated – more on this in the next post.

The tour also takes you up to Civic Center, with a great tour of city hall and a recap of the events that led up to the slayings of Milk and Mayor Moscone by former Supervisor Dan White (he of the infamous “twinkie defense”. Note: City Hall was lit up in red for World AIDS Day on December 1st.

We love dining at North Beach. While there’s not a lot of great shopping in North Beach – it’s more coffee shops, restaurants, and delis – it does have some great eats.

Caffe BaonecciFirst off, our favorite, Caffe Banonecci. Baonecci is owned by a wonderful Italian family – a rarity in North Beach these days. Walter, the father, always welcomes us warmly, and his wife, Stefania, is the master chef in the kitchen. This time, we started with a cheese plate, which came with a tasty strawberry jam spiced with a little red pepper, followed up with a salad, and finished with a gnocchi that Stefania prepared specially for us – soft potato dumplings that literally melted in my mouth!

Colosseo RestaurantWe also like Colosseo – on Columbus at Green. We were drawn in by the beautiful murals of the Colosseo and the Forum on the restaurant walls, but the food here was really good, too, and we enjoyed chatting with Camillo, our Italian waiter.

Beach Blanket BabylonDon’t forget to see another San Francisco tradition while you’re in town – Beach Blanket Babylon. Now in its 37th year, the basic format remains the same – Snow White’s search for love – but the new content, costumes, and of course, the hats – keep this San Francisco staple fresh. Our favorite parts this time around – the show’s take on the Republican presidential candidates (including a super-timely reference to Rick Perry) and the extra 20-30 minutes of Christmas music tacked on to the show for the Holidays.

Recommendations here: if you can afford it, splurge for one of the balcony side or front box seats – best views in the house. Otherwise, the two second best places are the front orchestra or the center balcony. The orchestra floor is not tiered, so if you sit too far back, the view is really poor, and may be blocked by support pillars for the balcony.

Getting Around the City:

San Francisco offers a number of great transportation options:

Walk: Our favorite, and a great way to see lots of the city

San Francisco Cable CarCable Cars: Catch these at Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, or the Embarcadero – a fun, touristy (tho pricey) way to explore the northeastern quadrant of The City.

MUNI: San Francisco’s transit system can take you all over town. The underground runs up and down Market Street and a few other destinations; the busses and street cars above ground can take you almost anywhere.

BART: Though limited in value for in-SF travel (basically Market Street from the Bay to Van Ness/Civic Center, and then south through the Mission), it’s clean, fast, and great to get you out of the city for day trips.

There’s also the aforementioned bike share.

If you’re in Northern California, get down to San Francisco for some great shopping this Gay Holiday Season!

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