San Francisco is a little like a consignment shop—if you look in the corners and do a little digging, you’re bound to find treasures. Shopping options here represent every style, era, fetish, and financial status—not in sprawling shopping malls, but scattered throughout the city in unique neighborhood boutiques. Whether you’re looking for a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes, a Chanel knockoff, or Chinese herbal medicine, San Francisco’s got it. Just pick a shopping neighborhood, wear some sensible shoes, and get ready to end up with at least a few take-home treasures.
Major Shopping Areas
San Francisco has many shopping areas, but here’s where you’ll find most of the action.
Union Square & Environs -- San Francisco’s most congested and popular shopping mecca is centered on Union Square and spreads out to Bush, Taylor, Market, and Montgomery streets. Most of the big department stores and many high-end specialty shops are here, including Bloomingdales (at 4th and Market sts.), Saks (Powell St. at Post St.), Macy’s (at Stockton and O’Farrell), Neiman Marcus (at Stockton and Geary), and Nordstrom (Market at 5th St.). Be sure to venture to Grant Avenue, Post and Sutter streets, and Maiden Lane. This area is a hub for public transportation; all Market Street and several other buses run here, as do the Powell–Hyde and Powell–Mason cable car lines. You can also take the Muni streetcar to the Powell Street station.
Chinatown -- When you pass through the gate to Chinatown on Grant Avenue, say goodbye to the world of fashion and hello to a swarm of cheap tourist shops selling everything from linen and jade to plastic toys and $3 slippers. But that’s not all Chinatown has to offer. The real gems are tucked away on side streets, often small, one-person shops selling Chinese herbs, original art, and jewelry. Grant Avenue is the area’s main thoroughfare, and the side streets between Bush Street and Columbus Avenue are full of restaurants, markets, and eclectic shops. Stockton Street is best for food shopping (including live fowl and fish). Walking is the way to get around—traffic through this area is slow and parking is next to impossible. Most stores in Chinatown are open longer hours than in the rest of the city, from about 10am to 10pm. Take bus no. 1, 9X, 15, 30, 41, or 45.
Jackson Square -- A historic district just north of the Financial District’s Embarcadero Center, this is the place to go for the top names in fine furniture and fine art. More than a dozen dealers on the 2 blocks between Columbus and Sansome streets specialize in European furnishings from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Most shops are only open Monday through Friday from 9am to 5pm and Saturday from 11am to 4pm. Bus: 1, 3, 8, or 10.
Union Street -- Union Street, from Fillmore Street to Van Ness Avenue, caters to the upper-middle-class crowd. It’s a great place to stroll, window-shop the plethora of boutiques, try the cafes and restaurants, and watch the beautiful people parade by. Take bus no. 22, 41, 45, 47, 49, or 76.
Chestnut Street -- Parallel and a few blocks north, Chestnut Street is a younger version of Union Street, with plenty of shopping and dining choices. An ever-tanned, super-fit population of postgraduate singles hangs around the cafes here and scopes each other out. Take bus no. 22, 28, 30, 43, or 76.
Fillmore Street -- Some of the best boutique clothing shopping in town is packed into 5 blocks of Fillmore Street in Pacific Heights. From Jackson to Sutter streets, Fillmore is the perfect place to grab a bite and peruse high-priced boutiques, crafts shops, and contemporary housewares stores. (Don’t miss Zinc Details). Take bus no. 1, 2, 3, 4, 12, 22, or 24.
Haight Street -- Green hair, spiked hair, no hair, or mohair—even the hippies look conservative next to Haight Street’s grungy fashionistas. The shopping in the 6 blocks of upper Haight Street between Central Avenue and Stanyan Street reflects its clientele. It offers everything from incense and European and American street styles to furniture and antique clothing. Bus nos. 6, 7, 66, and 71 run the length of Haight Street, and nos. 33 and 43 run through upper Haight Street. Muni N streetcars stop at Waller Street and Cole Street.
SoMa -- Although this area isn’t suitable for strolling, you’ll find almost all the discount shopping in warehouse spaces south of Market. You can pick up a discount-shopping guide at most major hotels. Many bus lines pass through this area.
Hayes Valley -- The few blocks of lower Hayes Street, between Octavia and Gough streets, celebrate all things vintage, chic, artistic, and contemporary. It’s definitely the most interesting shopping area in town, with furniture and glass stores, trendy shoe stores, and men’s and women’s clothiers. You can find lots of great antiques shops south on Octavia Street and on nearby Market Street. Take bus no. 16AX, 16BX, or 21.
The Mission -- Where Mexican wrestler masks meet new-age apothecaries meet hip boutiques, the Mission offers an eclectic mix perfect for some entertaining browsing. In just the last few years, a treasure trove of fashionable and funky stores have popped up on 16th and 17th streets in the Mission, as well as along Valencia Avenue. Find Mexican trinkets, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) paraphernalia, designer lotions and herbal remedies, cutting-edge fashions, locally designed jewelry, funky art and home decor, and even taxidermy—all in the same quarter-mile stretch. Bus: 12, 14, 22, or 49.
Just the Facts: Hours, Taxes & Shipping
Store hours are generally Monday through Saturday from 10am to 6pm and Sunday from 11am to 5pm. Most department stores stay open later, as do shops around Fisherman’s Wharf, the most heavily visited area (by tourists).
Sales tax in San Francisco is 8.5%, which is added on at the register. If you live out of state and buy an expensive item, you might want to have the store ship it home for you. You’ll have to pay for shipping, but you’ll escape paying the sales tax. Most of the city’s shops can wrap your purchase and ship it anywhere in the world. If they can’t, you can send it yourself, either through UPS (tel. 800/742-5877), FedEx (tel. 800/463-3339), or the U.S. Postal Service.
Amazing Grazing: The Ferry Building
As much a sightseeing attraction as a place to buy and consume food, the Ferry Building Marketplace and its corollary Farmers' Market (one of the most highly acclaimed farmers’ markets in the United States) are tangible proof that people who live in San Francisco lead tastier lives than the rest of the nation (sorry, but it’s true!). The produce—organic and sourced from small family farms—looks like it was taken from a still-life painting, the meats and fish are superfresh, and the quality and variety of unusual specialty goods (who knew balsamic vinegar can be clear?) will blow your mind.
Saturday morning is the best time to stop by, when the Farmers’ Market is in its full glory, playing host to local meat ranchers, artisan cheesemakers, bread bakers, specialty food purveyors, and farmers. Some are picked for the 10:30am Meet the Farmer event, a half-hour interview created to give the audience in-depth information about how and where their food is produced. At 11am, Bay Area chefs give cooking demonstrations using ingredients purchased that morning from the market. (And yes, tastings are given out, as are recipes.) Several local restaurants also have food stalls selling their cuisine—including breakfast items—so don’t eat before you arrive. There’s also farmers’ market activity on Tuesdays and Thursday if you can’t get here on Saturday.
The Marketplace, open daily, features Northern California’s best gourmet food outlets, including Cowgirl Creamery’s Artisan Cheese Shop, Recchiuti Confections (amazing chocolate), Acme Breads, Blue Bottle Coffee, Hog Island Oysters, and gluten-free Mariposa Bakery. The famed Vietnamese restaurant the Slanted Door is here, as is Imperial Tea Court, where you’ll be taught the traditional Chinese way to steep and sip your tea, and a myriad of other restaurants, delis, gourmet coffee shops, specialty foods, and wine bars. If you want crazy-good Japanese takeout food, try Delica, and definitely check out Heath Ceramics, a favorite among chefs and food lovers.
The Ferry Building Marketplace is open Monday through Friday from 10am to 7pm, Saturday from 8am to 6pm, and Sunday from 11am to 5pm. The Farmers' Market takes place year-round, rain or shine, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10am to 2pm and Saturdays from 8am to 2pm. The Ferry Building is located on the Embarcadero at the foot of Market Street (about a 15-min. walk from Fisherman’s Wharf). For more information, visit ferryplazafarmersmarket.com or ferrybuildingmarketplace.com or call [tel] 415/693-0996.
Shopping Centers & Complexes
Ghirardelli Square -- This former chocolate factory is one of the city’s quaintest shopping malls and most popular landmarks. Though now dotted with tourist-centric shops, it’s the former chocolate and spice factory of Domingo Ghirardelli (say “Gear-ar-dell-y”), and dates back even further to 1864, when the factory made Civil War uniforms. A clock tower, an exact replica of one at France’s Château de Blois, crowns the complex. Inside the tower, on the mall’s plaza level, is its most popular attraction—the fun yet way-pricey Ghirardelli soda fountain, an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor that also makes and sells small amounts of chocolate. Other stores range from a children’s club to a women’s clothing boutique, cards and stationery to a doggie boutique. The main plaza shops and restaurants are open daily 11am to 9pm (except Sun when it closes at 6pm). The square has free Wi-Fi, too. 900 North Point St. (at Polk St.). www.ghirardellisq.com. [tel] 415/775-5500.
Pier 39 -- To residents, Pier 39 is an expensive spot where out-of-towners buy souvenirs and greasy fast food. But it does have some redeeming qualities—fresh crab (when in season), stunning views, playful sea lions, fun street performers, and plenty of amusement for the kids. If you want to get to know the real San Francisco, skip the cheesy T-shirt shops and limit your time here to one afternoon, if that. At Beach St. and the Embarcadero. pier39.com.
Westfield San Francisco Centre -- This ritzy 1.5-million-square-foot urban shopping center is one of the few vertical malls (multilevel rather than sprawling) in the United States. Its spectacular atrium is topped with a century-old dome that’s 102 feet wide and 3 stories high. Along with Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s department stores and a Century Theatres multiplex, there are more than 170 specialty stores, including Abercrombie & Fitch, Zara, H&M, J. Crew, Kate Spade New York, and Lucky Brand Jeans. The bottom level is sprinkled with probably the best food-court fare you’ve ever had (don’t miss the amazing array of grab-and-go eats at Bristol Farms grocery store). 865 Market St. (at Fifth St.). westfield.com/sanfrancisco. [tel] 415/512-6776.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.