For holiday music, I am a “Silver bells, silver bells, it’s Christmas time in the city…” kinda girl. Even listening to my favorite holiday tune “The Christmas Song” [you know, chestnuts roasting on an open fire…] I visualize occurring in a beautifully restored Victorian style home right here in the middle of San Francisco.
But downtown San Francisco during the holidays can be too crowded for me. It’s a conundrum: I love the holiday decorations and festivities at Union Square I just don’t want too many people to get in my way! What I’ve learned over these many happy holidays is how to shop downtown while avoiding the densest of streets: Powell between Post and Market. Stockton, running parallel, is a close second. The general approach is to use the perimeter streets to hone in on the area and then take a side street to access the exact store I want to go to.
Bush/Sutter, Mason and Grant streets create a horseshoe around Union Square and therefore allow for easier pedestrian maneuvering without sacrificing the holiday experience. I say pedestrian because public transportation is the easiest way to get downtown. When you have arm loads of shopping bags you can always take an Uber or Lyft back to the parking garage, CalTrain station, BART station or directly home. It will be much cheaper than paying for parking and a lot easier. If you absolutely must have a vehicle downtown, then park on the edges, i.e Sutter/Stockton Garage, St Mary’s Garage, or Jessie Square Garage. Most have early bird specials so it’s worth doing some strategizing.
I also want to point out what a Noodling opportunity this is! These secondary streets offer shopping and exploring opportunities that can be easily missed if you limit yourself to Union Square proper. As an example: if you want to go to the Apple Store at Stockton and Post. You can park at Old St Mary’s garage in China Town, walk down Kearny have lunch at The Irish Bank (Mark Lane off Bush), continue along Bush to Grant (you will see the beautiful Dragon Gate), left down Grant, make a right onto Post and walk 1 block to Stockton, and you are there. Easy breezy. Along the way you will have passed Lulu Lemon, Banana Republic and Zara, just to name a few stores. From the Apple Store you will get a great view of Union Square without all the fuss.
If you take BART or Muni get off at the Montgomery Street station getting out at the Sutter/Sansome exit and walk up Sutter to Stockton or Powell. There are a number of great little places for lunch all along Sutter - far shorter lunch lines and decent prices compared to Union Square establishments. There is also Paper Source at 246 Sutter which has tons of gift and stocking stuffer items in addition to papers and cards. Do not miss the Hallidie Building (Willis Polk, 1917) with its peacock blue, cast iron and glass façade. It’s credited as being the first “glass curtain” building in the U.S and so beautifully combines the grace of the Beaux Arts with modern engineering. Best viewed from the top level of the Galleria Mall (shops, eateries and restrooms) across the street.
Some additional fun things to look for and enjoy when you are
The Spring Valley Water Company building at 425 Mason Street, between Post and Geary (1922, Willis Polk architect). One of my favorite understated buildings in San Francisco. Why? Because the first-floor façade appears to have water running down the walls! This sculptural relief represents the abundance of water managed by this early twentieth century private (e.g. monopoly) water company. Notice the building from across the street to appreciate the waterfall effect and then get up close and run your hands on the flow-effect terracotta tiles designed by a high school art teacher.
The 450 Sutter Medical Building lobby (1929, Timothy Pflueger architect) between Powell and Stockton streets is a Mayan-inspired, cast bronze paneled and marble surfaced explosion of Art Deco design. Simply breathtaking. The elevator doors alone are worth adoration. The building management is used to crowds of people coming in to just look. Don’t be shy but always be friendly. The parking garage is notoriously expensive and always full but maybe an option worth trying. There’s a nice little café as well, just in case you need a beverage after salivating over the golden opulence.
Maiden Lane between Stockton and Kearny streets was once a “red-light” district prior to the 1906 Earthquake. This daytime pedestrian mall is a perfect spot for shopping, inspiration or simply having a respite from the crowds. Notice the low-arched entry on 140 Maiden Lane between Grant and Stockton. This is a Frank Lloyd Wright 1949 renovation of an earlier building but if by some miracle you can peek inside, that is where the real gem is - a Guggenheim-like spiral ramp and gallery that will leave you inspired. More magic awaits inside the lovely boutiques and specialty shops
No matter how you get to Union Square be sure to relish the journey, especially during the holidays. It’s not worth rushing and being angry at children/fellow workers/other shoppers. A little patience with yourself and others will go a long way in helping everyone enjoy themselves. Mother Teresa said "It's not how much we give but how much love we put into giving."
If you park your car anywhere be sure to lock everything in the trunk.
That’s packages, trash bags, blankets, phone charging cords
- you name it. Do not take the chance.
Most cafes require you to purchase something to use the restroom.
Decent restrooms without a purchase or much of a wait time are
downstairs level at Uniqlo, second floor DSW Shoes, both on Powell Street.
Also, at the second level of the Crocker Galleria, Sutter Street.