To San Franciscans and tourists alike, Union Square is synonymous with shopping. Here, Saks Fifth Avenue cozies up to Tiffany & Co., which winks its diamonds at the shiny windows of Macy's; hundreds of other stores court your credit card. But Union Square is also home to fine galleries, historic hotels, and grand theaters.
Start your tour in the middle of (1) Union Square Park, 2.6 acres of manicured gardens and granite platforms. This longtime gathering place earned its name just before the Civil War when supporters of the Union troops rallied here. In the center stands a towering monument to the 1898 triumph of Adm. George Dewey at Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War.
Next, join the steady stream of shoppers entering (2) Neiman Marcus at the intersection of Geary and Stockton streets. Inhale the scent of expensive perfume as you look up at the dazzling stained-glass dome, part of the 1909 City of Paris store that originally occupied this spot.
Walk up Stockton Street to (3) Maiden Lane. Once called Morton Alley, the lane was a haven for prostitution and crime until the fire following the 1906 earthquake destroyed the brothels and city officials gave the street a virtuous new name and image. Now, Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent have set up shop.
Continue on Maiden Lane to the (4) Xanadu Gallery (www.xanadugallery.us) and look for the red tile to the left of the door bearing the signature of Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed the building in 1948. Step inside the Romanesque arch doorway to see the sweeping spiral ramp that echoes Wright's design for the New York Guggenheim Museum.
Head back to Stockton Street and turn right to see (5) Ruth Asawa's fountain. Completed in 1972, this playful tribute to San Francisco features the city's famous landmarks on 41 bronzed plaques. Look for Fisherman's Wharf, the Ferry Building, and Golden Gate Bridge.
Continue up Stockton to Sutter Street and turn left to reach the (6) 450 Sutter Building (www.450sutter.com). The lobby of this 1928 art deco skyscraper gleams with a gilded ceiling, etched with a maze of Mayan designs.
Turn left at Powell Street, where you're bound to see the Beefeater-costumed doormen at the (7) Sir Francis Drake Hotel (www.sirfrancisdrake.com). Walk down to Post Street, hang a right, and walk two blocks to Taylor Street.
On the ivy-covered walls of 624 Taylor Street look for a mysterious plaque reading, "Weaving spiders come not here," a quote from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and the motto of the (8) Bohemian Club, a private men's fine arts club that was founded in 1872. Former members include writers Jack London and Ambrose Bierce.
Head down Taylor Street, passing No. 504 at the corner of Geary and Taylor, the (9) birthplace of modern-dance pioneer Isadora Duncan; then turn left onto Geary. Let the dapper doormen at the ultra-hip (10) Clift Hotel (www.clifthotel.com) point the way to the Redwood Room (1933). There you can sink into a leather chair while you admire the wood-paneled room, reportedly carved from one 2,000-year-old redwood tree.
Back across Taylor Street, walk toward Union Square. On your right, the (11) Curran Theater (www.curran-theater.com), built in 1922, presents the acclaimed Best of Broadway series. Farther on, look for the ornate terra-cotta facade of the (12) American Conservatory Theater (formerly the Geary Theater); (www.act-sfbay.org), which first opened in 1910.
At Union Square, turn left on Powell Street to reach the final stop: the (13) Westin St. Francis Hotel (www.westinstfrancis.com). Since it opened in 1904, the opulent St. Francis has hosted monarchs and presidents, and served as a meeting place for San Francisco high-society. Top off your tour with a ride in one of the hotel's glass elevators for breathtaking views of the City by the Bay.
Subscribe to Nat Geo Traveler
Available in print and for iPad®! See destinations come alive with 360-degree photos, videos, and more!