Times have changed and even though now we are used to finding everything we want at the click of a button, selecting prices and suppliers, we think that the most exciting aspect of shopping even in a city like San Francisco is to still be able to do it the old-fashioned way, in person, in the corners of the world where we go, in search of something typical of that place, and maybe haggling a bit. In San Francisco, you can search for a particular store, or for unlikely or extravagant items that cannot be found elsewhere, but there are also outlets and shopping malls where you can get good deals and buy designer clothes at affordable prices.
So what should you buy? Which are the good shopping areas in San Francisco? Where to go in search of the best bargains? Here is a shopping itinerary that we hope will make everyone happy, even those who are not particularly fond of shopping, who will still be able to admire the beauty of the neighborhoods and streets that we will pass along the way. Are you ready to do the best shopping in San Francisco?
Souvenirs and Curiosities
Whether your trip is just beginning or ending soon, at some point, you will start thinking about getting some gifts for family and friends back home. Here is a selection of the most unusual shops where you can buy souvenirs and special items.
Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39
You will begin in the northeast section of the city in Fisherman’s Wharf. More specifically, you will start in what used to be a chocolate factory (and before that it was a mill) and now is Ghirardelli Square Shopping Center (900 North Point St. 11:00 am-9:00 pm), with restaurants and shops that are particularly interesting for those who love dogs, art, fragrances and for those who appreciate beautiful works of art created by people with disabilities. Here it is definitely worth stopping at the Ghirardelli Soda Fountain & Chocolate Shop, a corner of paradise for those who absolutely love ice cream!
When you resume the tour of Fisherman’s Wharf, like many other visitors, you may be attracted to Pier 39 (Beach St and Embarcadero), the famous pier with sea lions, the Sea Lion Center, the aquarium, and boat tours to meet the whales, which we highly recommend. However, today you will be dedicated to browsing through the most unusual shops that are nothing like the boutiques that sell “common” items.
Alcatraz Gift Shop has items related to the famous prison, such as black and white striped uniforms of inmates. At Fairy Tales, you will find magical and enchanted accessories in a mystical atmosphere. While on the subject of fantasy and magic, at Houdini’s Magic Shop, there is everything you need to perform magic tricks, such as books and manuals specializing in tricks of the trade. The strangest hats can be found at Krazy Kaps, such as a pirate hat or a hat in the shape of a cake.
There are those who think of everyone and, in fact, Lefty’s San Francisco offers left-handed items that are very original. If you are in the Christmas spirit, at any time of the year, you are welcome at Christmas in San Francisco, where it is Christmas all year. Sooner or later, you will be looking for some regular postcards or a souvenir for a friend or colleague and there are plenty of shops where you can buy them here at Pier 39. Check out Magnets, San Francisco USA, Only in San Francisco, San Francisco City Wear, The Cable Car Store, and Under the Golden Gate. If you’d like to learn more about Pier 39, read this in-depth guide.
As you stroll by the various shops, you come across musicians and street artists performing masterful acts, and then a merry-go-round that children will love. Before you leave Pier 39, go to the Hard Rock Café and enter to look at the merchandise in the gift shop. Depending on the time of day, you may also want to stop for a bite to eat.
Fashion and Clothing
When writing an overview of the shops in such an important city as San Francisco, we could not leave out the countless clothing stores that you will find all around San Francisco.
Union Square is located in downtown San Francisco. It is a large square full of green corners bordered by Geary St, Powell St, Post St, and Stockton St. Union Square is the heart of the city and is home to events, theaters, hotels, beauty salons, art galleries, shops, and department stores such as Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, Saks 5th Avenue and, a little further on, Barneys. You will pass by Apple, The Gap, Old Navy, Nike, and then you will notice that all the designer brands seem to be represented here: Gucci, Bulgari, Prada, Chanel, Dior, Tiffany, Cartier, and Louis Vuitton.
During our travels, we like to take a look at local designer shops that, in our opinion, deserve to be visited not only out of curiosity but also to take home some unique items. When we visited Union Square, we noticed some works of art and we were told that every year these sculptures are auctioned and the proceeds are donated to the foundation of San Francisco General Hospital. Besides being a noble cause, the layout changes every year and this only increases the curiosity of visitors and citizens even more.
It is nice to take a walk in the streets around the square and other noteworthy streets, such as Maiden Lane (from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm it is closed-off to traffic and becomes a pedestrian area), a pretty street with its wide variety of shops. There are plenty of shops to choose from here too, but out of all of the shops, we recommend Levi’s at 815 Market Street, one of the few places in the world where you can buy a custom pair of Levi’s.
At 865 Market Street, there is the Westfield San Francisco Centre, a classic shopping mall that also includes cinemas, with more than 200 shops, including Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom’s department stores. We went window shopping here and we remember that we enjoyed delicious ice cream at Haagen Dazs and coffee at Starbucks. We spotted Louis Vuitton tote bags, red dresses by Valentino, as well as Swarovski, Tiffany, Pandora, and Rolex stores.
There are also Burberry, Guess, Hugo Boss, Michael Kors, Microsoft, H&M, Banana Republic, Zara, Adidas, American Eagle, Victoria’s Secret, Samsonite, Lego, Sunglass Hut, and Aveda. This mall is open Monday to Saturday from 10:00 am to 8:30 pm and Sunday from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm.
Our tour continues on Union Street, which starts from the Embarcadero, continues to Telegraph Hill, Russian Hill and extends all the way to the Presidio. It is a very interesting street, especially because in some places, there is an authentic local atmosphere. If you are curious to know how locals live in San Francisco and want to know where they love to shop or stop for coffee in a café with sidewalk tables, visit Cow Hollow, between the Presidium and Russian Hill.
For those who love casual and minimalist boutiques, there are Anomie and Marmalade. Instead, those who are looking for specialty shops can go to Sugarfina, an elegant candy shop for adults where the managers always have some to give as a gift to customers, or Union Street Papery, a whole shop dedicated to the sale of greeting cards (they have all kinds of cards for all occasions).
But there’s more. Do you like dancing? Then check out 1887 Dance Shop, which specializes in clothing and shoes for adults and children who want to try tap dancing, salsa, ballet, and modern dance. The great thing about this store is that here you can also find costumes for plays and for Halloween. Who hasn’t heard of Nike? There is a Nike store here where you can look for products at competitive prices. As you walk around, you may happen to see the beautiful Edwardian-style building of the Union Street Inn B&B and the Octagon Home, a house museum where there are historical documents of American history and decorative arts from the Colonial and Federal period.
Fillmore Street, a street that covers ten blocks, is named after the 13th U.S. President and crosses Lower Haight, the Fillmore Shopping District, Pacific Heights, and the Marina District. Along this energetic street, there are cafes such as Starbucks, restaurants, lounges, theaters, jazz clubs, hotels, and shops.
Here shops sell almost anything, including clothing, jewelry, beauty salons to home decoration. We entered Narumi Japanese Antiques, which has Japanese gifts, charming kimonos, dolls, lamps, hair ornaments, porcelain, ceramics, and sterling silver (a silver alloy with a small amount of copper). We also saw well-known brands of perfumes and beauty products, such as L’Occitane and Ralph Lauren.
Shopping Malls and Outlets near San Francisco
Stonestown Galleria (3251 20th Ave), near San Francisco State University in the suburbs of San Francisco, offers pleasant culinary, artistic, and architectural “distractions”. This shopping mall, which has a movie theater, is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 9:00 pm and Sunday from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm.
When we went, we did some window shopping and looked at the jewelry at Swarovski and Pandora, the products at Apple store, the clothing of Zara, H&M, and Banana Republic, the beauty products of Bare Minerals, Aveda, L’Occitane, Lush, Sephora, and, last but not least, the sophisticated and seductive lingerie at Victoria’s Secret.
Shopping in San Francisco doesn’t stop at the city limits. In fact, near San Francisco, there are some of the best outlets in the region where you can find designer clothes at discounted prices of brands such as Adidas, American Eagle, Banana Republic, Bose, Calvin Klein, Gucci, Guess, Levi’s, Michael Kors, Nike, Old Navy, Prada, Puma, Ralph Lauren, Salvatore Ferragamo, Samsonite, Skechers, Swarovski, Timberland, Tommy Hilfiger, and Versace to name but a few. If you are already planning to go on a day tour around San Francisco, it would be a good idea to also go shopping at the outlets on the same day. Here are the shopping centers we recommend:
- At Gilroy: Gilroy Premium Outlets is very large; it is divided into 4 zones and 5 buildings. Needless to say, there is an impressive amount of shops and it takes some time to get around the outlets. Every year during the last weekend of July, Gilroy Premium Outlets hosts the Gilroy Garlic Festival where you can taste all kinds of dishes that are all seasoned with garlic. It is located off I-101 at 681 Leavesley Road (1 hour and 10 minutes south of San Francisco). A stop at Gilroy Premium Outlets is a good addition to a trip to Monterey.
- In Livermore: San Francisco Premium Outlets is at the I-580 exit at 2774 Livermore Outlets Drive (40 minutes east of San Francisco) going towards Yosemite. It is an outdoor outlet that is pleasant to walk around and has many great discounted brands.
- In Napa: Napa Premium Outlets is located off of Highway 29 at 629 Factory Stores Drive, in the direction of the famous wine region (1 hour north of San Francisco). And if you want to take the opportunity to purchase some wine, according to the international rules on the purchase of alcohol, you can take home 2 liters of wine per person if the alcohol content is less than 22% of alcohol, otherwise, you can take only one.
- At Petaluma: Petaluma Village Premium Outlets, located at 2200 Petaluma Boulevard North, is an ideal place to go shopping before visiting the wineries in Sonoma, another area renowned for wine tastings (about 50 minutes north of San Francisco). For more information, please refer to our guide to Napa Valley and Sonoma.
Gifts to Buy in San Francisco’s Picturesque Neighborhoods
Would you like to furnish your home with a small designer item or one that will remind you of your trip every day? Here are some items that you can find while browsing through the most characteristic neighborhoods.
If you also would like to get something special for your kitchen, Sur la Table can be a shop for you where you will find tablecloths, towels, dishes, and accessories for many different uses. For home decor, Glassybaby offers handmade colored glass items, for example, candle holders and glasses. While there are a few exceptions, the shops in this complex are open Monday to Friday from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm, Saturday from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm, and Sunday from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm.
Nearby there is the Ferry Plaza Market, the open-air market of the Ferry Building where farmers sell their products. The market is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm, while on Saturdays (the most important day) it opens at 8:00 am.
- Read also our tips on the best things to do in the Embarcadero
In the central-eastern part of San Francisco, there is the Mission District, one of the oldest and most recognizable neighborhoods of the city with its characteristic murals. In this Latino neighborhood, the main shopping street is Valencia Street, with its independent, extravagant, and vintage shops (many open late in the morning, around 11:00 am or even later). In particular, we are intrigued by Paxton Gate, located at 824 Valencia Street. It is a shop that sells plants but also home furniture, soaps, candles, and children’s games related to nature.
At 826 Valencia, the Pirate Supply Store sells clothes and various items from the pirate world. We also recommend a visit to Casa Bonampak, a place committed to the preservation of Latin culture and craftsmanship.
If I were trying to think of another neighborhood with a strong identity in San Francisco, it would be Haight-Ashbury, the heart of the Summer of Love. In 1967, all the flower children at that time came here, and in the shops on the main street, Haight Street, there are still signs of that time period. On this website, we have already provided a detailed guide to shopping in Haight-Ashbury, which you can find here.
Here in the largest Chinese neighborhood in America, the main shopping streets are Stockton Street and Grant Avenue, but be careful not to get caught up in a shopping frenzy, because, for instance, although the jade necklaces may catch your eye, some may be fake. Likewise, you may be tempted to buy a bottle of wine, but you may have no way to confirm if it is actually locally produced.
The neighborhood has several points of interest. To find out more, make sure to read our guide to Chinatown in San Francisco.
If you get the chance to go shopping in Hayes Valley (Haynes St, Laguna St, Octavia St), between Alamo Square and the Civic Center, you will pass by buildings built in various architectural styles, including Victorian and Queen Anne. There are 2 shops we recommend:
- Flight 001 (525 Haynes St): Here you can buy travel items, luggage, accessories, and tour guides;
- Lavish & Rifle (549 Haynes St.): This store sells gifts, home decor, party supplies, and stationery.
While shopping in this beautiful city, you can take the opportunity to ride a cable car. We enjoyed strolling and shopping around a huge square, looking and commenting on the shop windows in Victorian palaces, discovering and appreciating vintage shops, and then driving outside the city to shop at the outlets and to explore the surrounding area. Shopping in San Francisco is an experience that goes beyond just buying items.