Whether you’re in town for a few days or for a long time, a must-see among the things to do in San Francisco is to enjoy the atmosphere of Union Square and the vibrant district that surrounds it. Indeed, it is not only one of the city’s most famous squares, but also one of the busiest San Francisco’s neighborhoods, also known as the Union Square District.
What is Union Square?
Union Square is the central square of Downtown San Francisco but not just that: it is a gathering place, a place to sit and relax after a lot of shopping, or a perfect place to set off to explore the nearby streets full of big brand stores, as well as boutiques or shopping malls, filled with restaurants and bars offering any kind of cuisine you can imagine, art galleries and theaters, renowned hotels and important museums.
The square has a long history by U.S. standards: it was built in 1850 on the wishes of San Francisco’s first mayor John Geary. Because he was a Union general, the square soon became the site of rallies and demonstrations in support of the Northern troops in the Civil War. The name Union Square is derived from this moment in history.
Lush palm trees surround the square as do the stores of Armani, Tiffany & Co., Apple, Nike, Gucci, Bulgari, Victoria’s Secret, Vera Wang, Macy’s and Swarovski, to name but a few. The obelisk with the statue of the Goddess of Victory, the Dewey Monument, seems to protect tourists and passersby. It has done so since it was erected in 1901.
The square is also overlooked by another important historical site in the city: the Westin St. Francis Hotel. This luxurious hotel was built before the 1906 earthquake. Over the years it has hosted movie stars, celebrities, and presidents staying in San Francisco.
Union Square is located at the intersection of Post Street, Stockton Street, Geary Street and Powell Street. Within a few minutes’ walk you can reach Yerba Buena Gardens, Chinatown, and the Theater District.
The square is the main center of Downtown San Francisco and is therefore easily accessible by public transportation:
- BART: the nearest stop is Powell Street Station and from there you can reach the East and South Bay.
- Cable Car: icon of San Francisco. There are several stops along Powell Street, ideal if you want to reach the northern part of the city, near Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square. The cost is $7. For more details read our guide to San Francisco Cable Cars.
- mUNI Metro: Powell Street Station is located above-ground between Powell Street and Market Street. Tickets cost $2.50 for adults and $1.25 for children 4 and under.
- mUNI buses: have several stops in the area and connect all over San Francisco. The cost is the same as the subway.
If you’re driving, however, it’s ideal to find convenient parking near Union Square and stroll downtown past the stores, boutiques, art galleries and numerous restaurants and bars.
Two of the cheapest parking lots near Union Square are the Union Square Garage at 333 Post Street and the Sutter-Stockton Garage at 444 Stockton Street. The former is located just below Union Square, so a perfect location for visiting the area. The Union Square Garage was the world’s first underground garage, built in 1941. The cost varies from $2 between 6 p.m. and midnight to $6 from noon to 3 p.m. The maximum cost does not exceed $36. The Sutter-Stockton Garage, on the other hand, is located very close to Dragon’s Gate, so a few minutes’ walk from Union Square. The cost varies between $1 and $4.50 depending on the time of arrival and the maximum daily rate is $36.
You can also read our guide on where to park in San Francisco to learn more about the matter.
Things to Do in Union Square
Going to Union Square means going to the streets that branch off from it. Besides the aforementioned Dewey Monument and the Westin, there are other places of interest to explore. Don’t miss Maiden Lane, with its high-fashion boutiques, and as you stroll along its stores, remember that this was once the city’s red-light district.
Stop at 140 Maiden Lane, where you will find architect Frank Lloyd Wright ‘s only building in San Francisco. Another street not to be missed is Geary Street, on which, among other things, the Curran Theater stands, the city’s historic theater opened in 1922.
Follow the iconic San Francisco streetcar on Powell Street to Market Street and at 870 you will find the Flood Building, a historic 12-story building built in 1904, one of the few buildings to survive the 1906 earthquake.
While you are on Market Street, I suggest you enter the Westfield San Francisco Center, a huge shopping mall with over 200 stores. If, however, the various Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Barney’s and Saks Fifth Avenue stores, all within walking distance of Union Square, have put you off seeing other malls, take the elevator and go straight to the top floor: look out and enjoy the beautiful view of Union Square.
Do this especially if you are in town at Christmas time. You will, in fact, be able to admire the lights, the skating rink and the huge Christmas tree placed in the square every year from on high. And then if you feel like it, treat yourself to a dessert at the Cheesecake Factory, or taste Ghirardelli ‘s chocolate (although doing so in Ghirardelli Square has a whole other ‘flavor’).
Just 5 minutes from Union Square is Dragon’s Gate, between Bush Street and Grant Avenue, an ideal starting point for visiting one of San Francisco’s most renowned and exotic neighborhoods: Chinatown. If you want to visit it, don’t miss our article devoted to this picturesque area of San Francisco that is home to the largest Chinese community in the United States.
Also just under 10 minutes from Union Square is San Francisco’s MOMA. Jeff Koons, Frida Kahlo, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, and Henry Matisse are just a few of the modern artists that await you at this museum. Here you will also find the Living Wall, a 30-feet wall on which more than 19,000 different plants live surrounded by art.
Where to Stay in Union Square
This is certainly one of the richest neighborhoods for hotels and places to sleep in San Francisco. Here you will find any type of accommodation you are looking for: from super luxury hotels to large chain hotels to apartments or b&bs. The choice is vast.
Just be careful not to go south of Market Street between 4th and 10th Streets, or south of California Avenue. These neighborhoods are pretty rough. We have devoted an entire article on areas not to stay in San Francisco to avoid nasty surprises.
For more focused advice on accommodations in this neighborhood and all other areas suitable for overnight stays for a San Francisco vacation, please read our guide dedicated to the topic: