San Francisco’s Union Square thrums with festive energy during the holiday season. Flagship stores are bedecked, cable cars are clanging, the ice skating rink is wide-open, and kittens and puppies inhabit the annual Macy’s + SPCA window display. (Really!)
But what to do after you’ve pulled off your skates or had your fill of department store shopping? Here are some less conventional ideas that run the gamut from classy to cozy to truly offbeat. It might be the holidays, but put down the cookie cutter and embrace the singularity of San Francisco.
1. Escape into the Theater
A beloved city staple, the San Francisco Playhouse is a 199 seat intimate theater that stages six unique plays and musicals throughout the year. This Off-Broadway gem offers an alternative to the hustle and glamour of the larger theaters, offering singular shows that you will not see anywhere else.
Located in the heart of Union Square, escape the bright lights and crowds by booking a ticket at the Playhouse or American Conservatory Theater, another local favorite theater. The mission of the San Francisco Playhouse is “to share stories that uplift spirits, deepen self-awareness, and nurture compassionate community” — a perfect activity for the holidays.
2. Shop Off the Beaten Path
Tucked just off Union Square but away from the hustle and bustle is picture-perfect Maiden Lane. Lined with trees and draped with string lights overhead, this gem of a shopping destination is closed to traffic, making it the perfect place to take a stroll and window shop.
You’ll find charming cafés, high-end designers from Marni to Maison Margiela, and elevated basics from the likes of Theory and TSE. Get all of your shopping done here, then enjoy a festive topper at one of the cafés to celebrate.
3. Enjoy a Chilly Treat
For a good dollop of frostiness, opt for ice cream in the winter. (It is California after all.) The Museum of Ice Cream is the perfect place to sample treats from favorite local vendors like My/Mo Mochi, La Michoacana, and Ghirardelli while taking your Instagram game to soaring new heights.
Installations have included a gummy bear forest, a cave of Pop Rocks, a mint jungle, and a swimming pool completely filled with sprinkles. More whimsy-filled surprises are always just around the corner, with new experiences constantly popping up.
4. Heartwarming Ramen
There’s nothing cozier than a steaming bowl of ramen, especially after waiting in the requisite line outside your mobbed noodle shop of choice. (And trust us, there will be a line.)
Two spots near Union Square that draw flocks of ramen fanatics are Mensho Tokyo and the Ippudo outpost at Yerba Buena Lane. A slow-cooked broth, a pile of chewy noodles, and a perfectly soft-boiled egg — it’s a bowl of pure winter goodness.
5. One Kearny’s Roof Terrace Respite
One of San Francisco’s best kept hidden secrets is the privately owned public open space (or POPOS) at the very top of One Kearny. With a stunning view of Union Square and the downtown skyline, this rooftop respite is an ideal spot to take a break from the clamor of the holiday hustle.
If visiting this urban secret garden, it is open to public access 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays — so make sure to plan ahead.