A game plan for enjoying the city, and avoiding the sales-hungry crowds.

By Jenna Scatena
November 13, 2015
San Francisco Black Friday
Credit: © 2010 Scott Chernis Photography. All Rights Reserved

You’re in San Francisco for Thanksgiving this year and have a free day to roam the city. Since you decided against joining the Black Friday mobs in Union Square, what to do instead? In a city that has plenty of inventive ways to spend time, you’ve got options. From wasting away the afternoon sipping Irish Coffee to ice skating outdoors in California’s fall sunshine, here are nine ways to spend your Black Friday away from the mall.

1. Burn away any lingering tryptophan effects at Davies Symphony Hall, with the San Francisco Symphony’s rendition of Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

2. Get in the winter spirit at the Holiday Ice Rink at Embarcadero Center. Each year, this is the largest outdoor ice rink in the Bay Area—and arguably the most photo-worthy, with the Ferry Building and bay just across the street.

3. Burn off some of that stuffing with a citywide scavenger hunt. Urban Quest Adventure allows you to form a team and use your smartphone as your guide on this three-hour citywide adventure, learning bits of local lore along the way. The quest begins at Yerba Buena Gardens and takes you on a route to Union Square, Chinatown, and Fisherman’s wharf, and you can pick the start time that works best for you.

4. Technically, the Celebration of Craftswomen fair at Fort Mason Center counts as shopping, but it’s nowhere in the realm of the Black Friday frenzy. Showcasing quality handmade art from 300 local female artists working with mediums like ceramics, jewelry, glass, fiber, leather, wood and other fine arts.

5. Far, far, from Union Square, on the west side of the city, tucked deep in the verdant pocket of Golden Gate Park, is the Botanical Garden. Stroll the 55-acre park that features more than 8,000 plants from around the world, and decompress from the holiday madness.

6. Hungry? Join Avila Tours’ North Beach Food Tour for a few hours of sampling the Italian cuisine of one of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods. Learn about the history of the Barbary Coast and secret passageways once used to smuggle in booze during prohibition. Plus, stop at four North Beach staples for Italian fare, wine, and a cocktail (book ahead).

7. Swap consumerism for a culture fix at the Asian Art Museum near San Francisco City Hall. The current exhibition, “Looking East” evaluates the art that emerged from Japan and influenced the Western art world after it opened its port to international trade in the 1850s. Inside, you’ll find rare works from prominent Japanese artists and more than 170 objects. Peruse decorative paintings, prints, drawings and textiles.

8. Nothing says “decompress” to a San Franciscan like a long, slow afternoon nursing a strong and frothy Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista, watching the fog roll in off the bay.

9. There’s only one reason to brave the holiday crowds clogging Union Square on Black Friday: for the annual tree lighting ceremony. The 83-foot-high Christmas tree is decked with more than 33,000 lights and 1,100 ornaments. The ceremony starts at 6 p.m., but arrive early (and with hot cocoa in-hand) for a prime viewing spot.

Jenna Scatena is on the San Francisco Bay Area beat for Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.