San Francisco Walking Tour: Union Square
A curated guide to the city’s big-ticket shopping district.
Downtown’s Union Square neighborhood is shorthand for shopping. The namesake square and surrounding streets tempt with every type of high-end bait: layer-cake department stores, polished boutiques, art galleries, and jewelers. Underneath it all rumbles the hum of cable car lines.
Selling high-end clothing in Union Square since 1966, Wilkes Bashford is one of the most renowned fashion icons in the nation. He was the first to introduce Italian designers such as Armani to the United States, and he continues to offer the best in classic couture, from Oscar de la Renta to Kiton and Brioni. Bashford’s seven-story townhouse shop also carries an extensive collection of handmade men’s shoes by Bontoni and Gravati. The Wilkes Bashford shopping experience includes on-site custom fittings, complimentary coffee and wine, and personalized styling suggestions from the knowledgeable staff. In 2012, it kicked off a top-to-bottom renovation.
Since 1861, a visit to San Francisco wasn’t complete without a wander through Gump’s, the exotic emporium crammed full of jade figurines, Chinese antiques, and Japanese screens. In 1995, Gump’s moved to less cramped digs, and shifted its focus to high-end housewares, sold mostly though its catalogue. These days, the store’s two airy floors, overseen by an enormous wooden Buddha, are a mishmash of serious antiques, folk art (don’t miss Jeff Soan’s carved wooden hens), and kitsch—think ceramic-shard-covered cacti and Herend figurines.
Glide Memorial United Methodist Church
From one of the "best known pulpits in California," Reverend Cecil Williams leads the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church through an uplifting and energizing service every Sunday morning. The voices of the famous GLIDE ensemble choir rise above the nearly 2,000 people in attendance who come from all walks of life—including such famous faces as Bill Clinton, Oprah, and Sharon Stone. The church also works to serve the surrounding Tenderloin community with 87 service programs such as daily free meals, a health clinic, and family support classes. Services begin at 9:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m., so plan on arriving thirty minutes early to claim a seat.
On this narrow street branching east from Union Square, chic boutiques close ranks. The highlight, though, is the Xanadu Gallery’s Frank Lloyd Wright building (140 Maiden Lane). Its stern brick façade conceals a graceful interior with a Guggenheim-esque spiral staircase.
Cable Car Terminus
So what if riding a cable car brands you a tourist? The snub-nosed icons are terrific fun to ride, with their bay views from the north side of Nob Hill. Two lines have a terminus just below Union Square, where cable cars sedately spin on a turntable before starting back up the hill again.
Westfield San Francisco Centre
Though on the south side of Market Street, this megamall aligns with Union Square in its shopping fervor. Curving escalators wrap between department stores (Bloomingdale’s, Nordstom), boutiques, a multiplex, and a surprisingly good food court. A neoclassic dome anchors one end of the massive complex, a minimalist skylight the other.
Tower elevator at Westin St. Francis Hotel
Zoom up 32 stories in one of the glass-walled elevator cars for one of the best views in the city—you can even spot Alcatraz Island.