Civic Center

Upper Market – Castro

San Francisco from Twin Peaks (2004)
San Francisco from Twin Peaks (2004)

Start this tour at BART’s Civic Center Station, United Nations Plaza at 7th and Market streets. The photo shows the view from Twin Peaks looking down Market Street towards downtown.

Civic Center

The United Nations was founded in San Francisco in 1945 and the plaza honours this event. There is an active farmers market held in the morning and early afternoon on Sundays and Wednesdays here.

The Civic Center includes state, federal, and city offices as well as many of San Francisco’s most famous cultural institutions. The Asian Art Museum is located in the building built for the former main library. It contains an excellent collection of Asian art and is highly recommended (the museum offers free admission on the first Tuesday of every month courtesy of Target stores). 

Across the street from the Asian Art Museum is the new main public library. This building was subject to much criticism from people who didn’t think its modern design fit in the classical City Beautiful civic center complex. The main library is full of new technology (1990s-era) and includes a used book store run by the Friends of the Library (proceeds go to the library). 

San Francisco City Hall from Civic Center Plaza (2014).
San Francisco City Hall from Civic Center Plaza (2014).

The Bill Graham Civic Auditorium is located on the south side of the Civic Center. It’s the site of many concerts, exhibitions and civic celebrations. It was named after the famous San Francisco music promoter Bill Graham after his death.

The Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall is located on the corner of Van Ness and Grove. It’s the home of he San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and is a fine place to attend a concert. The San Francisco Symphony website also describes tours of Davies Symphony Hall, the Opera House, and Herbst Theater.

Across Grove Street from Davies Symphony Hall is the War Memorial Complex. This consists of the War Memorial Opera House and the War Memorial Building (which contains the Herbst Theater).

San Francisco’s City Hall was beautifully renovated to repair damage from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake; the renovation included a complete historic rehabilitation and creation of grand public spaces including an exhibit area for the San Francisco Historical Society, a small restaurant, and a city souvenir shop.

Upper Market Street – Hayes Valley

After visiting City Hall, walk south on Van Ness to Grove, walk west on Grove past Davies Hall, cross Franklin, turn left, walk south to Hayes, turn right and walk west along Hayes Street (we are trying to help you avoid heavy traffic routes). On Hayes Street you’ll pass Hayes Street Grill, one of the city’s best seafood restaurants, highly recommended.

Hayes Valley is an exciting urban neighbourhood. The neighbourhood’s transition started after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake when a huge freeway through the neighbourhood was damaged beyond repair. The northern part of the freeway had to be demolished immediately, and as soon as that was done new shops opened, artists moved-in, and the transition was underway.

Under the Central Freeway in San Francisco.
Under the Central Freeway in San Francisco.

Neighbours, who saw how much the area improved with part of the freeway gone, lobbied to eliminate the rest. Three citizen ballot initiatives and years of public involvement led to the freeway’s replacement with a new surface level Octavia Boulevard. The boulevard was finished in 2005 and construction of new buildings along the boulevard continued for several years. See my page on San Francisco freeway removal for more.

In 2007, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Urban Design Critic, John King, wrote a column calling Octavia Boulevard “an urban success story”. However, the neighbourhood is rapidly gentrifying which is creating tension as long term residents are forced to move out, so it’s quite typical of what many cities are facing. 

Walk south along Octavia Boulevard to Market Street. Turn and look east towards the Ferry Building, try to imagine a 50-foot high two-level aerial freeway blocking the view.

At Market Street you can either catch an “F-Line” historic streetcar or walk west along Market to Castro.

Alternatively you might want to walk a few blocks back towards downtown to eat at Zuni Cafe. This is one of San Francisco’s best restaurants serving high quality locally sourced food with impeccable service. Try the roast chicken.

The Castro

The Castro Neighbourhood is the centre of San Francisco’s gay community. Turn to the left down Castro Street, past the magnificent Castro Theater, the interior of which is worth timing your walk to coincide with a matinée from their schedule of classic films.

Continue to 18th Street, the heart of the district. The neighbourhood is home to many beautifully restored Victorian homes and local businesses. It’s a lively and fun place to visit, especially on a warm and sunny weekend day.

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