10 Best Places to Leave Your Money (and Your Heart) in San Francisco

Photo courtesy of used in book.
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy
By Tom Molanphy, San Francisco Local Expert

Whatever you're looking for, San Francisco has it. Need that particularly authentic California knick-knack to bring back home to remember your trip? Then wander up and down Haight Street for a whiff of San Francisco in the 60's and a spectacular collection of tye-dyes and trinkets. Or hustle shoulder to shoulder through bustling Chinatown, where precious jade and one-of-a-kind jewelry can make the perfect gift for friends and family back home. Although the Mission is known for Latin food and North Beach for Italian food, both of these famous neighborhoods have plenty of outdoor vendors and charming, unique boutiques.

Not sure what you're looking for? Well, that's why there are malls. San Francisco proper has two, Westfield and Stonestown, not bad choices for rainy day shopping where you can browse and browse to your heart's delight. If the weather cooperates, then head to Union Square, which might just be the world's most beautiful outdoor mall, with local galleries often featuring their work.

Searched high and low all day, and still didn't find that perfect gift? Don't despair, just try again tomorrow. No walk is ever wasted in San Francisco; even if you don't buy something, the feast for the senses that's laid out around every turn is priceless.

10. Haight and Ashbury Streets
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In the 1960s, this intersection was famous for its bohemian life. Today, remnants of the hippie era mix with beautifully restored Edwardian and Victorian homes. One, now a private residence, was formerly the Grateful Dead house (710 Ashbury Street). Other famous neighbors included Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane. Wander the many parks, thrift stores and coffeehouses for current ambience, which is still rich with hippie influence. You'll find occult shops and venues that explore alternative medicine, natural foods, the environment, and performance art. Haight and Ashbury is just up from "the panhandle", making it easy to top off your day with a stroll through Golden Gate Park.

9. Vans Store - Stonestown Mall
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Stonestown is the quintessential American mall. Straight down nineteenth avenue, Stonestown has all your shopping needs, from the big box stores like Macy's and Nordstrom to the smaller specialty stores like The Body Shop, Brookstone, H&M, and Pandora. The Food Court has just about every dining option you could think of, from Panda Express to Starbuck's to Ms. Field's Cookies. The adjoining movie theatre, the Stonestwon Twin, plays more indie films as opposed to the blockbusters. If the hills of San Francisco have worn out your soles, and you're simply ready for a place that puts shopping, food and entertainment all in one convenient box, then head to Stonestown Mall.

8. Mission District
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The Mission District takes its name from Mission Dolores, the Catholic church and settlement founded by the Spanish in 1776. The neighborhood, centuries later, still has strong Hispanic flavor which is seen abundantly in its vibrant exterior murals and in its Latin cuisine. These days, an influx of new folks is broadening the district's appeal, and unique restaurants and shops call out for attention. Check them out for their eclectic ambience, intriguing goods and hip appeal. You can even find some truly old school craftsmen, such as cobblers and belt makers, who can create, right before your eyes, a really memorable San Francisco memento.

7. Chestnut Street
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Located in the Marina District, locals would probably say that Chestnut Street is about as Socal as Norcal gets. Almost a mirror image of Union Street (as far as appeal goes), Chestnut Street has a distinctive personality, created by Art Deco architecture and hip, professional patrons. Plenty of shopping and dining venues are available, and brunch, followed by a lazy stroll, is a favorite pastime on quiet weekends. If you're looking to window-shop, hang out at a local cafe, or just soak in some local color and people-watch, head a few blocks north of Union Street to this exciting area.

6. Chinatown
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Whether you make the grand entrance into Chinatown beneath the dramatic portal at Grant Avenue and Bush Street, or perhaps just happen upon the district while making your way about San Francisco, you can't help but be impressed by this city-within-a-city. Along its streets, exotic ingredients are hawked, silks and jade are proffered, and colorful mementos are sold to tourists. The community is more than show, however, and residents celebrate the Chinese New Year with verve, take pride in their beautiful Miss Chinatown, and hold fast to time-tested traditions. Give yourself over to it all while you're there, even if it's just to nibble on dim sum delicacies, and be swept away by the bustle and the fun.

5. Fillmore Street
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Squeezed largely between Jackson and Geary Streets, this stretch of Fillmore Street features an assortment of fascinating shops that offer everything from skin care products to fresh-ground coffee and specialty teas. A theater, a club, and an assortment of restaurants and home design places draw folks to the trendy area too. Fillmore itself is on a fairly steep hill, so be sure to bring your walking shoes. Or, better yet, pick up some new, nifty ones along the way. Besides cute boutiques, this is a great stretch of San Francisco to sit with a latte and observe some of the latest Northern California styles.

4. Landmark Embarcadero Center
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The Landmark Embarcadero Center is an underutilized downtown shopping area, often overshadowed by The Westfield Mall and Union Square. But if you're on Embarcadero and want a smaller, more intimate shopping experience, stroll through the interconnected four buildings that make up the center. From Ambassador Toys to Boudin Bakery to Edward's Luggage and Gifts, the stores may be a bit more expensive than local malls but the quality is worth it. Like the products sold, the Embarcadero Cinema plays only independent, thoughtful films and is a favorite movie house for locals. If you happen to be around on a Sunday, head over to the Ferry Building for their farmer's market.

3. Westfield San Francisco Centre

One of the best shopping malls in San Francisco, Westfield Centre is ideally located just two blocks from Union Square and features more than 170 alluring boutiques. Inside, you'll find Bloomingdale's and the second-largest Nordstrom in the country, as well as Betsey Johnson, Herve Leger, Kenneth Cole and H&M. Delightful sit-down and quick-serve restaurants stand poised to meet refreshment needs of all kinds, and the complex also includes a nine-screen movie theater. This mall underwent a recent renovation, so it's a must-visit. Since it's in the heart of downtown, once you've finished your shopping, head across the street to the Powell Street cable car for an unforgettable ride all the way to Fisherman's Wharf.

2. Ferry Building Marketplace
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Most malls are usually enclosed, maybe for protection against summer's heat and winter's cold. Although a lot of the Ferry Builiding's artisanal shops are inside, many booths also spring up outside on the weekends to take advantage of the the Ferry Buildings glorious location right on San Francisco Bay with a view of both the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge. If you want more out of your shopping experience than just a pile of stuff, head to the Ferry Building, an iconic San Francisco structure. A popular destination for anyone who loves to cook or eat, the Marketplace offers a variety of specialty food stores and restaurants. A farmers market is held outside on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

1. Union Square
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The Union Square neighborhood centers around Union Square, a great little urban park, which is itself surrounded by a host of upscale shopping venues. In fact, the district is generally acknowledged as the city's main shopping haven. In the vicinity are Macy's, Saks, Gumps and Gucci; they, along with other retail standards, keep shoppers busy for hours. Restaurants and theaters are also found here, as is convenient garage parking. Transportation is easily accessible, and public concerts are an occasional diversion. Even better, the busy district affords great people-watching. It's accurate to consider Union Square the heart of the city, so be sure to spend at least an afternoon there to complete your San Francisco trip.