Union Square, the elegant plaza circled by tall palm trees in roughly the middle of San Francisco’s downtown, is a bustling gathering place that also serves as a hub for California luxury shopping. Walk streets bounding the square to jot down your anything’s-possible wish-list of finds at Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Bulgari (as wells as major retailers such as Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, and Nike). Slip into the sultry Clock Bar, in the Beaux Arts–style Westin St. Francis, to clink martini glasses and compare notes. Anyone longing for a European vibe will feel right at home strolling the narrow, boutique-lined, almost-pedestrian-only Maiden Lane (car-free from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.). It’s just off the square, and is home to Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, as well as cafes that set up little tables right on the street. Just south of the square, on Market Street, you’ll find Westfield San Francisco Centre, the city’s upscale, indoor shopping mall.
Of course, all that shopping can be exhausting. Union Square makes it easy to recharge: the square has plenty of sunny benches for relaxing. Or order an espresso and a flaky pastry at upscale Emporio Rulli, with pleasant outdoor seating under market umbrellas right in the square. World-class restaurants are clustered near the square as well—make a reservation at Akiko’s Sushi Restaurant, Bouche, or the Michelin-starred Campton Place, three of the high-end standouts. If you are on a tighter budget, try Dojima Ann for Japanese comfort food, or have a classic American diner experience at the Pinecrest Diner.
Come on Sundays to include champagne brunch in the lavishly luxurious Garden Court of the Palace Hotel (top spot for local doyennes spoiling their grandchildren), which is just one of many destination-in-themselves hotels in the area. During the holidays, Union Square transforms into a wintry, family-filled charmer, with an ice-skating rink and little ones staring up at an enormous Christmas tree—and glittering shop windows all around.
Insider tip: If traveling to Union Square by car, plan your tip with the help of this parking and street map of the area.