A Raver's Guide To San Francisco
While San Francisco may be a small city, famously measuring seven by seven miles, it makes up for its lack of square footage with a taste for quality and a welcoming sense of community. The city doesn't have any megaclubs, but the clubs it has offer great sound systems and vibes, and the city is rich with great food and museums. Read on to learn where to get down, get your grub on and find culture in S.F. (Please don't call it San Fran!).
Public Works will always hold a special place in my heart; I've been to far too many great shows there to remember all of them. The intimate 1200-person venue boats a stellar Funktion-One sound system, and its two levels offer both a balcony to dance above and admire the dance floor, as well as a second room, the Loft, at times offering two DJs and vibes at once. The likes of Carl Cox, Honey Dijon, Dixon, Viken Arman, and Claptone have played at the beloved 12-year old club.
The Great Northern
The Great Northern
The Great Northern, formerly Mighty, is another S.F. rave staple. It features a pumpin' Void sound system, high ceilings, and art deco accents. The 700-person space has a wide dance floor and an intimate loft that's often popping with a local DJ. At times, aerialists fly above the decks and dance floor with grace. The Great Northern also throws a lot of great indoor/outdoor "block parties," including during Pride and on New Year's Day that expand the club and vibes outside. Peep their calendar to find a stellar lineup across house and techno, like Carl Craig, LP Giobbi, and Maceo Plex, along with fun themed parties like ABBA Glitter Disco and Club 90's.
Monarch and The Great Northern are run by the same team, the former being their first S.F. nightlife outpost, and the smallest, with a 400-person capacity. On the upstairs street level, Monarch offers a vibey art deco bar, free photo booth, and petite dance floor, which opens weekdays at 5:30 p.m. and weekends at 9 p.m. Venture downstairs for the main club, a basement dance oasis with Voids that fill the cozy room. The club generally offers its stellar programming Thursday through Sunday, with its beloved Sunday night WERD. parties keeping the weekend grooving a little longer every week.
Other than Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, a large, historic concert hall that also hosts big DJ shows, The Midway is the biggest rave space in S.F., clocking in at 40,000 square feet. Their outdoor day parties are super fun, and their indoor space has a large warehouse feel. Their in-house culinary team, Madame Zola, serves up a delish rotating food menu to keep you fueled on the dance floor, and the halls and other corners of the large space function as an art gallery. Due to its larger size, big-ticket dance and big room acts like Sonny Fodera, Paul Kalkbrenner, and Chris Lake, along with techno faves like Maceo Plex and Carl Cox, serve up beats at The Midway. A cozy room in the space is home to the hidden gem high-tech Envelop listening space, which hosts Prince, Sade, and Nina Simone listening sessions, as well as sound baths and ambient album release parties.
Bars & Coffee Shops
On the outside, Smuggler's Cove is an unmarked door below an apartment and next to a dry cleaner. Inside, it's a magical, kitschily decorated lair you'd expect a drunken Johnny Depp as Captain Jack to inhabit. The small, dark, and vibey space is filled with one of the largest rum selections in the country. Its menu offers a wide selection of delicious tiki-style cocktails, including one of the best and most potent painkillers I've ever tried. For extra pain reduction (just not tomorrow), at just a dollar extra, they'll give you an extra ounce of rum in your painkiller. Just don't lose track of how many you've sipped on.
The Detour is a hip arcade bar located in the historic Castro, S.F.'s gayborhood. It was formerly known as Brewcade, a name hinting at its stellar local beer offering and vintage arcade games. The new name, which came in summer of 2019 after they expanded and remodeled the space, is a nod to a shuttered gay bar with pinball machines the co-owner Shawn Vergara used to frequent after work. The update added rainbow neon artwork and food and craft cocktails to the menu, thanks to a full liquor license.
The Mill / Four Barrel Coffee
Julia Stotz Photography
This gorgeous and airy coffee shop serves delish Four Barrel Coffee drinks and expensive-but-so-worth-it fancy toasts on thick slices of Josey Baker Bread, along with local pastries. The Mill's ricotta and jam toast is a dream, featuring their seasonal homemade fruit jams, and the avocado toast is a millennial's dream. It’s a great place to refuel and catch up with a friend or two.
This is one of two official coffee shops from the beloved S.F. craft roaster; if you're in the Mission, there's a Four Barrel shop on Valencia. You'll find other coffee shops and restaurants around the city pouring it up as well.
Ritual Coffee Roasters
Wei Shi / Ritual Roasters
San Franciscans take their coffee seriously. Ritual Coffee is one of the other stellar roasters in the city, and has outposts in the Mission, Hayes Valley, and the Haight. You'll also be able to find their brew anywhere you land around the city.
The Pawn Shop
The Pawn Shop is a Spanish restaurant and bar attached to Monarch in, you guessed it, a former pawn shop. When you enter, a host may ask if you want to buy, sell, or trade, and you have the chance to add your trinket to the wild collection of odds and ends filling the room. You'll get taken through the hidden door into the vibey, intimate restaurant, where you can enjoy Spanish tapas, paella, wine, and drinks. Diners will also get a stamp for Monarch and are escorted through another secret door to the club.
Nopa / Nopalito
For over a decade, Nopa has served as a welcoming San Francisco culinary institution. The bright, airy, and elegant space has delectable food fired in its wood oven and cocktails and wine prepared with love. I rarely recognize the bougie ingredients in their drinks, but they are always delicious. Their menu is ever-adopting to the seasons and the rich bounty of produce and herbs the Bay Area has to offer.
Nopalito is its Mexican sister restaurant located around the corner, and also offers delicious food and drinks, at a somewhat lower price point. They also have a newer to-go window conveniently located near Mission Dolores Park.
Tartine Bakery / Tartine Manufactory
Walking into a bakery and experiencing its rich smell is a pillar of life, in my opinion. At Tartine, you'll be greeted with the smell of their beloved bread and pastries, along with a delightful view of these beautiful offerings. Their original location is a block from Mission Dolores Park, perfect for picking up bread, sandwiches, and/or dessert to munch on. For some reason, their almond croissant from this location tastes better than their other spots in S.F. and L.A., and I think the coziness of the space amplifies the joyful smell. They're known for their cinnamon-and-orange-scented morning buns, and they also have the most perfect (and filling!) gourmet grilled cheeses. Their restaurant, Tartine Manufactory, located barely a mile away, also bakes fresh bread and pastries and serves up great breakfast and lunch offerings daily.
S.F. has no shortage of good Mexican food, with the naming of "the best S.F. burrito" regularly inciting raucous debate. The Mission's La Taqueria is always a contender and has been credited with popularizing the large and loaded "Mission-style burrito" trend. Owner Miguel Jara has been expertly wrapping the filling treats at La Taq since 1973, his version nixing rice. If you want the XL tortilla crispy, ask for your burrito dorado.
Art & Museums
Founded in 1935, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was the first museum on the West Coast solely dedicated to 20th-century art and remains one of the largest in the country. Engaging works from world-renown artists fill its seven floors of gallery space. When you walk inside and wander its floors and immerse yourself in the art, you'll forget you're surrounded by the behemoth buildings home to tech companies and financial institutions. Their rotating and permanent exhibitions are always top-notch and informative.
de Young Museum
Located in Golden Gate Park, the de Young Museum features fine art from around the globe and through the centuries. Their permanent collection features paintings from European greats like Dalí and Degas, as well as galleries dedicated to art from America, the Americas, Africa, and more. Do wander around the massive park afterward, and read on for two more museums to hit up while there.
California Academy of Sciences
Kathryn Whitney / California Academy of Sciences
Neighbors with the de Young, the California Academy of Sciences will bring out your inner child as you admire replica dinosaur skeletons, sweat in a model rainforest, meet their famous albino alligator, Claude, and marvel at the wonder of jellyfish and octopi in the aquarium. I've been here multiple times as a child and adult—yes, it's that fun! Every Thursday evening, their NightLife event opens the museum to adults only, with DJs, drinks for purchase, and fun activities.
Conservatory of Flowers
Conservatory of Flowers
Inside the Conservatory of Flowers, you'll find a plethora of beautiful, rare, and unusual flowers and plants. Built in 1879, it was the first formal structure in Golden Gate Park. Step inside on a foggy day to be transported to paradise, or stop by on a sunny day after joining picnickers outside on the grass.
Pro tip: If you're there in August, September, or October, stop by the nearby dahlia garden to admire the city's official flower in all its colorful, gorgeous varieties.
Record Stores, Shops & Other Attractions
Vinyl Dreams, located in the Lower Haight, is a cozy, independent record store packed with house, techno, disco, and other dance records. You'll find a well-curated selection of new and used vinyl for your next (at-home or club) DJ set, including a section dedicated to local artists and labels.
Grant Henderson / Alamy Stock Photo
Amoeba Music claims to be the largest independent record store in the world, and with three spacious locations in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Hollywood, that seems legit. Their S.F. location is in the Haight-Asbury, across from Golden Gate Park, and features new and used vinyl, CDs, tapes, and merch across genres. Check out their calendar to see if there are any intimate free in-store performances slated for while you're in town. The first Amoeba opened in Berkley in 1990, with S.F. following in 1997, and they've survived despite the opening and closing of CD megastores, the rise of digital music, and skyrocketing Bay Area rent.
Mission Dolores Park
No weekend in S.F. would be complete without a trip to Dolores park. Here, you can leisurely enjoy a sunny(ish) day on its grassy hills with a beverage and sandwich or pizza slice in hand. Look out for its beloved constituent of entrepreneurs peddling magic chocolate, special brownies, rum in a fresh coconut (from a pirate with a machete to chop the coconut, of course), tiki drinks, and more. There are many great restaurants nearby to pick up grub, as well as the expensive but fantastic Bi-Rite Market and Bi-Rite Creamery ice cream shop across the street. Just don't forget a blanket to lounge on and a jacket for when the breeze inevitably strikes.