In San Francisco's SoMa, a world-class arts district and ever-rising luxury towers surround occasional restful green spaces including the lovely Yerba Buena Gardens. (Photo by Georg Eiermann)

Modern Guide to SoMa: Blue Chip Art, Diverse Dining, Games Galore + the World's First Leather District

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Perhaps nowhere are the many evolutions and dichotomies of San Francisco so readily obvious as in the city's South of Market neighborhood. SoMa is a one-time residential hub for blue-collar immigrants turned warehouse wasteland and taggers' paradise turned scene of the first dot-com boom and bust.

While Covid-19 left the streets of SoMa eerily quiet and sadly forced the closure of many a beloved mainstay—including Slim's, The Stud, Cockscomb, and Trou Normand—the neighborhood is back to life, albeit a little quieter in these WFH times.


What remains is a world-class arts district anchored by SFMOMA and its neighbors, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The Salesforce Transit Center brings an epic urban park to the downtown area, and SoMa is also home to the country's first officially designated Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District, which was thrilled to throw its annual kinky parties IRL again in 2021. And, who can forget our own SF Giants, who played a fire season again this year.

When in SoMa, us locals are partial to dinners at hip restaurants and the occasional splurge on one of several Michelin-starred destinations. We hang with friends at mixology-driven bars and iconic breweries, and relish a round of bowling or mini golf.

Here is what to eat, drink, do, see when you're in South of Market.

Museums + Galleries in San Francisco's SoMa Arts District

With its Snøhetta-designed expansion in 2015, SFMOMA became the country's largest modern art museum.

(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

Museums

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) (151 3rd St.), at more than 20,000 square feet larger than the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is the largest modern and contemporary art museum in the United States. In a striking building updated by Snøhetta in 2015, SFMOMA has nearly three times the exhibition space it had before. Check out Joan Mitchell, a retrospective featuring more than 80 works by the painter (through Jan. 17, 2022). Residents from nine Bay Area counties get free admission on the first Thursday of each month. // The Jewish wit is legendarily dry (thank you, Seinfeld), but the works at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (736 Mission St) are anything but. Don't miss Experience Leonard Cohen (through Feb. 13, 2022), which includes works in tribute to the great poet and musician by George Fok, Judy Chicago, Candice Breitz, and Marshall Trammell. // Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) (685 Mission St.) celebrates Black cultures through contemporary art from across the African Diaspora. The Fall 2021 exhibit (through Feb. 27, 2022) includes Soul of Black Folks, featuring portraits by Amoako Boafo; Thread for a Web Begun, a collection of silk tapestries by Billie Zangewa; and more. // At Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) (701 Mission St), find an array of exhibitions, inside and out. As a non-collecting organization, YBCA is always rotating new pieces and presents endless programs annually that give voice to upcoming and local artists.

Galleries

Ken Fulk's cultural sanctuary Saint Joseph's Arts Society (1401 Howard St.) hosts a range of curated exhibits, live performances, and culinary experiences. In October, the space burst with color thanks to a collection of pop art paintings and furniture from artist Ashley Longshore. // Expect a reimagined visitor experience in 2022 when Autodesk (One Market, 2nd floor)—best known for its Academy Award–winning 3-D design and visual effects softwarereopens its gallery to the public for classes and happenings like 3-D printing robots. // If street art is the visual manifestation of artists exercising free speech, then 1AM Gallery (1000 Howard St.), which stands for First Amendment, is its advocate and agent. The interactive gallery, which also offers classes and custom mural services, aims to bolster the graffiti community from the local to the international level. // How many of you have lived in SF practically forever and still haven't visited the California Historical Society (678 Mission St.)? The gallery and public research library is a treasure trove for all things Golden State. // 111 Minna (111 Minna St.) has been a SoMa hot spot for culture and parties since the early '90s. The ever-changing gallery is designed for cocktail-fueled interactivity and showcases contemporary works by local and international artists. Check their online schedule for special events. // 836M Gallery (836 Montgomery St.) is a nonprofit space that hosts a thought-provoking selection of artists and events. // Slow down or you will miss Art Haus (228 Townsend St.) a seeming hole in the wall that offers a tête-à-tête between you and a handful of works from Bay Area and New York artists. // Sure, you could call it a restaurant. But Palette (816 Folsom St.) aims to spark your curiosity at the intersection of art, food, and community. This experimental gallery serves gorgeous fare on custom artist-designed dishes in a workhorse of a space.

The Best Restaurants in SoMa

(Courtesy of Rooh)

Neighborhood Favorites

Follow the scent of crispy fried chicken and waffles to Little Skillet (360 Rich St.), a tiny breakfast and lunch spot on Rich Street. // Get your Mexican food fix at Tropisueño (75 Yerba Buena Ln.), a taco shop by day and full-service restaurant by night. // Neighborhood mainstay Town Hall (342 Howard St.) is still a bustling community spot with vintage copper chandeliers, contemporary art on exposed brick walls, and hearty comfort food like barbecue shrimp and buttermilk fried chicken. We're partial to the patio seating. // At The Cavalier (360 Jessie St.), you're here to see and be seen, and not just by the watchful taxidermy. SF and Silicon Valley who's who come for a Cal take on British cuisine in the dapper Ken Fulk–designed space. The dimly lit, not-so-secret back bar is a tribute to Marianne Faithfull. // With 125 seats, Zero Zero (826 Folsom St.) is a solid option for large groups craving pizza. // Detroit-style pies are the name of the game at Joyride (730 Howard St.), the new eatery in Samovar Tea Lounge's former Yerba Buena Gardens home. If you're not in the mood for a meat or veggie-topped focaccia crust pan-pie, salads and heaping bowls of handmade pasta are a solid choice. // Another carb lover's paradise, Sunset Square Pizza & Craft Beer (59 9th St.) offers "Calikorean" pies topped with everything from classic mushrooms and Italian sausage to inventive options like mapo tofu, kimchee, and bulogi beef. They also serve plenty of brews and even an NFT gallery. // Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant Rooh (333 Brannan St.) serves a modern take on Indian cuisine made with fresh California produce. The food is an explosion of flavors and pairs quite nicely with their innovative drinks. // Yank Sing (49 Stevenson St.) is the city's high-end dim sum palace of choice. Watch out—as you pluck the Peking duck, xiao long bao, and egg custard off the roving carts, the price adds up. // Bellota (888 Brannan St.) brings the flavors of Spain to San Francisco in the form of tapas (think hearth-roasted octopus and cumin-spiced cauliflower) and a variety of paellas. // Named for Ornos Beach in Greece, Michael Mina's Estiatorio Ornos (252 California St.) offers a selection of light Greek seafood dishes like grilled sea bass and chilled oysters. Start your meal with dips for the table and expect Mykonos-inspired tunes. // 1601 Bar & Kitchen (1601 Howard St.) introduced SF to Sri Lankan fare such as traditional egg hoppers and duck leg curry. The restaurant remains temporarily closed due to Covid-19; check their website for updates. // We're still patiently awaiting the day that boss duo Anna Weinberg and chef Jennifer Puccio reopen Marlowe (500 Brannan St.) for the best burgers in town.

Michelin-Starred Restaurants

SoMa has a high concentration of high-falutin' Michelin-starred spots. Birdsong's (1085 Mission St.) farm-centric tasting menu of dishes like sea urchin cream puffs with savory butterscotch, lacquered and smoked quail, and pine sorbet is complemented by a stylish interior with a brick wall and mint-hued booth. // Star chasers worldwide book tables well in advance at Benu (22 Hawthorne St.), where one-time chef Corey Lee has solidified his reputation with one of the city's most exquisite and innovative tasting menus. Among the Asian-inflected offering is the signature 1,000-year-old egg. // Lovers of long meals and such delicacies as caviar and abalone will be happy to splurge on a meal at Saison (178 Townsend St). // The sequel to chef Mourad Lahlou's beloved Aziza, stylish Mourad (140 New Montgomery St) wins our hearts with a spacious-but-sexy bar and lounge located right in the newly renovated PacBell Building. Lahlou's menu of carefully constructed NorCal-meets-Moroccan dishes is as scrumptious and surprising as ever. Wine lovers are in good hands. // Chef Jackson Yu welcomes you to Omakase (665 Townsend St), where Edomae-style sushi is better than ever before. Here, Japanese cuisine is elegant, refined, and exquisitely good.

Quick Bites

Darwin Cafe (212 Ritch St) has just three tables, nine bar seats, and sparse places to plop outside, but the hidden alley spot is a go-to for kale salads and baguettes with various delish accoutrements at breakfast and lunch. // A former cigar store turned sandwich shop, chef Dennis Leary's The Sentinel (37 New Montgomery St) is a strictly take-out affair. Choose from a curated selection of hot and cold sandwiches all served on housemade bread, and look out for such daily specials as corned beed on focaccia. // Expect sparkly designs and out-of-this-world macarons at Chantal Guillon (1309 Howard St), a modern twist on the French patisserie devoted equally to artistry and taste. // For a midday pick-me-up or weekend treat, Les Gourmands' (280 5th St.) French pastries will make your mouth water. Choose from mini baguettes. apple turnovers, croissants, and much more.

SoMa's Hippest Bars + Nightlife

(Courtesy of Novela)

Cocktails

Taking notes from street markets around the globe, SoMa newcomer Kona's Street Market (32 3rd St.) slings creative cocktails like the Save Me a Piece of Corn (tequila, falernum, Averna, atole del elote, and horchata) inside a pink-lit space. Get your holiday on when the bar temporarily transforms into a Sippin' Santa location. // Vintage books meet seasonal concoctions at Novela (662 Mission St.). What to drink? It's a toss up between the Jay Gatsby and Romeo Montague. There are also punches on tap. // Go for Mezcaladas and oysters at urban eatery and drinks lounge Lord George (555 2nd St). // Bloodhound (1145 Folsom St.) is as rugged-chic as it name suggests with hunting-lodge looks, a pool table, animal paintings, and a chandelier made of deer antlers. Go for handcrafted drinks and obscure local beers. // Bergerac (316 11th St.) is always a party. Look out for bottle service, regular events, and Wednesday through Friday happy hour specials. // The drinks are strong and the vibes are tropical at the lively Natoma Cabana (90 Natoma St.) Go with a whiskey daiquiri. // From the team behind the Tenderloin's famous mixology bar Bourbon & Branch, Cask (17 3rd St.) takes the liquor store concept to the next level, stocking top shelf and rare bottles to purchase and offering tastings as well.

Beer + Wine

21st Amendment (563 2nd St) is more than its famed watermelon beer. SoMa couples and baseball-capped techies frequent this airy brewery for reasonably priced pub grub all day plus brunch on weekends. It's a perfect place to pre-game before hitting Oracle Park. // When all you need is a good cold beer, the dog- and kid-friendly Black Hammer Brewing (544 Bryant St) delivers. With free WiFi, you can also plug in your laptop and get some work done. // For a dark-but-friendly European vibe, Terroir Natural Wine Merchant (1116 Folsom St) is a favorite for swirling on-site and taking bottles to go. As you'd expect, the focus is on all-natural wines; light bites are also served. // Hidden behind the facade of a pawn shop complete with random odds and ends, sits the appropriately named Pawn Shop (993 Mission St.). An expansive selection of wines from around the world, plus tapas and a few cocktails await. A quick chat on the phone with the pawn master grants you access to the funky space. // At Louie's Bar (55 Stevenson St.) it's all about that old school charm and dive bar vibes with exposed brick walls, dim lighting, and beer/shot combos. This is the spot for night owls—they serve food till 1am.

Rooftops + Views

Looking for laid-back alfresco vibes? Dirty Habit (12 4th St) serves punch bowls, seasonal sips, and mocktails on a sprawling patio with low-slung sofas, communal tables, and a fire feature. // This place is not called The View (780 Mission St) for nothing. At the top of the SF Marriott Marquis, you'll find an upscale lounge with a floor-to-ceiling vista onto the city. Locals must check it out once; tourists will love the photo op. // Before the next Giants game, head to Rooftop 25 (25 Lusk St) for frozen cocktails and pretzel dogs on this patio where high glass walls help to shield you from the wind. // Rooftop at Via (Via Hotel, 138 King St) has raised the bar for rooftop bars. Located right in front of Oracle Park, it has a sporting view, not to mention private cabanas, warming fire pits, and heat lamps. But word to the wise: You'll need to check into the hotel or host a private event to gain access here.

Bars With Music + Entertainment

While we're still not over the fact that jam-packed shows at Slim's are no more, plenty of bars with entertainment remain. If you're down for a party atmosphere complete with electronic beats, then Monarch (101 6th St.) is the place to go. // One of the city's biggest nightclubs, 1015 Folsom (1015 Folsom St.) is actually five clubs in one, making it ideal for marathon dancers. Check out their calendar for upcoming events. // Got a competitive streak? You'll love Spin (690 Folsom St.), where you can grab a drink and let the ping pong battle ensue. // In the old Examiner printing room in the base of the historical Hearst Building, Local Edition (691 Market St.) takes a page from SF's history as a frontrunner in the old newspaper biz with themed decor and drinks. Check their online calendar for a schedule of live music. // Fancy a great drag show? Oasis SF (298 11th St,) hosts the fairest of them all. D'Arcy Drollinger and her fab friends put on cabarets Thursday through Sunday nights, plus regular themed events. // Not your scene? Head to Hotel Utah (500 4th St.) for intimate performances by up-and-coming local musicians, beer on tap, and a classic American menu—when it (hopefully) reopens post-Covid-19, that is.

Coffee and Tea in San Francisco's SoMa

Take a seat in the loft and watch the coffee magic in action at Sightglass Coffee in SoMa.

(Courtesy of Studio BBA)

SoMa is known for its many coffee bars, coffee trucks, and coffee shops but, when you're ready to kick back with a warm cup, you can't do better than Sightglass Coffee (270 7th St.). The lofty space is perfect for brainstorm sessions and coffee dates. // Coffee Cultures (1301 Mission St.) keeps us coming back for its many bagels, toasts, sandwiches, and salads. // Sextant Coffee Roasters (1415 Folsom St.) specializes in java at its finest, sourcing its beans from the best farmers across Ethiopia, Kenya, and Colombia and then roasting them here in SF. Buy a bag of beans to take home. // Aussie cafe Bluestone Lane (55 2nd St.) serves nitro cold brews and lattes along with avocado toast.

Fun Things to Do in SoMa

Mini-golf course Stagecoach Greens is a playful lesson in SF's history and landmarks.

(Courtesy of Stagecoach Greens)

Fun & Games

Come baseball season, catch a Giants game at Oracle Park (24 Willie Mays Plaza) where you can root for the home team while chowing some of the best brats and kettle corn around. // San Francisco's tallest skyscraper sits at the heart of the Salesforce Transit Center (415 Mission St), a mixed-use downtown development that's now home to a 5.4-acre public park (it's been compared to NYC's High Line). Take a walk or attend regular events like silent discos, HIIT and Zumba workouts, photography classes, and more. // Formerly known as SoMa StrEat Food Park, outdoor event space District Six (428 11th St.) is your destination for, well, almost everything. Go for concerts, comedy shows, a Sunday brunch marketplace, sweat seshes, and even a barbershop—plus, of course, all your favorite food trucks along with picnic tables, a heated seating pavilion, WiFi, and TVs. // This chic entertainment spot on King Street is not your typical 10-pin, sweaty-shoe rental, 1950s artifact. In fact, owner Steven Foster doesn't care if you bowl or not when you visit Lucky Strike Bowling (200 King St)—and you won't either. Sit down for supper in the leather-and-wood dining room, grab a drink at the bar, or head there for a collaborative trivia game. // The mini golf course at Stagecoach Greens (1379 4th St.) doubles as a San Francisco history lesson with 18 themed holes that nod to local landmarks and Barbary Coast lore. // Challenge your inner Tony Hawk at what may be the most awesome use of the dead space beneath a highway overpass ever. Located directly under the Central Freeway, SoMa West Skate Park (between Valencia & Otis) has turned a narrow parcel of unused cement into a small paradise for boarders. If a skateboard isn't your vehicle of choice, grab a burger and fries from the nearby diner It's Tops, and rubberneck as the cool kids take on hazardous jumps and loops.

Gardens + Community Spaces

In the once-industrial neighborhood that has become the city's hub for startup technology, it's easy to long for a little bit of nature. Yerba Buena Gardens (750 Howard St.) is a cool drink of water in the shadow of the Metreon, with a blanket of green space perfect for a restorative weekday lunch, lawn art installations, and a beautiful carousel for the kiddies. Take a moment to reflect at the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial. // For anyone interested in how sweet peas grow, Alice Street Community Gardens (Lapu Lapu St.) is a lovely green oasis for a midday escape or picnic lunch. // San Francisco Flower Mart (640 Brannan St.) is an urban oasis for wholesale prices on spectacular blooms. This local institution, which dates back to the 1800s and has enjoyed its home in SoMa since 1956, remains open to the public Tuesdays through Saturdays. // SoMa Pilipinas is the city's Filipino Heritage District, home to the popular UndiscoveredSF night market; pop-up restaurants and shops; and the mural- and plant-lined Kapwa Gardens (967 Mission St.), which hosts gatherings ranging from martial arts classes to singer-songwriter showcases.

Fitness

Ethereal hardly begins to describe the performances by Alonzo King's Lines Ballet, which takes the stage at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts twice each year. In the off season, take their classes in a range of dance genres and abilities. // The vibes are right in Ritual Hot Yoga's (1122 Howard St.) candle-lit, fast-paced movement classes set to motivating playlists. // Skip the gym and join TruFusion (250 Fremont St.) for multilevel heart-pumping classes like Battle Boxing, Kettleboot, Power Vinyasa, and Tru Ride.

San Francisco's Leather District

The dogs roamed the streets again for Folsom Street's IRL Megahood 2021.

(Photo by Gooch)

On June 12th, 2018, the area bounded by Howard Street, 7th Street, I-80 and the 101 was officially declared the Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District, in honor of the community's contribution to SoMa and greater San Francisco throughout the years, especially during the AIDS crisis of the late 1980s and early '90s.

The neighborhood is perhaps best known as the home of the annual Folsom Street Fair—the world's largest leather event which was rebranded as the more Covid-friendly Megahood in 2021—but also draws the community out each year for the Up Your Alley Fair, which was renamed the Folsom Street Market in 2021, where a similar dress code pervades more than 80 vendors and some 15,000 spectators on Dore Alley in front of the Powerhouse (1347 Folsom St), the legendary, not-for-the-faint-hearted cruise bar dating back to the early 1970s. // Don't have anything to wear? Mr. S Leather (385 8th St.) has all your bondage-wear (and sex toy) needs covered.

While the city's oldest LGBT bar, The Stud, was sadly forced to close permanently during the pandemic, there are still a slew of places to grab big gay drinks. The EndUp (401 6th St.) is your best bet for after-hours dance parties. // SF Eagle (398 12th St.) is a beloved dive for beer busts, karaoke, and open mic nights. // Cat Club (1190 Folsom St.) lets you get down to everything from 80s pop to hip hop. // Oasis (298 11th St) is the neighborhood's font for drag culture. // Grab a cup of coffee and check out a workshop in massage, rope art, or erotic hypnosis at Wicked Grounds (289 8th St.), a kink cafe and boutique.

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