San Francisco: Places to Explore


SoMa and Civic Center

view-mapView Map

To a newcomer, SoMa (short for "south of Market") and Civic Center may look like cheek-by-jowl neighbors—they're divided by Market Street. To locals, though, these areas are firmly separate entities, especially since Market Street itself is considered such a strong demarcation line. Both neighborhoods have a core of cultural sights but more than their share of sketchy blocks.

SoMa is less a neighborhood than a sprawling area of wide, traffic-heavy boulevards lined with office high-rises and pricey live-work lofts. Aside from the fact that many of them work in the area, locals are drawn to the cultural offerings, smattering of destination restaurants, and concentration of dance clubs. In terms of sightseeing, SoMa holds a few points of interest—SFMOMA and the museums of the Yerba Buena District top the list—and these are conveniently close together.

SoMa was once known as South of the Slot (read: the Wrong Side of the Tracks) in reference to the cable-car slot that ran up Market Street. Ever since gold-rush miners set up their tents in 1848, SoMa has played a major role in housing immigrants to the city. Industry took over much of the area when the 1906 earthquake collapsed most of the homes.

SoMa's emergence as a focal point of San Francisco's cultural life was more than three decades in the making. Huge sections of the then-industrial neighborhood were razed in the 1960s, and alternative artists and the gay leather crowd set up shop. A dozen bars and bathhouses frequented by the latter group cropped up; some survive today, and the legacy of that time is the still-raucous annual Folsom Street Fair. The neighborhood lost many artists to the far reaches of SoMa and to the Mission District when urban renewal finally began in earnest in the 1970s; still more fled when the dot-com heyday sent prices here skyrocketing.

Life in the SoMa of the mid-to-late 1990s was what the gold rush must have felt like. Young prospectors flooded in to take their pick of well-paying jobs at high-tech startups. Companies with hot (or not) ideas filled their $100-plus-per-square-foot offices with recent college grads, foosball tables, $1,000 ergonomic chairs, and free catered meals. Gaggles of gadget-toting twentysomethings spent their evenings wandering from launch party to marketing event, loading up on swag. Rents—commercial in SoMa and residential citywide—went through the roof, but the dot-commers could still pony up while waiting for the holy grail of the IPO. South Park, the green oval anchored by high-tech hangout Caffè Centro, briefly became the center of the universe.

The electric buzz of the dot-com boom, when venture capitalists couldn't give their money away fast enough, changed the face of the neighborhood forever. Today's post-boom SoMa is sobered up and on the rise; the thousands of kids rich on paper have been replaced with substantially wealthy people staking out luxury high-rises in striking residential towers, such as 62-story One Rincon Hill, the pencil-thin building at the end of the Bay Bridge. The area may still have more than its share of seedy pockets, but even in earthquake town, the penthouse atop the chic St. Regis sold for a record-breaking $28 million in 2011.

Across Market Street from the western edge of SoMa is another of the city's patchy neighborhoods, the Civic Center, between McAllister and Grove streets and Franklin and Hyde streets. The optimistic "City Beautiful" movement of the early 20th century produced the Beaux Arts-style complex for which this area is named, including the War Memorial Opera House, the Veterans Building, and the old public library, now home of the Asian Art Museum. The centerpiece is the eye-catching, gold-dome City Hall. The current Main Library on Larkin Street between Fulton and Grove streets is a modern variation on the Civic Center's architectural theme.

The Civic Center area may have been set up on City Beautiful principles, but illusion soon gives way to reality. The buildings are grand, but there's a stark juxtaposition of the powerful and the powerless here. Many of the city's most destitute residents eke out an existence on the neighborhood's streets and plazas. Despite the evidence of social problems, there are areas of interest on either side of City Hall. East of City Hall is United Nations Plaza, which hosts a more utilitarian version of the Ferry Building's glorious farmers' market twice weekly. On the west side of City Hall are the War Memorial Opera House, Davies Symphony Hall, and other cultural institutions. A few upscale restaurants in the surrounding blocks cater to the theater-symphony crowd. Tickets to a show at one of the grand performance halls are the main reason to venture here.

SoMa and Civic Center at a Glance

Experience SoMa and Civic Center


Trip Finder

Fodor's Northern California 2014

View Details