16 Best Sights in The Haight, the Castro, Hayes Valley and Noe Valley, San Francisco

Castro Theatre

Castro Fodor's choice
Title Box, Castro Theatre, San Francisco, California, USA
Castro Theatre by Steve Rhodes

Here's a classic way to join in a beloved Castro tradition: grab some popcorn and catch a flick at this 1,500-seat art-deco theater built in 1922, the grandest of San Francisco's few remaining movie palaces. The neon marquee, which stands at the top of the Castro strip, is the neighborhood's great landmark. The Castro was the fitting host of 2008's red-carpet preview of Gus Van Sant's film Milk, starring Sean Penn as openly gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk. The theater's elaborate Spanish baroque interior is fairly well preserved. Before many shows, the theater's pipe organ rises from the orchestra pit and an organist plays pop and movie tunes, usually ending with the Jeanette MacDonald standard "San Francisco" (go ahead, sing along). The crowd can be enthusiastic and vocal, talking back to the screen as loudly as it talks to them.  The theater's management is making renovation plans that may change the nature of the theater's offerings. Check online for updates before planning your trip. 

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SFJAZZ Center

Hayes Valley Fodor's choice

Devoted entirely to jazz, the center hosts performances by jazz greats such as McCoy Tyner, Joshua Redman, Regina Carter, and Chick Corea. Walk by and the street-level glass walls will make you feel as if you're inside; head indoors and the acoustics will knock your socks off.

Twin Peaks

Noe Valley Fodor's choice

Windswept and desolate, Twin Peaks yields sweeping vistas of San Francisco and the neighboring counties. At a hilltop park 922 feet above sea level, you can get a real feel for the city's layout, but you'll share it with busloads of other admirers; in summer, arrive before the late-afternoon fog turns the view into pea soup. To drive here, head west from Castro Street up Market Street, which eventually becomes Portola Drive. Turn right (north) on Twin Peaks Boulevard and follow the signs to the top. Muni bus 37–Corbett heads west to Twin Peaks from Market Street. Catch this bus above the Castro Street Muni light-rail station on the island west of Castro at Market Street.

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Recommended Fodor's Video

Axford House

Noe Valley

This mauve house was built in 1877 by William Axford, a Scottish immigrant and metalsmith whose Mission Iron Works made cannonballs for the Union Army during the Civil War. The house, perched several feet above the sidewalk, was built when Noe Valley was still a rural area, as evidenced by the hayloft in the gable of the adjacent carriage house. The original iron fence, made in Axford's foundry, remains.

Buena Vista Park

Haight

The reward for the steep climb to get here is this eucalyptus-filled space with great city views. Dog walkers and homeless folks make good use of the park, and the playground at the top is popular with kids and adults alike. Be sure to scan the stone rain gutters lining many of the walkways for inscribed names and dates; these are the remains of gravestones left unclaimed when the city closed the Laurel Hill cemetery around 1940. A pit stop includes a portable toilet and disposal for used needles and condoms; definitely avoid the park after dark, when these items are left behind.

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Clarke's Mansion

Castro

Built for attorney Alfred "Nobby" Clarke, this 1892 off-white baroque Queen Anne home was dubbed Clarke's Folly. (His wife refused to inhabit it because it was in an unfashionable part of town—at the time, anyone who was anyone lived on Nob Hill.) The greenery-shrouded house (now apartments) is a beauty, with dormers, cupolas, rounded bay windows, and huge turrets topped by gold-leaf spheres.

GLBT Historical Society Museum

Castro

The small, two-gallery Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) Historical Society Museum, the first of its kind in the United States, presents multimedia exhibits from its vast holdings covering San Francisco's queer history. In the main gallery, you might hear the audiotape Harvey Milk made for the community in the event of his assassination; explore artifacts from "Gayborhoods," lost landmarks of the city's gay past; or flip through a memory book with pictures and thoughts on some of the more than 20,000 San Franciscans lost to AIDS. Though perhaps not for everyone (those offended by sex toys and photos of lustily frolicking naked people may, well, be offended), the museum offers an inside look at these communities so integral to the fabric of San Francisco life.

Grateful Dead House

Haight

On the outside, this is just one more well-kept Victorian on a street that's full of them, but true fans of the Dead may find some inspiration looking at this legendary structure. The three-story house (closed to the public) is tastefully painted in sedate mauves, tans, and teals—no bright tie-dye colors here.

Haight-Ashbury Intersection

Haight

On October 6, 1967, hippies took over the intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets to proclaim the "Death of Hip." If they thought hip was dead then, they'd find absolute confirmation of it today—the only tie-dye in sight on the famed corner is a Ben & Jerry's storefront.

Harvey Milk Plaza

Castro

An 18-foot-long rainbow flag flies above this plaza named for the man who electrified the city in 1977 by being elected to its Board of Supervisors as an openly gay candidate. In the early 1970s, Milk's camera store on Castro Street became the center for his campaign to open San Francisco's social and political life to gays and lesbians.

Milk hadn't served a full year of his term before he and Mayor George Moscone were shot to death in November 1978 at City Hall. The murderer was a conservative ex-supervisor named Dan White, who had resigned his post and then became enraged when Moscone wouldn't reinstate him. Milk and White had often been at odds on the board. The gay community became infuriated when the "Twinkie defense"—that junk food had led to diminished mental capacity—resulted in only a manslaughter verdict for White. During the so-called White Night Riot of May 21, 1979, gays and their allies stormed City Hall, torching its lobby.

Milk, who had feared assassination, left behind a tape recording in which he urged the community to continue his work. His legacy is the high visibility of gay people throughout city government; a bust of him was unveiled at City Hall in 2008, and the 2008 film Milk gives insight into his life. Keep your visiting expectations in check: this is more of a historical site than an Instagrammable spot.

Southwest corner of Castro and Market Sts., San Francisco, CA, 94114, USA

Pink Triangle Park

Castro

On a median near the Castro's huge rainbow flag stands this memorial to the people forced by the Nazis to wear pink triangles. Fifteen triangular granite columns, one for every 1,000 gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people estimated to have been killed during and after the Holocaust, stand in a grassy triangle—a reminder of the gay community's past and ongoing struggle for civil rights.

Randall Museum

Castro

Younger kids who are still excited about petting a rabbit, touching a snakeskin, or seeing a live hawk will enjoy a trip to this nature museum. The museum sits beneath a hill variously known as Red Rock, Museum Hill, and, correctly, Corona Heights; hike up the steep but short trail for great, unobstructed city views. Just be sure to bring a windbreaker.

Red Victorian Bed & Breakfast Inn and Peace Center

Haight

By even the most generous accounts, the Summer of Love quickly crashed and burned, and the Haight veered sharply away from the higher goals that inspired that fabled summer. In 1977, Sami Sunchild acquired the Red Vic, built as a hotel in 1904, with the aim of preserving the best of 1960s ideals. She decorated her rooms with 1960s themes—one chamber is called the Flower Child Room—and opened an intentional community with rooms to let. The ground floor holds the new vintage shop Sunchild's Parlour, and simple, cheap vegan and vegetarian fare is available in the Peace Café.

San Francisco LGBT Center

Hayes Valley

Night and day, the center hosts many social activities, from mixers and youth game nights to holiday parties and slam poetry performances.

Seward Street Slides

Noe Valley
A teenager designed these two long, concrete slides back in 1973, saving this mini park from development. Aimed at older kids and adults rather than little ones, the slides offer a fun, steep ride down, so wear sturdy pants.

Spreckels Mansion

Haight

Not to be confused with the Spreckels Mansion of Pacific Heights, this house was built for sugar baron Richard Spreckels in 1887. Jack London and Ambrose Bierce both lived and wrote here, while more recent residents included musician Graham Nash and actor Danny Glover. The boxy, putty-color Victorian—today a private home—is in mint condition.

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