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April 28, 2014


Union Square , San Francisco – A Comprehensive Travel Guide

by Jason Dutton-Smith
Union Square at Dusk

Union Square, with its towering memorial statue and air of California sophistication is perfectly placed in the pulsating heart of downtown San Francisco. An inviting city plaza surrounded by swaying palms, upscale retailers and historic hotels, the clanging of passing cable cars only heightens this already charming urban scene.

The commercial centre of the city, Union Square features some of the best shopping in the country. Interspersed with lovely restaurants and inviting cafes, Union Square is the perfect place to enjoy an al fresco coffee or meal while watching the world go by.

Union Square history

Originally a tall sand dune, Union Square became a designated public park in 1850 and was so named because of the pro Union rallies that took place here in the lead up to the American Civil War. Such strong Union sentiment meant that the people of San Francisco were in favour of preserving the national union while standing against those southern states who went on to secede in rebellion.

The plaza has since undergone many changes and updates over the years with the first being in 1903. Union Square’s most iconic landmark, the Dewey Memorial was erected that year and has become the squares magnificent centrepiece. Standing 97 feet tall, or 30 metres, the memorial was a dedicated to Admiral George Dewey for his victory during at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War. It also stands as a commemoration to the then recently assassinated U.S. President, William McKinley. Standing proud at the top of the monument and modelled after Alma de Bretteville is the statue ‘Victory’. She is holding a trident that represents Dewey and a wreath to represent McKinley.

Panorama View of Union Square

Panorama View of Union Square

First renovation from 1939-1941

The next major renovation from 1939-1941 produced the world’s first underground parking garage. The parking garage with 985 spaces was dug directly under the square. Today it’s a popular parking spot and one of many parking stations available in and around Union Square. The prices sneak up on you though and the hourly rate fluctuates depending on the hour of the day. If staying at a hotel near this location it’s recommended you do not hire a car as hotels charge upwards of $100 per night for valet parking.

Union Square Parking Garage

Union Square Parking Garage


Fast forward to 1998 and local city planners were busy planning the upgrade of the square. Paved surfaces, extension to the underground car park, outdoor cafes and restaurants, shopping complexes and new park facility improvements all attributed to the square’s growing popularity.


The grand re-opening by Mayor Willie Brown in July 2002 saw a newly renovated Union Square opened to the public. Declaring ‘’Use it; it’s your square,” both locals and visitors embraced the inviting, elegant square as it became another great San Francisco landmark. To further public enjoyment of this great public space, the city introduced free WI-FI in 2004.

Union Square Ariel View

Union Square Ariel View


Shopping in San Francisco is a favourite past time with countless options available. If you can think of it, then it can be found here. Union Square is surrounded by some of the biggest brand name department stores, upscale boutiques, luxury outlets and speciality stores. With a thoughtful layout and impressive collection of shops, restaurants and entertainment, you will soon see why this is considered the heart of San Francisco.

Department stores in Union Square

Some of the world’s largest department stores either over look the square or are located within a short 2-3 block radius. We are talking huge here too. Several of these stores have dedicated locations to female and male shoppers spanning over multiple floors. The big six located here include:

  • Macy’s
  • Bloomingdale’s
  • Nordstrom
  • Barneys New York
  • Saks Fifth Avenue
  • Neiman Marcus
Saks Fifth Avenue Union Square

Saks Fifth Avenue Union Square

Upscale boutiques

World famous luxury goods retailers and fashion boutiques are dotted throughout Union Square. Enjoy a range of upscale shops which include:

  • Tiffany & Co
  • Louis Vuitton
  • Gucci
  • Chanel
  • Hugo Boss
  • Salvatore Ferragamo
  • Cartier
  • Marc Jacobs
  • Hermes
  • And many more…

Two blocks south of Union Square…

Can’t get enough of shopping? Then head a short 2 blocks south of Union Square where you will find many more brand name stores. Some of these include Old Navy, Abercrombie & Fitch, Urban outfitters, Apple Store, United Colors of Benetton, Anthropologie and countless more.

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Eating and drinking

Boasting some of the best restaurants and bars in the city, there is no shortage of options available here. Being so close to the theatre district means several establishments are open to the late hours. Fine food is not just a luxury here, but a way of life for San Franciscans.

Here is a great short video to wet the appetite and whistle.

One popular dining venue with superb views of union Square is The Cheesecake Factory. Enter the Macy’s building from where an express lift will whisk you to the restaurant. Request a table outside or on the inside window to enjoy the views of the square. But be warned, the wait times for a table at this restaurant can be long! But in my experience the wait times were certainly worth it.

Here is a recent photo snapped from the outside seating area of The Cheesecake Factory at dusk during a recent visit. You can also read my review of The Cheesecake Factory here.

The Cheesecake Factory on top of Macy's in Union Square San Francisco

The Cheesecake Factory on top of Macy’s in Union Square San Francisco

Famous films featuring Union Square

If some of these images in this blog have looked familiar then there is probably good reason. Each year the square is used as a backdrop for many films. Some classics filmed here include:

  • Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock
  • The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock
  • The Conversation by Francis Ford Coppola
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Philip Kaufman

Where to stay

Hotels in San Francisco offer a wide range of options from upscale 5 star hotels to boutique apartments, budget rooms and B&Bs. Expect all the big names such as Hilton, Grand Hyatt, Hotel Nikko, J.W. Marriott and many more. There are countless offerings but it would pay to shop around. This can be an expensive city especially around large events or holiday times. Book ahead with plenty of time to secure a cheap deal. Loads of smaller boutique hotels and inns can be just as comfortable without the large price tag.

Getting around

Naturally, in San Francisco, there is one particularly romantic and sentimental way to get around this city, and that is by cable car of course! The world famous cars make those hills a breeze and save your legs. The cable car system covers a wide area of the city and makes for a quick and convenient way to get around. Not just a tourist attraction, cable cars are used extensively by locals too and conveniently, the cars stop near all the major tourist attractions, making for a wonderful way to experience the sights and sounds of the City by the Bay. As they say, ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans!’

San Francisco Cable Car

San Francisco Cable Car

A start base for the cable car is located in the heart of Union Square and extends all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf for the one ticket price. Hang on to the side, listen to the famous clanging of the bell and soak in the essence of this wonderful city.

Here is a great video that show cases all that encompasses Union Square and its offerings. Enjoy the video and make Union Square a part of your visit to San Francisco.


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