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SoMa: The Other Side of Downtown San Francisco

SoMa: The Other Side of Downtown San Francisco


Just across Market Street from the bustling Union Square shopping district is an equally vibrant hub of activity devoted to both art and commerce. The area south of Market Street in downtown San Francisco, popularly referred to as SoMa, is rich with cultural attractions, restaurants, and nightlife surrounding Moscone Center, the city’s conference and convention center. Less of a tourist magnet than its north-of-Market-Street counterpart, SoMa has many of its own points of interest for visitors and residents alike.

A Lively Intersection

For starters, the roof of Moscone Center houses both Yerba Buena Ice Skating & Bowling Center and the entrance to the Children’s Creativity Museum (formerly “Zeum”), a hands-on art and technology studio for young people, with a merry-go-round out front. Nearby is the Metreon, containing the AMC Theatres Metreon 16, a multi-screen facility including IMAX and 3-D theaters with spectacular city views from the glass-enclosed lobby, and a variety of inexpensive dining options on the ground-floor food court.SoMa’s greenest spot is Yerba Buena Gardens, a block-long urban oasis that features an elegant walk-through memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. behind a tranquil waterfall. At the eastern end you’ll find Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, home to live music and dance events, as well as films and lectures, art installations, and galleries. Holding its own among the modern structures is the historic, Gothic-style Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, built in 1851 and still offering Catholic services daily, an anchor to the days when the area was still Yerba Buena Cove.

Art Smart

SoMa is art central, home to a cluster of museums, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which showcases contemporary and modern art (and will shortly undergo a significant expansion); the Cartoon Art Museum, which mounts exhibits of current and historical work in newspaper and political cartoons, animation, and comic books, everything from Walt Disney to early Marvel Comics work by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; and the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, with educational programs and colorful exhibits of traditional and contemporary folk art. There’s also the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which offers scholarly and artistic programs related to Jewish history and culture; the Gay and Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Historical Society of Northern California’s archives and reading room; and the Museum of the African Diaspora, devoted to representing, through various media, the lives of African peoples throughout the world. Nearby is the California Historical Society, home to an impressive archive and research library.


On another note—you’re in San Francisco, after all—First Amendment Gallery on the corner of Howard and Sixth Streets is devoted to street artists who are responsible for several striking murals around the city. Directly across the street is a condemned building that serves as the site for an exterior art installation known as Defenestration. The anti-materialist ethic of the concept is visualized with all manner of household furnishings seemingly frozen in time as they are being thrown out of windows on the upper stories. Contributing to the carnival atmosphere are faux sideshow billboards that ring the ground floor.

Five O’clock Tales

As cocktail hour approaches, visitors can continue their art appreciation at DaDa, which has great house martinis made by a capable bar staff and features rotating art shows, or at Minna Street Gallery, which incorporates a full bar, DJs, and live performances. For those just looking for an aperitif in a cosmopolitan setting, the View Lounge atop the San Francisco Marriott Marquis is spacious and comfortable, offering sweeping views of downtown.

Supper Time

Anyone looking for upscale dining might sample the Japanese-American cuisine at Ame. For something moderately priced but just as delicious, the pizza at Zero Zero is sure to satisfy that thin-crust craving. A string of eateries is just a little further west on Folsom Street. There’s an eclectic menu at Triptych, where the owners strive to use only local, organic, humane, and sustainable ingredients, while Brain Wash Café Laundromat offers casual fare, clean socks, acoustic music, and stand-up comedy.

Boogie Time

Along the Sixth Street corridor are a number of hip clubs and dive bars, including Monarch, which recently instituted mid-day dance parties, and Club Six, whose exterior was used as the club where Rosario Dawson performed her sexy dance number in 2005’s Rent. In the film, the camera followed Dawson as she strutted down Jessie Street, a nearby alley perpendicular to Sixth, but didn’t quite make it all the way to the end of the block to Mezzanine, another popular dance club known to be both intimate and loud. If your friends or colleagues can’t agree on what music to dance to, they should head to the Temple Nightclub, where three floors of music each feature a different kind of music: hip-hop, house, and techno.


—By J. Eric Miller

A long-time resident of San Francisco, J. Eric Miller continues to seek out the unusual, delicious, bargain-priced, and terrific things the city has to offer.

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