San Francisco/Civic Center-Tenderloin

Blue skies at Civic Center Plaza and City Hall

As the name implies, the Civic Center is the primary center of government within San Francisco, housing many important civic institutions. Aside from its official duties, it also moonlights as a cultural center with many fine museums, theaters, opera houses, and symphony halls located here. Over the years however, it has developed a reputation for attracting many of the city's drug-addicted and homeless to its open plazas. Next door is the Tenderloin, one of San Francisco's lowest income neighborhoods with an unfortunate reputation for poverty, drugs, and crime, particularly violent street crime. However, it also has a rich history and an eclectic community, with treasures for those who know where to look. The Civic Center-Tenderloin area is bounded roughly by Market St to the southeast, Taylor St to the east, Franklin St to the west, and Sutter St to the north.


Civic Center

The Civic Center is on Van Ness Ave, north of its intersection with Market St. The city began developing the area in 1913, and most of the buildings there are of a "Classical Style", with their development being heavily influenced by the "City Beautiful Movement". Most of the city's integral governmental institutions are located here; like City Hall which dominates the Civic Center with its impressive "Beaux-Arts" style dome. There are two main plazas in the area; Civic Center Plaza and United Nations Plaza. The Civic Center Plaza (in front of City Hall) has been a popular place for holding rallies, protests, and festivals. As well as being a hub for city government, the area is also a serious cultural center. "Culture vultures" flock here at night to see performances of the San Francsico opera, symphony, and ballet, as well as to attend theater, galas, concerts, plays, and special events. During the day you can get your "culture fix" by visiting one of the many excellent museums and galleries such as the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum, and the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery. There are also several other smaller private galleries in the area.

Architecture aficionados will be happy to know that some of the most beautiful buildings in the city are cloistered within a few square blocks here. Examples include the War Memorial Opera House, the Asian Art Museum, the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, and the War Memorial Veterans building with the Herbst Theater (where the U.N. charter was signed in 1945).

There is also a popular farmers market held twice weekly in United Nations Plaza.


Many guidebooks will tell you to avoid a large part of downtown the Tenderloin. It's true that this "bad neighborhood" is rife with panhandlers, adult bookstores, and massage parlors, but it's also full of good, cheap ethnic restaurants and colorful dive bars. The 'Loin is probably the last area of downtown to experience real gentrification, a process that seems to be taking its time, but the early signs are already here. Culture vultures will find several cutting edge, alternative/experimental theaters and high-culture galleries, which are attracted by the neighborhood's low rents and proximity to downtown. Sleek lounges and trendy clubs are also increasingly making a home in this eclectic neighborhood, side by side with the traditional dive bars it has always been known for.

The name "Tenderloin" comes from the overall shape of the area's boundaries: triangular, like the cross-section of a tenderloin steak. According to a different explanation the area was originally called "The Tenderloin" by the police officers, since they were paid more to work there the most notorious part of the town. There are many different ways to define its boundaries; the official and original three corners (making a Tenderloin shape) may be delineated by Market St and Larkin St to the south, Geary St and Larkin St to the northwest, and Market St by Geary St to the northeast. Today the area would be more better defined between Polk St, Sutter St, Mason St, Market St, and Golden Gate Ave.

Although it has a reputation as one of the tougher parts of town, in reality the Tenderloin is quite variegated and can change drastically from block to block. There are many different sub-neighborhoods within the 'Loin. Much of the area on the east side of Mason St (above O'Farrell St) is high-rent and more properly considered part of downtown Union Square. The western area around Hyde and Larkin Sts, from Turk St to O'Farrell St, is a colorful Vietnamese neighborhood known as "Little Saigon".

Geary St, Post St, and Sutter St, especially the blocks west of Jones St, are part of the so-called "Tendernob" or "Tenderloin Heights" bordering Nob Hill; sometimes this definition also includes southern Nob Hill as far north as California St or Sacramento St (especially the western blocks around Polk St). The Tendernob (at least on the 'Loin side) is considered a nightlife hotspot by some folks who like their drinking milieu a bit rough around the edges. It connects with Polk St on the western edge of the Tenderloin. Known variously as "Polk Gulch", "Polk Village", or the "Outer Tenderloin", this very lively area of Polk St, from Geary St to Union St, is populated with all types of restaurants, cafes, bars, venues, bookstores, and other shops. Finally, an area bordered by O'Farrell, Geary, Leavenworth, and Taylor Sts, is sometimes called the "Tandoor-loin" because of the high concentration of excellent and affordable Indian restaurants.

Dashiell Hammett's novel, "The Maltese Falcon," was set in the Tenderloin, and the 1941 movie adaptation for the Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, was also set in the Tenderloin.

Get in

Map of the Civic Center-Tenderloin

By car

Directions for driving to the Civic Center are marked on the freeways. Once inside the City limits, two main arteries serve the area Van Ness Ave and Market St.

There are several garages, such as the Performing Arts Garage at Grove St and Gough St, an underground garage under the Civic Center Plaza (entrance on McAllister St), open from 6AM to Midnight, or 24-hour valet parking at Opera Plaza on Turk St just off Van Ness Ave. Where the freeway was prior to 1989 earthquake (between Grove St at Gough St and Turk St at Franklin St) there are several smaller open air lots, which will charge about $10 for all day or $6 for an evening. Those lots are gradually being displaced by new construction. Street parking in the Tenderloin is extremely difficult to find, but parking garages are plentiful.


The neighborhood is well-served by public transit, provided by MUNI in the form of the Metro system, the F-Line streetcar and various bus lines. All of the MUNI Metro lines (J, K, L, M, N and T) serve the Powell/Market and Civic Center/United Nations Plaza stations under Market St along with the BART line. The MUNI Metro also serves the Van Ness/Market station, which is part of the same subway tunnel but is not shared with BART.

The historic F streetcar line runs on Market St between Castro St and the Ferry Building (where it turns north on The Embarcadero to Fisherman's Wharf), passing by both the Civic Center and the Tenderloin.

From the Caltrain station the 47-Van Ness bus takes you to along the western border of the area (Van Ness Ave) to City Hall. Other frequent MUNI bus lines serving the area are: 49-Mission/Van Ness, 9-San Bruno, 31-Balboa, 5-Fulton, 19-Polk, 21-Hayes and 38-Geary.


BART runs under Market St with two stops in the area; both the Powell/Market and Civic Center/United Nations Plaza. Both BART stations will put you well within walking distance of any Tenderloin attraction; the latter is the most convenient BART stop for the Civic Center.

By cable car

One or other of two cable car lines either the Powell/Mason cable car line or the Powell/Hyde cable car line can take you from Fisherman's Wharf, Chinatown, Nob Hill, or Russian Hill to the intersection of Market St and Powell St in Union Square near the Powell/Market BART and Muni station. From here it's just one block to the Tenderloin.

On foot

Given that the area is centrally located downtown, it is extremely accessible on foot. From the SoMa area walk northbound on anywhere from Fifth St to 11th St. Market St forms its broad southern boundary and makes the area easily accessible from either the east (Union Square-Financial District) or west (The Castro), and from the north (Nob Hill-Russian Hill) it's just a 10-20 minute walk directly due south.

Get around

As this is a relatively small area, the best way to get around is on foot. To help you navigate around there is a   Visitor Information Center located at 900 Market St on the lower level of Hallidie Plaza, next door to the cable car turntable at Powell and Market streets. The V.I.C. is open M-F 9AM-5PM; Sa, Su, and holidays 9AM-3PM, PST. Telephone inquiries may be made M-F from 8:30AM to 5PM PST, by calling +1 415 391-2000 or +1 415 392-0328.


Museums and galleries

Parks and monuments


The Civic Center with its "classical" architecture was declared a national landmark in 1978. It has several buildings that are of architectural interest including the Asian Art Museum, listed under Museums and galleries above, as well as the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, the buildings that comprise the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center (SFWMPAC), the Orpheum Theater, Golden Gate Theater, the Curran Theater, and the interior of the Great American Music Hall, which are all listed under Performing arts below. Other architectural points of interest include:

City Hall's "Beaux-Arts" Dome


Performing arts

Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall take it away, maestro!

The Civic Center is the center of opera, ballet, symphony, and theater in the city. Even if one hasn't bought a ticket in advance, there are often returned tickets available at the box offices before a performance. Make a night of it when you are here; take a walk around the Civic Center, enjoy the architecture, sit for dinner, or just have a cappuccino in one of the cafes before the overture.

  •   Herbst Theater, War Memorial Veterans Building, 401 Van Ness Ave (at McAllister St),  +1 415 392-4400, fax: +1 415 986-0411, e-mail: . Box office: Opens 1.5 hours prior to performance. Herbst Theater, next to the Opera house in the similarly-styled War Memorial Veteran's building is host to a wide variety of activities. One can find plays, readings by well-known authors, chamber music, jazz performances, etc throughout the year. The monthly Friday evening talks of the Long-now Foundation, projecting the far future, are presented here or in the Fort Mason Center. Inside the theater it has impressive foyer, chandeliers, beaux-arts murals (symbolism for the different aspects of mankind), and over 900 seats. The UN Charter was signed here in 1945. Adult: $18-$81 Child: $10.
  •   San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave (at Grove St),  +1 415 861-5600, fax: +1 415 865-0740, e-mail: . Box Office: M-F 10AM-4PM (10AM until start of performance on performance dates Performances: T-Su usually 8PM or 7:30PM with Sa-Su matinee 2PM. The repertory season begins in January and continues through May. $18-$250.
War Memorial Opera House
  •   San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave (at Grove St),  +1 415 864-3330, fax: +1 415 626-1729. Box Office: M 10AM-5PM, Tu-F 10AM-6PM Performances: Tu-F usually 7:30PM or 8PM, Sa 12:30PM or 8PM, Su 1PM, 2PM, or 3PM. See website for exact schedule. There are Fall, Spring, and Summer seasons. The summer season focuses on lighter and popular operas. Performances are in the War Memorial Opera House on Van Ness Ave which has over 3,000 seats. The interior has a grandiose entrance hall with marble floors and a 38 foot high barrel vaulted ceiling. Two wide marble stairways at either end of the foyer, take you up to the main floor. The proscenium arch inside the theater is ornately decorated with gilded sculptures. In December and late spring the Opera House is used by the San Francisco Ballet. $15-$290.
  •   San Francisco Symphony, Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave (at Grove St and Van Ness Ave),  +1 415 864-6000, fax: +1 415 554-0108, e-mail: . Box Office: M-F 10AM-6PM, Sa noon-6PM Performances: W-Su usually 8PM or 8:30PM with Sa-Su matinee 2PM, See website for exact schedule. San Francisco has an excellent symphony orchestra, with Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) as the principal conductor. The Season goes from September to April, with a break in the middle of December and January. When the San Francisco Symphony is on tour, other orchestras visit to fill the void. In July there is a "Summer in the City" program of light music; August is quiet. Opened in 1980, the building's sweeping wraparound architecture was elegantly designed to compliment the other buildings in the War Memorial complex. Inside, the building was designed to maximize acoustical tones with the exterior glass wall being used as a backdrop to capture sound. To further enhance and refine the sound it has adjustable acrylic acoustical panels around the stage area. There are circa 2,700 seats inside. $10-$50.
The historic Orpheum Theater
  •   Golden Gate Theater, 1 Taylor St (at Golden Gate Ave). Built in 1920 and influenced by the "Art Deco" and "Gothic Revival" styles, this theater has over 2,800 seats. It was designed by architect Gustave Albert Lansburgh.
  •   The Orpheum Theater, 1192 Market St (at Hyde St). Over 80 years old, this official historical landmark theater received another facelift in 1998; it now has over 2,400 seats. The theater has hosted everything from silent films to Broadway theater, and special shows such as "Late Night with Conan O'Brien." It is modeled in the style of a 12th century Spanish Cathedral, being heavily influenced by both "Spanish Moorish" and "Spanish Baroque" architecture. It has ornate architectural detailing inside and was designed by architect Benjamin Marcus Priteca.

Events and festivals

  • San Francisco Pride Parade (Along Market St from Beale St to 8th St),  +1 415 864-3733, fax: +1 415 864-5889, e-mail: . Final full weekend in June: Su only 10AM-2PM (approx). San Francisco's annual "Gay Pride Parade" long ago grew into a two-day "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Celebration" (see above). The parade itself, which takes place on the Sunday, features over a hundred contingents, and takes over four hours from start to finish. Hundreds of thousands of people line the parade route to watch. If you want a good spot, arrive two hours before the 10AM start, and set up closer to Beale St than the Civic Center. Be careful about climbing on bus shelters, scaffolding, or light poles to get a better view: people do fall and injure themselves. The only thing better than watching the parade is marching in it. If you can make contact in advance, you likely can find some contingent with affinity which will welcome you. Free.


There are very few chain stores here and limited shopping opportunities. This has probably got more to do with socio-economic reasons than anything else. If you are looking for your more recognizable stores try its glamorous neighbor Union Square, and on the other side of Market St in the SoMa neighborhood, you'll find plenty of large shopping malls. What this area does have however, is a varied collection of smaller esoteric stores.


This page uses the following price ranges for a typical meal for one, including soft drink:
Budget $10 or less
Mid-range $10 - 20
Splurge $20 or more

Given the grittiness of the area, much of the food is very affordable. Vietnamese, Thai, and Indian restaurants are well represented in the Tenderloin. One of the best options for a cheap lunch is picking up a "Vietnamese sandwich" from any of a number of corner delis in the area (they're packed especially thick along Larkin St). For about $2.50 you can expect to get a generous helping of your choice of meat and shredded vegetables sandwiched into a quarter of a baguette and dressed with a thin, tangy sweet and sour sauce. Be sure to bring cash, as these places don't take any credit cards. There is actually a decent selection of restaurants in the area, but if you are not satisfied, there are many other excellent eateries just west of the Civic Center, around Hayes St, and northeast of the Tenderloin around Chinatown and North Beach. Generally speaking, for mid-range to high-end restaurants in the area seating is easier around 8PM, when opera and symphony patrons depart.





These days the Tenderloin is on the "up-and-up," and with this urban gentrification has come a surprisingly eclectic and artistic nightlife scene. It now has a decent selection of trendy lounges and hip clubs, as well the musical venues (many of which are listed under Performing arts above), strip-clubs, and "dive bars" that were the more traditional staples of the area. In fact, many of the modern "faux-dive" and "dive bars" used to be illegal speakeasies during the prohibition era of the 1920s. Given the areas long and storied association with the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender community (the "Polk Gulch" was the city's first openly Gay neighborhood, before the emergence of the Castro in the 1970s), many of the bars, clubs, and entertainment are geared toward this crowd, although typically everyone is welcome.


Entertainment and clubs


Due to the lower rents and what was a general lack of options, there has been a recent revival of the coffee shops in the Tenderloin. The new, charming cafes provide relaxing shelter from the general hustle and bustle of the neighborhood.


This guide uses the following price ranges for a standard double room:
Budget under $100
Mid-range $100 - 200
Splurge $200 and over

Many "hotels" in the Tenderloin do their major business as single-room occupancy (S.R.O.) lodgings for permanent residents, many of whom live from welfare check to welfare check. These hotels also rent rooms to frightened-looking tourists lured by bargain rates "just off Union Square." Both the rates and the location are true: the management merely neglected to mention the urine-stained mattresses or the drunk lurching in the lobby. Use caution: if a rate seems too good to be true, it probably is. There are more normal hotels in the area as well, ranging from large chains to tiny boutique hotels with fashionable decor and chi-chi prices. If you plan to park a car, scrutinize the hotel listing for parking information. Free parking is not a given, and at peak times, even paid garages overflow onto the sidewalks. There are also several backpacker's hostels in this area, particularly on Taylor St that attract both backpackers and those traveling on a budget.





Joey's Laundry listed under the Eat section above has internet for a fee, and the Main Library listed under the Architecture section above has free internet facilities.

Stay safe

The Tenderloin is one of San Francisco's lowest income neighborhoods and has all the socio-economic problems that stem from this including crime, homelessness, and drug addiction. In particular there is a lot of violent street crime like assault and theft. Parts of the Tenderloin are considered the most dangerous areas in San Francisco, with the exception of Hunter's Point and possibly a few areas in the Mission (such as Mission between 16th and 17th Sts). Turk St and Taylor St might be considered the heart of the "true" Tenderloin; the sidewalks teem at all hours with the homeless, people openly selling crack or heroin, derelicts, hustlers, and the mentally ill. This area spills directly into Mission St on the other side of Market St; Mission St between 8th and 5th St may be considered part of this truly seedy "core Tenderloin" area. Travelers should be aware of their environment and take an appropriate amount of care. The area is lively and safe until about 2AM (when the bars close); after that, it does get sketchy, and is best avoided by travelers walking alone.

Go next

Hayes Valley If you are an art lover and liked the formal galleries in this area, then why not continue into neighboring Hayes Valley where you will find many smaller urban chic galleries.

Union Square There are also many other smaller and more exclusive art galleries in Union Square that focus on selling the artwork of high profile artists like Renoir and Chagall. Union Square also has a good selection of galleries that exhibit the work of local and up-and-coming artists.

Routes through Civic Center-Tenderloin

Balboa Park Mission  SW  NE  Financial District
West Portal Castro  SW  NE  Financial District Visitacion Valley
West Portal Castro  SW  NE  Financial District
Sunset Haight  SW  NE  Financial District SoMa

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Wednesday, July 22, 2015. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.