Poking along Union Street is one of those activities that many tourists in San Francisco miss. This is a shame. It’s cute. It’s fun. It makes me feel like a local. It is a “real people” kind of place—patronized by the folks who live nearby.
Now, it is important to see all the Icons of the cosmopolitan city—the fabulous and dramatic bridges, scary Alcatraz, museums, Fisherman’s Wharf and so on. I love them all, but some how I always return to a small six block stretch of Union Street, chockablock with marvelous Victorian Ladies, cafes and, ta da, imaginative shopping far from the urban bustle. It is also called Cow Hollow.
First of all, let’s get clear. Union Street and the famous Union Square are two totally different places. Union Square has all the big names in the retailing world—Saks, Bloomingdales, Neimans, Gucci, Armani, Prada and so on. Other than visiting Gumps and a few interesting vintage clothing shops, once you get inside these behemoths you could be anywhere. Nothing local about them.
Union Street, on the other hand, is located within a view of the Bay, perched high on one of the hills and has very few stores or restaurants that you’d find anywhere else. All local.
For example, I loved an Asian shop where the Chinese designer creates stunning gowns and jackets. It’s near the Pet Bakery and a myriad of shops selling stuff like yoga attire and antiques, just down from a chocolate shop, a well stocked deli and near the store only selling alpaca clothing.
In Jan. the outdoor flower market was marvelous sight for someone from snow-covered Michigan. To visit some shops, one has to follow decorated alleyways and the bear tracks painted on stone walk ways.
This area is very interesting to the architect buff. It is located in the middle of Pacific Heights, one of the most affluent areas in S.F. It was originally a cow pasture—hence the name Cow Hollow. This is appealing to me. I love former cow pastures—most notable is Ile Saint-Louis in the middle of the Seine in Paris—the island next to Ile de la Cite, home of Notre Dame. Ile Saint-Louis is most charming and was once home to the King’s cows before it became the part of Paris I return to every time I’m lucky enough to visit the City of Lights….. But I digress and will return to the Cow Hollow in S.F.
When a cable car line was built in the 1870s connecting this area to the main part of S.F. the wealthy flocked here to outdo each other creating ornate homes with arches, pillars, turrets, domes, mansard roofs, painted decoration and stain glass.
Remarkably, the earthquake and fires of 1906 spared these grand old homes, leaving us with a wealth of Victorian architecture. How lucky we are to be able to visit and enjoy these fascinating and marvelous old structures.