It's easy to know when you've reached the heart of San Francisco's Castro Street; it’s a place that boldly proclaims that you've arrived. Rainbow flags line the road and a giant art deco marquee that reads "Castro" announces the name of the theater it adorns and lets you know what neighborhood you’re in. Shops and businesses along the street entice customers with quirky names and humorous or provocative window displays. This part of town has a spirit of its own; one that is integral to the larger culture of San Francisco.
Our series about the emblematic streets of the City by the Bay would be incomplete without including a sliver of the historic Castro district. So, for the seventh installment of our Streets of San Francisco series, I'm exploring Castro Street. The street's vibrant commercial center takes up two blocks between Market Street and 19th Street and spills over into the cross streets as well. It's a small area that's packed with enough activities to keep you entertained from morning until the wee hours of the night.
Early signs of the Castro's rise as San Francisco's best-known LGBTQ neighborhood began when thousands of World War II soldiers were discharged from the military for their sexual orientation and dropped off in San Francisco. Seeking a more accepting environment than what they'd return to in their hometowns, many decided to stay, and some settled in the Castro. The Castro really began to flourish as a gay district after 1967's Summer of Love. Today, Castro Street continues to be a vivacious hub for the LGBTQ community.
I begin my Castro Street excursion at Blush! Wine Bar where I meet a friend for brunch. It’s a relaxed environment and this afternoon, the crowd is a mix of hipsters, families with kids, and gay couples. Some have come for brunch and others are there to socialize on the couches and enjoy the $9 bottomless mimosas.
The neighborhood is full of casual eateries that suit a variety of tastes. Spike's Coffee & Teas is known for tasty coffee and friendly service. Harvey's serves up cocktails and all-American eats. On Market Street there's a branch of Super Duper Burger where you’ll find high quality burgers and organic milkshakes to wash them down. For Mexican flavors, try Cafe la Taza, and for Vietnamese sandwiches, visit Castro Tarts. Two blocks east of Castro Street on 18th Street is Kasa Indian Eatery which offers large and affordable combination plates. Marcello's Pizza is open until 2am on weekends to help satisfy post-nightlife cravings.
If you're yearning for dessert, pop into Hot Cookie which -- you guessed it -- serves up warm cookies. But be forewarned: the atmosphere isn’t exactly what you’d expect from a cookie shop. In addition to the standard cookies and brownies, Hot Cookie takes an amusingly risqué approach to the way it shapes and decorates some of its baked goods, and the walls are plastered with photos of people sporting unisex underwear emblazoned with the shop’s logo.
After brunch, we cross the street and check out the Castro Theatre schedule. The Castro was once known as Eureka Valley, and the conspicuous presence of this theater’s large sign played a role in renaming the neighborhood. The theater is a mainstay of Castro Street and there’s often a line down the block to watch movies here. While you won't find the latest blockbuster movies at this San Francisco Historic Landmark, you will find a compelling selection of international and independent films, campy classics, and musical sing alongs. Inside the flamboyantly designed theater is a Wurlitzer pipe organ that's often played before film showings.
We continue into Cliff's Variety which sells hardware on one side, and all things kitschy on the other. We spend some time in what a sales attendant refers to as "the fun side" and poke around the store's comical collection of playful tchotchkes and costumes. When we turn onto 18th Street, we spot a drag queen show underway. The sun is still up but the performers are already dolled up in sparkly dresses and heavy makeup, lip syncing to hit songs from the 1970s and 80s.
As lively as it can be during the day, the Castro's energy really accelerates at night when the streets fill up with revelers looking to socialize and dance. Badlands is perhaps the most notorious dance club in the Castro, known for its cheap drink specials and music video dance parties. If you're looking for a more relaxed environment, check out Mix, a casual bar with a patio in the back.
The Castro isn't just about restaurants, shopping, and watering holes; it's also a place to delve into activism and explore LGBTQ history. A space that once housed Harvey Milk's store, Castro Camera is now home to The San Francisco Human Rights Campaign Action Center and Store. At the GLBT History Museum, you can explore 100 years of queer history in San Francisco and the $5 admission fee is waived on the first Wednesday of each month! If you want to learn even more about the neighborhood's past, SF City Guides offers free walking tours of the Castro three days a week.
Back on Castro Street, we spot preparations for the Castro Street Fair which is happening the following day. Founded by Harvey Milk in 1974, it's San Francisco's longest running street fair -- a day long celebration of art, music, and community pride. Pink Saturday is another celebratory street party that happens here annually, on the night before the San Francisco Pride parade.
With a MUNI Metro station at the intersection of Castro Street and Market Street, the neighborhood is easily accessible from Downtown San Francisco. If you want to really arrive in style, take a ride to Castro Street in a historic F-line MUNI cable car.
This story was written by Ekua Impraim, a writer who is based in San Francisco. A California native, she’s an avid traveler who enjoys discovering her local surroundings just as much as exploring far-flung corners of the world.
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