SoMa: where the spirit of the Gold Rush lives on in tech companies, trendy lofts, and more art galleries than we have time to count.
The “South of Market” neighborhood, or SoMa, lies in the heart of San Francisco. There’s no shortage of things to do in SoMa, so it can be hard to know where to start. That’s why we’ve set out to create a walking tour of the SoMa neighborhood in San Francisco to help you navigate the area.
First things first, let’s get oriented. SoMa is bounded by Market Street to the north (more on that later), Townsend Street to the south, Eleventh Street to the west, and the Embarcadero to the east. Wait, the Emba-what? The Embarcadero is the boulevard that runs along the waterfront of San Francisco, and it’s where we start our tour.
Our first stop, the Ferry Building Marketplace, has been around since 1898. At the time, it was the spot to arrive by train. Over time it also became a bustling ferry boat station, as the name suggests. It was here that SoMa’s original inhabitants, hopeful miners, came into town for the Gold Rush.
SoMa’s earliest residents were in search of one thing: gold. The opportunity to strike it rich brought a thousand hopefuls to the area, which was deemed “Happy Valley” because of its sunshine, spring water, and “carefree inhabitants.”
After people began preferring to drive into San Francisco, the Ferry Building saw quieter times and eventually turned into an office building. However, San Franciscans aren’t fans of letting historical buildings fade away. After some renovations, the building reopened in 2003 and is now home to a whole host of local merchants, from A to Z (or V). Step inside for some San Francisco sourdough from Acme Bread Company or a stuffed croissant from Vive Le Tarte. There’s also a Farmer’s Market, a few coffee choices, and donuts.
After munching on a snack, walk along the Embarcadero and admire the waterfront. You’ll arrive at Rincon Park, where you can snap a few pics of the Bay Bridge (if Karl the Fog isn’t hiding it). There’s also a giant cupid’s bow statue called Cupid’s Span that’s fun and ‘gram worthy.
Baseball and good food and flowers, oh my!
Continue south on the Embarcadero until you arrive at Pier 40 and Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. As you pass by the Google headquarters on your way to Oracle Park, you can see the way tech has taken over where the working class once toiled. San Francisco residents may not be panning for gold anymore, but there are plenty of startups that hope they can turn a speck of an idea into an empire.
If you’re not in the mood for Cracker Jack and hot dogs at the stadium, you could also opt for a trip to The Creamery. This local joint has crepes, salads, and sandwiches, and is supposedly the place that techies go to close deals. If you were hoping The Creamery was an ice cream shop, you might want to backtrack slightly for rolled ice cream at Steep Creamery & Tea.
Now it’s time to head toward the heart of SoMa! If you’re the type to (literally) stop and smell the roses, pop into the San Francisco Flower Mart, located across the street from Pinterest HQ. Then, continue up 5th Street before taking a right at Howard Street. Book lovers: hooking right a block before Howard Street will bring you to The American Bookbinders Museum on Folsom Street.
Gardens and art
After a long stretch of walking, it’s time to relax at the Yerba Buena Gardens. Fun fact: Yerba Buena was San Francisco’s original name. Now the name is used for a two-block-wide city park.
While the park in and of itself is beautiful, it too has a rich history. After the Gold Rush, post-civil-war SoMa was home to dockworkers and merchant seamen, along with industrial workers. As the neighborhood’s population grew, so did a need for housing. In the late 1800s, 1/3rd of San Francisco’s boarding houses and half of its lodging houses were in SoMa. The demand for urban housing peaked in the 1940s, as build quality and aesthetic took a back seat.
In fact, SoMa hasn’t always had the best reputation. Remember how I mentioned it’s “South of Market Street?” The neighborhood used to have another nickname, “south of the slot,” which essentially meant it was on the “wrong side of the tracks.” Market Street has long marked the divide between the northern part of the city, which held the political and financial power, and the south side, which was home to the working class and poor groups.
In the 1970s, a committee appointed by the mayor began prioritizing subsidized low-income housing and creating mixed-use areas in the SoMa neighborhood. From the 1980s through today, the Yerba Buena area has developed into a diverse network of museums, convention centers, parks, and urban housing.
At Yerba Buena, you can explore a butterfly garden, reflect on your day at the upper terrace garden, or sprawl out on the Esplanade. Of course, there’s also more public art to admire, as well as seasonal festivals that celebrate the diversity of the area.
Our SoMa art tour is just beginning, though — the next step on the walking tour is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It has 17,000 square feet of modern art, making it one of the largest contemporary art museums in the country. Exhibitions change often, so there’s always something new to see. But don’t stop there; the MOMA is just one of the museums adjacent to the Yerba Buena Gardens. You can also explore the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the Museum of African Diaspora, and the Children’s Creativity Museum. The California Historical Society is also just around the corner and features exhibits about the history of the Golden State.
If you haven’t had enough art for the day (or you’re in the mood for a happy hour), 111 Minna Gallery is only a few minutes away. This gallery is perfectly SoMa — a lofty and unassuming brick building that holds an art gallery and bar inside. The gallery has been around since 1993 and is a cool place to grab a drink.
Cap it all off
If you’ve worked up an appetite by now, walk to Tropisueno for authentic Mexican food in a lively environment. You can end your night there or venture over to Folsom Street for SoMa’s nightlife.
SoMa’s “Leather District” is home to an annual Folsom Street Fair, which brings in hundreds of vendors in the S&M / Fetish industry. While it’s not a family-friendly affair, the area has long been a refuge for the city’s LGBTQ community (as well as a go-to spot for “Leathers”).
Many of the best things to do in SoMa embrace the area’s history and diversity. Historic buildings that have been given new life and neighborhoods made better for and by the people that live there is what SoMa is all about. The Gold Rush may have given away to a tech scene, but the neighborhood finds a way to mix the old with the new.