Travel Guide to San Francisco Neighborhoods: the Castro District
The SF Castro District
The Castro, officially known as Eureka Valley, is one of the largest and most well-known LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) communities in the world. If you want to leave San Francisco with a complete picture of the city, the Castro is definitely a must-see.
Castro Events, Festivals, and Historical Tours
Bordered by Market Street on the northwest, 22nd Street in the south, and Church Street in the east, most of the district’s streets are decorated with rainbow flags (a symbol of LGBT pride), and homosexual couples can often be seen walking in the streets.
As a center for LGBT spirit worldwide, the Castro hosts several very popular events, such as the Castro Street Fair in late October and the San Francisco Pride Celebration and Parade, which takes place on the last Sunday in June. When these events roll around, the Castro becomes very lively and very crowded, so plan schedules according to whether you want to be in the crowd or not.
If you’re interested in the history of the Castro (and there’s rich history behind this district), I’d say the most complete option would be a tour. My suggestions would be San Fran City Guide’s tour “Castro: Tales of the Village” (a free two-hour tour that operates most Saturdays, Sundays, and Tuesdays) and “Cruisin’ the Castro”, which is available on weekdays for a fairly reasonable price. More details on tours can be found on their respective websites: http://www.sfcityguides.org/desc.html?tour=7 and http://www.cruisinthecastro.com/.
An additional bonus of these tours is that they can direct you to great attractions, like the GLBT History Museum (4127 18th St.) or the Castro Theater (429 Castro St.). Because the Castro Theater is often mentioned in guides, I’ll use a couple of sentences to cover it. I don’t often enjoy San Francisco’s “destinations”, mostly because (no offense!) they're often swarming with tourists. However, the Castro Theater should definitely not be missed by any thorough visitor. Complete with red velvet seats and an organ player to entertain before the movie, this beautifully maintained theater makes for a great experience. Even if you don’t plan on spending too long in the Castro, consider paying this spot a visit. Please bear in mind that, like many places in the Castro and in the city generally, this theater is cash only.
Food in the Castro
Now onto my favorite subject: food! The Castro has only relatively recently become home to restaurants beyond bars and pizza, but I do have a couple of personal favorites. For a complete breakfast or a casual lunch, I suggest the Cove on Castro Café (434 Castro St.), a mom-and-pop vibe all-American diner that offers a great view of Castro Street and an extremely welcoming staff. This is the place to be if you’re looking for the locals and are happier away from the noise.
Lime (2247 Market St.) is a daytime party spot and is a great place for all-night-then-all-day partiers and people-watchers. The LookOut (3600 16th St.) is first and foremost a gay bar, but before 5 p.m. it’s a great place to people-watch. A warning to non-partiers, however: after 5, it can get wild and the place is always pretty lively.
This district also has some incredible options for sweet tooths. The Hot Cookie Bakery (407 Castro St.) is a widely acknowledged SF establishment, famous for its racy penis macaroons, though there’s plenty there for those who’d rather not eat a phallus as well. The cookies are fresh baked and absolutely delicious. The place only accepts cash and is quite small, so keep your eyes peeled when looking for it.
An equally great and far less racy place to get some sugar is Sweet Inspiration (2239 Market St.). The staff is usually very friendly, and the huge display of desserts is overwhelming in the best way. The cakes there are fabulous, and the gelato is decent as well.
Castro / San Francisco Souvenirs and Keepsakes
Looking for souvenirs? The gift shop Under One Roof (518A Castro St.) should definitely not be missed. This shop has the usual Castro gift shop rainbow-colored flags and such, but it also stocks extremely unique items that I doubt you’ll see anywhere else. Part of the merchandise is donated and all of it is fairly priced, though it’s hard to complain about giving a little extra seeing as 100% of the proceeds go to AIDS foundations. If you’re looking for something to remember San Francisco by, I would suggest paying this shop a visit.
A quick note on taking memories with you: some locals, especially in the Castro, aren’t huge fans of tourists taking photos of them or their homes. If you’re an avid photographer, please either ask permission or take pictures as unobtrusively as possible. Standing in the middle of the sidewalk and snapping pictures of couples taking their daily walk will likely earn you some annoyed frowns.
Nightlife in the Castro
A better way to remember the Castro might be from one of the district’s many bars and clubs. Note to hardcore partiers: my suggestions are generally for those who are just looking for a drink and a bit of a fun night out. Serious clubbers might want to check out The Café (2369 Market St.), but beware! The Café has a reputation among SF locals of being extremely wild, even by the standards of the Castro.
For those looking for a taste of the Castro but in a more relaxed way, I suggest Blackbird (2124 Market St.) The drinks are delicious, the crowds are quite diverse by the standards of the Castro (On any given night, there will be at least a couple of straight guys and gals there.), and the staff is generally helpful and friendly.
Another good place to try is the Twin Peaks Tavern (401 Castro St.). Though its older crowd has earned it the nickname “the Glass Coffin”, this is one of the few bars in the Castro that comes without endless Britney Spears remixes and dance-offs. Castro visitors be warned: that’s only half a joke! This bar is much more relaxing and laid-back than most of the Castro; a good place for visitors just looking for a fairly stiff drink and mellow conversation with the locals.
Final Neighborhood Notes: Transportation
One final note on visiting the Castro: do not drive. Parking is difficult to come by anywhere in the city, but in the Castro it’s close to impossible to find. The Castro is well connected by the Muni lines to Downtown, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Haight Ashbury. Additionally, the F-line historic street cars run six miles from the Castro all the way down to the Wharves. I recommend them as a great way to get a brief overview of districts and landmarks.
This was just a brief overview of what San Francisco’s Castro district has to offer. Though it’s not one of the more popular SF tourist destinations (see Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown), this unique community is an essential part of San Francisco’s culture. Have a great time exploring the Castro!
Where to find the Castro
Come and visit this awesome district!