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7 Things To Do When Visiting the Castro, San Francisco

October 9, 2020
Castro Theatre in San Francisco

Among the many neighborhoods in San Francisco, the Castro is one of the most famous. You’ll find it in Eureka Valley, overlooked by the Twin Peaks’ Eureka Peak and sandwiched between the trendy Haight-Ashbury neighborhood (of Painted Ladies fame) and the multicultural Mission District.

While it’s not the San Francisco tourist destination Fisherman’s Wharf is, this area of San Francisco is increasingly finding a top spot on travelers’ itineraries.

The neighborhood has a lot to offer — a great nightlife scene, Instagram-worthy murals, a vibrant LGBTQ community, and rich history.

Planning to visit? Here are seven things you must do when visiting the Castro.

1. Admire San Francisco’s historic movie palace, the Castro Theatre

Visiting the Castro? Take a walk by the Castro Theatre.

This movie theatre has been officially designated a San Francisco Historic Landmark, and the neon sign outside bearing the name of the theatre has become a symbol of the neighborhood.

The theater has charmed crowds since its opening in 1922, partly due to its baroque façade and opulent interior, which features an art deco chandelier. It’s worth a stop even if you don’t plan to see a show.

The Castro Theatre is currently the city’s single screen movie palace. In 2008, it famously hosted the world premiere of “Milk”, the biopic about Harvey Milk (more on him below). In addition to hosting several movie premieres and film festivals throughout the year, the theater still screens an eclectic selection of films from new releases to classics and even fun sing-alongs.

2. Explore LGBTQ history

Cable Car in the Castro District

If you want to learn more about LGBTQ history in San Francisco, The Castro is the pace to do it.

San Francisco had a reputation as early as the 1940s as a city of tolerance. Many members of the LGTBQ community, including dishonorably discharged veterans, moved here after World War II, and several ended up settling in the Castro District thanks to its affordability at the time.

Civil rights activist Harvey Milk, who owned a camera store in the Castro, he ran his electoral campaign here before becoming the first openly gay elected official in California. The success story has a sad ending, though — he was assassinated shortly after his election. You can visit the location of his camera store and his former home, now the Human Rights Campaign Action Center, operating as a small museum and gift shop.

Fun fact: The plaza at the Castro Street MUNI Station is named Harvey Milk Plaza in honor of the famous activist, and a rainbow flag flies at the center.

There are other LGBTQ landmarks throughout the Castro. Two of my favorites are the rainbow-striped crosswalks and the Rainbow Walk. They’re not the same thing. The Rainbow Walk covers a few blocks in the Castro and features more than 30 plaques as a walk of fame for LGBTQ rights pioneers.

Another spot you shouldn’t miss is Pink Triangle Park, which commemorates the thousands of gay men persecuted in Nazi camps during World War II.

Go with a local to guide, and you’ll see these must-see spots and more. Our Ultimate LGBTQ Castro District Walking Tour gives you an inside look at this queer, colorful neighborhood in San Francisco.

3. Slide down Seward Street Slides

One of the most unusual parks in San Francisco — and that’s saying a lot — this free outdoor venue features steep concrete slides in a green and flower-filled setting. Designed by a local teenage girl, the slides were built in 1973 after the neighborhood fought against the redevelopment of the land.

Sometimes called a hidden gem, Seward Street Slides is no secret to locals, and you’ll find quite a few here on weekends. It’s popular with kids and adults — no age limit here.

Bring a piece of cardboard to ride on, or look for discarded pieces there. You’ll need one for the slide down.

4. Eat and drink your way through the Castro, dawn to dusk

Twin Peaks in the Castro District

There are plenty of great restaurants, bars, and coffee shops in this vibrant neighborhood. The old-school Anchor Oyster Bar has been serving fresh oysters and clam chowders for more than 40 years. Frances offers a more upscale experience that still oozes neighborly charm.

There are some notable LGBTQ spots, too, including one of the first openly gay bars in the country, Twin Peaks, and San Francisco’s only gay sports bar, Hi Tops.

After a night of hitting the town, you can refuel at Hot Cookie, where you can fill up on freshly baked cookies until 2 a.m. on weekends. The next morning, perk up with some java at specialty coffee shop, Réveille Coffee, which started out as a truck in San Francisco.

5. Take (lots of) photos of the amazing street art

Much of San Francisco is home to great street murals, and The Castro is no exception.

The street art in the Castro District is unique in that it much of it touches on queer culture, either through its topic or its creator. In fact, the neighborhood has seen a renaissance of queer art lately.

Street art by nature is always changing, but you can check the website of the Juanita MORE! Pride Mural Project to see the latest art installations around the city, including in The Castro.

Insider tip: I recommend mural-lovers check 16th Street, near the Market Street intersection.

The former location of Harvey Milk’s Castro Camera store is also home to a Harvey Milk mural.

6. Hit the shops on Castro Street

The small shops on Castro Street offer quite the shopping selection. Because of the neighborhood’s population, the area is a particularly good destination to shop for men’s fashion. Two of the best are the upscale consignment shop, Sui Generis, and a local favorite, Knobs.

If you’re looking for a unique souvenir, try Local Take, a boutique shop that showcases local artists. Or go a little fancier with perfumes at ZGO.

If you want to see where the locals shop, check out Cliff’s Variety, which has been serving the neighborhood for 84 years. As the name implies, Cliff’s Variety sells anything you could imagine from housewares to costumes.

7. Visit a festival

Castro Theatre at night

The neighborhood hosts a number of eclectic festivals throughout the year, many of them related to queer culture, plus a number of film festivals thanks to the Castro Theatre. Be sure to check local calendars before you visit to see what’s going on.

Here are some of the best festivals in the Castro to keep in mind when you’re planning your trip:

  • Castro Street Fair: Founded in 1974 by Harvey Milk, the beloved street fair brings the neighborhood to life with local businesses setting up booths on the street alongside live entertainment, drag queens, and more.
  • The National Queer Arts Festival: This multi-week showcase of queer performances and art takes place every summer from May to July. It overlaps with Pride Week, which, as you might have guessed, is a pretty big deal here.
  • San Francisco International Film Festival: The longest-running festival of its kind on the continent, SFFILM Festival is usually held over two weeks in the spring and showcases 200 films from 50 countries.
  • San Francisco Film Noir Festival: Also known as Noir City, this wintertime event features classic American noir films at the historic Castro Theatre.

The Castro: SF neighborhood for history, art, and more

Castro Rainbow Flag

With its central location, the Castro is easy to add to a trip to San Francisco. Just 2-3 miles west, you have must-visit spots like Golden Gate Park, and on the east lies the beautiful Mission District.

We truly love the Castro District, which you’ll understand when you take our Castro walking tour. It’s the art, the LGBTQ culture, the vibrance and special brand of flair you’ll only find here. You have to visit to experience it.

Looking for more to do in the city? Check out our San Francisco tours for more inspiration.