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The Best Places to Play in SF in 2016

City diversions for every whim, be it dancing to Bey, unleashing your dog, swimming undisturbed, or wooing a date. 

SLIDESHOW

(1 of 7)

World Adult Kickball Association

(2 of 7)

New Mission Alamo Drafthouse

(3 of 7)

Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve

(4 of 7)

826 Valencia Tenderloin Center

(5 of 7)

Children's Creativity Museum

(6 of 7)

Planet Granite

(7 of 7)

 

Read more Best of San Francisco 2016 here.

NIGHTLIFE

Rooftop Bar: El Techo de Lolinda
2518 Mission St. (near 21st St.), 415-550-6970
San Francisco rooftops are usually about as inviting at night as windy, old Candlestick Park, which may explain why a town with so many amazing vistas has so few rooftop bars. But thanks to tall, curved plexiglass screens and ample heat lamps, it’s downright balmy at El Techo. The crowd at this Latin-themed watering hole and restaurant tends toward the homogeneously well-heeled, but the panoramic views of downtown, the Mission, Potrero Hill, and the Bay Bridge—plus top-shelf caipirinhas and margaritas ($9)—make it a worthy destination.
Runner-up: Atwater Tavern

Blues Bar: The Saloon
1232 Grant Ave. (near Fresno St.), 415-989-7666
Claiming the distinction of being the oldest bar in San Francisco (its first incarnation, Wagner’s Beer Hall, opened in 1861), this spot is a total dive, but the blues bands are legit. From Monday-night regulars the Bachelors, with their virtuoso reverb-twanging guitarist Jinx Jones, to Curtis Lawson to the Powell Street Blues Band to Chris Cobb, you can always count on a slamming night off Fresno Alley. The combination of bands, a cheap cover ($5 or less), and potent drinks draws one of the most interesting crowds in the city.
Runner-up: The Boom Boom Room 

Gay Bar: The Stud
399 9th St. (at Harrison St.), 415-863-6623
The best gay bar in the city sits on an otherwise desolate stretch of SoMa, far from the touristy drag (pun intended) of the Castro. Inside you’ll find a hip crowd of twenty-something LGBTQ locals (mostly dudes) dancing and making eyes from the two bars. Most nights are themed—third Wednesdays of the month, for example, are known as ADHD, or A Danceable Homo Destination, while a recent Friday party paid homage to Beyoncé’s Lemonade album—and drag shows and karaoke nights are regular.
Runner-up: Beaux

Cocktail Bar: Hog & Rocks
3431 19th St. (at San Carlos St.), 415-550-8627
When Daniel Veliz took over as Hog & Rocks’ bar manager in December, he expanded an already strong cocktail program to highlight seasonal ingredients and hard-to-find spirits. The whiskey-focused list includes stars like the My Buddy ($13), made with white-label Evan Williams bourbon, and the Rhubarbellini ($12), which proves that even the manliest liquor—bourbon—can be turned into a sweetly refreshing pink drink. Sit at the bar and be entertained by Veliz or share a plate of oysters at a table—either way, you’ll leave with a buzz.
Runner-up: Orbit Room

Dance Bar: Monroe
473 Broadway (near Kearny St.), 415-772-9002
Monroe reaches fever pitch on Friday nights, when revelers dance through the decades—although the trendy, twenty-something crowd is more likely to twerk than do the running man. The music is cued up to the corresponding hour, starting with ’60s grooves at six o’clock, ’70s tunes at seven, and so on, until current radio hits close out the night at 2 a.m. Drink prices are scaled as well, starting at $1 and increasing by a dollar each hour.
Runner-up: Beauty Bar

Karaoke Bar: The Mint
1942 Market St. (near Buchanan St.), 415-626-4726
With a loudly supportive crowd, a huge song catalog, and a two-drink minimum, courage comes easy at the Mint. In the jovial atmosphere, you’ll never be heckled for a terrible rendition of “Purple Rain,” but you’ll likely be upstaged. Colorful lighting effects bolster performers’ razzle-dazzle, as do generously portioned Manhattans and martinis ($8).
Runner-up: Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge

Brewery: Magnolia at Smokestack
2505 3rd St. (at 22nd St.), 415-864-7468
At this beautifully repurposed industrial building, a wooden bay window separates the brewery from the bar. A majority of Magnolia’s 23 tap beers are brewed on the premises; the rest are a handful of rotating guest picks. Though the brewery is known for its British-style bitters and milds, it features varieties that span from the excellent Proving Ground IPA to stouts and porters. All but the five most popular taps change frequently. Meanwhile, Smokestack serves succulent brisket, pork, and other meaty treats by the pound.
Runner-up: Sunset Reservoir Brewing Company

Date Spot: Hi-Lo Club
1423 Polk St. (near Pine St.), hilosf.com
Yeah, you may have met on Tinder, but the vintage wooden booths (made from salvaged cable car benches) and tin ceiling here encourage some good old-fashioned wooing. It’s everything you’d want in a date-y setting: cozy seating, dim lighting, and stiff drinks. Weeknights are rarely packed, and the crowd is civilized rather than raucous. The bar serves a rotating list of $10 specialty cocktails and a hefty beer list.
Runner-up: Comstock Saloon

Happy Hour: Blackbird
2124 Market St. (near Church St.), 415-503-0630
Situated at the crossroads of the Mission, Duboce Triangle, and the Castro, this narrow, vintage-inspired bar is the ideal spot to kick off your night. The unstinting weeknight happy hour lasts a full three hours, 5 to 8 p.m., and features a post-work drink for every palate: $5 well cocktails (incorporating fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice for greyhounds), $6 whiskey sours (made with fresh-squeezed lemons), $6 to $7 glasses of wine, $1 to $2 off all draft beers, and—of course—the requisite $2 PBR, Bud, and Bud Light. Though the space gets crowded as the night wears on, 6 p.m. is the sweet spot, when the bartenders are chatty and the drinks are generously boozy.
Runner-up: Doc’s Clock

Sports Bar: Perry’s on Union Street
1944 Union St. (near Buchanan St.), 415-922-9022
This Union Street warhorse is not technically a sports bar, but that’s actually a good thing, since it avoids the usual contingent of braying bros. What it does have: a raucous crowd, ample beer, and plenty of big screens. Though the 200-seat joint gets packed, eight TVs means there are clear sight lines for all. The bar has 10 beers on tap, and the congenial bartenders mix strong cocktails. (A classier set of fans comes out on Tuesday nights, when bottles of wine are half off.) Whether the Giants, A’s, 49ers, Warriors, or Sharks win or lose, many an eardrum and liver have happily suffered here.
Runner-up: Greens Sports Bar

 

FRESH AIR

Playground: Koret Children’s Quarter
Martin Luther King Jr. Dr., Golden Gate Park, 415-861-0778
Originally touted as the nation’s first public playground when it opened in 1888, Koret Children’s Quarter was modernized in a 2007 renovation. With a dedicated baby swing set and separate play structures for toddlers and big kids—including sandboxes, spinning cups, and a low-to-the-ground zip line—children of all ages can find their niche. Newer additions, like a wave-shaped climbing wall and a 20-foot rope structure, haven’t entirely replaced time-tested favorites, though; a pair of vintage concrete slides remains one of the playground’s most popular attractions. Don’t miss the Herschell-Spillman carousel ($1 for kids, $2 for adults), handcrafted in 1914 with a menagerie of 62 classic and unusual animals.
Runner-up: Helen Diller Playground, Dolores Park

Road Race: Levi’s Presidio 10
610 Old Mason St. (at Crissy Field), Presidio10.guardsmen.org
San Francisco runners are spoiled with scenic trails and gorgeous views. But the route traced by the Presidio 10, an annual 10-mile/10K/5K charity run in April, is a standout. Departing Crissy Field, the race winds along the postcard-perfect bay, over the Golden Gate Bridge and back, and through the fragrant eucalyptus of the Presidio. Finishers are treated to free beer, Bloody Marys, hot breakfast, massage tents, and live music as they cool off by the bay. More good feels: Registration fees, which start at $35, benefit the Guardsmen, a volunteer group that helps send disadvantaged youth to camp and private school.
Runner-up: Hot Chocolate 15K/5K

Picnic Spot: North of the Palmer and Haskell Houses, Fort Mason
It may seem unlikely, but the former site of a Spanish gun battery and an American military base is now a delightful place to break your baguette and pop your vino. Three little-known picnic tables are set behind an old Civil War artillery embankment atop Fort Mason’s Black Point. (A 10-inch cannon that could fi re a 128-pound ball two miles is a reminder of the days when Union California stood guard against Confederate raiders.) The site offers gorgeous views of Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the bay, and is one of the most picturesque perches in the city.
Runner-up: The lawn northwest of the Stow Lake parking lot

Dog Park: Fort Funston
Fort Funston Rd. at Skyline Blvd.
With its golden cliffs and gorgeous beach, this 190-acre wonderland is S.F.’s unrivaled pooch paradise. And it’s going to stay that way, even with the enactment of a controversial proposed National Park Service rule change that would limit off-leash use on the uplands area to a single trail that goes down to the beach. Dog owners have good reason to be freaked out about some of the NPS’s pooch proposals, like the excessively restrictive plan for Crissy Field, but not about Funston: The crucial point is that the big-enough-for-all beach itself will remain open to unfettered Fidos.
Runner-up: Crissy Field

Pool: Bakar Fitness & Recreation Center at UCSF Mission Bay
1675 Owens St. (near 16th St.), 415-514-4545
UCSF’s rooftop pool is a superb place to put in your laps—or just flail a bit and then enjoy the panorama. The 25-yard, six-lane pool is heated to a pleasant 80 degrees, a welcome perk on chilly days. When you emerge, snag a deck chair on the Astroturf lawn and gaze out at the city skyline and the surreal vacant lots of Mission Bay. The $20 day rate grants access to the pool, gym, and sauna.
Runner-up: Mission Pool

Golf Course: Lincoln Park Golf Course
300 34th Ave. (near Clement St.), 415-221-9911
This pretense-free public course is way above par. It’s owned and managed by San Francisco Rec and Park, and the WPA-era clubhouse is decidedly not chichi. But what the 114-year-old, par-68 green lacks in elegance it makes up for with its unbeatable locale, nestled in the cypress-lined hills of Lands End. Take a few extra practice swings at hole 17, which off ers stunning, unobstructed views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Baker Beach, and the bay (one round: $25).
Runner-up: Presidio Golf Course

City Hike: Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve
Medical Center Way (at Parnassus Ave.), mntsutro.com
From afar, Sutro Tower juts out of the city’s center like some ominous, 1984-esque watchman. But at its base, you’ll find a much friendlier reality: 76 acres of lush urban forest crisscrossed with more than five miles of steep, single-track walking trails with whimsical names like Fairy Gates and Quarry Road. Though it’s tucked behind UCSF’s massive Parnassus campus, this wanderer’s paradise is relatively empty. Grab your hiking shoes and a water bottle and get lost in the center of the city—chances are you won’t see another soul.
Runner-up: Lands End

Park: Glen Canyon Park
Elk St. at Bosworth St.
Thanks to a $14 million parks bond approved by voters in 2012, construction is currently in progress to make this underappreciated wild landscape smack in the center of the city even better. The recreation center is being fully renovated and will soon feature the city’s first public indoor climbing wall. An entire wing was added to house one of two new multipurpose rooms, and a courtyard was created for additional play space. Of course, there’s still a lot of natural stuff to love, too: The park’s expanse contains 60 acres of wildflowers and hiking trails along the trickling Islais Creek. And while it will never reach the popularity of Dolores Park, therein lies its appeal: The urban secret is as unspoiled as they come.
Runner-up: Dolores Park

Rec League: World Adult Kickball Association
Multiple locations, kickball.com/sanfrancisco
If you’ve ever wanted to relive your college years (or perhaps haven’t gotten past them), welcome to WAKA, where wild costumes and beer guzzling are de rigueur. The league’s three San Francisco chapters face off at Hamilton Recreation Center and Victoria Manalo Draves Park. When you’re done collecting grass stains, there’s always a bar designated for postgame celebrations.
Runner-up: DodgeballSF

Waterfront Bar: The Ramp
855 Terry Francois Blvd. (near Mariposa St.), 415-621-2378
This salty old joint near the proposed Warriors arena is an oasis of funkiness on the edge of sterile Mission Bay. The big outdoor space, overlooking a U.S. Navy ship and some decrepit piers, is an ideal spot for day drinking. The fruit-forward cocktail menu recalls tropical locales—from the mango margarita ($11.50) to the jalapeño grapefruit martini ($11)—but there are also 14 beers on tap. On warm weekends, Brazilian bands play from 5 to 8 p.m. and the kitchen staff turns its attentions to the outdoor grill.
Runner-up: Pier 23 Cafe

Bike Rental: CityRide Bike Rentals
370B Linden St. (near Octavia St.), 415-500-2050
Rather than clunky, squeaky Bay Area Bike Share bikes, CityRide rents out snazzy Public bikes for a mere $8 an hour—and with a 20 percent discount if you reserve online. Most bikes come with a handlebar basket to store your gear, and there’s no obnoxious branding splashed across your ride. There are also hybrid and road bikes available.
Runner-up: San Francisco Bicycle Rentals

Walking Tour: Detour
Multiple locations, detour.com
Developed by Groupon founder Andrew Mason, this app uses your phone’s GPS to sync prerecorded audio tours to your location. There are a total of 10 tours, from tourist-friendly locales like the Castro and Fisherman’s Wharf to more in-depth roams through the Tenderloin and India Basin, all narrated by locals who have lived through some of the biggest moments in the city’s history. (San Francisco’s own Gary Kamiya is featured in one.) You can go back to the days of the Beats with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, relive the heyday of Haight-Ashbury with Peter Coyote, or hear about the evolution of the Castro from Cleve Jones ($25 for an unlimited subscription).
Runner-up: San Francisco Architecture Walking Tour

Bay Adventure: RocketBoat
Pier 39 (near Grant Ave.), 415-773-1188
There’s no use denying it: The RocketBoat is cheesy and touristy. It’s also a blast. When the big yellow-and-orange speedboat barrels away from its berth at Pier 39, you’re in for a careening 30 minutes of 44-knot fun on the bay, from Alcatraz and under the Bay Bridge to near the Ferry Building. Though the boat rides smoothly, the amount of water that comes aboard during one of its hard turns makes Splash Mountain feel tame.
Runner-up: City Kayak

 

DIVERSIONS

Indoor Play Place: House of Air
926 Old Mason St. (at Crissy Field), 415-345-9675
With the motto “We give flight to the flightless,” this isn’t just any old rinky-dink bounce house. Nearly 100 trampolines span 8,000 square feet, divided into sections with alluring names like the Matrix and the Double Bowl. There’s a dodgeball court (yes, that’s trampoline dodgeball), two half-pipe-like bowls, and a specialized training area with safety harnesses for learning tricks.
Runner-up: Urban Putt

Factory Tour: Anchor Brewing
1705 Mariposa St. (near Carolina St.), 415-863-8350
Let’s get right to the point: Yes, you do get to drink on this tour. During the 90-minute jaunt around the facility, friendly guides in white boilersuits explain the history of the company (it was founded by German brewer Gottlieb Brekle in 1849) and guide you through the entire production process. Your visit concludes in the wood-paneled taproom for a generous tasting of seven brews (from $15), which might include the new Mango Wheat, the Anchor Saison, and the Christmas Ale. Tours leave twice daily Monday through Thursday and three times a day Friday through Sunday; book online.
Runner-up: Dandelion Chocolate

Arcade: Free Gold Watch
1767 Waller St. (near Stanyan St.), 415-876-4444
The fact that you’ll find San Francisco’s largest pinball arcade inside an Upper Haight garage just adds to the appeal. Owner Matt Henri started his T-shirt screen-printing business there in 2006; aiming to make the shop’s long, narrow entryway more inviting, he started lining it with pinball machines five years later. Now the ancillary arcade offers 37 machines (50 cents to $1 per game), from Baywatch and the Bride of Pinbot to a limited-edition Wizard of Oz machine. Don’t let the shirt shop fool you—FGW takes pinball seriously, hosting biweekly meetings of the San Francisco Pinball Department league. Most days, just a handful of players can be found flipping, trapping, and nudging, leaving plenty of machines to go around.
Runner-up: Musée Mécanique

Movie Theater: New Mission Alamo Drafthouse
2550 Mission St. (near 21st St.), 415-549-5959
This ornate 1916 movie palace was saved from the wrecking ball and beautifully restored—it’s worth going just to marvel at its gorgeous lobby. In addition to the latest Hollywood flicks, the theater screens an impressively eclectic lineup (recently: the hallucinatory Japanese animated classic Belladonna of Sadness) and regularly hosts Litquake readings and author interviews. Best of all, you can order food and drinks in advance, which waiters will deliver to your recliner. The menu goes well beyond the butter-drenched standard, including bourbon-glazed ribs ($16), trumpet-and-oyster-mushroom pizza ($15), and craft California beers and cocktails.
Runner-up: Balboa Theatre

Art Class: Workshop SF
1798 McAllister St. (at Baker St.), 415-874-9186
Whether you want to make your own candles, learn how to screen print, or brush up on your embroidery skills, Workshop SF has a class for you. DIY skills are taught by local designers and artists, and classes are kept small (exact numbers vary by class) to ensure personalized attention. There are also one-off courses (from $46) in social lessons like beer making, as well as ongoing series for dedicated students. Necessary supplies are always provided (plus they let you BYOB), so all you have to do is show up and be ready to learn.
Runner-up: First Amendment

Climbing Gym: Planet Granite
924 Old Mason St. (at Crissy Field), 415-692-3434
With 25,000 square feet of climbing terrain and walls that reach 45 feet, this is the largest climbing gym in the city. There are classes catering to every skill set, starting with introductory belay lessons offered seven days a week. The entire facility overlooks Crissy Field and the bay, so you can scale an imaginary bridge tower while staring at the real thing ($20 day pass; $180 10-session pass).
Runner-up: Mission Cliffs

Private Club: The Elks Lodge No. 3
450 Post St. (near Powell St.), 3rd Fl., 415-421-1404
Think the Elks are a bunch of Mitt Romney clones determined to re-create the ambience of 1954 Des Moines? Think again. This venerable club, which owns a building steps from Union Square, is still a bit on the old and male side (Exalted Ruler Todd Moreno says the membership, which is 17 percent women, has an average age of 54), but it’s a culturally diverse mix that spans from bartenders to history buffs, bookstore owners to underground artists. They all mingle in a funky but elegant wood-paneled room with a piano where it’s happy-hour prices all the time: $4 to $5 beers and $7 wine and cocktails. There’s a gym, a pool, and steam baths. Memberships are just $17 a month ($40 more for the spa), plus a $300 initiation fee. Elk yeah!
Runner-up: Bayview Boat Club

Bowling Alley: Presidio Bowling Center
Moraga Ave. at Montgomery St., 415-561-2695
Despite a slightly run-down feel and the original 1980s decor, Presidio Bowl has upped its technology game to suit the times. An Internet jukebox lets you blast any song you want, and you can sync it to your phone to listen to your own playlists. Lanes can be reserved in advance online (recommended on the weekends; from $28 an hour), and there are touchscreen graphics that flash your picture when it’s your turn. When you’re done throwing strikes, kids can play video games or pinball in the arcade while adults belly up to the full bar.
Runner-up: Mission Bowling Club 

Cooking Class: 18 Reasons
3674 18th St. (near Dolores St.), 415-568-2710
Whether you’re looking to sharpen your knife skills, expand your wine palate, or share a community dinner, Bi-Rite’s nonprofit cooking classroom offers classes nearly every night of the week. The organization’s renowned teachers, like Hodo Soy tofu master Minh Tsai and James Beard Award–winning cookbook author Janet Fletcher, make exceptional guides. Try a one-off class, like Punjabi Pop-up ($55), Italian Umami ($105), or Big Food on a Small Budget ($65), or invest in a longer series like the 10-session farm school, which includes five lectures and five trips to Bi-Rite’s Sonoma farm ($500). Proceeds from classes go to Cooking Matters, a six-week cooking and nutrition series offered free to low-income residents.
Runner-up: San Francisco Cooking School

Dance Class: Popstar Booty Camp
Multiple Locations, 415-608-8484, popstarbootycamp.com
We’ve all wished we could be Beyoncé. Thanks to local dance teacher Carol Johnstone, dozens of city dwellers channel their inner diva each week, performing choreographed routines to tunes like Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” Lady Gaga’s “Telephone,” and Rihanna’s “Work.” Flywheel this is not: Johnstone’s workouts are designed to be fun and stress-free. Each six-week session (from $100) ends with a live costumed performance at Balançoire, where you can unleash your ultimate Sasha Fierce.
Runner-up: Alonzo King Lines

Comedy Show: Secret Improv Society
Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter St. (near Powell St.), 415-692-1570
Finally, a comedy show devoid of overpriced drink minimums and never-ending opening acts. Since 2008, a regular troupe of trained improvisers has been putting on this beloved late-night comedy show ($17 online; $20 at the door) based largely on on-the-spot audience suggestions. Be careful with your preshow texts (and sexts): Improv artists occasionally take audience members’ phones (with full permission, of course) and perform their text messages out loud as a dialogue. The intimate space seats around 65, so it feels more like hanging out in your living room with friends than cringing through a floundering stand-up routine. There’s a full bar but no drink requirement, and free Oreos are handed out at every show.
Runner-up: Punch Line

Storytelling Show: Mortified
DNA Lounge, 375 11th St. (near Harrison St.), 415-626-1409, getmortified.com
Mortified’s slogan—“share the shame”—is no joke. The stories  that these now-adults read from their teenage diaries will catapult you into the most cringe-worthy years of adolescence. Thankfully, they’ll also make you laugh really hard. From the girl who dedicated her diary to the drummer from Def Leppard to the gay teen who took shoplifting inspiration from his aunt Liza (Minnelli), these stories are full of hilarious moments, relatable slights, and, eventually, adult redemption ($14 online; $21 at the door).
Runner-up: Pop-Up Magazine

 

CULTURE FIX

Cultural Niche: The Prelinger Library
301 8th St. (near Folsom St.), Rm. 215, prelingerlibrary.org
Archivist Rick Prelinger and his wife, Megan, are known as collectors of found films and other fascinating cultural ephemera. This weird and wonderful non-lending library (open Wednesdays, 1–8 p.m.) in a nondescript SoMa building reflects the pair’s eclectic tastes. The racks contain over 60,000 printed treasures, including sections for the environment, progressive politics, urban issues, geography, children’s books, and U.S. history. Bibliophiles can revel in the library’s creative catalog system: In one row, books on California are arranged on the left side of the bookcase, while New York references are shelved on the far right.
Runner-up: Mechanics’ Institute Library and Chess Room

After-School Hangout: 826 Valencia Tenderloin Center
180 Golden Gate Ave. (at Leavenworth St.), 415-642-5905
With a two-story indoor tree house and shelves laden with treasures like Unicorn Horn Polish and Giant Squid Ink pens, the new Tenderloin outpost of 826 Valencia attracts wide-eyed kids and grown-ups alike. In front, you’ll find King Carl’s Emporium, a trinket-filled “adventure” shop named after the center’s blowfish mascot; in back, there’s nearly 5,000 square feet of writing and tutoring space for local kids. All programs are free, giving every kid the chance to uncover buried treasure.
Runner-up: Excelsior Science Workshop

Free Concert: Stern Grove Festival
Sloat Blvd. at 19th Ave., 415-252-6252
It may be free, but this 79-year-old music fest (Sundays through Aug. 21, 2 p.m.) sets a high bar, featuring A-listers like Rufus Wainwright, Janelle Monáe, and the New Pornographers. Set among the eucalyptus trees, the annual series has become synonymous with San Francisco summer, as well as the inevitably chilly weather that often accompanies it. Outside food and drink are welcome, so unfurl your picnic blanket and bust out the wine and cheese.
Runner-up: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 

Photo Gallery: Pritzker Center for Photography at SFMOMA
151 3rd St. (at Minna St.), 415-357-4000
Photography has always been one of SFMOMA’s strengths, and the stunning new 15,000-square-foot Pritzker Center, the largest museum space dedicated to photography in the country, takes its collection to a new level. One of the opening exhibitions, California and the West, features works by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Larry Sultan, Dorothea Lange, and other masters of the lens and reveals the inextricable connection between photography and the Golden State’s landscape. There’s also a hands-on interpretive gallery.
Runner-up: Pier 24 Photography 

Dance Company: San Francisco Ballet
301 Van Ness Ave. (at Grove St.), 415-865-2000
In a city where modern dance is king (read: Alonzo King), S.F. Ballet continues to prove that classical can be cool with hit performances like Swimmer, a ballet set in 1960s America with music by Tom Waits, and Frankenstein, which celebrates its North American debut in February. At the helm for more than 30 years, artistic director Helgi Tómasson has transformed America’s oldest professional ballet company into a world-renowned destination that showcases both traditional productions and newer works. Tómasson even commissions his own dancers, including Myles Thatcher, to choreograph for the company.
Runner-up: ODC Dance Company

Film Festival: San Francisco International Film Festival
Multiple locations, sffs.org
There are more than 60 film festivals in the city, but the granddaddy of them all is the San Francisco International Film Festival, the longest-running film fest in the Americas. Under the leadership of executive director Noah Cowan and director of programming Rachel Rosen, its schedule invariably features a strong list of foreign films you can’t see anywhere else in this country—the 2016 lineup featured work from Iran, Turkey, Hong Kong, and more—as well as first-rate documentaries, world premieres, and strong art-house offerings like this year’s moving Indignation, directed by veteran producer and screenwriter James Schamus. The lineup of venues, which now includes the Alamo Drafthouse and the Victoria Theatre, has contributed to the rise of a lower Mission district arts hub.
Runner-up: Noir City Film Festival

Kids’ Museum (ages 3–7): Children’s Creativity Museum
221 4th St. (at Howard St.), 415-820-3320
Any parent (or nanny) knows that cordoned-off play places can be taxing. Not so at Children’s Creativity, where kids can roam in and out of themed areas like the Imagination Lab, where educational toys are scattered among a set of life-size building blocks; the Animation Studio, where tots make their own Claymation videos; and the Innovation Lab, where local software designers are known to test out their apps. Unlike more touristy museums, Children’s Creativity rarely gets crowded, so there’s plenty of space to play ($12).
Runner-up: Randall Museum

Kids’ Museum (ages 7+): The Exploratorium
Pier 15 (at the Embarcadero), 415-528-4444
A great kids’ museum shouldn’t just be educational; it has to be fun for grown-ups, too. The Exploratorium is the ultimate play zone, with over 600 exhibits that test the boundaries of physics, chemistry, and biology. Hands-on activities provide a variety of possibilities, like Toy Take Apart, where kids can bring in their old toys and dissect them into pieces. Rotating exhibits—such as Theo Jansen’s Strandbeest sculptures, on display through September 5—ensure that things never get boring, no matter how often you visit.
Runner-up: California Academy of Sciences  

Concert Venue: The Independent
628 Divisadero St. (near Hayes St.), 415-771-1421
It’s a rare venue that hosts acts as varied as the folksy Joe Purdy one week and rapper Vince Staples the next. But the Independent is no ordinary concert hall. Tickets rarely exceed $25 a pop, capacity is limited to 500, and there’s free seating available for those who turn up early enough. And thanks to its high ceilings, the space rarely feels crowded, even during sold-out shows. Booking is run by Another Planet Entertainment—the team behind Outside Lands, Treasure Island Music Festival, and Life Is Beautiful—which means you have just as good a chance of seeing well-known acts (like CeeLo Green, playing July 21) as you do up-and-coming stars.
Runner-up: The Fillmore

 

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco

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