Five lively San Francisco music venues for live music lovers and adventurous travelers.
I love live music. San Francisco is an amazing city for live music, but I feel like sometimes visitors and travelers get distracted by the bigger-name venues and don’t really experience what the city has to offer.
Whenever I visit a new city I try to soak in some of its live music scene and just generally see what the city has to offer, so this list should give you at least a few ideas in that vein on your next trip to San Francisco. I’ll present five music venues that I enjoy, why I enjoy them and where they’re roughly located (your phone and Google are your best friends for exact directions) for your perusal. All of these places are easily accessible by public transit, but not all of them offer good parking options. Some of these spots require an open mind and an adventurous nature, but if you’re willing to get your hands dirty and go with the flow then you’ll be well on your way to a great time.
If you’re checking out Golden Gate Park or wandering through Haight-Ashbury and find yourself with a hankering for a live show, Amoeba Music might be what you’re looking for. Located at 1855 Haight, Amoeba is a pretty big tourist destination, but don’t let that stop you. There’s a massive selection of used records here and a ton of stuff from California bands, which draws in quite a few locals as well. If you happen to be in Haight-Ashbury when Amoeba is having an in-store show, I see no reason not to spend some time there. The trademark blue décor looks great behind the stage, which is remarkably big and solid for a record store. Though you might be leaning against a rack of records while watching any number of bands or hip hop groups, I’ve found that most of the time a show at Amoeba is worth a little bit of crowding and discomfort. Shows can either be packed to the gills or only slightly crowded, but don’t expect elbow room and never expect to find a seat (it’s a record store, after all) during a performance. Shows are always free and always all ages, so Amoeba is just a pretty good place to check out live music on a casual day in Haight-Ashbury.
If you’re having a night out in the Hayes Valley/Tenderloin area and have an urge to see some bands there are quite a few options. The Rickshaw Stop, while only one of many venues in the area, is a must-see and must-experience destination for visitors to the city. Rickshaw Stop isn’t quite a small, intimate venue but it draws some acts that will make you feel like you’re packed into a tiny, sweaty club. Though some people complain about the “hipsters,” I’ve found that Rickshaw Stop is usually filled with free-spirited 20-somethings of all makes and models with a handful of teenagers and a few older people sprinkled in depending on the night. There’s really not much pretense at this place, and it has an anyone-and-anything goes kind of feel to it. If you’re the kind of person that needs to sit down for a show, make sure you show up early and grab a seat on the balcony. Drinks here aren’t the cheapest they come in the city, but it’s definitely possible to have a good time on a budget at Rickshaw Stop. If you’re open to all sorts of underground-to-somewhat-prominent rock and dance music, and if you like that small club feel (with a little more standing room), check this place out when you’re visiting the Tenderloin/Hayes Valley. Just don’t spend all of your money on skeeball—or betting on skeeball (worst $10 bet I ever made! Thanks, Jerry) and don’t climb on the rickshaws.
Situated about a mile away from Rickshaw Stop is the much smaller Hemlock Tavern. Well, the bar itself isn’t super small—it’s usually pretty easy to get a drink and find a place to sit. Since it’s a bar, you’re out of luck if you want to see a show here and you’re under 21. If you’re over 21 and get to the Hemlock early, you’ll enjoy spending time looking at the vast array of (sometimes weird) art on the walls and contending to put a song on the free jukebox (which, by the way, has an excellent selection to suit most anyone with good taste) while you eat peanuts and drink reasonably priced beers and cocktails. The stage and dance floor are separate from the bar, and you’ll find that a show at the Hemlock is the very definition of intimate. The sound is great in this generally dimly-lit subsection of the Hemlock, which dedicates itself only to underground and international acts. The Hemlock is a great place to have a drink and find some new bands. It’s also worth mentioning that the Hemlock Tavern has a heated, indoor smoking subsection as well, which is what keeps a lot of my friends coming back. No one likes to be shunned or exiled to a lonely patio for their smoking habit, so the Hemlock has the right idea. The Hemlock is cash-only, so come prepared to neglect your plastic.
It’s no secret that I spend a lot of time in the Mission. It’s my favorite part of the city, which is why I choose to live there and write about it so much. The Make-Out Room is located on 22nd (right off of Mission, convenient!), which makes it an easy stop if you’re spending any time in the Mission District. The Make-Out Room is a bar (21+) that usually has live music on Fridays and Saturdays (though Jonathan Richman played a Sunday and Monday two-night stint earlier this month, so anything is possible) and usually limits itself to 2 acts per night, so it’s pretty easy to block off a couple of hours to see some great live music there without overcommitting yourself. Some people say that the Make-Out Room isn’t great for out-of-towners, but every time I bring visitors here they enjoy it and ask to come back again. Be respectful of the locals, tip the bartenders and embrace the weird—you’ll be just fine. Soak up the disco balls, sparkles and candle-lit booths while you enjoy cheap beers, just be prepared to look at the booths rather than sit in them. On a weekend night this place is standing-room only. DJs usually set up after the bands, so if that’s your thing then you’ll be comfortable spending an entire Friday or Saturday night here. Yes, you might even see some people making out. It’s true.
This one is a little more personal for me. Amnesia is the epitome of a small venue on Valencia and 20th, and you’ll either love it like I do or immediately scramble for the door. I like this place so much that I’ll even stay on bluegrass nights despite my aversion to banjos. Amnesia has live music at least 5 nights a week, it’s dimly illuminated with red lighting and there’s hardly ever a place to sit if you get there late. It doesn’t have a full bar (though they’ve recently added some Korean-style infused vodkas that I’ve yet to try), but you’ll get your money’s worth for beer and wine. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why I love this place so much, but I’ve just seen a ton of great, soulful performances from songwriters and bands that have changed my entire prospective on what a live show can be. You’re bound to get someone else’s sweat, spit or beer on your clothes at some point during a good night at Amnesia and that’s what makes it great. Above everything else, I know that if I stop by Amnesia on the way home chances are very good that I’ll see a great band and have a memorable night. If you’re in the Mission on a visit, strongly consider checking this little place out for a live band and a couple of beers. If you try that infused vodka, let me know how it is.
Amoeba Music – http://www.amoeba.com/
Rickshaw Stop – http://www.rickshawstop.com/
Hemlock Tavern – http://hemlocktavern.com/
Make-Out Room – http://www.makeoutroom.com/
Amnesia – http://amnesiathebar.com
About The Author: Wesley McDonald is a proud San Franciscan who enjoys blogging about travel, culture, the hospitality industry and life in the city. He’s an avid traveler and music fan. He is an online publisher for San Francisco hotel experts.
Photo Credits: #1 Wesley McDonald, #2 Flickr:bcgrote, #3 Flickr:Naoystin, #4 Flickr:Kripptic