The Music Lover’s Guide to San Francisco

The best venues, record stores, festivals and landmarks in the City by the Bay

September 21, 2023 6:40 am
All the must-see spots for music fans in San Francisco
All the must-see spots for music fans in San Francisco
Danica Killelea

Sure, San Francisco’s music scene probably peaked in the Summer of Love in 1967 — it’s really tough to top that. But damnit if that era didn’t lay a serious foundation. And while there is still a welcome gathering of hippies holding on to the glory days on the corner of Haight & Ashbury on any given afternoon, The City has grown into one of the major bonafide music markets in the country. 

For starters, some of the most iconic concert venues in the world are in San Francisco; pretty much every touring artist stops through the Bay. If it’s crate-digging that you crave, SF has you covered with ubiquitous record stores big and small. There’s a diverse swath of music festivals catering to every point on the musical spectrum. And in keeping with the strong tradition laid down by the SF greats from that Summer of Love, there’re a number of landmarks that are worth a visit to feel the energy of what was once created there. We’ll spare you the Oakland picks, because that’s another beautiful bounty in and of itself, so for now, this is the essential San Francisco for music lovers. 

Janis Joplin and the Full Tilt Boogie band perform at the Fillmore Auditorium on January 1, 1971..
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Best Music Venues

The Fillmore

1805 Geary Blvd

How can we even begin to talk about music in San Francisco without first bringing up The Fillmore? Since legendary promoter Bill Graham first booked the hall in 1965, it has been ground zero for the pulse of rock and roll and more. From the Grateful Dead to The Doors to Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, the greats all cut their teeth there. Today, playing The Fillmore is the litmus test for artists who have achieved a certain level of success in their careers. No trip is complete without a saunter into the iconic poster room, where unique artwork from nearly 60 years of concerts are hung up on the walls. And if a show sells out, everyone gets to go home with a poster for themselves. 

The Independent

628 Divisadero St

In the thick of the Divisadero corridor, The Independent is one of the most consistent mid-sized indie music venues, with bookings of tomorrow’s legit top artists. The 500-capacity room has intimate acoustics, but plenty of breathing room.The Indy also boasts the best bartenders in San Francisco, lifers who are as much a fixture at the shows as the artists on stage. 

August Hall

420 Mason St

Opened just in 2018, August Hall is one of the newer players among SF’s illustrious concert venues. But the building comes with a distinct history of first being the Stage Door Theatre, which premiered Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in 1958 and then later swanky Downtown nightclub Ruby Skye. This final form is the one though, as August Hall features the best sitelines of any venue in the city. Watch from the floor or perched up along the railing of the second floor and the view is always killer. If you wanna feel like a VIP, the Green Room Bar upstairs is a total scene away from it all. And if you know the right strings to pull, there’s a bowling alley in the basement of the 1,000 person club too.

Chase Center

1 Warriors Way

Home to the champion Golden State Warriors, the Chase Center has quickly become the city’s premiere arena-sized concert venue since opening in 2019. It’s a state-of-the-art facility in the city’s exploding Mission Bay neighborhood, a stones throw away from Oracle Park where the SF Giants play. With a nearly 20,000 capacity, it’s become the go-to spot for premier tours from Gorillaz, Billie Eilish and Björk, to legacy stars like The Eagles, Metallica and even Phish. 

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1015 Folsom

1015 Folsom St

Beyond its ubiquitous rock and roll ties, San Francisco has a rich history on the electronic music front as well. 1015 Folsom was ground zero for trailblazing EDM parties like Spundae and important queer nightlife functions like Colossus. With its multiple rooms and levels, shows at 1015 Folsom feel like a glorious mini rave, where the only prerequisite is to release your inhibitions and soak up the beat.  

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell St

The former TV studio is a well-established concert venue that still has that endearing DIY feel to it. Perhaps the most accessible venue in the city on any given night, it’s the kind of spot you can easily roll into without knowing who’s playing and be delighted by its eclecticism. A haven for indie to punk, Rickshaw also hosts the longtime POPSCENE club which promises some of the best surging international talent, buzzy indie acts and always a tight-knit dance party.

The Chapel

777 Valencia St 

While there’s a diverse swath of bookings at The Chapel, it has become a palpable haven for the finest psychedelic rock in all of the land. Bands of the Desert Daze and Levitation ilk have made The Chapel their go-to stop in San Francisco. Adding to the sensory experience, visuals from the likes of the Mad Alchemy Liquid Light show are a staple in the vaulted ceiling music hall, a former mortuary that many believe is still haunted. 

Amoeba Music
San Francisco Chronicle via Gett

Best Record Stores

Amoeba Music

1855 Haight St

When streaming slowly started becoming the prevalent way to consume music, the Amoeba Music superstore remained steadfast in its commitment to physical tunes. First with CDs and now with vinyl, Amoeba has been at the forefront of the upswing in record sales. At the far end of Haight St, it’s the kind of place where you spend hours digging through both new and used records, books, Blu-Rays and more. If you’re lucky, you can catch an in-store performance or album signing from artists who come through the city to play concerts big and small — even Janelle Monáe stopped in this year, because Amoeba is just that essential. 

Groove Merchant

687 Haight St

Pound-for-pound, Groove Merchant might just be the best record store in America. This is where tried and true vinyl heads both replenish and downsize their collections. Madlib stopped through on his last visit to SF, because the treasure trove of international finds is unreal here. It’s also a great place to just put your head down, dig and listen to aging hipsters discuss the ebbs and flows of various musical topics. 

101 Music

1414 Grant St

Walk down the narrow stairs into the tightly packed basement of this North Beach institution and you’ll be greeted by even narrower aisles of tens of thousands of records. There’s harmony in the chaos of 101 Music, where generations of records are as organized as possible in a space that feels like an antique library. But the finds here are the real deal, especially if it’s classic jazz and soul that you’re seeking. 


1055 Valencia St

In the Mission District’s Valencia St corridor, Stranded is a small, but meticulously laid out shop with a well-curated selection of new releases and thirsty re-issues. The charm here is in the staff’s bespoke paragraph reviews on many of the records in the store. As far as the benchmark for modern-day record stores go, Stranded is it. 


3422 Mission St

By far the most unique record shop in the city, Bernal Heights fixture Thrillhouse is a punk-focused outpost. Run by volunteers and operating as a non-profit, Thrillhouse is also well known for carrying a wide selection of local bands in their bins. Simply out, there’s nothing else like it. 

Atmosphere as Lil Yachty performs during the 2023 Outside Lands festival at Golden Gate Park on August 13, 2023.
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Best Music Festivals

Outside Lands

Golden Gate Park

After Coachella, Outside Lands is the most significant major music festival on the West Coast. Taking place in Golden Gate Park’s meadows and groves, the venue is an idyllic cross-section of San Francisco’s testy, but gorgeous weather systems and landscapes. The fog tends to be just as much a part of the show as megastars like Kendrick Lamar, Lizzo and Tame Impala, who’ve all headlined the past couple of years in front of 225,000 weekend attendees. The food and drink offerings are also a stellar cross-section of the best SF local establishments. Feeling stoney? Then the one-of-a-kind canna-palooza, Grasslands area, has got you covered. 

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

Golden Gate Park

Speaking of Golden Gate Park, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass also takes place there, albeit in a slightly more compact footprint than Outside Lands. Since 2001, HSB has provided a totally free slate of programming that, as its name suggests, is about much more than just bluegrass. A gift to the city’s people from billionaire philanthropist Warren Hellman, the family friendly HSB is known for folks who set up early with folding chairs and a picnic and post up at any of the fest’s six stages for an entire day. 

Noise Pop

Various venues

Think South by Southwest, minus the conferences and panel discussion. Noise Pop festival is a true independent music icon that began in 1993. Taking place across SF’s many music venues, it’s a splendid way to jump around the city seeing favorite acts and discovering new ones in the typically four-band bills that feature dozens of local opening acts. 

Stern Grove Festival

Sigmund Stern Recreation Grove

One thing that makes San Francisco’s music festival scene so special is that it boasts multiple free non-profit fests. A departure from the weekend bonanza, Stern Grove actually takes place across 10 straight Sundays in the summer. The sweeping open-air amphitheater is built into a beautiful eucalyptus-lined hillside, and bringing in your own food and drinks for the afternoon is totally chill. Each season ends with what’s known as “The Big Picnic,” which was headlined by The Flaming Lips this past summer and both Tower of Power and Too $hort last year. You can’t beat that from free programming. 

Portola Festival

Pier 80

Coming into its second year, Portola Festival immediately became San Francisco’s premiere electronic music-focused fest. Goldenvoice’s new bash takes place in the functional shipyard of Pier 80, where stages lie beneath massive container cranes and in perhaps the biggest warehouse you’ve ever seen. In each of its two editions, the lineups have been a fairly unbelievable collection of talent, with marquee acts young and old from Fred Again.., Peggy Gou and Skrillex to Underworld, the Chemical Brothers and DJ Shadow. 

A general view of the ‘Grateful Dead House’ on March 2, 2017.
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Significant Landmarks

Grateful Dead House

710 Ashbury St

A block off of the Haight & Ashbury intersection and very much still a mystical heartbeat of the neighborhood, this is where the band — including Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and manager Danny Rifkin — lived in a commune of sorts for two years from 1966 to 1968. The three-story Victorian was the site of a famous yet innocuous drug bust in 1967, where cops found a pound of ganja and the Grateful Dead were soon at the center of protests. Today, Deadheads from all over still flock to the doorstep to take pictures, feel the vibes and burn a casual doobie. 

Vesuvio Cafe

255 Columbus (at Jack Kerouac Alley)

The noted North Beach bar along Kerouac alley was a hangout for beat poets and songwriters like Bob Dylan and Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner. While no longer a beatnik enclave, it’s nonetheless an essential SF bar, whose Bohemian essence can be felt the moment you walk through the door and are greeted by one of the many longtime bartenders. The ephemera of the city’s creative culture for the past 70+ years can also be seen all over the walls. 

Rolling Stone Magazine HQ

746 Brannan St

In 1967, Jann Werner and Ralph Gleason set up shop for the iconic music magazine in San Francisco’s South of Market area. And while you won’t see OG Editor Ben Fong-Torres reliving the glory days while kicking rocks out front, this is undoubtedly an important piece of music history. Channel your inner William Miller from Almost Famous and go for a 15-minute stroll down to 645 Third St where Rolling Stone moved to in 1970 and remained (among other offices) until moving to New York in 1975. 

Davies Symphony Hall

201 Van Ness Ave

While a city’s Symphony Hall doesn’t typically make it onto “best music venue” lists due to classical music performances that don’t necessarily scream pop culture, Davies is an especially gorgeous hall in the heart of San Francisco’s Civic Center Opera Plaza. Built in 1980, the imposing building’s auditorium has multi-tiered seating structure with both adjustable reflective panels above the orchestra and fabric banners throughout the room to tweak acoustics in incredible ways. While the programming is typically helmed by director Esa-Pekka Salonen’s orchestra, pop artists from David Byrne to Angel Olsen occasionally drop in for a performance too. 

Hyde Street Studios

245 Hyde St

Formerly known as the Wally Heider Studio from when it opened in 1969 to when the name changed in 1980, Hyde Street Studios might just be the most significant of San Francisco’s many recording palaces. In its early days, albums like Neil Young’s self-titled debut (1969), Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu (1970) and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (1977) were recorded here. It has remained hallowed ground for some of the all-time Bay Area band albums with Mazzy Star’s She Hangs Brightly (1993), Green Day’s Insomniac (1995) and Souls of Mischief’s 93 ’Til Infinity (2000) all recorded within these walls too.

Cow Palace

2600 Geneva Ave

With the corporate promoter boom of the ’00s, the Cow Palace arena has not been booked as actively as it once was. But when it was humming? Hoo-wee, what an iconic space! Everyone from Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Pat Benatar, Prince and Metallica have graced the stage in the 15,000 seat space. And everywhere you walk in the concourses and breezeways of the Cow Palace (which is technically in Daly City), the charm of its agriculturally-minded history is everywhere.

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