San Francisco – Castro Street Fair & Artspan Open Studios

We did a lot of homework when last we visited San Francisco. Our goal was to spend a little over 3 weeks exploring Artspan, which is the largest open art studios event in the US and spreads throughout the districts of San Francisco with a concentration of co-ops in the Mission and SoMa areas. We wanted to be based in an area that was handy to downtown but far enough away to afford a little chill. Castro seemed a perfect fit but outside of a basic appreciate for the life and times of Harvey Milk, we knew very little about the area and despite all of our research we somehow missed that our visit would coincide with the Castro Street Fair. This one Sunday of celebration, love and laughter turned out to be as much fun as 3 weeks of open studios… ahh the things straight people miss hey.

San Francisco

San Francisco is only just behind New York on a our favourite cities to visit in the US. We love it. The architecture and geography is wonderful, you can get lost in the streets and districts day after day and continue to make new discoveries. We have a bit of an aversion to the mainstream. Chugging out to Alcatraz or strolling Pier 39 holds little interest for us. We’d rather be riding buses to the end of the line, admiring Mission’s street art or woofing down a chimichanga in Castro. Ok, maybe the Golden Gate or a trolley ride might sneak in there but the point is we wanted to see the cultural side of San Francisco through it’s art and diversity.


Castro is no more picturesque than a dozen other SF areas. However, San Francisco does have high standards and with Castro’s colourful history, comprehensive selection of cafes and eateries and being just a 10 minute trolley ride along Market Street to downtown, it makes for a solid base to explore. On top of all that it is easy access along 18th Street to Mission and SoMa without necessarily having to head too deep into the city and you’re a couple of minutes over the hill to lovely Noe Valley.

Perry has always been fascinated by Harvey Milk and I suppose it has rubbed off on me. It’s an intriguing part of the cities history not least for the tragic and somewhat bizarre events that surrounded his death; a reflection of the discrimination and harrowing times that this community faced during the 80’s. Have a look at Rob Epstein’s award winning documentary and also the Gus Van Sant’s film “Milk”, if you fancy a little enlightening.

Castro Street Fair

On a lovely Saturday morning we left our Airbnb apartment and wandered down the road to a very pleasant surprise, the Castro Street Fair was in full swing. It’s a wonderful celebration of pride, joy and acceptance which was started by the late Harvey Milk and this year marks its 45th anniversary (Sunday, October 7, 2018). Market stalls, dancing and cheer leaders fill Castro Street from Market Street down and into 18th. The best way I can describe it is that of a feeling of warmth toward each other, as a couple of straight foreigners we never for one moment felt unwelcome, people enjoying each others company regardless of who you were… bring a smile and you’re in. Just wandering the streets back and fourth from our rental was a fabulous way to immerse yourself in the mood of the celebration as many locals have garage sales in the surrounding streets (a gay man selling off his immaculate wardrobe is worth a browse ?).


Just below the SoMa district is Mission. Named after the Alta California mission (San Francisco’s oldest standing building) Mission was traditionally an area mostly of Mexican immigrants but has seen many communities come and go and now with the gentrification of anywhere remotely close to downtown it continues to evolve into a prized piece of San Francisco real estate. We came across Mission really by accident as we explored the Artspan Open Studios event. It’s home to several large art co-ops and is an area well worth a visit purely for the street art and cafe scene. For a little more detail, here’s a great article we found that might help push you over the edge.

Artspan – San Francisco Open Studios

The Artspan event is a terrific way to explore San Francisco and gain an insight and authentic connection with another of San Francisco’s important communities. The once run down areas South of Market Street (SoMa) have sprung back to life since the turn of the century and are made all the more interesting by the presence of hundreds of art co-ops that via for the remaining spaces that aren’t spoken for by developers.

Artspan – San Francisco Open Studios is the oldest and largest open art studios program in the US. It runs annually throughout the weekends of October and showcases over 800 emerging and established San Francisco artists in their studios. The list of studios and spaces is huge, from painters, photographers, sculptors it’s all there. The thing we really enjoyed was arriving at a little known area (to us) and stepping inside beautiful old warehouses, having no idea what was to come. The San Francisco Open Studios event is free for visitors and endless if you have the stamina. We covered an insane number of studios, saw many inspiring studios and initiatives and ticked off quite few “firsts”, by far the best city experience we have had… this is where I plead for you to change that ticket to October!

Getting around San Francisco

San Francisco is fairly compact unlike many US cities so if you consider the hassle of parking I’d be ditching the idea of renting a car and going with a Muni Mobile Pass, it’s a paperless system that comes in 1,3 and 7 days and will get you to and from the airport, unlimited rides on the bus, rail and cable car – a 3 day pass will run at US$33. Just show your ticket via your mobile device to the fare inspector. You can mix this up comfortably on foot or with Uber.
San Francisco Castro Street Fair

If you fancy driving around town or perhaps fitting in a few day trips check below for some car rental rates.

Where to Stay in San Francisco

As I mentioned, we chose Castro as it was central to where we wanted to explore, it’s also a straight run on the bus through Lower Haight and over Anza Vista across to the bay if you want to visit the Presidio to enjoy the bridge and the bay. We use Airbnb whenever the opportunity pops up and the apartment we got in Castro was fantastic. We run our own place in Port Douglas so know the system pretty well and for us it’s the most user-friendly of the private holiday rental apps. If you are planning to stay for longer than 2 nights, click here to set up an Airbnb account, it can be a roll of the dice in terms of what you get but you’ll likely get way more bang for your buck.

If you’re more comfortable (get it๐Ÿ˜‰) going with hotels, below is an accomodation banner for you to check out some hotel options through Agoda or use the Hotels Combined search engine, which is preset to search the San Francisco area.

San Francisco Publications you might find helpful

Map of San Francisco - Castro, Mission & SoMa