When you have time to visit only one bookstore in San Francisco, visit this one.
For book lovers, City Lights Books in San Francisco is a must visit.
We were limited to one night in San Francisco, and while we fully intended to try and visit multiple bookstores, our bookish afternoon in San Mateo ending up going much longer than we expected--and so did our visit to City Lights Books! (Fortunately for us, they are open late.)
I'll be clear on this one: if you're a book lover, you're going to need more than an hour here. Plan it out and set aside the time, cause you're going to want to get cozy.
I first visited City Lights about four years ago during my first work trip to San Francisco. I went by myself on a rainy night, and despite being on my own and exploring a new city, I felt at home in this place. The experience stuck with me, so I knew I had to go back.
Of course, there is great history behind City Lights and its publishing business, so that draws a lot of visitors. And while we did encounter a group of somewhat loud (and I think drunk) tourists while trying to peacefully browse books, City Lights retains its casual and inviting vibe as "a literary meeting place." The book selection remains unique and extensive, with three well-organized floors packed with shelves. Adding to its charm are the signs placed along the tops of shelves and lining staircases. My personal favorite: "All characters in bookstore are real, not fictitious."
I think my favorite spot though is the basement--you're surrounded by books at every turn, and single wooden chairs are scattered throughout, encouraging you to take a seat and really dig into that cool new book you just found. We definitely took advantage of this, and it is where we spent most of our time. Any bookstore that encourages you to sit and stay awhile instantly hits the top of my list--it's one I know I will return to again and again.
I know there are many more wonderful bookstores in San Francisco, and I fully intend to visit them on future trips, but there is something special about City Lights that will make it a stop for me every time. Be sure to add it to your list if you're headed to SF!