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Cap the holidays with a jaunt to San Francisco’s Union Square

The 12-foot Sugar Tree is in the Westin St. Francis lobby.
The 12-foot Sugar Tree is in the Westin St. Francis lobby. apierleoni@sacbee.com

Traditions can be comfortably well-worn or inaugural, but are always part of the emotional binder that keeps families and friends together. One such for many Sacramentans is a trip to San Francisco.

There’s still time this holiday season to head west on Interstate 80 as we did early one recent Saturday and stroll around 2.6-acre Union Square (“the heartbeat of San Francisco”) and its environs, a global destination visited by nearly 17 million tourists each year. You may have your own tradition to follow, or you can start a new one, using our day as a guide.

After parking in the labyrinthine garage of the 1.5 million-square-foot Westfield San Francisco Centre on Market Street, weave your way through knots of shoppers and pause often to inspect a wonderland of festive displays in the well-decorated Bloomingdale’s department store. Then pass by the Powell Street cable car turnaround, where it’s tempting to join the hundreds of tourists lined up for rides.

The revolving glass doors of the Westin St. Francis Hotel, christened in 1904, lead into the two structures that now constitute the hotel, the best being the original 12-story tower that whisks visitors back in time to when the hotel was a social hub for the city’s upper crust. It’s charming and dignified – sort of like Cary Grant in the 1947 Christmas movie “The Bishop’s Wife.”

In the elegant lobby during the season is the pop-up Sweet Shoppe, selling house-made gingerbread people, orange shortbread stars, macarons, cookies and hot chocolate.

Nearby is the rotating, 12-foot-tall Sugar Tree, adorned with 1,000 pieces of candy handmade from 300 pounds of “pulled and blown sugar.” The tree is elaborately ornamented with sugar ribbons, elves, Santas and more, with a train circling its base. Executive pastry chef Jean-François Houdré and his team invested more then 200 hours in the project, beginning in July.

Across from the St. Francis is Union Square plaza, a California Historical Landmark and home to Macy’s Great Tree, an annual spectacle. The mega-Christmas tree is 83 feet tall and adorned with 1,100 oversized ornaments and 33,000 twinkling lights. Tourists were taking turns having their photos taken in front of it.

Dominating the plaza is a towering Corinthian column, the Dewey Monument, erected in 1903 to honor Adm. George Dewey’s win at Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War. Topping the column is a statue of the goddess Victory. She was modeled after the alluring Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, a wealthy San Francisco socialite and philanthropist. Stand under the dramatic edifice, lean back, look up and let yourself get dizzy from all the history.

At the neighboring Holiday Ice Rink, skaters whirl and twirled. For some fortification, there are almond-anise cookies and fragrant cappuccinos at Emporio Rulli, a few steps away, where chock-full display cases tempt with Italian artisan pastries, panini and other substantial fare.

One of the hottest tickets in town is a table at the four-star Rotunda restaurant on the fourth floor of the ultra-ritzy Neiman Marcus department store. Reservations are a good idea, though sometimes you can walk in and snag a seat, if your mojo’s workin’. If you drop in unannounced, do it at 11 a.m. when it opens.

Like the other shopping destinations around Union Square, Neiman Marcus is decked out in holiday finery through December. However, it has something the others don’t – an 80-foot-tall Christmas tree whose top rises above the diners in the Rotunda. The oval-shaped rotunda itself is a remarkable dome created from more than 2,500 sections of colored glass. It’s the 1909 artwork that once graced the inside of the City of Paris department store, where Neiman Marcus now stands (the building is another California Historical Landmark).

Though the Rotunda is conjoined to the Neiman Marcus brand, it stands on its own as a lunch destination. Few restaurants have better views or more impeccable service.

We started with an amuse-bouche (“mouth amuser”) of intense chicken stock, followed by just-baked signature popovers. It was so obvious we lusted for the hollow rolls (made from egg batter and served with strawberry-infused butter) that our server sent us home with a boxful.

Next on the table were fried lobster spring rolls with sweet-hot chili dipping sauce. The crispy wonton shells were filled with lobster, glass noodles, tree ear mushrooms and bean sprouts.

As we were in San Francisco, after all, we shared a fresh-tasting Dungeness crab and prawn Louie with romaine and iceberg lettuces, boiled egg, avocado, tomato, cucumber and lush dressing. Another signature dish is the triple-decker lobster club sandwich, with pieces of succulent Maine lobster, applewood-smoked bacon, avocado, arugula and lemon aioli on thinly sliced, delicately toasted brioche.

To walk off lunch, saunter over to Winter Walk, a pop-up greenbelt occupying two blocks of Stockton Street, next to Macy’s. Look for nightly light shows, food trucks, food samplings, caroling and live music. It’s a handy place to sit for awhile, a respite from the crush of crowds and sidewalk-sideshow sights. A schedule of events is at www.winterwalksf.com.

It was getting late and time to go, but because we had a designated driver, there were no qualms about stopping for an Irish coffee at John’s Grill. The dark, wood-paneled period piece opened in 1908 and maintains the cachet of an old-school San Francisco dining house. The long second-floor dining room is an homage to writer Dashiell Hammett and the movie version of his classic mystery “The Maltese Falcon.” In that novel, Hammett mentions eating dinner at John’s. The grill’s succulent oysters Wellington once had a starring role in Gourmet magazine.

At this point, your tradition might include an overnight stay in any number of accommodations. For us, it was time to head home. The only good thing about leaving Union Square was knowing there will be another holiday season and outing.

Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.

A UNION SQUARE HOLIDAY OUTING

St. Francis Hotel, 335 Powell St., (800) 937-8461, www.westinstfrancis.com

The Rotunda, 150 Stockton St. (inside Neiman Marcus); (415) 249-2720, www.neimanmarcus.com.

Bloomingdale’s, 865 Market St.; (415) 512-6776, www.unionsquareshop.com

Holiday Ice Rink, corner of Geary and Powell, open through Jan. 19, unionsquareicerink.com

Emporio Rulli, 350 Post, (415) 433-1122; www.rulli.com

John’s Grill, 63 Ellis St., (415) 986-0069; www.johnsgrill.com

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