Long considered the West Coast capital of art and culture, San Francisco is known for its performing arts scene. The city is home to a world-famous orchestra, opera, film festival, theatre and ballet, but the cultural offerings don't end there. You'll find cutting-edge dance, comedy and music at venues throughout San Francisco and the Bay Area.

American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Image by John Martinez Pavliga / CC BY 2.0

Theatre and dance

Before winning Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize, Angels in America got its wings in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater. Other noted playwrights have premiered at the nonprofit Intersection for the Arts, including Pulitzer Prize–winner Junot Díaz, National Book Award–winner Denis Johnson and American Book Award–winning poet Jessica Hagedorn.

For al fresco entertainment, the California Shakespeare Theater in Berkeley is a fantastic warm-weather tradition of Shakespeare (and other classic) productions, with a season that lasts from about June through September. Check out Theatre Bay Area (theatrebayarea.org) for a comprehensive calendar of theatre companies.

San Francisco also supports America’s longest-running professional dance company, the San Francisco Ballet (sfballet.org), at the grand War Memorial Opera House. It premiered The Nutcracker on Christmas Eve 1944, creating a worldwide holiday tradition.

Multiple independent troupes perform at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; while experimental styles are championed at Oberlin Dance Collective, Kunst Stoff and Root Division. Dancers’ Group (dancersgroup.org), San Francisco’s primary dance service organization, keeps a comprehensive calendar of events.

Movies and film festivals  

The Castro. Image by Helder Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 2.0

Cinemaniacs adore San Francisco's vintage movie palaces, including the Castro, where the crowd sings along to the Wurlitzer anthem that starts every show; the Roxie, a nonprofit cinema with major international clout for showing indie films and documentaries banned elsewhere; and Balboa Theatre, an art-deco cinema offering first-run films and family-friendly matinees.

Cinema-going at its best, the Sundance Kabuki Cinema features big-name flicks and festivals. Every spring, this multiplex initiative by Robert Redford's Sundance Institute hosts the annual San Francisco International Film Festival – the nation’s oldest film festival – with 325 films, 200 directors and star-studded premieres.

The city also hosts LGBT, Jewish and Arab Film Festivals, while summers bring free movie nights at Dolores Park in the Mission district.

Further afield, Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive is a world-renowned film center with an ever-changing schedule of international and classic films; Oakland’s art deco Paramount Theatre shows classic movies a few times a month; and San Jose’s stunning California Theatre is a landmark venue for the city’s annual film festival, Cinequest (cinequest.org), held in late February or early March.

Comedy and spoken word

For laughs, try campy Beach Blanket Babylon, the historic Cobb’s Comedy Club or Punch Line, known for launching talent like Robin Williams, Ellen DeGeneres and Chris Rock. The eclectic solo acts and monologues at Marsh in the Mission – and in Berkeley – often involve the audience in the creative process; or you can get onstage with BATS Improv comedy workshops. During the summer, the San Francisco Mime Troupe (sfmt.org) performs free political-comedy satire in Dolores Park.

Cobb's Comedy Club ticket. Image by Rick Audet / CC BY 2.0

Literary types should check out the city’s annual Litquake (litquake.org), with authors leading lunchtime story sessions and spilling trade secrets over drinks at the signature Lit Crawl. San Francisco's Main Library hosts an excellent high-profile author-reading and lecture series, and authors who swing through town on tours make Booksmith a literary destination; while Hemlock Tavern and Edinburgh Castle in the tenderloin are liquid literary legends.

Live music

SF Jazz Center Afro & Cuban Night. Image by Jun Seita / CC BY 2.0

The Grammy-winning San Francisco Symphony (sfsymphony.org), led by celebrity conductor and musical director Michael Tilson Thomas, sets the tempo for modern classical, with guests like Jessye Norman, Metallica and Rufus Wainwright.

The nearby San Francisco Opera (sfopera.com) may have originated in the 19th century, but its works are far from traditional, with avant-garde productions like Dangerous Liaisons, Harvey Milk and Dead Man Walking.

Unlike the more rarefied classical arts, jazz and blues regularly pop up in bars and clubs across town. For gritty New Orleans–style blues, it's hard to beat the Boom Boom Room, owned by celeb musician John Lee Hooker. Oakland’s decade-old Café Van Kleef features live blues, jazz and the occasional rock band in a quirky and evocative setting.

The new star on the jazz scene is the SF Jazz Center, which opened in early 2013. The first theatre of its kind in the US, it is entirely devoted to live jazz performance, with an intimate purpose-built theatre designed to put you close to the stage. There's not a bad seat in the house.

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