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Historic movie theaters of San Francisco


It’s that buttery aroma of popcorn, the slurping of half-melted Icees, those quintessential carpeted seats that bring back instant recollections of nights spent spellbound under the big screen. Apart from choosing between the new Marvel movie or Meryl Streep’s next Oscar-nominated performance, there is another choice to make when deciding to go out to the movies. The venue where you watch a movie can have a profound effect on your perceptions on a film. Out of the Bay Area’s many art cinemas and movie theaters, there are a few movie venues that present an especially unique viewing experience. The following list presents the perfect outings for a special occasion, a movie experience that is slightly elevated and incredibly memorable.


The Alamo

Price: $$

Food: $$

The Alamo in San Francisco is the perfect mesh of the classic and the modern. The theater, located on Mission Street in San Francisco, welcomes moviegoers with a classic red-carpeted and gold-clad interior. However, the Alamo adds its own special twists to traditional movie venues. There are touchscreen ticket machines and old-school arcade games. Stepping into the theater, you are greeted by a enormous collection of DVDs that are stacked in the middle of a long aisle leading to the ticket counter. The collection is for sale and contains every movie you could probably think of. Next to the DVDs, classic arcade games like Pac-Man and space invaders add to the retro feel. Elevating this already incredible ambiance, the Alamo’s movie theater contains separated luxury seating and a full menu of food options that can be bought during the movie. For those over 21, the Alamo has a wide variety of alcoholic drink options, as well as equally appealing non-alcoholic milkshakes and Italian sodas that can be brought straight to your table during the film.


The Stanford Theater

Price: $

Food: $

The Stanford Theater is a time capsule into a different era. Come here for cheap popcorn and classic black-and-white movies, as well as their Hitchcock Festival and Christmas showing of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Stepping into the theater, you are instantly transported into a bygone era. Elegant red carpeting and gold accented pillars add to the air of romanticism and nostalgia that the venue tries to foster. At every movie, there is wonderful pre-show. A Wurlitzer Organ in front of the elegant red stage curtains adds to the authenticity of the experience. Established in 1925, the Stanford Theater is a non-profit run by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. According to the theater’s website, after renovations in 1987, the Stanford Theatre quickly became America’s most popular place to watch classic Hollywood movies. More people saw “Casablanca” here on its 50th anniversary in 1992 than anywhere else in America. With $3 popcorn and classic films showing every week, it’s a movie experience you can’t miss.


Landmark Guild Theater

Price: $$

Food: $$$

Landmark Guild Theater is a small venue located in downtown Menlo Park. It’s a bit rundown and always seems to be on the brink of closing, but the incredibly loving staff and special events make it worth the visit. Its small interior creates an intimate and homey experience. The Guild was established in 1926, and is a well-loved landmark for the Menlo Park community. What makes it a true hidden gem, however, is the monthly midnight showing of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” complete with live actors from The Bay Area’s Bawdy Caste. The event offers a unique and thrilling experience for newcomers and old fans alike. Come to the Guild for an intimate setting and a wild night of “time warping,” fishnet tights and virgins, but maybe skip the $20 popcorn.


Landmark Aquarius Theater

Price: $$

Food: $$$

Landmark Aquarius Theater is the perfect small venue if you want a more elegant yet intimate movie going experience. The sleek modern interior of the small theater is complemented by its gourmet selection of gelatos and lime pellegrino bottles. Aquarius’s plush and comfortable seating adds to the comfort of moviegoers experience. Come here to devour raspberry sorbet and watch the latest in all independent cinema.


The Castro Theater

Price: $$

Food: $$

Finally, no list would be complete without a mention of the iconic Castro Theater, located in the heart of the Castro district and a San Francisco landmark since the 1920s. The theater’s grandiose facade, with great arched windows and ornate niches, mirrors its extravagant interiors, clad in gold lined wood. When entering, take time to look up at the Castro Theater’s beautiful ceiling. Cast in plaster, it’s made to look like a tent, complete with swags, ropes and tassel. True to its vintage setting, the Castro shows a variety of old movies, but it also screens current indies. It features extremely fun singalongs once a month to movies like “Moana,” “Frozen” or “The Sound of Music.” However, there is more to this old theater than its beautiful architecture and singalongs. In the late 1970s, the Castro became a leader in a countercultural revolution, becoming a central space for the San Fransico LGBTQ community. According to the theater website, in 2008, the theater held the world premiere of “Milk,” the Oscar-winning biopic of late SF Supervisor Harvey Milk directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Sean Penn. It continues to show LGBTQ-themed films year round.


Contact Emilia Diaz-Magaloni at emilia2 ‘at’

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