Arguably the birthplace of liberal America, San Francisco has long been known for its counterculture, with this being the inception of hippie culture at infamous Haight-Ashbury. Before then it was a haunt for the writers and poets of the 1950s Bear Generation – or ‘beatniks’ – and even further in the past significant immigration of Chinese seeking their fortunes, gave rise to one of the most important Chinatowns in the world.
San Francisco sure is cocktail of different cultures and ethnicities, booming from small ex-Mexican settlement to full-fledged town thanks to the mid-19th century California Gold Rush.
San Francisco’s top neighborhoods
1. North Beach · 2. Chinatown · 3. Union Square · 4. Fisherman’s Wharf · 5. Russian Hill · 6. Nob Hill · 7. The Marina · 8. Financial District · 9. The Castro · 10. Mission District · 11. South of Market · 12. Civic Center-Tenderloin
Today the city of San Francisco is definitely an exciting place to visit, home to endless streets of cuisine and independent stores, leftfield art and internationally recognized tourists destinations. It’s here where you’ll find locals that range from the bohemian to the hipster, from the homeless to multi-millionaires, the population of a diverse and vibrant yet laid-back city that is rewarding in any of its must-visit areas, which take in chilled coastal areas as much as historic small lanes inland. We’ve listed some of our favorite neighborhoods below to make it easier to decide where to stay in San Francisco.
See also: San Francisco Hotel Deals
When it comes to diversity, this melting pot of an area is probably the most diverse in San Francisco. The heart of Little Italy is in North Beach, where it borders and mixes with Chinatown – Washington Square Park, with the Saints Peter And Paul Church on one side is the community center for local Italians, and is also used by older Chinese for tai chi every morning. It’s a true mix of cultures here, and staying here means rubbing shoulders with locals.
For the hungry, there are a lot of Italian eateries in the area, from little cafes to full blown restaurants. One of these is Caffe Trieste, the most famous in San Francisco; previous frequenters of this cafe include Alan Watts, Vincent Price, Beat Generation writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and Francis Ford Coppola – he wrote much of the screenplay for The Godfather whilst sat right in this spot. For more beatnik action check out City Lights Bookstore, a beat hangout, on Columbus Ave.
Whilst many cities in the world feature a Chinatown, this one in San Francisco is particularly worthy of mention: it is not only the biggest Chinatown in all of North America, but also the biggest single Chinese enclave outside of Asia. Established in 1848, this is in fact one of four Chinatowns located in the city, though this is by far the most famous: it attracts more tourists annually than the Golden Gate Bridge. Though having seen difficult times, for instance when unemployment was rampant in 1873 Chinese businesses were damaged and looted, and laws passed against the Chinese population, this Chinatown is a story of resilience and success.
It’s seen as the place where Westernised Chinese food first made its way into the Western world, popularizing dishes like chop suey and dim sum – in fact, San Francisco Chinatown’s many yum cha (tea and dim sum) houses make for a great day of exploration, drawing many locals as well as tourists. There are so many things to do packed into this dense area, including checking out the oldest Asian church in North America – Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral (1854) – and Tin How temple, the oldest Chinese Taoist temple in the US. This historic heritage mixed with great food – don’t forget the Fortune Cookie Factory – make this a really cool area to get lost in.
Made up of just one square bordered by four roads – Geary, Powell, Post and Stockton Streets – in downtown San Francisco, there’s actually a lot packed into this dense area that serves as the city’s commercial heart. In fact there are many major hotels jammed into Union Square itself, meaning that there is a whole wealth of options to choose from, with as many moderately priced lodgings as there is luxury accommodation.
Between the larger buildings – made up of office blocks, the aforementioned hotels, plus department stores to boot – you’ll find a number of upscale restaurants, boutiques, bars, and even galleries for your free time. This is a central commercial, shopping and theater district that you won’t want to miss out on. Plus there’s a major tourist attraction at the intersection of Powell and Market Streets: the manual cable car turnaround.
If you’re a first time visitor to San Francisco, then the area of Fisherman’s Wharf is a great place to be in order to see the best sights and attractions that the city has to offer. Being a very much touristed area, there are obviously chain stores and tourist traps all around, but these you can spot from a mile away!
A particularly impressive thing to do whilst here is to take a ride on the Sausalito Ferry on Pier 41, which takes 30 minutes to get Sausalito for a visit, and 30 minutes back. But the point is the journey itself: it’s one of the best ways to experience San Francisco Bay firsthand. In fact it was voted by the Society of American Travel Writers as the second best ferry crossing in the world. Elsewhere, check out Pier 39 to catch a glimpse of sunbathing sea lions up close, or hop over to Hyde Street Pier, where there’s a collection of historic seafaring vessels including the 19th century sailing ship Balclutha. The various piers and buzzing seaside atmosphere of the place makes Fisherman’s Wharf a good place to stay if you like your cities always busy and definitively by the sea.
Adjacent to the popular tourist area of Fisherman’s Wharf is the idyllic area of Russian Hill. True to its name, this district is very hilly, and as such it can offer up unparallelled views of San Francisco and the bay below – and views like these, especially on a beautiful day, are hard to beat. And it’s not just the vistas from up high that make Russian Hill a cool place to be, it’s the actual hills themselves.
Yes, even the hills here are famous. You’ll know the infamous zig zags of the lush green Lombard Street, which is arguably a good candidate for the most famous street in the world. Then there’s Filbert Street, the city’s ‘steepest’ and often used for chase sequences in action films. Otherwise, Russian Hill is simply a beautiful residential area: there’s the intriguing Feusier Octagon House, built in the 1850s, the 1907 Engine House 31, and the impossibly green cobblestone walk that you can take along Macondray Lane, where you’ll feel at peace among the plants and flowers on each side of this pedestrian street. After prolonged walking around Russian Hill, you will be having more thoughts on living in this lovely area than you will of your next destination.
Synonymous with exclusive, Nob Hill was once home to the mansions of railroad barons. Today it has a wealth of immaculately kept streets and shopfronts, making Nob Hill the place to stay in San Francisco if you are looking for an area with a sense of class and privilege. Nob Hill itself was actually one of the original ‘four hills’ that made up San Francisco – but today, due to its rapid growth into a major east coast hub, the hills of San Fran number at 44.
The prices around here can be about as steep as the hills that surround it, but that shouldn’t worry you because it’s not the sort of neighborhood that will be outdone in terms of its exclusivity. Historic Victorian homes add to the gorgeous sense of mystique that coolly drifts around this district, plus there’s the amazing gothic Grace Cathedral at its heart. The opulence in its streets, the bars at the tops of hills and the swanky hotels combine into an area for living it up, that’s for sure.
Known for its year-round pleasant weather and its even more pleasant views, The Marina is a coastal area of San Francisco that affords a wide vista of the Bay area. It’s one of the best places for running or cycling, or simply walking along, taking in the fresh sea air and the uncluttered skyline. There are a lot of green spaces spread along this area, making it feel especially separate and chilled compared to the streets and buildings of other areas further inland.
One in particular, Marina Green, is quite famous for watching events like the 4th July fireworks display over the bay. You’ll be able to see the Golden Gate Bridge as you walk around The Marina, and from Aquatic Park you’ll be able to find a secluded spot to recline and marvel at the amazing views. A small detour inland takes you to one of San Francisco’s newest and biggest parks, The Presidio, which is great to explore by bicycle.
Just to the east of the tiny area of Union Square is the true heart of business in the city, San Francisco’s Financial District. This area is home to the largest concentration of banks, law and insurance firms, corporate headquarters, and other financial institutions in the city. Skyscrapers dominate the skyline here, with the startling sight of the postmodern Transamerica Pyramid, jutting 260 meters (850 feet) into the air (though the Salesforce Building is taller, at 326 meters).
But aside from the sleek revolving doors and suits of this corporate area is a wealth of things to do, from shopping in its many stores, to checking out the oldest restaurant in San Francisco (the 160 years old Tadich Grill), as well as the city’s historical red light district, Barbary Coast, there’s a lot more to the business end of San Francisco than first meets the eye – and plenty of places to stay, too.
San Francisco has long been known the world over as a free-thinking, liberal area, and particularly for the LGBT community, and was important in the progression of the LGBT rights movement. Nowhere is this more evident than in the city’s foremost gay neighborhood, The Castro. A unique area filled with the rainbow flag and gay-friendly restaurants and other establishments, the gay community itself used to be more visible here – though gentrification has pushed them out somewhat.
The historical center of the gay and lesbian community here is Castro & Market, and walking around from this point is a best bet for discovering this district of San Francisco. For instance following Castro Street to Market Street you will find many locals simply walking around doing their thing, with plenty of opportunities in the form of cookie shops, cafes and 24-hour eateries open for refreshments along the way. It’s still a vibrant, interesting area, especially if you haven’t really seen such fabulous streets before!
Known more colloquially as ‘The Mission’, this district of San Francisco has deep Latino roots. Dating back to the 18th century, the area grew up around Mission San Francisco de Asis (also known as ‘Mission Dolores’) – built by the Spanish in 1776, this is the oldest structure in San Francisco, and it gives the city its name. If you want to stay somewhere diverse and vibrant, this is definitely a good place for that.
You can discover the area’s street art and the murals in Clarion Alley; chill out in Dolores Park, where on the weekend you’ll find picnicking hipsters and locals strolling through; search the colorful streets for new and exciting restaurants; and peruse the numerous of bookshops that Mission District boast. First and foremost, however, this area is mostly known for its Mexican community, and if you’re in need of a burrito – or other tasty snacks from south of the border – then Mission is the place to be. They come highly recommended.
This large area actually encompasses a lot of sub-districts, including the likes of South Beach, Rincon Hill and Mission Bay. It’s historically a vast warehouse filled region that is now seeing renewal with internet companies moving their offices here, and which is seeing a residential boom – particularly in Rincon Hill, which has been ‘rezoned’ and is fast becoming where those who work in the adjacent Financial District come home at night.
It’s in this area that the Giants play baseball in the AT&T stadium at the waterfront, and around the Yerba Buena Gardens is the Moscone Center – a convention complex – and the must-visit San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, or SFMOMA, amongst other museums and galleries. SoMa is on the up, and features a range of hotels from international chains to quirky boutique accommodation.
This area is made up of two very different districts, one is the Civic Center, which as its name implies is the center of government in San Francisco. It’s here where you’ll find the startling white City Hall and the beautifully manicured Civic Center Plaza – the ‘Beaux-Arts’ dome of the City Hall, built in 1915, is particularly stunning. Alongside the government buildings, there are a number of museums in the area, including the Asian Art Museum. Here also you’ll find Little Saigon, where most restaurants and shops are Vietnamese owned – there’s some excellent food to be had here.
Tenderloin is more of a mixed bag, since it is famously one of San Francisco’s most gritty areas yet to be properly touched by gentrification, well known for its dive bars, massage parlors, and adult shops. However, low rents and proximity to downtown has meant a few underground art galleries and trendy bars popping up in recent years. There’s not much accommodation in this area as such, but around the Civic Center there are many well established options.