San Francisco's famous 49 (which is, technically, more like 46) square miles are comprised of 40+ distinct neighborhoods that stretch from the Embarcadero/Financial District to the Sunset District, and from San Francisco Bay to Ocean Beach. Many of the most popular neighborhoods are clustered near downtown, such as the largest and oldest Chinatown in the country, Italian North Beach and shopping haven Union Square. Heading north on Embarcadero toward the Golden Gate Bridge sits waterfront tourist mecca Fisherman's Wharf, Marina District and Presidio, while tony Pacific Heights takes in spectacular views on a ridge above. The Haight, Castro and South of Market (SoMa) neighborhoods are peppered along Market Street, a public transport hub and the main thoroughfare that dissects the city from the foot of Embarcadero's Ferry Building culminating at residential Twin Peaks.
SoMa (South of Market)
This hip and happening hood and home to many of the first dot-coms in the early '90s encompasses a rather large area (from Market to Townsend streets, from the Embarcadero to Division Street). It's hard to believe it's only been in the last 10+ years that this once-gritty area (still is in some spots) has come to life with clubs, hot restaurants and nightlife spots, high-rise residential buildings and lofts, and some spectacular cultural offerings including the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Yerba Buena Gardens. The Moscone Convention Center also lives in this part of town, as does AT&T Park that helped to spur much of this gentrification. The best time to visit this area is during the week, as it tends to be deserted in some sketchy spots on weekends after dark.
Locals and tourists sunbathe, fly kites, jog and ride bikes along the very green Marina Green, a vast grassy area that nestles the Bay. It's hard to reconcile this picturesque neighborhood, an area built on landfill, with the devastating images of it after suffering major damage in the 1989 earthquake. This residential area, dotted with multi-million dollar homes with beachfront views, is an ideal spot to enjoy time outdoors, strolling Crissy Field and getting up-close to the Golden Gate Bridge. The spectacular Palace of Fine Arts, an architectural marvel built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, is surrounded by a swan-filled pond, and, on any given day you're bound to see a bride and groom being photographed out front, A performing arts theater, it also houses the Exploratorium, an interactive science museum thrilling for kids of all ages. Good shopping and eating can be had on Chestnut Street and Union Street a few blocks south.
Situated between Union Square to the south and North Beach to the north, the oldest Chinatown (circa 1851) in the country is alive with sights, sounds and smells that tourists can’t get enough of (except maybe for some of the ducks hanging in the crowded markets). Enter Chinatown through the unmistakable red and green gates at Bush Street and Grant Avenue, then stroll the dense Stockton Street, the main commercial drag, where you'll find blocks upon blocks of souvenir shops, grocers, herbalists, noodle houses and dim-sum restaurants. Take in the surroundings, and you'll notice pagoda roofs, Chinese temples, crimson and gold banners and lots of dragons. It’s also a fascinating place for people-watching, as hordes of Chinese-speaking locals go about their everyday routines. Don't miss the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (56 Ross Alley) to watch the cookies being made by hand. You can create your own fortunes for custom-made cookies (about $6 for 50 cookies) that make excellent gifts to bring home for friends and family.
One of the city’s oldest neighborhoods is not far from downtown and bordered by Chinatown, Telegraph Hill and Russian Hill. The onetime Latin Quarter was settled by Italian immigrants in the 1870s. Today, the compact Little Italy is stuffed with Italian residents, restaurants and Old-World delicatessens all clustered around Columbus Avenue and surrounding blocks. North Beach also retains the bohemian aura of the Beat movement and its major players—Jack Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg—via the still-thriving café culture (Tosca Cafe, Caffe Trieste, City Lights Bookstore). A sprinkling of indie boutiques, hip bars and loud nightclubs (and strip clubs) adds to the eclectic vibe that distinguishes North Beach. Other key attractions: North Beach Museum (free), Washington Square Park, Coit Tower and the iconic Transamerica Pyramid.
This is retail central, in the heart of downtown, where stores of all types are snuggled into an easy to navigate area. You'll find large retailers (Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom, Macy's) to designer stores (Prada, Barney's, BVLAGRI) to every chain imaginable (Crate and Barrel to Gap). The très charming Maiden Lane, a teensy cobblestone, pedestrian alley dotted with high-end shops and outdoor cafes, is a must-shop. Gump’s, a legendary local department store, and the city's only Frank Lloyd Wright building—now home to the Xanadu Gallery—are found here. Union Square, the public park itself, is an ideal place to take a shopping break, grab a snack at Emporio Rulli Caffè and enjoy abundant people-watching. Also in this neighborhood: the city's small theater district and ever-crowded Powell Street cable-car turnaround.
Latinos meet urban hipsters in this vibrant, mural-laden and usually sunny neighborhood, where cheap and tasty taquerias (try La Taqueria and El Farolito) nuzzle with trendy restaurants, Mexican bakeries, dive bars, vintage shops, produce markets, cool cafes and funky clothing and home furnishings stores. Mission Street (between16th and 24th streets) is where most of the action is centered. Mission Dolores, the oldest building in the city, can be found at 16th and Dolores streets. Spanish pioneers established it as a religious settlement in 1776. Take a load off in beautiful Dolores Park, where you'll find palm trees, gorgeous views and local residents sunbathing and barbecuing.
Chock-full of envy-inducing Victorian homes and mansions, this affluent residential—hood sits northwest of downtown on a ridge above the Marina District, affording it jaw-dropping views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Palace of Fine Arts and the Bay. Along with architectural and socialite ogling, Pac Heights (as locals call it) is home to several lovely parks like Alta Plaza (with a popular playground) and Lafayette Park, which are prime picnic/chill spots. (Beware of dog poop.) Fillmore Street, the main commercial drag, offers blocks of excellent shopping—with a mix of local boutiques (Gimme Shoes, Heidi Says, Margaret O'Leary) and designer names like Marc by Marc Jacobs, Jonathan Adler and Ralph Lauren. Cafes and restaurants—fit for foodies and simple eaters alike—also inhabit the tree-lined street. When the sun goes down, lower Fillmore (near Geary Street) gets lively thanks to the landmark Fillmore Auditorium, Yoshi's Jazz Club and John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom Room, all killer places to take in live music. Japantown is also a few blocks away and offers a delicious taste of Japonica. Restaurants, supermarkets and retailers galore inhabit several Japanese malls. Don't miss the newest and coolest of the bunch: New People Mall (1746 Post St.) for J-pop at its best. You'll also find the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, an awesome place to see a movie in a state-of-the-art theater, and the famed Kabuki Hot Springs & Spa, a peaceful and affordable place for a massage.
Tie-dye, hippies (old and new) and the scent of patchouli are still easy to find in the Haight, ground zero for the Summer of Love and onetime home to Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and, eeks, Charles Manson. Upper Haight (from Stanyan Street to Masonic Avenue) is one seriously commercial street. Mixed in with the smattering of smoke and Zen shops (and, unfortunately, many a panhandler) are stores catering to residents with a taste for fancy shoes and vintage clothes, hipster restaurants, high-end coffee shops, bookstores and cool clubs. Lower Haight (from Divisadero to Webster streets) is a smaller area with a bit more grit and diversity of residents. It's also a popular club destination for alternamusic lovers and ravers alike. If visiting after dark, best to cab it.
Fresh seafood is one tasty reason to visit the northern waterfront area, once the bustling center of the fishing industry. (You must try clam chowder in a sourdough bowl at Boudin's.) It's flush with attractions like a boardwalk populated with crab shacks, souvenir shops and breathtaking views of the Bay, Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County to the north. (Most of the wacky novelty museums are skip-worthy). Pier 39, a shopping/eating emporium, deserves a whirl if only to say hi to the famous sea lions that laze on the docks below. Indulging in an ice cream sundae at the historic Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory is an absolute Y-E-S! Hands-down, though, one of the best reasons to hit the Wharf is to hop a ferry (departing from Pier 33) to Alcatraz, the notorious island prison. The 2.5-hour tour of the cellblock is fascinating and fun. Make sure to book tours in advance and opt for the guided audio tour.
Rainbow flags adorn many of the streets and colorful Victorians that comprise the Castro, probably the planet's most famous gay enclave. Couples of all stripes enjoy meandering The Castro, a centrally located neighborhood sandwiched between yuppified Noe Valley and residential Twin Peaks. The epicenter is Castro and Market, where the bulk of trendy eateries, clothing stores and scene-y gay bars and lounges live. The historic Castro Theatre, a gorgeous art-deco movie palace replete with organ player, is a top-notch place to take in an old classic film. It’s a big draw in this neighborhood where cows once roamed (circa 1887) and gay hero/activist Harvey Milk made history.
Best in San Francisco Travel
San Francisco Travel Guide