Before I visited for the first time, I only associated San Francisco with a handful of things: fog, the Golden Gate Bridge, “Full House,” and cable cars.
And, while those things are associated with the City by the Bay, my biggest “takeaway” from my visit was the knowledge that San Francisco is all about its neighborhoods.
From the Mission to Pacific Heights, Chinatown to Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco really does have a neighborhood to suit all tastes. You could conceivably spend weeks here and still see something different every day.
I didn’t have weeks, but I did have 6 days. And I made it my mission to visit at least one new neighborhood per day.
Here are some of my favorites:
This is the first neighborhood most visitors to San Francisco encounter. It’s where all the major hotels and souvenir shops are found; it’s the location of Pier 39 and it famous sea lions; it’s one of the main turn-arounds for the city’s cable cars.
And it’s also incredibly crowded and touristy, especially on the weekends.
Fisherman’s Wharf certainly wasn’t my favorite neighborhood in San Francisco. In fact, on certain days, I swore it was my least favorite. But, it’s so iconic that I knew I couldn’t pass it up.
If you find yourself in this neighborhood, be sure to:
- See the sea lions at Pier 39
- Catch a ride on a cable car
- Eat clam chowder in a sourdough breadbowl at Boudin
- Have an Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista
- Play old arcade games at the Musee Mecanique
- Tour a Liberty ship or WWII submarine
- Catch a ferry to Alcatraz
If you want to skip the crowds and get slightly off the beaten path, be sure to visit Fisherman’s Wharf early in the morning on a weekday. Also consider hopping on a free walking tour of the neighborhood, offered by San Francisco City Guides. Not only are these tours fantastic for the budget, but they’re given by passionate volunteers who really know their stuff.
Probably the second-most-popular neighborhood after Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown is a must-visit in San Francisco. It sees more visitors per year than even the Golden Gate Bridge, and it’s not difficult to understand why — it’s that cool.
If you let your mind wander a bit while walking down a street in Chinatown, it’s not difficult to convince yourself that you really are in China. In fact, San Francisco’s Chinatown boasts the largest population of ethnic Chinese outside of China, so it’s really not that much of a stretch.
Check out my Chinatown photo essay for a better glimpse into this vibrant neighborhood.
Not far from Chinatown, San Francisco’s Italian neighborhood comes to life. Identified by red, white, and green flags on lamp posts and a growing number of gelato shops, San Francisco’s “Little Italy” is great for an afternoon wander.
If you find yourself in this part of the city, be sure to:
- Relax in Washington Square Park and admire Saints Peter and Paul Church
- Check out the Beat Museum on Broadway
- Visit the City Lights bookstore alongside Jack Kerouac Alley
- Eat gelato, and lots of it
North Beach also happens to be home to San Francisco’s Red Light and major nightlife districts, and was at one point home to most of the city’s beatniks (hence the Beat Museum and City Lights bookstore).
I didn’t spend much time in this neighborhood. Actually, I only went there for one thing — the twisty part of Lombard Street.
Russian Hill is home to the portion of world-famous Lombard Street that is known as being “the crookedest street in the world.” This isn’t true, of course — in fact, it’s not even the crookedest street in San Francisco! But it sure is a feast for the eyes nonetheless.
Just don’t get run over while trying to take photos from/in the middle of the street.
Situated sort of between Fisherman’s Wharf and North Beach, Telegraph Hill is worth a visit just for Coit Tower. With one of the best views of San Francisco and some amazing WPA murals, Coit Tower’s admission fee is one you won’t regret paying.
For a real challenge, make your way up to Coit Tower from the Embarcadero via the Filbert or Greenwich Steps.
Be warned, though, that your calf muscles will be burning after these!
I’d hazard a guess that less than 40% of visitors to San Francisco make it to the Mission District (and yes, I completely made that statistic up). It’s not exactly the most warm and fuzzy neighborhood in the city (I would be wary of walking around down there alone after dark, for instance), but it might be my favorite district anyway.
With a distinct Latin flair and tons of amazing street art, The Mission is definitely worth a visit.
My suggestions for this neighborhood include:
- Check out Mission Dolores, for which the neighborhood was named
- Sunbathe in Dolores Park
- Discover amazing street art at Balmy and Clarion alleys
- Eat the best pizza in town at Delfina
- Try a “Mission burrito”
- Have ice cream at Bi-Rite
There’s also good shopping down Valencia, and plenty of good people-watching wherever you turn.
If it’s a colorful neighborhood you’re looking for, look no further than the Castro, San Francisco’s vibrant gay neighborhood.
Take an F-line street car here from downtown, and enjoy roaming the rainbow-flag-clad streets. If you’re feeling up to it, you can catch a film at the Castro Theater, where people are known to heckle and throw things at the screen.
I only wandered through this neighborhood briefly, but I loved the vibe I felt there.
Remember the “Summer of Love”? Well, it happened right here in the Haight, even though the exact year that “summer” fell in is debatable. The neighborhood is known as Haight-Ashbury because of one famous intersection, and was instrumental in San Francisco’s counterculture movement.
In the 60s and 70s, the Haight was the center of sex, drugs, and rock’n'roll in San Francisco. Today, not only can you find the previous houses of people like Jimi Hendrix, Joan Jet, and the Grateful Dead, but also the largest number of head shops I’ve ever seen in one area.
The neighborhood has largely retained its bohemian ambiance, and has plenty of funky shops to explore.
If it’s expensive and/or Victorian homes you’re in the mood to see, head to Pacific Heights. It has some of the best weather in San Francisco (yes, those micro-climates are VERY real!), as well as fantastic views of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay, and more.
If you want to check out some famous homes, stroll by Danielle Steel’s mansion, or the house at 2640 Steiner Street that starred as the “Mrs. Doubtfire” house.
And, while you’re nearby, don’t miss out on Alamo Square Park in the Western Addition neighborhood, with its famous row of Victorian houses known as the Painted Ladies.
The highest point of this park offers up one of my favorite views of the city.
This small neighborhood is located on the site of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which was held after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake in order to celebrate the rebirth of the city. The only surviving building from the expo is the impressive Palace of Fine Arts, which is now home to a hands-on science museum.
The Marina is bordered on one side by the former U.S. Army post Fort Mason, which is a great place to go on a Friday night for Off the Grid — a gathering of dozens of San Francisco’s best food trucks.
Located inside the Golden Gate National Recreation Area next to the Marina District, the Presidio is especially great to visit on one of San Francisco’s elusive nice days. It used to be a military base, but now is reserved for public use and run by the Presidio Trust.
Suggestions here include:
- Visiting the Disney Family Museum in the old barracks
- Strolling along Crissy Field beach
- Renting a bike to bike the neighborhood and the Golden Gate Bridge
If you’re a sci-fi movie buff, you’ll be interested to know that George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic is located here, and the Presidio is also home to the Starfleet Academy in the Star Trek universe.
Last but not least, don’t skip the Financial District. Yes, the neighborhood consists of a lot of concrete and skyscrapers, but it still has some surprises in store.
Here, don’t miss:
- The Transamerica Pyramid and its surrounding redwood “forest”
- Gourmet food inside the Ferry Building
- WPA murals inside the lobby of the Rincon Annex post office
If you want to walk up the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf, this is a great place to begin.
Also worth checking out is Civic Center and San Francisco’s impressive City Hall Building; wide open Union Square; and the SoMa (South of Market) neighborhood.
Even though I spent a week in San Francisco, there were still plenty of neighborhoods that I didn’t get the chance to explore. Next time… next time.
Have you been to San Francisco? If so, which is YOUR favorite neighborhood?