The Neighborhoods of San Francisco

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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.

San Francisco, California

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 favorite neighborhoods in San Francisco:

Fisherman's Wharf

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 its 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, San Francisco

Pier 39, Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco

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

Cable Cars, San Francisco

Boudin, San Francisco

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.

Chinatown

Probably the second-most-popular neighborhood in San Francisco after Fisherman's Wharf is Chinatown. This must-visit neighborhood sees more visitors per year than even the Golden Gate Bridge, and it's not difficult to understand why — it's that cool.

Chinatown, San Francisco

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.

Chinatown, San Francisco

RELATED: Photo Essay: San Francisco's Chinatown

North Beach

Not far from Chinatown, San Francisco's Italian neighborhood comes to life in North Beach. 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.

Washington Square, San Francisco

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, San Francisco

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).

Russian Hill

I didn't spend much time in this San Francisco's Russian Hill neighborhood. Actually, I only went there for one thing — the twisty part of Lombard Street.

Lombard Street, San Francisco

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.

Lombard Street, San Francisco

Just don't get run over while trying to take photos from/in the middle of the street.

Telegraph Hill

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.

Coit Tower, San Francisco
View from Coit Tower

Coit Tower, San Francisco

For a real challenge, make your way up to Coit Tower from the Embarcadero via the Filbert or Greenwich Steps.

Greenwich Steps, San Francisco

Be warned, though, that your calf muscles will be burning after these!

The Mission

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 neighborhood in San Francisco anyway.

Clarion Alley, San Francisco
Clarion Alley
Mission Dolores, San Francisco
Mission Dolores

With a distinct Latin flair and tons of amazing street art, The Mission is definitely worth a visit.

RELATED: A Ode to San Francisco Street Art

Mission District, San Francisco

Balmy Alley, San Francisco
Balmy Alley

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
Dolores Park, Mission District, San Francisco
Dolores Park

There's also good shopping down Valencia, and plenty of good people-watching wherever you turn.

The Castro

If it's a colorful neighborhood you're looking for, look no further than the Castro, San Francisco's vibrant gay neighborhood.

Castro, San Francisco

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.

Castro, San Francisco

Castro, San Francisco

I only wandered through this neighborhood briefly, but I loved the vibe I felt there.

Haight-Ashbury

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.

Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco

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.

Upper Haight, San Francisco

Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco

The neighborhood has largely retained its bohemian ambiance, and has plenty of funky shops to explore.

Pacific Heights

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.

Mrs. Doubtfire House, San Francisco
“Mrs. Doubtfire” house

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.

Western Addition

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. You've seen these on so many San Francisco postcards (not to mention in the opening sequence of “Full House”), and I promise that they're just as pretty in real life.

Alamo Square, San Francisco

The highest point of this park offers up one of my favorite views of the city, along with a nice spot for an afternoon picnic.

RELATED: The Best Views of San Francisco

Marina District

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.

Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco

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.

The Presidio

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.

The Presidio, San Francisco

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
Crissy Field, San Francisco
Crissy Field

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.

Financial District

Last but not least, don't skip the Financial District of San Francisco. Yes, the neighborhood consists of a lot of concrete and skyscrapers, but it still has some surprises in store.

Ferry Building, San Francisco
Ferry Building

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.

Civic Center, San Francisco
Farmer's market near City Hall

 

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.

Want to explore San Francisco on your next visit? Check out these awesome tours from Urban Adventures:

 

Urban Adventure Tours

Have you been to San Francisco? If so, which is YOUR favorite neighborhood?

 

Guide to the neighborhoods of San Francisco

 

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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46 Comments on “The Neighborhoods of San Francisco

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  1. i miss my home city!

    great overview! dont forget SoMa!

      It’s such a great city!

      I did mention SoMa down near the bottom of the post, but sadly didn’t really explore it that much, so I didn’t have much to say about it. Next time!

    Very cool. I still can’t believe how awesome the weather was – blue skies in almost every picture. So did you end up finding the ‘Full House’ house?

      Tell me about it – the weather gods were clearly favoring me in SF!

      And yes, I did indeed find the *real* “Full House” house. I’ll be writing about it on Film & Travel soon!

    I went to San Francisco for about 4 days once, but I loved it! Next time I want to check out those free city tours.

      Yes! Definitely check out SF City Guides next time! They have some great walking tours all over the city.

    I’ll be here in just a few weeks! Where did you take the first picture?

      Yay! Have fun! I’ll cross my fingers that you get some nice weather, too! I took that first picture on a cable car going from Fisherman’s Wharf (Hyde and Beach) to Powell and Market. Sorry, but I’m not sure what street it was on!

    Wow, Amanda! It’s like it never gets really cloudy or rainy in San Francisco! Naaaah ….

    Great photos and great summary!

      Hahaha, I’m not sure what all those San Francisco natives are always whining about… the weather was amazing! 😉 Lol but yeah, I know I definitely got lucky!

    Don’t forget the Tenderloin, the sketchiest district in SF! We actually lived there for a year, though, and it wasn’t half bad… once you got comfortable w/ the folks on the street. 🙂 I think when we move back to SF we’ll probably settle in the Mission, though I’m also a huge fan of North Beach. Okay, I love most of SF’s districts!!

      I wasn’t quite brave enough to go wandering in the Tenderloin on my own… Though, I’m sure it isn’t so bad in the daytime!

    Wow! Who knew there was so much to see in SF! I ADORE the photo you took when you’re on Lombard Street looking down. I’m also a bit of a sucker for architecture and SF certainly looks like it’s got an abundance of it. Definitely glad I have it on my bucket list 🙂

      There’s TONS to see in SF! Each neighborhood has its own personality, and they’re all fun to explore. And yes, plenty of cool architecture to admire!

    Great overview of San Francisco. I will be there for about a week in July and will do a little exploring as well. Great guide. I love the neighborhood on Lincoln St near Golden Gate Park. Great area and the park is a fun place to hang out!

      I didn’t get to spend much time in Golden Gate Park (it’s tough to do without a car, I discovered!), but I definitely want to next time. Have fun there next month!!

    You managed to see a huge amount in such a short time! I love that SF has such a different vibe depending on which little neighborhood you’re in. I can definitely imagine spending a few years in Pac Heights or Cole Valley in the future.

      I really did pack a ton into just a week! It helped that the friend I was staying with was working most days I was there, so she’d drop me off at the BART station at like 8 a.m., and I’d be in the city every morning by 9, ready for a full day of exploring!

    Wow, such beautiful photos and informative post! You really nailed the idea of making people want to go to SF 🙂

    I’m heading to good old San Fran in about a month (the end of July to be exact) and can’t wait to (re)visit some of the neighborhoods – especially looking forward to eating amazing food in Chinatown, have a Starbucks in the Financial District and just enjoy life on Baker Beach! Awesome photos and I’ll make sure to give the walking tour a go 🙂

      San Francisco is definitely a city I could get excited about re-visiting again and again.

      And yes, check out SF City Guides! They have all sorts of cool walking tours all around the city.

    I only had 3 days in San Francisco, but I did hit a lot of these neighborhoods. I can use this as my guide next time I go back. I loved so much of the city that it’s impossible to pick a favorite area. Haight-Ashbury will always stand out in my memory because of the day… it was 4/20, and there huge crowds in the park and standing outside the movie theater waiting to see The Big Lebowski.

      Oh man… 4/20 in the Haight?? That would have been fun.

    I live so close and still haven’t been to all of those neighborhoods. Shame on me! I do love to spend time in Chinatown for hot cookies at the fortune cookie factory 🙂

      Well it sounds like you’ve got some exploring to do!!

    My girlfriend and I stayed in a hostel in the mission. We wandered it for three days, and thought it was the general vibe of SF….after stumbling into other neighborhoods, we were presently surprised.

    Great post, thanks!

      San Francisco certainly is not wanting for neighborhoods! I love that each one is so different.

    I loved the vibe of the Mission District the most. Maybe its just because I am a hippie. Great shots. Isn’t it just so cold there even in the summer?

      If you’re a hippie, the Haight is where you belong! 😉

      And actually I hit San Francisco on an uncharacteristically warm week! It was sunny and in the 70s almost every day I was there!

    Great post, I’m absolutely saving this for when I return to the States. It sounds like such a diverse city, no wonder everyone seems to love it.

      It’s a really cool city because there’s kind of a neighborhood to suit all tastes. Definitely worth a visit!

    Great overview of SF. I’d also recommend people check out Fillmore St., of jazz fame. You’ll find good food, shopping, and the iconic 60s music venue (The Fillmore), which still puts on a ton of great shows today.

    Wow you really explored San Francisco. I just watched Bourdain’s Layover SF episode and now I’m dying to go.

    Fabulous recommendations … One missing (I think) is Golden Gate Park … The DeYoung … The Aquarium … The Richmond District .. And a walk along the ocean on the Great Highway – which leaves visitors wondering why there aren’t super expensive homes on the beach … Until they get a sand facial.

      Yes, I sadly didn’t get to do much in Golden Gate Park! I simply ran out of time. Next time…

    I haven’t been to San Francisco yet, but I didn’t realize there would be soo many areas to go thru! Good overview, the Mission looks quite interesting.

    I love SF! Although admittedly, I’m usually passing through to Napa lol. So great to meet you at TBEX!!

      It’s a cool city! I definitely need to make it out to Napa next time…

      It was great meeting you, too!

    […] San Francisco for the first time. I spent days just wandering around the city, getting to know San Francisco’s neighborhoods, seeking out awesome street art and great views, visiting Alcatraz, biking the Golden Gate Bridge, […]

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