A Guide to 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.

13 of the best neighborhoods in San Francisco

Here are some of my favorite neighborhoods in San Francisco:

1. Fisherman's Wharf

Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco

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.

Pier 39, Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco
People at Pier 39

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're visiting San Francisco with kids, this is one neighborhood you won't want to skip.

Cable Cars, San Francisco
Cable cars in San Francisco
Boudin, San Francisco
Get clam chowder in a sourdough breadbowl at Boudin

If you want to avoid the crowds and get slightly off the beaten path, be sure to visit Fisherman's Wharf early in the morning on a weekday.

And if you want an even more in-depth view of the area, 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.

2. Chinatown

Chinatown, San Francisco

Probably the second-most-popular neighborhood to visit 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.

RELATED: Photo Essay: San Francisco's Chinatown

3. North Beach

Washington Square, San Francisco
Washington Square

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.

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).

4. Russian Hill

Lombard Street, San Francisco
Lombard Street from the bottom

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.

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
Lombard Street from the top

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

5. Telegraph Hill

Coit Tower, San Francisco
View from Coit Tower

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
Coit Tower

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

Greenwich Steps, San Francisco
Greenwich Steps

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

6. The Mission

Clarion Alley, San Francisco
Clarion Alley

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.

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.

7. The Castro

Castro, San Francisco
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
The Castro Theater

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

8. Haight-Ashbury

Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco

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.

Upper Haight, San Francisco
Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco
The corner of Haight and Ashbury

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

9. Pacific Heights

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

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.

10. Western Addition

Alamo Square, San Francisco
Alamo Square and the Painted Ladies

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.

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

11. Marina District

Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco
Palace of Fine Arts

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.

12. The Presidio

The Presidio, San Francisco

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
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.

13. Financial District

Ferry Building, San Francisco
Ferry Building

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.

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 by neighborhood on your next visit? Check out these awesome neighborhood-focused tours from Urban Adventures:

Urban Adventure Tours

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

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"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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52 Comments on “A Guide to the Neighborhoods of San Francisco

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  1. Like it!
    Missed La Taqueria,bedy best steak burritos in the world,at 25th and Mission street accross from The Mission Cultural Center ,next door to Danna’s Italian bakery.,one block from BART station(train) on 24th and Mission street,not far from Carlos Santana’s house he grew up.

    yes good start,, in fact great overview but , i was hoping to learn something about all the ones i have yet to grasp,, like Excelsior, and Glen Park, and Burnell Heights , the Dog Patch, Portrero Hill and , and and,, not to mention, LAND’s END how can you skip, things

    like the Cliff House and Ocean Beach and Lincoln Park the Palace of the Legion of Honor and the great story how that has to do with the statue in Union Square, and and and , but again, GREAT JOB

      It’s tough to cover them all when you don’t live there! These were my favorites, though, and the ones I think most people would visit!

        Twin Peaks,one of the best views of the city and bay.Golden Gate Park.

    Such a good overview of the different neighbourhoods! This helped me plan our trip to the city and where to stay! Thank you!

    Hi, nice to meet you! I love your blog! If you haven’t, don’t miss Las Vegas. I just came back from Vegas and had an amazing experience there. I don’t gamble but still had lots of fun. I went on a helicopter tour flying above Grand Canyon and loved it so much! Definitely beautiful. Also I completed one of my childhood dream to take a hot air balloon here! You can’t imagine how excited I was… Hahaha ;P Just wanted to share my great experience with you… I also watched a couple of the most popular shows there such as The Reve and K show. Loved my trip… I am so happy… btw I was lucky to meet Nvstarr for giving me this wonderful experience in vegas. Talked too much…. Please keep posting! Love how you can travel the world! My dreeeeeaaaaaaaammmmm!

    […] 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, […]

    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!

    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.

    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…

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

    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.

    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!

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