In some cities, it’s hard to tell when you’ve left one neighborhood and stumbled into another—not San Francisco. These seven-by-seven miles hold an Italian quarter striped with beatnik past (North Beach), a multicultural hipster mecca (The Misison), a surfer’s paradise (The Sunset), and oh-so-much more.
The Heart Of The City
The Embarcadero connects the northern and southern edges of the city while Market Street, the artery of San Francisco, runs east to west. Along it, you’ll find the Financial District with its towering skyscrapers, Union Square with its seemingly infinite shops and malls, and the scrappy Tenderloin neighborhood, full of local characters. On the edge of Union Square you’ll find the gateway to Chinatown.
South Of The Artery
Urbanity hits in prime in the neighborhoods south of Market Street. The Dogpatch, SoMa, and the Mission are all cement-clad hotspots for food, culture, and coffee. The southern Bernal Heights offers a view of it all.
The Northern Points
You’ll gain a bit of elevation wandering these neighborhoods. North Beach is home to Coit Tower and Nob Hill counts the Grace Cathedral and Top of the Mark as its residents. Closer to shore, you’ll find Fisherman’s Wharf. For the sweeping views of the Golden Gate, head to the Marina and Crissy Field.
In the belly of the beast, the arts and fashion reign supreme. Civic Center is home to the city’s cultural institutions. Luxury boutiques and local shops abound in the neighboring Hayes Valley while Japantown is a wealth of sushi and ramen/ The Fillmore District is just a few blocks the over, offering music for any palate—from jazz to indie rock.
Into The Hills
Travel further west and you run into some hilly terrain. But tucked between the knolls are quaint communities like Noe Valley and Cole Valley, as well as the vibrant Castro and Haight-Ashbury. NoPa serves as the intermediary and is chalk full of hipsters and hip new dinner spots.
Beyond The Golden Gate
Although the Golden Gate Bridge is considered the gateway to San Francisco, the city actually extends beyond its spans. The Richmond and Sunset districts have a bad rap for foggy weather, but bonfire beaches, a heft supply of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean food, and a solid surfer vibe make them worth the visit. In between the two is the iconic Golden Gate Park.
The Embarcadero and South Beach
Stretching along the water and offering unobstructed views of the bay, this area is one of the best in the city for a walk, jog, or bike ride. Of Course, food, drink, and entertainment take top billing here, too.
History: Now one of the most picturesque neighborhoods in the city, the Embarcadero was darkened for 30 years by a freeway that walled off San Francisco from its own gorgeous bay–an error that was finally corrected in 1991 in the wake of the Loma Prieta earthquake.
Don’t Miss: The walkway along the back side of AT&T Park, home of the eight-time world champion San Francisco Giants, offers views that even a Dodgers fan could appreciate. Keep walking along the Embarcadero and pay homage to Cupid’s Span, one of the city’s most memorable public art fixtures, before reaching the Ferry Building Marketplace— a spacious, sunlit treasure trove of artisanal eats. Then head toward Pier 15, where the Exploratorium offers hours of hands-on wonder for kids and adults alike.
The Financial District and Jackson Square
Clustered on either side of the landmark Transamerica Pyramid, these districts are all business on the outside. But among the skyscrapers and historic warehouses, plenty of gems are waiting to be found.
History: Some of the brick buildings of Jackson Square date back to the gold rush. Today, they house antique stores and art galleries but in the late 19th century, this was the heart of the Barbary Coast– a district known for its brothels, gambling houses, and opium dens. Much of the neighborhood was created by filling in the bay, and the sunken remains of dozens of gold rush-era tall ships (abandoned by crews eager to get to the gold fields) are still buried down there somewhere.
Don’t Miss: Among its upper-crust antique showrooms, Jackson Square features modernist furniture emporiums, like Hedge Gallery, offering mid-century decorative arts. For a taste of history, the financial district has Belden Place, the center of the French Quarter, as well as Tadich Grill, the city’s oldest continuously operated restaurant– you can’t do better than a bowl of steaming cioppino with a side of sourdough and a class of chardonnay. For a modern-and extravagant- culinary experience, head to Quince.
History: A public park as old as the city itself (originally used for sandlot baseball games), Union Square was later named for the pro-Northern rallies that assembled here throughout the Civil War, sparked by the Unitarian minister whose church faced the square. The centerpiece pillar, 79 feet tall and topped with a statue of the goddess of victory (supposedly modeled on local heiress and philanthropist Alma de Bretteville Spreckels) was added in 1903 to commemorate American naval victories in the Spanish-American War. The neighborhood’s central location made it a natural hub of commerce. In 2002, the square was redesigned to be more open, the result of a five-year design competition that attracted entries from around the world.
Don’t Miss: There is no more iconic symbol of San Francisco than the cable car. From the cable car terminus at Market and Powell Streets, the mobile museums clang their way up Powell. Hop off at Geary Street, where to the west you’ll find the rest of San Francisco’s downtown theater district, including the American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco’s largest and most ambitious company and San Francisco Playhouse, specializing in homegrown big-banner productions. On the other side of the square, the narrow semi-hidden stretch of Maiden Lane is a veritable window-shopper’s paradise, internationally modeled after New York’s SoHo by the ambitious jeweler who named it. Here you’ll find the big names: Prada, Hermes, Gump’s, and Marc Jacobs, plus local indies within spitting distance of each other.
Around Union Square, the best eating happens in the same places as the best shopping. The Rotunda at Neiman Marcus offers a stained-glass dome with your afternoon tea, while the flagship Macy’s building serves incredible views and burgers at the sixth floor Burger Bar and amazing pastries on the third floor at Tout Sweet Patisserie. If you’d rather eat on the go, there’s a hot dog stand on every corner- even Union Square doesn’t have to be haute all the time. Finally, don’t forget to take a ride in the historic Westin St. Francis glass elevators for a 32-story gander at the city. And grab a coffee at Emporio Rulli on the way out.
Make no mistake: This is the city’s down and dirty side, and it’s neither shy nor ashamed of it. Still, for those brave (and cautious) enough to venture down its funky but somehow charming streets, there are treasures to be found.
History: Nobody can quite agree on where the Tenderloin got its name, but the most popular legend is that old-time San Francisco cops earned pay raises for the occasional steak dinner by walking beats here- or by accepting some petty bribes on the side. Every story makes it clear that the Tenderloin has always been the seedy side of San Francisco.
Don’t Miss: The recently opened Tenderloin Museum is a small outpost of culture chronicling the long and colorful history of the neighborhood in terms that celebrate its sketchy reputation. The Great American Music Hall is San Francisco’s oldest music venue and still one of its most beautiful. Chambers Eat + Drink can be hard to find (it’s in the Phoenix Hotel) but provides secluded class and fine dining near the strip of the neighborhood known as Little Saigon. And every Sunday, Glide Memorial Church, which has served San Francisco and the Tenderloin for going on 90 years, sings, claps, and swats with its famous and inspiring Glide Ensemble.
The most densely packed neighborhood in San Francisco is every bit as lively, flavorful, and action-packed as you’ve heard.
History: When Chinatown burned to the ground after the 1906 earthquake, bigoted city officials tried to relocate the entire Chinese-American neighborhood to the outskirts of the city. Resisting the ouster, the community rebuilt the neighborhood much as you see it today, with its many pagodas and colorful canopies.
Don’t Miss: The Dragon Gate on Grant Street offers an obvious starting place for exploration. Stop by the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, which has been cranking out prophetic treats in Ross Alley since 1962, to watch the action and taste fresh samples. Three blocks away, Portsmouth Square is not only the heart of Chinatown, but also the original location of Yerba Buena, the mid-19th-centurty colonial settlement that eventually became San Francisco. Of Course, no visit to Chinatown is complete without a stroll through Waverly Place, the temple-lined “street of painted balconies.”
History: The Mission is named for Mission Dolores (formally known as Mision San Francisco de Asis), founded by Spanish priest in 1776-making it the oldest building in San Francisco and the oldest mission chapel still standing in California. Valencia Street, named for the Spanish explorer and soldier who first trekked into the region, is one of San Francisco’s most venerable streets. For most of its 167 years it sat in obscurity, the quiet little sister to loud, raw-boned Mission Street. But that all changed in the late 2oth century, when its cheap rents began drawing young urbanites who established it as a hangout for artists, would-be bohemians, and, notably, so many young women that it was briefly dubbed the Women’s district. (It’s all described in local writer Michelle Tea’s book Valencia, which cemented the neighborhood’s image as a destination for young radicals.)
Don’t Miss: Block by block, Valencia Street is the Mission’s go-to for boutique stores selling irresistible things that you didn’t even know were things. Looking for pirate flags and rum? That would be the Pirate Store (San Francisco’s only pirate supply store- we think) at 826 Valencia. Fresh teas and medicinal herbs? Scarlet Sage Herb Co. is the place. Prehistoric fossils, taxidermy mice, and great organic fertilizer? That’ll be Paxton Gate, whose sister store a block down specializes in children’s toys from the predigital age. Dijital Fix stocks designer home tech, while artisan jewels are in abundance at Love and Luxe. Lost Weekend video, the Mission dweller’s fave for cult-film video rentals, also offers classic film screenings and surprisingly, stand-up comedy. When lunch hour arrives, it may be hard to resist Little Star, whose deep-dish pizzas are so thick that they take 25 minutes to bake (totally worth it). Find fried Pacific cod tacos at Tacolicious, or burritos at La Taqueria around the corner on Mission (crowned America;s best burrito by FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver). The Abbot’s Cellar offers a craft beer to go with anything-over 100 varieties altogether. (If you ever wondered which beer goes with fresh squid and braised tomatoes, now you’ll know.) On an overcast day, warm up with a coffee among the laptop-toting set at Four Barrel Coffee. If it’s sunny, grab a salted-caramel ice cream a few blocks over at Bi-Rite Creamery and join the crowds sunbathing in Dolores Park, which couples the Mission’s best views of the San Francisco skyline with the most eclectic cross-section of its population.
Once a sleepy hilltop village, Bernal Heights has become one of the city’s most in-demand locales over the last 10 years, a slightly offbeat sister neighborhood to the nearby Mission.
History: Bernal Heights started out as a sleepy farming neighborhood. (It did have its own disreputable side: Quasi-legal “Poundmen” made a living impounding their neighbors’ livestock, until they were run out by an angry mob incensed over the seizure of a respected widow’s only cow.) Because of its relative seismic stability, though, it suddenly began looking like a very good place to invest in land post-1906, and experienced many growth spurts throughout the 20th century.
Don’t Miss: Bernal Heights is best known for Bernal Heights Park, the grassy overlook that has spectacular views of downtown. It’s a pretty quiet neighborhood, but does have a slightly punky bar scene, including the queer-friendly El Rio, Wild Side West, the Royal Cuckoo, which, according to local legend, was furnished almost exclusively with the contents of the owner’s apartment. Zante Pizza and Indian Cuisine serves up tasty pizza with paneer masala. Red Hill Station does fish in ways so tasty you’ll want to hop into the bay and thank the little swimmers yourself (but please don’t), and Mitchell’s specializes in tropical (read: colorful) ice cream.
History: Real estate speculation in San Francisco is as old as the city itself. With the discovery of gold in California in 1848, John Townsend, a former mayor of San Francisco, oped to lure prospectors to his tracts of land on Potrero Hill and in Dogpatch (then Potrero Nuevo) by choosing street names that promoted the fortuitous future of California: Streets running north-south are named for American states, while those running east-west are named for California counties. The area now called Dogpatch once the heart of San Francisco’s industrial waterfront, is dotted with the remains of factories, warehouses, and workers’ cottages (some of the oldest intact structures in the city) that adventurous San Franciscans are busily converting to new uses.
Don’t Miss: What’s old is new on San Francisco’s east side. The circa-1941 Noonan Building, home to maritime field offices in World War II, is now crammed with the studios of artists who routinely open their workspaces to public tours-giving you a chance to see where and how they create handmade jewelry, photographs, letterpress prints, and more. The American Industrial Center on Third Street, once a can factory, now hosts a variety of unique businesses, from the Dogpatch Boulders rock-climbing gym to the ultra-modern Museum of Craft and Design. A onetime horse stable is now the Yellow Building, a massive co-op that offers fresh Italian food at Piccino and must-have men’s and womenswear at Modern Appeal Clothing. Serpentine cafe was once a boiler room, but now offers mouthwatering seafood. Over on Third Street, you can get in on the neighborhood’s artisanal spirit and make your own wine at Dogpatch WineWorks, while on 22nd Street, you can sample local Recchiuti Confections at Little Nib, or keep heading east to Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous, where a husband-and-wife duo concoct their housemade ice cream with a range of unusual ingredients, from ghost peppers to Anchor Steam beer. Speaking of which, just a few blocks over in the Potrero Hill neighborhood, you can tour the Anchor Brewing Company, then climb up to McKinley Square Park and watch the afternoon fog roll in over the rest of the city.
Where hip meets high culture, South of Market is also home to tech companies like Dropbox, Airbnb, Zynga, and uncountable startups.
History: Now replete with upscale lofts and towering high-rises, SoMa was known for much of the 2oth century as a center of maritime trade characterized by dilapidated tenements and parking lots. But ever since the San Francisco Museum of Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) set up a beachhead of class on Third Street in 1995, the neighborhood has been going gangbusters.
Don’t Miss: SoMa’s crown jewel, SFMOMA. Culture vultures have plenty to choose from in the neighborhood’s many other museums: the Museum of the African Diaspora, the Contemporary Jewish Art Museum, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, all within two blocks. For those who take their culture in edible form, turn up Yerba Buena Lane for charming shops and cool hangouts like Schoggi Chocoates and Press Club, an urban wine tasting lounge. For a proper sit-down meal, both Saison and Benu are among the city’s most revered restaurants. Or, weather permitting, bring a picnic and plunk down in front of the waterfall at Yerba Buena Gardens-you won’t be the only one.
North Beach and Telegraph Hill
San Francisco’s Little Italy, North Beach is so much more than that- it’s a cultural pastiche of Old Italia, Barbary Coast bawdiness, and beatnik cool. And all that ruckus is just a short (albeit very steep) hike from the quiet outlook of Telegraph Hill.
History: A neighborhood that wears its history on its sleeve, North Beach is the old stomping ground of Joe DiMaggio, the birthplace of the Beat movement, and the home of the world’s first topless strip joint, the Condor Club.
Don’t Miss: City Lights Bookstore is best known for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, but it’s still unquestionably one of the best bookstores in town. Across from Washington Square Park, Liguria Bakery has been making focaccia (and only focaccia) for over a century, while nearby Caffe Trieste is a caffeine-dispensing institution. Grab a cup- it might give you just the kick you need to trek up Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower, whee the view outside is as amazing as the recently restored Depression-era murals inside.
The historic nesting ground of San Francisco’s rich and famous, this neighborhood- dotted with luxury hotels and upscale apartment buildings- still looks the part.
History: In the late 19th century, this is where San Francisco’s nouveau gentry built their mansions, high above the downtown riffraff. After the quake and fire of 1906, only the palatial home of mining tycoon James Flood and the Fairmont Hotel were left standing- and they stand here still.
Don’t Miss: Step into Huntington Park and sunbathe by the famed Fountain of the Turtles. The Gothic Grace Cathedral– decked with murals and tile work that make it a veritable art museum in its own right- is just across the street. From there you can catch a lift to the admission-free Cable Car Museum and watch the system’s subterranean gears crank away. Those same gears will haul you straight to the crown of the neighborhood, the Fairmont San Francisco, with its 1940’s throwback tiki bar, the Tonga Room. Or reach higher yet and cross the street to the Mark Hopkins Hotel’s Top of the Mark, featuring great cocktails and even better views.
Russian Hill and Polk Gluch
History: Russian Hill earned its name from a cluster of Cyrillics crawled gravestones found there in the 1850’s, while Polk Gulch first emerged as a burgeoning gay neighborhood in the ’70s and today is booming with new nightlife spots.
Don’t Miss: Polk Gulch is a great destination if you’re up late and in mood to party. The Hi-Lo Club and Playland Bar offer cocktails and dancing only a block apart, while the Grubstake diner slings burgers until 4 a.m. to satisfy your late-night munchies. For a taste of how the neighborhood is changing, stop by the Lush Lounge: with its sophisticated up-lighting, exposed brick and a bar made from 150-years-old reclaimed farm wood, the room is a far cry from its days as the Polk Gulch Saloon, when its was a prominent hangout for drag queens and transsexuals. On a quiet afternoon, make your way to nearby Russian Hill and Lombard Street– it may not actually be the world’s crookedest street, as many would have you believe, but it is still one of the prettiest. For an even better view, head to the top of Russian Hill to see the beaux arts balustrade at Vallejo and Jones Streets. Fans of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City should seek out tiny Macondray Lane, a cobblestone walkway that served as his inspiration for Barbary Lane.
Fisherman’s Wharf & Pier 39
Your gateway to the bay, this is the best place to hop on a ferry or a sightseeing tour- or to enjoy everything the bay has to offer from the comfort of a shop or chowder house.
History: Perhaps more than any other neighborhood, Fisherman’s Wharf owes its existence to the vision of one person: Henry Meiggs, a real estate speculator who arrived in San Francisco in 1849 and singlehandedly sold the city on the notion of building a north-shore harbor.
Don’t Miss: Ghirardelli Square is a brick-bound landmark for sweet-toothed history buffs. Once an operating mill, dessert is the main output here now, with Ghirardelli chocolate shops as well as Kara’s Cupcakes. ElizabethW also offers hand-blended fragrances, while Yap dispenses Yap Wrap fashion harnesses (little dogs love them).
Seafood is as ubiquitous on the Wharf here as it is fresh, though you can;t go wrong with either The Codmother Fish and Chips or the more upscale Scoma’s. Opportunities for kid-friendly fun abound: the new Madame Tussauds, the San Francisco Dungeon with its haunted house- style Aquarium of the Bay, ferry rides around Alcatraz, and San Francisco Whale Tours. The area is also popular with more than just humans: Walk to the edge of the pier and behold San Francisco’s biggest sea lion haunt.
Upscale and fun-loving, the Marina is shorthand among locals for of-the-moment boutiques and bars. But it’s also bursting with cultural landmarks and occupies one of the city’s most picturesque stretches of waterfront.
History: Following the earthquake and fire that devastated San Francisco in 1906, the Marina (then called Harbor View) was where the city showed off its big revival with the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Much of the neighborhood is built on landfill that contains the remains of downtown buildings destroyed in the quake.
Don’t Miss: Chestnut Street, the Marina’s main commercial strip, is an obvious starting point for shoppers and noshers alike. To catch the salty bay breeze, take a scroll to the Marina Green (watch out for joggers and cyclists). From there, it’s an easy walk to Fort Mason, where you can scope out the Civil War batteries on the bluffs or grab a bite at Greens Restaurant, a high-cuisine classic for vegetarians. On the far side of the neighborhood, the grand, Grecian-style Palace of Fine Arts is the only edifice remaining from the 1915 Exposition.
The Presidio and Crissy Field
Wandering through the old barracks of the Presidio or among the dunes of Crissy Field, it’s easy to forget that you’re in one of America’s most densely packed cities.
History: Watching over the mouth of San Francisco Bay, the Presidio was recognized early on as strategically important: In 1776, the Mexico-born explorer Juan Bautista de Anza constructed a Spanish fort there, the second building in what would become San Francisco.
Don’t Miss: Shuttered as a military base in 1994, the Presidio is now a well-preserved national park. Military history buffs will enjoy a walk down to see the 50-ton artillery gun mounted at Battery Chamberlin over Baker Beach, while nature lovers should seek out one of the many trails and promenades throughout the park: Strolling along Crissy Field will eventually take you beneath the bridge itself. For a taste of civilization, grab a sit-down meal at the Presidio Social Club and hit the Walt Disney Family Museum or the lobby of the Letterman Digital Arts Center, which houses George Lucas’s production and effects studios and is open to the public.
History: Cow Hollow was once a pastoral landscape of vegetable gardens and cattle-grazing land that produced food for the city. The cows themselves were banished from the district in 1891 to address public health concerns, but the name stuck. As settlers began flocking to San Francisco, this stretch of neighborhood between the budding downtown and the Presidio became a verdant home for the wealthy, who built grand and colorful Victorians on the steep hillsides. Because the area was largely spared in the 1906 earthquake, it makes for a fantastic afternoon of wandering for architecture buffs (don’t miss the Octagon House on Gough Street, built in 1861-yes, it has eight sides). The neighborhood is all about preserving a slice of the past and favoring small, locally owned and operated businesses. Even as the shopping district along Union Street has grown to include some premium national brand names, several historic buildings have been preserved and restored. Every year, the shops join together for a June street festival offering food stalls, crafts, and live music, as well as a super sidewalk sale in July with specials and bargains.
Don’t Miss: This neighborhood is known as much for its young and well-groomed residents as for its pristine appearance. To discover for yourself where they outfit themselves, stroll along Union Street and scope out the cool salons, jewelry and apparel shops, galleries, and home decor stores. If you’re the type who likes to sweat, gear up at the new Nike Women’s store and check out the full-body indoor cycling classes at nearby SoulCycle. For a cardiac challenge, head to the western edge of the neighborhood to the Lyon Street steps, adjacent to the Presidio- the view from the top of the Marin Headlands is worth the effort, though you’ll no doubt share the flights with other exercisers and even a few bootcamp classes. Once you’ve summited the stairs, regain those burned calories by taking advantage of one of the neighborhood’s seemingly endless refueling options. Among the best choices are Gamine (a French neighborhood bistro serving classics such as escargot and steamed mussels) and Roam Artisan Burgers. Come nightfall, the streets are hopping with nightlife. The so-called Bermuda Triangle marks the center of the scene at Greenwich and Fillmore Streets, though more leisurely pubs and bars along Union Street, like Perry’s and the Bus Stop Saloon, have their charms.
Clustered around the iconic five-tiered Peace Pagoda, these six square blocks offer as authentic a taste of Japan as you’ll find on this side of the Pacific.
History: The country’s largest and oldest Japanese urban enclave (Nihonmachi), Japantown dates back to the earthquake of 1906, when Japanese immigrants took refuge in the Western Addition after the downtown area was destroyed by fire.
Don’t Miss: A trip to Kabuki Springs & Spa will give you the full onsen experience. For a different way to unwind, grab a movie and a cocktail at Sundance Kabuki cinemas. To find authentic soba or udon for under $10, locals make their way to Mifune, while nearby Kiss Seafood is the place for sushi. Either way, don’t forget to drop by Benkyodo Company for a mochi dessert.
Hayes Valley is one of San Francisco’s great success stories. Little visited and barely noticed just as few years ago, today it is home to some of the city’s most in-demand shops and eateries.
History: Before Europeans settled in Hayes Valley, an Ohlone tribe came to the area to forage for seasonal foods in and around Hayes Creek, which flowed only in winter. Hayes Creek is underground now, one of San Francisco’s many mysterious hidden waterways. The neighborhood’s moniker comes from Thomas Hayes, a local landowner whose brother pulled city hall strings to get Thomas’s name on the most prominent street. Not long ago, Hayes Valley languished beneath the towering Central Freeway, which quite literally cast a shadow over the neighborhood. When 1989’s Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the freeway beyond repair, neighbors rallied to have the entire structure torn down for good.
Don’t Miss: One of the city’s culinary crown jewels, Hayes Valley boasts the always in-demand Zuni Cafe, the Cajun-meets-California flavor of the Boxing Room, and the subtle class of Absinthe Brasserie. While every neighborhood has its share of Italian, Mexican, and Japanese cuisine, Hayes Valley’s secret weapons are Teutonic: one of the city’s best German restaurants, Suppenkuche, and the beloved Biergarten. A German-style outdoor bar plopped on city property formerly occupied by the Central Freeway, the Biergarten is surrounded by a veritable artisanal carnival: coffee stands, bike tours, art shows in abandoned shipping containers, and Smitten Ice Cream, made before your eyes using liquid nitrogen. On the nonculinary side of things, Hayes Valley’s SF Jazz Center has been grooving along for two years now, offering new concerts every week.
The Civic Center
The imposing Civic Center is both the seat of city government and a hub of San Francisco culture.
History: In the early 20th century, San Francisco civic leaders found their city just plain ugly (hotelier Alan Pollock bluntly described its built landscape as “hideous in design and flimsy in finish, shames of lumber and paint”). To transform it into something more appropriate- a glistening, beaux arts -style White City, as one architect put it, “like Paris with hills”- they engaged the services of famed architect Daniel Burnham. Although most of Burnham’s grand designs never broke ground, we do have him to thank for the gorgeous Civic Center, including gold-domed City Hall, the courthouses, the opera house, and the building that now hosts the Asian Art Museum.
Don’t Miss: We dare you to find a more stunning City Hall anywhere in the country. Be sure to go inside and marvel at its famous marble rotunda- you just might catch a wedding ceremony in progress. Around back, you’ll see the equally grand War Memorial Opera House, the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, and the Herbst Theatre standing shoulder to shoulder. Across Civic Center Plaza, the Asian Art Museum houses gorgeous relics well worth an hour (or three) of your time. The American Conservatory Theatre recently opened a new theater across the street from UN Plaza after rehabbing a rundown movie palace.
Still showing its cultural roots as a historic jazz district- but now with a growing sense of upscale chic- the Fillmore remains San Francisco’s thumping musical heart.
History: Once known as the Harlem of the West and the center of the Summer of Love’s Fillmore sound, this neighborhood has hosted American music legends as distinguished and diverse as Billie Holliday, Sammy Davis Jr., Otis Redding, and Janis Joplin.
Don’t Miss: With clubs like the Boom Boom Room (formerly the historic Jack’s Tavern), and Sheba Piano Lounge, all within walking distance, it’s no wonder that this neighborhood hosts the free summer Fillmore Jazz Festival, the largest celebration of its kind on the West Coast. the famous Fillmore auditorium on Geary mixes some psychedelic rock into the neighborhood’s musical DNA, while farther up Fillmore Street, the neighborhood takes on a decidedly swankier tone with cozy boutiques like Nest. Trendy restaurant State Bird Provisions is nearly impossible to get into so why not comfort in wild boar sliders at Fat Angel or the crispy pot pie at the Grove Fillmore.
History: Noe (pronounced No-Ee)0 Valley, named after original landowner José de Jesus Noe, was first developed in the early 1850s by John Meirs Horner, a Mormon farmer who gave many of the neighborhood streets their names (Elizabeth Street was named for his wife, and Jersey Street for his home state of New Jersey). In the 1870s, Irish immigrants flocked to the then ou-of-the-way area- so many that by 1880, San Francisco was one quarter Irish. In the 1970s, the neighborhood became a haven for middle-class families attracted to the sun.
Don’t Miss: Noe Valley is ideal for sunny-day shopping, so join the dog walkers and baby-stroller pushers as you make your way along 24th Street. A local columnist once joked that the best use of a baby stroller is to part Noe shipping crowds- if that’s true, then you might want to chart a course to Mapamundi Kids where they sell trendily organic and fair trade- faithful kid’s clothes and toys. Ambiance has been voted the best local boutique by the San Francisco staff nine times, while nearby Isso San Francisco offers womenswear “made, found, or design in the Bay Area”- singular goods that you can’t get anywhere else. Stop at either Bernie’s or Martha & Bros (or both!) as they compete for the strip’s best cup of coffee. Neighborhood dining options run the gamut from candlelit Italian at Lupa to happy-hour fun at Peruvian fare at Fresca and Catalan tapas and outstanding churros at Contigo. While the debate to name San Francisco’s top sushi is rivaled only by the great burrito controversy, Hamano Sushi’s hand rolls, which are named for local neighborhoods (choose from the Noe, the Castro, and the Mission), are formidable contenders. Once the clock hits happy hour and you’re in the mood for a no-nonsense drink, forget about the trendy cocktail clubs in other neighborhoods in favor of this once working-class Irish neighborhood’s best enduring working-class Irish pub, the Dubliner, where the drinks are solid, the atmosphere is cozy and welcoming, and they let you bring in takeout food from neighborhood eateries.
Nopa and Alamo Square
Don’t let NoPa’s functional name (short for north of the Panhandle) and unassuming Victorian character deceive you: Teeming with trendy restaurants and late-night clubs, it’s becoming known as the new Mission.
History: NoPa used to be subsumed within the larger Western Addition, the city’s historic middle-class African American neighborhood. But with the recent influx of young professionals, its trendy new moniker has taken hold.
Don’t Miss: You’re in San Francisco, so you might as well make a trip to Alamo Square Park to see the Painted Ladies. (If you haven’t seen these colorful Victorians on 10,000 postcards, maybe you’ll remember them from the television show Full House.) Down in NoPa proper, the attractions are less aesthetic and more epicurean. Try the neighborhood’s eponymous eatery, Nopa, or its nearby diminutive Mexican kitchen, Nopalito, and then head for the pelagic happy hour at Bar Crudo. Once the sun goes down, catch a show at the funky Independent music venue or, if you have the energy, line up outside Madrone Art Bar, where the featured exhibition is usually obscured by the crowded dance floor.
Just south of the Haight, Cole Valley is easy to overlook but distinctly more mellow and relaxed than its busier neighbors.
History: Like many San Francisco neighborhoods, Cole Valley was originally farmland. (It had a pond too.) In the ’20s, the city dug a new subway tunnel to service the “Outside Lands” (now considered the Sunset district) and the intersection of Carl and Cole Streets suddenly became a transit hub.
Don’t Miss: Cozy, tasty Zazie has been drawing San Franciscans and tourists alike into Cole Valley for brunch (complete with wine and spirits) for almost 25 years. Just down the block, Say Cheese, purveyor celebrates its 40th birthday this year. Florentine immigrant Claudio Villani provides both wine and class at InoVino. and just behind UCSF Medical Center, you’ll find the entrance to the secluded Mount Sutro Forest.
History: The stretch of Market Street running through Eureka Valley was too steep for horses, keeping this neighborhood remote until the 1880s, when a wave of settlers chugged in on steam-powered streetcars and created a melting-pot neighborhood of immigrant families sometimes dubbed little Scandinavia. Most Holy Redeemer Church opened in 1901 and became the heart of the neighborhood, complete with a convent whose nuns taught at the grammar school. In the late ’60s, San Francisco’s gay population, encouraged by the burgeoning gay rights movement to live openly and create a community, began settling in the Castro’s fading (and relatively cheap at the time) Queen Anne Victorians. By the ’70s, the neighborhood was America’s most prominent gay village. Most Holy Redeemer is still here, dubbing itself San Francisco’s inclusive Catholic parish.
Don’t Miss: The centerpiece of the Castro is the lavish art deco Castro Theatre, whose unmissable red neon sign helped give the neighborhood its name. Check the schedule for film festival showings, double features, and boisterous sing-along nights. At the intersection of Market and Castro Streets, across the street from one of the world’s largest rainbow flags, is Twin Peaks Tavern, the city’s oldest gay bar and the first to have windows that allowed a view of its interior from the street (old-school gay bars blacked out their windows to protect the anonymity of their clients). If you’re seeking a high-energy gay bar scene, try dancing at the Badlands or stopping in to see the local characters at 440 Castro. For an even deeper dive into neighborhood history, visit the GLBT History Museum or to Magnet, a one-stop health clinic for gay men combined with a culture center that features local artwork and hosts seminars on local history. If you’re looking for sustenance to get you up Sanchez Street to the top of Dolores Heights or over to dog-friendly Duboce Park, indulge in coffee flights paired with excellent baked goods at the new Hearth Coffee Roasters. Both Frances and Starbelly restaurants offer the best in California-inspired cuisine, while the ultra-casual sandwich shop Ike’s Place always has a line. Woodhouse Fish Company offers dollar oysters on Tuesdays, but do those top the ones at nearby Anchor Oyster Bar? You’ll have to be the judge. Orphan Andy’s burgers and fries are conveniently on offer 24 hours a day for those in need of a bite after partying the night away. Once you’re sated, find a souvenir of this distinctly San Francisco neighborhood among the rare and hard-to-find jewelry, collectibles, and antiques at Brand X Antiques. Tim Flint, its owner for 25 years, can answer any questions you have on the neighborhood’s history and fill you in on the local gossip.
The official birthplace of the hippie, Haight-Ashbury still has a strong whiff of the countercultural, but even clean-cut folks will find much to love in the ample eating and shopping opportunities.
History: Before 1967’s Summer of Love solidified the neighborhood’s reputation, state planners had intended to cleave the northern edge of the neighborhood with a freeway. The plan, though ultimately dropped, caused a plunge in property values that made the area an ideal place for flower-wearing youth to settle.
Don’t Miss: A walk along Haight Street from Buena Vista Park to Golden Gate Park is its own immersive cultural experience. As you pass the head shops and tattoo parlors, pay special attention to local mainstays like the Red Victorian, Amoeba Music, and Piedmont Boutique, with its famous stockinged legs. At Loved to Death antiques, you can buy a human skull for what we assume must be a pretty good price. For newer and more appetizing offerings, check out the Alembic or Maven for dining and, in the Lower Haight, Toronado for its illustrious beer selection.
Golden Gate Park
With museums and other attractions sprinkled among the park’s wooded network of trails, gardens, and lakes, you just might get lost in its verdant expanse- as you should.
History: To reclaim San Francisco’s “outside lands” from the sand dunes and create a park, city officials planted more than 150,000 trees on some 1,000 acres throughout the 1870s. At the project’s outset, locals were skeptical that the sandy soil on the city’s west end could grow anything. Initial attempts were foiled when the seeds and sprouts blew away in coastal winds, but a breakthrough came when barley from an engineer’s horse’s nosebag spilled and, amazingly, sprouted. City officials quickly sowed the parkland with wild barley, which protected the more fragile plants as they rook root, and the park was born. Today, Golden Gate Park is one of the largest urban parks in the United States, stretching more than three miles from the Panhandle to the sea.
Don’t Miss: the copper-colored de Young Museum, the kid-favorite California Academy of Sciences, and the serene Japanese Tea Garden border the Music Concourse, the cultural center of the park. Frim there, it’s only a short walk south to the always lovely San Francisco Botanical Garden, with more than 7,000 species of plants, or northeast to the Conservatory of Flowers. If you get lost, just head to Stow Lake and climb to the top of Strawberry Hill, from which you can orient yourself with views of downtown.
Known as a largely residential neighborhood, the Richmond district is also one of the city’s most diverse, with excellent eating options and some of the best urban hiking in the city.
History: German mining magnate (and mayor) Adolph Sutro bought these sand dunes in the late 19th century and built Sutro Baths, then the worlds largest indoor swimming pool complex. When the Southern Pacific Railroad company decided to gouge customers for the long trip out to the beachside attraction, Sutro secured his status as a populist hero by building his own line and charging a nickel a ticket.
Don’t Miss: Take a culinary tour of East Asia along Clement Street, where you’ll find some of the city’s best dim sum, noodle, and soup shops. On Clement, just up from Sixth Avenue, sprawling, labyrinthine used bookstore Green Apple Books has been a neighborhood institution since 1967. If you make your way all the way down to the water, head to Sutro Heights Park and the historic Cliff House restaurant for stunning views of the water and the Sutro Bath ruins. Trek farther still, down the Lands End Trail that wraps around the Legion of Honor fine art Museum, to see the city’s best views of the Golden Gate.
Despite its sun-referencing name, this district is known for evening fog that lends an air of romance to its cozy cafés, bookstores, bars, and restaurants.
History: Now a series of lively residential neighborhoods, the Sunset started as a windswept sand pile populated only by dairy farms and the occasional chicken ranch. When the city switched from horsedrawn public transport to electric cable cars, enterprising San Franciscans bought the old lorries, hauled them out tot the edge of the secluded and sandy Sunset. The resulting community of bohemians living in horse cars on stilts was dubbed Carville.
Don’t Miss: Ocean Beach’s world-renowned waves lure wetsuit-clad surfers who are often seen walking the streets with their surfboard in tow. But the beach is just as good for walkers, who can stop by the waterfront Beach Chalet or the hip but convivial Outerlands. Nearby, the San Francisco Zoo, which started with a single grizzly bear named Monarch, today displays hundreds of species, including a newly arrived rare red panda. Closer to civilization, the corner of Seventh Avenue and Irving Street is the hub of the Inner Sunset. From there grab sushi at KOO or find a cozy respite from the foggy chill at Fireside Bar.
Source: Cityguide, A Publication of SanFrancisco magazine Pg. 37-53