San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods, each with a distinct culture, history, and vibe. In the 49 square miles that make up the City by the Bay, there isn’t just one best part of town to visit. San Francisco has neighborhoods for almost any interest, whether it is high-end shopping, nightlife, foodie travel, or simply experiencing the famous sights such as the Haight-Ashbury and The Mission.
San Francisco is full of unique neighborhoods brimming with character and charm. Despite covering just seven square miles, no two neighborhoods are remotely similar. Every area has a distinct atmosphere and scene. The spirit of each neighborhood can range from luxurious to bohemian while only being a few minutes apart. Even the weather conditions can change from one region to the next. For instance, the Mission District is notoriously sunny even when other parts of the city are chilly.
This phenomenon is called a microclimate, and San Francisco is famous for it. In one day, visitors to the Golden Gate city can experience clear skies in one neighborhood and whipping winds in the next, so be prepared for all kinds of circumstances when roaming these extraordinary areas. With so many different options to choose from, it can be challenging to know exactly where to begin. Here are the top eight neighborhoods in San Francisco that you can add to your itinerary, from the touristy spots to the off-the-beaten-path areas only locals talk about.
Union Square — In the heart of San Francisco, Union Square is a thriving and energetic neighborhood known for its incredible shopping, world-class restaurants, and entertaining bars. The one-block plaza of Union Square itself is impressive, but the best shopping can be found a short walk away on Maiden Lane.
Here, visitors will discover high-end retailers, including Chanel, Marc Jacobs, and Yves Saint Laurent. Besides the shopping, Maiden Lane also offers fabulous outdoor lunches at several of the cafes. Many visitors are surprised to learn that Union Square has a lot of local theaters as well. To find out what shows are playing in the area, you should stop at the Bay Area TIX located directly in the center of the square.
Art enthusiasts will love the many galleries in Union Square. Two favorites are the Robert Koch Gallery, which features photography, and the Caldwell Snyder Gallery, which is a contemporary gallery with international reach. On the first Thursday of every month, the art galleries in the area host an engaging Art Walk.
The walk usually features over ten galleries within walking distance of each other and is a great way to see some of the city’s best studios firsthand. Union Square is conveniently located close to all major modes of public transportation. This makes it accessible to most other parts of the city.
Fisherman’s Wharf — Arguably the most visited neighborhood in San Francisco – Fisherman’s Wharf offers countless activities and delicious cuisine. This area is known for its seafood restaurants that line the impressive piers. These joints serve up fresh crabs, scallops, halibut, and more daily, directly on the water. No visitor should leave San Francisco without first having a bowl of the exquisite clam chowder found here. Pier 39 is a Fisherman’s Wharf icon due to its many attractions.
Guests can observe sea lions in their natural habitat from the Pier along with the Golden Gate Bridge. For even more marine life, consider touring the Aquarium of the Bay, a non-profit nature center where all can come face to face with close to 20,000 local marine animals. The wharf’s marketplace, Ghirardelli Square is filled with a unique mix of shops and restaurants as well.
In the plaza, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop offers dozens of chocolate flavors, from popular ones like dark chocolate to unusual flavors like onion crisps. With so many attractions, Fisherman’s Wharf can get very crowded. For those looking to avoid large groups and long queues, the off-season is considerably quieter. Don’t let this deter a visit, though. There are hundreds of reasons to explore the beautiful Fisherman’s Wharf.
The Mission District — As one of San Francisco’s oldest neighborhoods and boasting a strong Latino heritage, the Mission is a melting pot of San Francisco’s history and culture. The neighborhood’s namesake, Mission Dolores, is an adobe chapel that was dedicated in 1791. Today it stands as San Francisco’s oldest structure.
In the same area, Mission Dolores Park is often referred to as the social hub of the area on the weekends. Visitors can spend an afternoon in the park for an authentic San Francisco experience. For trendy restaurants and boutiques, take a stroll along Valencia Street, running parallel to Valencia, you will find Mission Street. This road houses some of the best Mexican restaurants in all of San Francisco, from La Taqueria to Taqueria Cancun. No trip to the Mission is complete without a Mission-style burrito in one of the restaurants!
Also known for its murals, the Mission has cultivated a proud history of public art since the 1980s. Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley are two of the neighborhood’s most densely painted lanes with continuously changing murals. The District also has a thriving nightlife for those looking to check out some of San Francisco’s popular bars and nightclubs. Head over to Valencia Street where all of the venues are within walking distance and the next great bar is right around the corner.
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SoMa — One of the largest and most well-known neighborhoods in San Francisco – South of Market (SoMa) sprawls from the Embarcadero to Eleventh Street, in between Market Street and Townsend. Covering such a wide area, it encompasses an impressive variety of museums, restaurants, nightclubs, and even a ballpark. A must-see attraction in the neighborhood is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).
SFMOMA contains seven floors of extraordinary art, world-class exhibitions, the largest living wall in the US, and breathtaking views of San Francisco from the terraces and outdoor gardens. The Contemporary Jewish Museum and the Museum of the African Diaspora can also be found in SoMa.
Oracle Park, one of the premier ballparks in the US is also situated in this neighborhood. Home of the three-time baseball World Series champion, San Francisco Giants, Oracle Park offers stunning views of San Francisco Bay and a riveting game of baseball – if you time your trip right.
SoMa is packed with a good variety of bars and nightclubs, making for a great destination if you are looking to stay out till late. The nightlife can range from speakeasy cocktail lounges to electronic dance clubs. For those visiting the district in September, you can look forward to Folsom Street Fair – the world’s largest leather subculture street fair. The event is attended by 250 – 400,000 people each year.
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North Beach — As one of San Francisco’s most diverse neighborhoods, North Beach is an excellent area to explore. It has a strong Italian American community earning its name, “Little Italy.” Along Columbus Avenue, the street is densely packed with cafes, restaurants, and coffee shops. Visitors are guaranteed authentic pizzas, cappuccinos, and gelatos while dining in this district! North Beach also offers some of the best views in all of San Francisco.
On the top of Telegraph Hill sits the 201-foot Coit Memorial Tower, built in 1933. From the top, you can get a 360-degree view of the city and the Bay Area, at the bottom of the tower, visitors are greeted with gorgeous murals that illustrate scenes of the Great Depression. Admission to the ground floor of the tower is free for everyone, however, you will need a ticket to access the second floor.
If you are feeling particularly adventurous and have the energy for it, consider hiking to the tower via the Filbert Street steps. These famous stairs are popular as it’s a great way to get your heart pumping as you get to one of San Francisco’s top attractions. But it is not for the faint of heart, with a gradient of 17.5o and around 500 stairs, Filbert Street is one of the steepest streets in the western hemisphere.
For additional outdoor recreation while in North Beach, visit Washington Square Park. It is an excellent location for a relaxing and scenic picnic. You will also find the Beat Museum just a short 6-minute walk from Washington Square Park. The museum covers the history of the Beat (also called Beatnik) Generation who influenced the American culture after World War II.
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Nob Hill — Nob Hill is San Francisco’s most elegant and fashionable neighborhood with luxurious hotels, restaurants, and shops catering to visitors willing to splash out a little extra. The stylish architectural design of some of the buildings in Nob Hill is unparalleled with the rest of the city. Not every corner of the district is high-end, however. Some of the more intriguing parts of Nob Hill such as Polk Street are lined with vintage barber shops, cafes, and cocktail lounges.
Nob Hill is also home to the Cable Car Museum – a tribute to San Francisco’s iconic transportation system. Located in the center of the neighborhood is Huntington Park which offers a great escape from the busy bustle of San Francisco. A visit to Nob Hill is not complete without a trip to Grace Cathedral. The cathedral is famed for its varied stained glass windows and mural-covered walls depicting the history of the city.
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The Haight-Ashbury — Haight Ashbury is one of San Francisco’s most affluent and expensive neighborhoods, with many restored Victorian homes. The neighborhood became famous as a bohemian enclave in the 1950s and 60s and was the center of the American hippie counterculture. In 1967 nearly 100,000 young people (sometimes referred to as “flower children”) converged on the Haight-Ashbury for what is now known as the “Summer of Love”. Former residents of the Haight include Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and Jefferson’s Airplane. Often, these iconic musicians would play impromptu concerts at the Golden Gate Park.
Today, this area is still known for its free-spirited and bohemian vibe. Guests of the Haight will find funky vintage clothing boutiques on Upper Haight Street. Along this road, you can even poke into vinyl record shops and buy new releases, second-hand gems, and rarities. If you are a fan of the Grateful Dead, make sure to walk up to 710 Ashbury Street so you can check out the house that they lived in from 1965 – 1968. It is a private residence so remember to be polite and regard the premises as such.
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The Castro — In between the popular Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and the multicultural Mission District is The Castro, one of San Francisco’s most recognizable neighborhoods. This area first rose to fame in the 1960s and 1970s when San Francisco was at the heart of the gay pride movement. Political activist, Harvey Milk, lived and had his headquarters in The Castro. For those unaware, Milk was the first openly gay elected official in the state of California. This neighborhood became the center of evolution because of it. To this day, The Castro remains one of the most famously LGBTQ+ neighborhoods in the United States.
Packed with many great bars, pubs, and nightclubs, this neighborhood is also renowned for its vibrant nightlife – arguably the best in San Francisco. Visitors to The Castro should catch a show or even take a walk by the Castro Theatre. Since it opened its doors in 1922, the Castro theatre has become a symbol of the neighborhood with its baroque facade. Another landmark of the area is the Seward Street Slides. Built in 1973, these unusual slides were designed by a 14-year-old girl called Kim Clark who won the design competition put on by the famous American sculptor Ruth Asawa.
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Financial District — The bustling neighborhood of the Financial District serves as the city’s business center. Known for its impressive skyscrapers and the many Fortune 500 Companies that have headquarters here, It earned its accurate nickname “The Wall Street of the West.” The most impressive of the skyscrapers is the distinctive Transamerica Pyramid containing 48 floors. When the tower was first completed in 1972, it ranked as one of the five tallest buildings in the world.
Besides the typical commotion of a workweek, the Financial District also holds some of the city’s best and oldest restaurants. Tadich Grill opened its doors in 1849 as a coffee stand that served fresh fish to sailors. Over 170 years on, the restaurant is still serving the people of San Francisco fresh grilled fish on a first come first serve basis. If you are in need of a good laugh, head over to the Punch Line Comedy Club.
Since it opened its doors in 1978, many legendary comedians have walked through. Several big names even learned their craft on the stage of the Punch Line including, Robin Williams, Ellen Degeneres, Drew Carey, and Chris Rock. You are guaranteed a hilarious evening when spent in the Punch Line Comedy Club.