San Francisco Neighborhoods & Towns
San Francisco rests on the tip of a peninsula along the central California coast; it's flanked by the San Francisco Bay to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The city is actually much smaller than its reputation, but its hilly terrain allows for more separation among its multitude of neighborhoods.
San Francisco is made up of numerous ethnically distinct and historically vibrant districts. It's also perhaps the most gay-friendly city in the world, and many of the city's neighborhoods — especially The Castro — are excellent for exploring and understanding the city's rich LGBT history.
Nob Hill and Russian Hill
Nob Hill and Russian Hill are sandwiched together between downtown and Fisherman's Wharf. Nob Hill houses several noteworthy hotels, including The Huntington and The Fairmont San Francisco. If you're in this area, make sure to stop by the impressive Grace Cathedral, a smaller replica of Paris' Notre-Dame Cathedral. Just north of Nob Hill and southwest of Fisherman's Wharf, Russian Hill is primarily a residential neighborhood and it is home to the renowned Lombard Street, "The Crookedest Street in the World."
Chinatown, a 24-block neighborhood of restaurants and shops nestled between Nob Hill and the Financial District, is a must-visit for any historically inclined tourist. The California Gold Rush — which attracted huge numbers of immigrants of Chinese ethnicity, among other backgrounds — picked up steam in San Francisco in 1849. Today, San Francisco's Chinatown exists as the largest Chinese community in North America. Enter the neighborhood through the famous stone and green tiled Dragon Gate, which arches over Grant Avenue at Bush Street. Chinatown is also chock-full of restaurants serving up lip-smacking good dumplings, steam buns, noodles and more. Other sites worth a visit in this charming neighborhood include the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory and the area's notable (and visually appealing) temples and churches.
Downtown and the Financial District
Occupying the northeast section of the city, downtown remains San Francisco's economic epicenter. Most activity takes place around Union Square, where shopaholics head to browse such stores as Neiman Marcus and Alexander McQueen. Meanwhile, Maiden Lane's sidewalk cafes offer a nice respite for snacks and people-watching.
If you haven't quite fulfilled your need for something new, head a few blocks northwest to the Financial District, known fondly as the "Wall Street of the West." Here, you'll find plenty more shopping and dining options.
You'll find many of San Francisco's best hotels in the downtown area and the Financial District as these are prime locations for travelers to stay, offering easy access to top attractions via BART train, cable cars and Muni Metro light rails and buses.
For great views of the bay, take a stroll along the Embarcadero, which traces the waterfront and passes the Ferry Building Marketplace as well as the "learning laboratory," The Exploratorium. The Embarcadero runs from the intersection of Second and King streets near AT&T Park, extending north beneath the Bay Bridge and ends at Pier 45 just past Taylor Street. You'll find plenty of streetside cafes along this stretch and ample sidewalk if you're interested in going for a jog or bike ride.
Despite its proximity to ritzy Nob Hill and kitschy Fisherman's Wharf, North Beach is an entity all unto its own. This neighborhood earned a name for itself in the 1950s as the heart of the literary Beat Movement, welcoming such participants as author Jack Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsberg. You can find their work for sale at City Lights; the original publisher of Ginsberg's most famous work, "Howl," City Lights is now one of the most popular bookstores in the city.
Today, the North Beach area is a favorite among both visitors and San Franciscans. It's known as the "Little Italy" of San Francisco and rife with Italian restaurants and cafes. You'll also find a wide variety of independently owned boutiques and some of the liveliest nightlife spots.
Fisherman's Wharf and the Marina District
North of downtown is the ever-popular Fisherman's Wharf neighborhood, which beckons to tourists with its abundance of souvenir shops and seafood restaurants. For a great view of the bay (and possibly a performance by a lovable group of sea lions), take a walk along Pier 39. Nearby, you can stroll along the sand at Aquatic Park, put all hands on deck at Hyde Street Pier's Maritime Museum or satisfy your sweet tooth at Ghirardelli Square. Fisherman's Wharf is also the ferry launch to Alcatraz Island, where the infamous former federal penitentiary still stands. Because of its abundance of dining and entertainment options, first-time visitors to San Francisco may want to opt for a room in a Fisherman's Wharf hotel.
Just west of Fisherman's Wharf is the Marina District — full of apartments, charming shops and trendy restaurants, and teeming with lively 20- and 30-somethings. You'll also get great views of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marina District. While you're here, take some time to explore the Palace of Fine Arts. Constructed in 1915 for the Pan-Pacific International Exhibition, this Greco-Roman inspired palace remains one of the city's most famous constructions. And if you're looking for a wild night out on the town, the Marina District's bars and lounges should suffice.
Pacific Heights and Western Addition
The Pacific Heights area — just south of the Marina District and west of Nob Hill — features million-dollar Victorian mansions, plentiful parks and prime views of the city's crown jewel: the Golden Gate Bridge. The main activity of choice in this area is shopping; visitors and San Franciscans alike take to the streets of Pacific Heights to hit the trendy boutiques and designer stores that line Fillmore Street.
If you continue south on Fillmore Street, you'll stumble upon the Western Addition, a grouping of several culturally diverse neighborhoods. People of many different ethnicities reside here, which has led to the emergence of equally disparate restaurants and shops. The Fillmore area features outdoor music shows and annual jazz festivals that pay tribute to the neighborhood's rich music history, while Japantown shows off its heritage in sushi bars, street fairs and the Cherry Blossom Festival. Alamo Square is home to the famous Painted Ladies Victorian houses, seen in the opening credits of the hit '90s sitcom, "Full House," and in other notable film and small screen productions.
Presidio and Sea Cliff
To the west of the Marina District is the Presidio, a nearly 1,500-acre park flanking the southern foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. (You might recognize this massive green space as the site of Kim Novak's suicide in Alfred Hitchcock's film, "Vertigo.") The Presidio's military past beckons to history buffs: Fort Point features authentic military memorabilia dating back to 1776. If you're just looking to spend some time outside, the Presidio (part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area) offers a great backdrop for surfers and sailors.
Meanwhile, massive mansions rise from the ground in the ritzy neighborhood of Sea Cliff, bordered by the Presidio on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west. This part of town is worth a drive or stroll through if you're especially interested in beautiful houses and architecture — you'll find a plethora of multi-million dollar accommodations here; actor Robin Williams and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey are among the celebs who call Sea Cliff home.
Mostly a residential neighborhood, the Richmond District is situated on San Francisco's northwestern edge, bordered by the Presidio to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the West and Golden Gate Park to the south. Access to these parks and recreation space make the Richmond District an outdoorsy traveler's paradise. Plus, the Richmond District has a reputation for having superb restaurants featuring everything from Thai food to French bistro cuisine that make for a nice evening out.
Golden Gate Park
Out-measuring New York City's Central Park, Golden Gate Park in the city's northwestern end spans across 1,000 acres and boasts plenty of trails, picnic areas, gardens and lakes. The park also features some notable attractions within its limits, such as the Japanese Tea Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers and Strawberry Hill. Plus, this massive park offers excellent views of both the Pacific Ocean and the nearby Golden Gate Bridge. If you're a die-hard surfer, head to Ocean Beach at the park's western edge for some killer (yet icy and unpredictable) waves. When you're in town, check the city's events calendar to see if the park is hosting any fun festivals or tours.
Another heavily populated residential area in the western part of San Fran just south of Golden Gate Park, the Sunset District is one of the city's most family-friendly neighborhoods. Some sites to see if you're in the area include the San Francisco Zoo and Lake Merced. But despite its popularity, Sunset seems to see some of the worst weather (hint: fog) in the city because of its proximity to the Pacific Ocean.
Commonly known as "The Haight," travelers and experts say that a visit to this area — located just east of Golden Gate Park and northwest of The Castro — evokes memories of the city's 1960s hippie culture. In this neighborhood, you'll find vague remnants of a past era: incense, tie-dye and flower-power trinkets are sold at vintage clothing shops, which are surrounded by trendier restaurants and boutiques. Tourists and residents alike flock here for a new piercing, rocker haircut or to take advantage of the numerous nightclubs that continue to emerge.
To experience San Francisco's LGBT culture, head to the vibrant Castro neighborhood west of the Mission District. The Castro is a landmark location for the LGBT community. This neighborhood welcomed numerous LGBT residents during the 1960s, including Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay person to be elected to public office and leader of the activist movement of the 1960s and 70s. Today, the neighborhood continues to buzz with activity at all hours, with lively restaurants and shops lining Market and Castro streets. However, San Franciscans agree that the best time to visit this neighborhood is at night, when music begins to pour from the Castro's many bars and clubs and the neon lights illuminate the night. The Castro also comes alive during the festivals it holds: the Castro Street Fair (in October) and events for San Francisco Pride Month (in June).
The Mission District
South of SoMa is the Mission District. Having derived its name from the nearby Mission Dolores — founded in 1776 — this neighborhood is the heart of San Francisco's Hispanic population and a favorite spot for migrating bohemians. The Mission District boasts an overwhelming number of authentic Hispanic restaurants, shops and bars, as well as many colorful murals to enjoy.
If you head east from Mission, you'll end up in Potrero. While it is technically a part of the Mission District, Potrero is described by experts as "more modern," with several upscale shopping and dining options. And south of the Mission you'll find Bernal Heights, a residential area that maintains a similar bohemian feel with a smattering of small markets, cafes, unique boutiques and community gardens.
Tenderloin, SoMa and South Beach
A few blocks south of downtown is the Tenderloin district. This area has a reputation for being rather seedy, but the Tenderloin has seen improvement over the past few years. Here, you'll find a mix of independently owned shops, dive bars, brunch spots, live music venues and up-and-coming restaurants. However, you should still avoid the Tenderloin once the sun goes down, especially if you're alone.
Head south of the Tenderloin and you'll find yourself in SoMa (short for "South of Market Street"). Once an abandoned sweep of warehouses, this neighborhood has emerged as the heart of contemporary San Francisco. Here, you'll find plenty of art and entertainment venues, perfect for those looking to mix and mingle with San Franciscans.
South Beach is an up-and-coming residential neighborhood, but it's also home to AT&T Park, the San Francisco Giants' waterfront baseball stadium.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
If you're looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the big city, San Francisco's expansive Golden Gate National Recreation Area offers plenty of opportunities to hike, swim and enjoy the outdoors. The Muir Woods National Monument, just north of the city across the Golden Gate Bridge, is a favorite spot among nature lovers due to its spectacular array of the giant Redwood trees, which can be enjoyed from Muir Woods' 6 miles of hiking trails. If you're looking to cool down after a hike, don your swimsuit and enjoy the Pacific from one of the many beaches like Muir Beach, Stinson Beach or Pirates Cove.
Located across the Golden Gate Bridge about 10 miles north of San Francisco proper, Sausalito is a small town that could make for a good day trip when you're visiting the City by the Bay. Sausalito's picturesque position along the shores of the bay offers splendid views of the water and boats that putter through. Plus, the town has quite of few of its own attractions, including art galleries, museums and shops. For more information on what to do in Sausalito, visit the city's official website. Accommodations-wise, you'll find a handful of boutique hotels, but recent visitors say that staying in San Fran is more convenient for those visiting the Bay Area.
This small city is pretty well-known thanks to the prestigious university that calls it home: the University of California, Berkeley. What's more, the town offers a handful of interesting attractions and sites to see, like botanical gardens, art museums and shopping strips. You'll find Berkeley just about 15 miles northeast of San Francisco across the Bay Bridge. For more information, visit the city of Berkeley's website.
Situated opposite the bay about 10 miles east of San Francisco, Oakland is a major port city and trade hub for the region. In Oakland, you can take a trip to see the towering trees at Redwood Regional Park, saunter along the streets of Old Oakland, learn about the beyond at the Chabot Space & Science Center or drink in history at the Oakland Aviation Museum. Oakland's visitor's bureau has more info on the city's offerings available on its website. You may even want to consider staying in Oakland as opposed to San Francisco: Hotel rates are generally lower, and the BART train connects the two cities, making travel fairly easy. But while hotel prices may be cheaper in Oakland, you'll have to consider the time you'll be sacrificing in transit; most travelers do suggest staying in San Francisco to get the true City by the Bay experience.
Like any major city, San Francisco has its share of rough spots. The city's progressive reputation and lax drug laws have attracted a large homeless population, who panhandle throughout the main tourist areas and in San Francisco's downtown area. Violent crime against tourists remains rare, but out-of-towners can be the victims of theft, especially those unaware of their surroundings. When riding on public transportation, always keep hold of your belongings. Don't walk alone at night, and don't carry large sums of cash while you're in the city. Avoid the SoMa and Tenderloin areas at night; both are known for high incidence of crime.