San Francisco Travel Guide

USA  #1 in Best Foodie Cities in the USA
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San Francisco Area Map

Neighborhoods

San Francisco rests on the tip of a peninsula along the northern 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 sits high on the hills of the city, sandwiched together between downtown and Fisherman's Wharf. Nob Hill houses several noteworthy luxury hotels, including The Huntington and The Fairmont San Francisco. As such, Nob Hill is more upscale in feel. This can quickly be felt in Huntington Park, where some of the city's top hotels are located. This small patch of well-manicured green space is often considered the center of the neighborhood, bearing a replica of The Fountain of Tortoises from Rome within and flanked by the Gothic Grace Cathedral, a smaller replica of ParisNotre-Dame Cathedral. The neighborhood is also lined with impressive Victorian structures as well as a few Michelin-starred establishments. 

Just north of Nob Hill and southwest of Fisherman's Wharf, Russian Hill is primarily a residential neighborhood and more laid-back in style. The neighborhood stands out for its steepness, so much so that travelers will find stairs leading up pedestrian walkways. Many will remember it though for being home to the photographer-favorite Lombard Street, dubbed "The Crookedest Street in the World." And if you're wondering how the neighborhood got its name, it's because a Russian gravesite was found at the top of the neighborhood's hill during the gold rush. The neighborhood no longer teems with Russian culture, though the area is enjoyed for its bounty of local establishments. If you feel your sweet tooth start to bite, locals recommend heading over to Swensen's ice cream shop, a neighborhood favorite.

Chinatown, a 24-block neighborhood of restaurants and shops nestled between Nob Hill and the Financial District, is truly a must visit for all kinds of travelers; foodies, culture enthusiasts, historical nuts, you name it. 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 both the oldest Chinatown in North America and one of the largest outside of Asia.

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 include the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory and the area's notable (and visually appealing) temples and churches. If you really want to get a taste of the local culture (and if you're in San Francisco on a weekend), shop around the food stalls on Stockton Street. During this time you'll see the area bustling with locals doing their weekly shopping.

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 its variety of stores, including everything from Forever 21 and H&M to Neiman Marcus and Alexander McQueen. Meanwhile, Maiden Lane's sidewalk cafes offer a nice respite for snacks and people-watching.

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 light rails and buses.

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 lively nightlife spots. Whichever side of the neighborhood you decide to explore, carve out some time to rest your feet at Washington Square Park, a local hangout and unofficial center of North Beach, or take in the spectacular city views from Pioneer Park, home of the Coit Tower.

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 the 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, as well as close proximity to top attractions, 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, shopping options 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 palace remains one of the city's most eye-catching constructions. And if you're looking for a long night out on the town, the Marina District's numerous bars and lounges should suffice. You'll find many of the neighborhood's nighttime establishments along Fillmore Street as well as Chestnut Street. The area is also a great place for shopping, with numerous boutiques and national retailers located on both Chestnut and Union Street, just a few blocks south. Though when it's a sunny day, locals say the best activity is hanging out along the waterfront, either browsing the local produce at the Fort Mason Center Farmers' Market or taking a stroll along the sand at Crissy Field, which directly faces the Golden Gate Bridge.

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, which was San Francisco's first multicultural neighborhood. The neighbor first served as the heart of the city's African-American community as well as hosted Japanese-Americans during the second World War and Jewish immigrants. The diversity isn't what it once was due to some gentrification, but you'll still find remanents of its previous inhabitants. The neighborhood was once the city's jazz main hub, with the likes of Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday frequently playing clubs in the area. There's also Japantown, concentrated at Japan Center, which features sushi bars, street fairs and hosts the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. Alamo Square is located here too. You may know recognize it as the 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.

Haight-Ashbury

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, for which this neighborhood was the center. In this neighborhood, you'll find vague remnants of a past era such as record stores and smoke shops, or establishments with a peace sign emblazoned on the store window. The area is particularly known for its plethora of vintage shops and is considered a good place for a night out on the town. Keep in the mind that the area has definitely been updated since the 60s with trendy shops and restaurants throughout. The Haight can get crowded with tourists, especially on the weekend and there are panhandlers no matter which time you visit. 

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 in the 1970s. 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).

East of The Castro 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 creative young professionals. The Mission District boasts an overwhelming number of authentic Hispanic restaurants, shops and bars, as well as many colorful murals to enjoy, especially in Clarion Alley. The other part of The Mission clearly belongs to the newer residents of the neighborhood, with independent coffee shops, book stores and thrift stores. 24th Street is seen as the heart of the Hispanic community while the latter can be found the closer you are to Dolores Park.

A few blocks south of downtown is the Tenderloin district. This area has long had a reputation for being seedy. The neighborhood got its name from the incentive cops would get for patrolling here. In exchange for extra money, they would be able to buy themselves nicer things such as top shelf meat, aka tenderloin. The neighborhood sees drug dealers and prostitutes on the regular as well as lots of homeless people, so visitors don't need to visit it at all. 

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 (though some abandoned warehouses still remain). The neighborhood is a mix of residential pockets, nightlife hot spots, businesses and art institutions. The latter is primarily concentrated around Yerba Buena gardens, where you can find the Children's Creativity Museum, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Academy of Art University and the San Francisco Museum of Art. Moscone Convention Center, across the street from Yerba Buena Gardens, brings in a lot of business travelers to the area as well as the Caltrain, which goes to Silicon Valley, while in lower SoMa, Folsom and Eleventh is considered the center of the gay leather and S&M scene. SoMa is also known for housing AT&T Park, the San Francisco Giants' waterfront baseball stadium.

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 enjoy the outdoors. The Golden Gate National Recreation area isn't one place, but rather an umbrella that includes a bunch of different areas and sites in San Francisco and Marin County. The Muir Woods National Monument, just north of the city across the Golden Gate Bridge, is one of these areas and is recommended for its collection of giant redwood trees, which can be enjoyed from Muir Woods' 6 miles of hiking trails. There's also multiple beaches within the National Recreation Area, including Muir Beach and Stinson Beach on the Marin County side of the bridge and Baker Beach and Ocean Beach in the Presidio on the San Francisco side. In the Presidio, you'll also find tons of historical buildings as the site once served as an Army post for three different countries. There's also multiple trails that warrant exploration, including the scenic Wood Line, situated right along the Lovers' Lane Trail, and the popular Lands End Trail, which takes visitors right along the cliffs of the bay.

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