San Francisco's neighborhoods are as diverse as the city's residents. From the mural-splashed walls in the vibrant Mission District, to opulent mansions in Pacific Heights, to North Beach's cafes and Italian restaurants, the city has no shortage of varied experiences to offer visitors. Here are five great neighborhoods that will help you get to know San Francisco.
San Francisco's Little Italy is loaded with charm, views and, of course, good food. Grant Avenue, the oldest street in San Francisco, still possesses the allure it did when thousands of Italian immigrants established the neighborhood in the 19th century. Now, it's lined with delicatessens, lively cafes and quaint vintage shops.
[Read: The Best Hotels in San Francisco.]
Bordered by Chinatown and Fisherman's Wharf, it's an easy place to start or end the day. Go in the morning for decadent French toast at Mama's on Washington Square, a longtime neighborhood staple, or an espresso at Caffe Trieste, still frequented by the neighborhood's writers like legendary beatnik Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
The sidewalks bustle at night when the neighborhood lights up with neon signs advertising burlesque bars, harkening back to the Barbary Coast days. A trove of curbside restaurants serve everything from blistered award-winning Neapolitan pizzas at Tony's Pizza Napoletana to fresh pasta at Francis Ford Coppola's cinematic restaurant, Cafe Zoetrope.
"Hayes Valley [is] like our own little SoHo, with beautifully eclectic shops and restaurants," says Jose Lopez, chief concierge at Palace Hotel, A Luxury Collection Hotel. This hip neighborhood has a chic California-meets-Europe feel, and is a favorite among the city's young professionals for its modern architecture, boutique shops and contemporary urban spaces. At the center of the neighborhood is Proxy, a popular (but temporary) public space filled with art installations, an outdoor movie theater and shipping containers that have been transformed to house establishments like an ice cream shop, a coffee bar and a clothing store.
Trendy boutiques like Azalea and Acrimony showcase the best of modern San Francisco fashion. Pop in one of the many bistros for lunch, like Monsieur Benjamin, and cap off the evening with a show at the symphony or ballet.
The Mission District is San Francisco's oldest neighborhood – dating all the way back to 1776, when Mission Dolores, a religious settlement and the oldest intact building in San Francisco, was founded. It's also one of the city's most vibrant districts, a melting pot of nearly all of San Francisco's cultures and ethnicities. Walking down the slightly gritty streets, you'll pass taquerias, walls of murals, thrift stores and trendy new restaurants. The best way to experience all the Mission has to offer? Eat.
Andreas Rippel, chief concierge at the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco, says Valencia Street, which runs parallel to Mission Street, has some of the city's most exciting restaurants. There are "lots of varieties of food from all over the world: Persian, Vietnamese, Thai, Californian, Indian, and they're run by some of the best up-and-coming chefs."
For a more casual experience, do as the locals do and stop by Bi-Rite Market for picnic provisions to bring to Mission Dolores Park. The top of the park has one of the best perches to see the downtown skyline and watch the sunset.
The Castro is a historic LGBTQ neighborhood awash in a sea of rainbow flags and situated at the top of Market Street. "The history and movement that happened in that neighborhood is still captured when you walk through it," says Joe D'Alessandro, president and CEO of the San Francisco Travel Association.
The neighborhood has no shortage of entertainment. The Castro Theatre sits at the heart of it. Whatever is playing, it's worth the ticket price just to see the landmark art deco theater, built by a famous Bay Area architect in 1922. Swedish American Hall, another local favorite, is an intimate concert venue with live music shows. The last Sunday every June, thousands of people swarm Market Street in festive gear for the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration and Parade.
"We don't have Vegas-style nightlife – in San Francisco it's about dinner, friends and a couple drinks," says Tom Wolfe, chief concierge and director of heritage at the Fairmont San Francisco. He says Cow Hollow is great for an evening with friends, especially on Union Street. Once home to pastures and farmers, Cow Hollow nowadays is a quiet, walkable neighborhood marked by Victorian homes and wine bars.
Spend an afternoon getting lost wandering the residential streets. It's a short but steep walk up to Pacific Heights, and as you ascend, the houses get bigger and fancier. West Coast Wine & Cheese proudly boasts a curated selection of top wines and bar bites from California to Washington and is the perfect place to linger with locals.
To experience more of what San Francisco has to offer, check out the U.S. News Travel guide.
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