San Francisco neighborhoods guide: Find your spot
By Alyson Sheppard, Feb 2020
Covering nearly 50 square miles, San Francisco is one of the largest cities in California. Trying to get a handle on San Francisco's diverse neighborhoods can seem as overwhelming as trying to scale the Golden Gate.
The city has something for every kind of traveler: waterfronts, charming Victorian homes, iconic cable cars, bustling plazas. Here's our guide to some of the most popular San Francisco neighborhoods, what you can do, eat and drink there and why you'll find somewhere to feel right at home.
Visit the Mission's expansive Mission Dolores Park for a relaxing stroll and a stunning view of downtown San Francisco.
This bold neighborhood is known for its street art, which is largely concentrated in Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley. Bookstores, vintage clothing shops and Mission-style burritos, a Mexican-American food staple, originated here. The tortillas are stuffed with meat, beans, rice, cheese, sour cream, guacamole, lettuce and tomatoes, then grilled on a plancha (a hot metal plate) before being wrapped in tin foil. It's a hearty meal on the go; pick up a rice-free version at the iconic La Taqueria. The Mission is also where you'll find Mission Dolores (the oldest still-standing structure in the city) as well as two of the best cocktail bars in the world: ABV and Trick Dog.
You can check a bunch of things off your San Francisco to-do list in this waterfront neighborhood. This is where many major hotels are located, where cable cars load and unload and where you can catch a ferry to Alcatraz Island and see boisterous sea lions lounging on Pier 39's K-Dock. Clam chowder is an iconic dish, and here it comes served in bread bowls. For some real local flavor, though, seek out some cioppino, a one-pot seafood-and-tomato stew created by Italian-born fishermen in the 1800s.
There's no mistaking it when you walk into the Castro, one of the most prominent gay villages in the United States. LGBTQ culture is celebrated, and rainbow banners wave from the streetlights. The Harvey Milk Photo Center is a can't-miss stop; Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California, was assassinated in 1978, and the center celebrates his passion for photography and offers classes and workshops for novices and experts. And you must catch a sing-along musical inside the Castro Theatre, the city's last movie palace, and a warm confection at nearby Hot Cookie, where they bake cookies and other sweet treats and sell underwear branded with the upbeat shop's logo.
San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood will take you back to the Summer of Love.
Birthplace of the counterculture movement of the 1960s and '70s, the Haight was where hippies came together during the Summer of Love. Here, you can see the former homes of such rock 'n' roll legends as the Grateful Dead, Joan Jett and Jimi Hendrix. The city's Bohemian heritage lives on through its many head shops, coffee houses and bookstores. Stop in for a cup of freshly roasted and made-to-order java at the industrial-chic Flywheel Coffee, whose founder grew up on a coffee farm in Nicaragua.
San Francisco is home to one of the largest populations of ethnically Chinese people outside of China, and walking under the strings of red lanterns in Chinatown could convince you that you're in Beijing. Step into any of the streetside bazaars and shop for moon cake pastries, jade bracelets and fresh dragon fruit with the locals. Pop into Golden Gate Fortune Cookies to see how the future-forecasting sweets are assembled, then head to the Chinese Historical Society of America for art, artifacts and a lesson on the Chinese-American experience.
For home and landscape gazing, walk the posh streets of Pacific Heights, where you can view multimillion-dollar mansions and Victorian homes (yes, the Painted Ladies home of "Full House" fame is here) and priceless views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay that stretch all the way to Marin Headlands. Alta Plaza boasts particularly gorgeous views of the bay and downtown, Fillmore Street offers designer shopping, and gourmet dining destinations speckle the nearby avenues, including the modern State Bird Provisions.
While there are plenty more San Francisco neighborhoods to dig into, these seminal stops will give you a good taste of the culture, food and drink the city has to offer. And every time you come back, you'll find somewhere and something new to explore.
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