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Your Guide to San Francisco’s Neighborhoods

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For a relatively small city, San Francisco has enough neighborhoods to make even the most seasoned traveler’s head spin. While certainly not exclusive, this list covers most of the neighborhoods that you’ll hear about, and most of the neighborhoods that are visited by travelers to the city.

Fisherman’s Wharf

Probably the most well-known neighborhood for San Francisco’s visitors, Fisherman’s Wharf was once the heart of San Francisco’s fishing industry. It’s currently home to probably the highest concentration of tourist attractions in the city. Love it or hate it, it’s a must for any traveler to the city. It’s the jumping off point for any boat tour out on the bay, and the home of San Francisco’s famous sea lions, and it also houses many of San Francisco’s great (although definitely not budget-friendly) restaurants.

Nob-Hill & Russian Hill

Nob Hill and Russian Hill are technically separate neighborhoods, but they are pretty similar in character and feel. Reserved, ritzy, upscale San Francisco at its best. You’ll find world-class restaurants and bars, gorgeous architecture, and of course, big hills. These are not neighborhoods to be walked lightly. Russian Hill is also where you’ll find the famous Lombard Street, touted as the crookedest street in the world.

Mission District

You’ll find that the mission district is most famous amongst visitors for its murals. Painted along alleyways throughout the neighborhood, these elaborate works of art are well worth stopping by to check out. But the neighborhood has a lot going for it beyond its street art. It’s the home of a large Hispanic community, and you’ll find some of the best small, local restaurants here.

The Castro

This is by far San Francisco’s most flamboyant neighborhood. As the heart of the city’s gay community, the neighborhood takes, well, pride, in itself and its culture. It’s also a welcoming and happening neighborhood, with a fantastic theater scene and some great restaurants.

Hayes Valley

Think upscale social scene. In Hayes Valley, you’re right in the center of some of San Francisco’s best restaurants, as well as a huge chunk of the city’s arts scene. With the symphony and opera nearby, as well as the SFJAZZ Center – which proudly touts itself as the first building in the West to be built specifically to further the performance and of jazz music – Hayes Valley is the place to go in San Francisco for high end arts. The shopping here is top notch, too, whether you’re looking for organic produce and coffee, or high end designer shoes.

Haight-Ashbury

Also known as Upper Haight, the neighborhood surrounding the intersection between Haight St. and Ashbury St. is typically considered the birthplace of the hippie movement. Most of the hippies have moved away, though, and been replaced by panhandlers in the neighborhood. While the shops here are pretty quirky, they’re mostly fairly upscale boutiques, with a few places, such as the Grateful Dead House and the Red Victorian to pay homage to the neighborhoods hippie roots.

Lower Haight

Lower Haight has a pretty different vibe from Upper Haight. It’s artsy, cool, unpretentious, and chill. You’ll find tons of unique establishments here, from bars to hair salons, to tea houses, to music venues featuring all sorts of different bands.

Noe Valley

Think unpretentious boutiques, cute cafes, and a slowed-down pace. Noe Valley is a place where families live in expensive homes and where you’ll frequently see couples strolling the streets hand-in-hand, or mothers pushing strollers. Despite its family feel, the neighborhood has great shopping – geared towards its upper-middle-class residents – and lots of chill cafes. It also tends to be reliably sunnier and warmer in Noe Valley than the rest of San Francisco, due to the effects of the nearby hills blocking coastal chills and creating a sort of microclimate in the neighborhood.

SoMa

Hip and stylish would be the two words to best describe this neighborhood. From swanky bars to exclusive nightclubs, to pricey high-rise apartments, SoMa is the place to go to be seen, and a place that caters to pretty exclusive tastes.

Bernal Heights

A sigh of peace, quiet, and calm neighborhood friendliness nestled inside the bustle of San Francisco, Bernal Heights is the perfect place to go to relax. It’s laid-back, outdoorsy vibe will charm even the hardiest of city-slickers, and the neighborhood teems with friendly faces, small open-air markets, and cozy bookstores. Stroll to the top of one of the neighborhood’s hills for panoramic views of the city.

Cole Valley

Cole Valley is another friendly area with a small neighborhood feel, home to a number of young professionals. Nestled near the more upbeat Haight-Ashbury, and a reasonable walk from Golden Gate Park, this area features quiet streets, small shops and restaurants, and great views.

Tenderloin

The Tenderloin is almost without a doubt the most infamous of San Francisco’s neighborhoods. Travelers are sure to have heard warnings about wandering through. Truth is, the neighborhood generally lives up to its reputation, and even the boldest would be pretty foolhardy to walk through the Tenderloin alone at night. But, if you look past its extremely rough surface, the Tenderloin offers a lot of life. You can find some amazing hole in the wall restaurants, and some great entertainment that you definitely won’t find anywhere else – and not necessarily of the seedy variety. More and more establishments have been moving into the Tenderloin, turning it into a scene worth checking out. Just make sure if you’re going for the nightlife, you take a cab.

North Beach

North Beach is a boisterous, Italian neighborhood right next to Chinatown. One of the most popular things to do in this North Beach is simply people-watching. Bistros and cafes set their tables out on the sidewalk and give an old-world feel to this neighborhood. And of course, as you’d expect, the food is out of the world.

Chinatown

The name is pretty self-explanatory, but San Francisco’s Chinatown is pretty unique. It’s the largest Chinese community outside of Asia, and is a vibrant area. Known for its charming back alleys, its great eateries, and its reasonably priced shopping, it’s always bustling.

Union Square

Union Square is pretty much known for one thing and one thing only: shopping. It’s one of the largest collections of boutique shops and department stores, not just in San Francisco, but in the world, and is an absolutely world-class shopping destination. If you’re looking to stay in one of the city’s nicest, ritziest, most expensive hotels, this is where you’ll find them, as well. For shop-a-holics, this is the best place to go in San Francisco.

Financial District

Based on the name, you won’t be surprised to hear that this is where many of San Francisco’s large businesses and corporations have their offices. There are also a lot of upper-end restaurants, boutiques, and shopping centers catered to tourists and the professionals who work in the area, as well as bars and a decent nightlife. Definitely not a cheap place to hang out, but the financial district offers more entertainment and sights to the traveler than you would expect based on the name.

Presidio

For beautiful scenery, ocean views, and some perspective on San Francisco’s history, you can’t beat the Presidio. This is also where you’ll find Crissy Field, which frequently holds educational programs and exhibits and is especially great if you’re traveling with kids. Military buffs will love the area, too, for its historic buildings and its past as the site of one of San Francisco’s most important military establishments.