San Francisco is one of those cities that presents some place to suit almost any traveler’s hopes—high hopes even. San Fran is one big series of neighborhoods sidled up to each other, each exhibiting unique character and flair. Unlike bigger cities such as NYC, you can travel by taxi from any neighborhood to another in 10-20 minutes so where you stay doesn’t have to depend on where you want to visit. We’ve put together a list of San Fran’s best neighborhoods but if there’s time, Berkeley, Noe Valley, North Beach, and Marina would complete an even larger list.
5. Hayes Valley
Skip the tourist crowds and head to cool Hayes Valley to rub shoulders with the locals. Plenty of people love Hayes Valley because the vibe is very London-esque, with a large collection of bars and pubs, cafes, and European influenced boutiques. Once a hotspot for symphony and opera, Hayes Valley saw some rough times during the years it mostly exhibited the city’s not-so-attractive elements. Fast forward two decades you’ve got an haute couture haven, a neighborhood where fashions shops, funky galleries, award-winning restaurants, and trendy nightclubs replaced the dimly lit, seedy buildings. There is a true sense of community throughout Hayes Valley; the laid back locals of Hayes Valley keep the neighborhood’s feet on the ground and prove that even among fanatic shoppers there’s quite a bit more to do than load up bags. Find Octavia’s Haze Gallery, Mexican folk art at Polanco, and the all-American eats at Rickybobby.
4. The Haight
1960s-inspired Haight Ashbury, simply called The Haight, is a hippie-wonderland-turned-commercial-center of restaurants, vinyl shops, high-end boutiques, vintage clothing stores, and San Francisco’s top coffee shops. The series of vibrant paintings on Haight Street buildings is definitely worth taking in as are the famous, brightly-painted city homes along Golden Gate Park. The Haight boasts two very distinct areas: Upper Haight spans Stanyan Street to Masonic and is the trendy shopping district while Lower Haight, from around Divisidero Street to Webster, showcases more grit and diversity and draws in the DJs and dancers to hip nightclubs. Haight Ashbury has a genuine lazy vibe perfect for bookshop browsing during the day while at night, the beat is up tempo and the clubs fill up fast. Don’t miss Mickey’s Monkey for a huge array of unique collectibles, Held Over for incredible vintage clothing, and Groove Merchant for collectible Latin, soul, funk, and jazz vinyl.
3. The Castro
The Castro is a convivial neighborhood named after its main artery, Castro Street. Famous for its gay and lesbian community and historically renowned as a tight knit activist community, revelers of all backgrounds jump on the F Market trolley and cruise into the colorful backdrop of The Castro. You won’t miss the neon signs touting some pretty racy goods but gay or not, this neighborhood has something to offer everyone. The Castro is action-packed all day long and dynamic at night—bustling streets are lit up by the marquee lights of the renowned Castro Theater. If you want a taste of The Castro after sunset, there are dozens of great bars and a few legendary ones too. Relax and people-watch from the sleek marble bar at Twin Peaks Tavern, sip on Margaritas at Moby Dick Bar, and then hit the dance floor at Café du Nord or SF Badlands.
2. The Mission
Since the 1950s, the broad avenues of the Mission District—ripe with pupuserias, Ecuadorian bakeries, taco stops, and Latino beauty shops, illustrates just how influential Mexican and Central American immigrants have been in the area. The Mission has drawn artists, grads, activists, and other alternative types to the thrift stores, book stores, and cafes in the Mission en masse. Following the rise of the internet, gentrification couldn’t have been more evident throughout the Mission, where fashion shops and trendy boutiques popped up, displacing artists and Latinos with over-paid young professionals. Today, this neighborhood is a fusion of Latin American descendents and leftovers of the post-internet-boom. The mélange of vibes is felt through the cultural heart of the Mission around 24th Street, the modern and upscale stretch spanning Dolores to Valencia, the trend-setting restaurants around Bryant Street throughout the industrial area, and the abounding nightlife near Valencia and 16th.
1. Russian Hill
“The Crookedest Street in the World,” Lombard Street, is one of the rarest stops in Russian Hill and where your prize is eye-opening views. The series of merchants and cool eateries between Union and Jackson Streets on Hyde are a good bet for exploring. Polk Street’s interesting merchants, excellent dining, and pubs are more good bets for fabulous food and rare goods. By Green and Polk streets, a little French quarter has developed around cafes and French-inspired gift shops. From Alice Marble Park, spy some of the most elaborate historical homes; catch breathtaking views of Alcatraz and San Francisco Bay from the steep steps of Vallejo Ramps; and stop for a sample of Thai, fresh seafood, sushi, pizza, or Spanish delights at one of Russian Hill’s amazing restaurants. Jump on the Hyde & Powell cable car to the Russian Hill core and take it by foot from there.