SAN FRANCISCO HAS 36 official neighborhoods, and almost a 100 smaller enclaves. Within San Francisco’s compact 47 square miles, every neighborhood is easily reachable by public transportation. Here’s a guide to some of the major ones to get you started.
The business and commercial heart of the city. At the center of the waterfront Embarcadero, the Ferry Building is home to stalls of Northern California cuisine. Check out the Exploratorium if you’re into science or are there with kids. The Plant Cafe on Pier 3 is a scenic spot for bayside brunch, and Pier 23 is great for drinks.
SOMA (aka South of Market)
SOMA — once dilapidated — is now a mixed-use neighborhood, home to both converted lofts and tech startups. Most museums — including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art — are here. Nearby Yerba Buena Center for the Arts has edgier exhibits, and there are several more niche museums around. For eats Dottie’s True Blue Cafe is a local fave and Sightglass Coffee is an up-and-comer. Check out South Park, a small neighborhood within SOMA which has good cafes and restaurants. For pizza head to Una Pizza Napoletana (be prepared to wait in line). Bar Agricole has great cocktails, and there are lots of clubs around to check out. McCovey Cove in the San Francisco Bay is where baseball fans wait in boats for Giants players to hit home runs from the stadium.
Civic Center/Hayes Valley/Tenderloin
A somewhat grungy part of town, Civic Center is the home of many of the larger cultural institutions, including the Asian Art Museum, the Opera, and Ballet which offer last-minute student and rush tickets for deep discounts. For coffee, there’s the original Blue Bottle, a tiny spot in a back alley. Hayes Street’s outdoor plaza with Smitten Ice Cream and Biergarten is the spot for late-afternoon ice cream or beer. Head to Place Pigalle to keep drinking once the sun goes down. The Tenderloin, filled with immigrants and interesting characters, is squeezed from all sides, but is still the place for cheap, interesting grub; favorites are the Shalimar and Saigon Sandwich, considered by many as the best banh mi in the city. To ride a Cable Car, head up Van Ness to California where you can pick up the California Line, with a shorter wait than other lines as well as spectacular views of the bay.
The Mission, a neighborhood of immigrants, is increasingly being colonized by techies flocking to SF. For historical background, check out Mission Dolores. 24th Street east of Mission Street still has many Latino-owned businesses, while Valencia offers newer, hipster-ier restaurants and small, artisan shops. For coffee, head to Four Barrel, Ritual Roasters, or Philz, then join the hordes lazing in the sun in Dolores Park. For dinner — a Mission Burrito, of course. Perennial favorites include Cancun, Papalote (appealing to vegetarians with tofu mole and soy chorizo), Pancho Villa, The Little Chihuahua, and El Farolito. La Taqueria is the place for tacos.
North Beach and Chinatown are among the most historic neighborhoods in SF, both offering small alleys layered with a sense of epochs gone by. North Beach was historically home to SF’s Italian population as well as to the Beats. Like Chinatown, it’s a great neighborhood for wandering. Head up the hill to Coit Tower to check out the depression-era murals and view. City Lights bookstore is a three-story den where it’s easy to pass hours browsing. For a snack head to Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store or Golden Boy Pizza. Drinks are tastier in the historical surroundings of Vesuvio (located on Jack Kerouac Alley), Specks, or Tosca.
Off the beaten path, this is a prime neighborhood for nature lovers with great access to hiking or running. In Golden Gate Park, also accessible from the Haight or the Sunset, you can boat around Stow Lake, or visit the Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco Botanical Garden, Academy of Sciences, and the renovated De Young Museum. The park, and the city, end at Ocean Beach. For a warm-up, head to the renovated Beach Chalet, with depression-era murals and a brewpub / restaurant, or the downstairs Park Chalet, where the indoor/outdoor bar has comfy adirondacks. Clement Street is considered the new Chinatown, and on weekends is busy with shoppers. There are a zillion places to eat in the Richmond, including faves Burma Super Star, Hong Kong Lounge, Ton Kiang, and Pizzetta 211.
On the South side of Golden Gate Park, the Sunset also offers access to the park and ocean. The Outer Sunset (west of 19th Avenue), long a favorite of local surfers, is hipper by the day. For food, Outerlands is decorated appropriately with driftwood. The Beachside Cafe is great for breakfast; try the eggs florentine. Park Chow is another brunch favorite, and Devil’s Teeth Baking Company serves amazing sweets.
Its heyday gone, many tourists still flock to the Haight with its great vintage and thrift shops. The neighborhood borders the east side of the park; rent a bike on Stanyan and cruise to the ocean. Zazie in Cole Valley has a patio and great brunch. For drinks, try The Alembic or the Magnolia Pub and Brewery. Kezar Pub is the place to join like-minded sports fans.
Fancier neighborhoods on San Francisco’s northern shore, the highlight here is sweeping bay views. Stroll along bayside Crissy Field in the Presidio, and check out the very friendly Sports Basement for great deals and rental bikes. Food trucks converge at Off the Grid on Friday evenings at Fort Mason and Sunday mid-day in the Presidio. Vegetarians pilgrimage to Greens, which is integrating local produce and vegetarian cuisine. Tacolicious is more upscale than the Mission taquerias; Pacific Catch is good for Asian-inspired bowls.
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