San Francisco is made up of a ton of different neighborhoods worth visiting, each with its own unique vibe, history, and microclimate. Wondering which are the top neighborhoods to check out during your time there? Read on to discover some of my favorite neighborhoods to visit in San Francisco and understand why you should make time to visit them!
As an added bonus, check out my top travel tips for visiting San Francisco at the end of the post.
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THE BEST SAN FRANCISCO NEIGHBORHOODS TO VISIT
The Mission District
The Mission is one of the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in the entire city with some of the best things to do to keep you busy in San Francisco. It’s packed with super trendy restaurants as well as some of the most fun and down-to-earth bars in the city. What you’ll notice here is that there are two vibes— a historical/cultural vibe as well as a modern/happening vibe. The intertwining of “old” and “new” truly makes the Mission one of my favorite neighborhoods.
There are two main streets here— Valencia and Mission. Valencia Street is lined with many artisanal coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and bougie boutiques, while Mission Street is home to some of the best tacos and burritos in the United States. You heard that right, La Taqueria won “Best Burrito in the US”. If you’re in the mood for pizza or pastries, Arizmendi Bakery is going to be your spot. Fiending a matcha latte? Head right on over to Stonemill Matcha.
On side streets and alleyways, vibrant murals can be seen from left and right. At night, the neighborhood is bustling with locals and visitors alike trying to have a good time. And don’t worry, the Mission is frequently visited by Bay Area natives so you can be sure you aren’t just mingling with a bunch of tourists.
How to get to the Mission District on public transportation:
BART: 16th and Mission OR 24th and Mission stop
MUNI: the MUNI J train to Church and 18th Street
BUS: 12, 14, 22, or 33 buses
Haight-Ashbury district is a load of fun, famous for its hippie-dippy vibes. This unique and colorful community has a rich history, being home to the ‘Summer of Love’ in 1967 (the meeting place for people from all over the US looking for free love, drugs, and rock and roll). I certainly enjoy visiting this neighborhood whenever I make a trip home to visit the Bay Area, because I never know what I’ll find. Maintaining its liveliness, there are a number of funky shops, vintage clothing stores, restaurants, and quirky oddities to see here.
In addition to the shops and restaurants along Haight Street, you will also find your highest concentration of colorful Victorian homes along the side streets. Why? The Haight-Ashbury District was one of the few neighborhoods that was not hit hard by the 1906 earthquake and fire.
All in all, the Haight-Ashbury district is definitely a fun and unpretentious place to spend some time during your vacation in SF.
How to get to Haight/Ashbury on public transportation:
MUNI: Take the N light rail train from Downtown
BUS: (From Downtown or Union Square) 6 and 71 buses
The North Beach neighborhood is a vibrant and colorful district where you will find the highest density of delicious Italian restaurants, as well as main landmarks such as the Coit Tower and Washington Square Park. The district, sometimes known as SF’s Little Italy, has a large concentration of Italian immigrants which contributes to the authenticity of the Italian food here. It also has some great boutique shops lined up along Columbus Avenue.
If you’re into nightlife, well you’re in for a treat then! North Beach has a very lively nightlife scene so make sure to come back later in the night or grab a late dinner and check out the bars right after. And no need to worry about looking your best– it’s super casual (which is why locals love spending their nights here).
Some of my favorite restaurants here include Sottomare, Betty Lou’s Seafood & Grill, Golden Boy Pizza, The Stinking Rose, and The House.
Local Tip: If you’re a foodie, I’d highly recommend the Little Italy and North Beach Food Walking Tour— a 3-hour culinary tour that allows you to sip and savor cappuccinos, freshly baked bread, olive oils, gourmet chocolates, and outstanding Italian pizza.
How to get to North Beach on public transportation:
North Beach – BUS: 20, 30, and 45 run through North Beach and drop off at a variety of locations in the neighborhood
A short walk from North Beach will bring you right into lively Chinatown, which almost immediately transports you to China. Let’s start with a little bit of history on Chinatown. The first Chinese immigrants arrived in San Francisco in 1848, beating out the famed ’49ers of the gold rush era. That quite literally makes Chinatown an older and more established San Francisco tradition than even the Gold Rush itself! With all that history, there’s no wonder why there’s so much to see and do in this part of town.
Start at the iconic Dragon’s Gate on Grant Ave and Bush Street. From there, you can visit the famous Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, explore the district with a culinary walking tour or Chinatown, or pop in to various restaurants/delis to try all the dim sum your stomach desires!
My #1 bakery recommendation for this area: Golden Gate Bakery— serves up one of the best egg tarts you’ll ever have in your life (even better than in Hong Kong).
SF’s Chinatown is really a great place to spend a few hours of your time. You’ll get to witness tourists exploring among locals shopping at produce markets, which are always bustling with people. No matter what you do, I implore you to try some food here. You can’t miss out on all the delightful tastes of Chinatown (and you’ll be supporting our local businesses; win-win!).
How to get to SF Chinatown on public transportation:
BART: Montgomery St stop (then walk 4-5 blocks to get to Dragon’s Gate)
CABLE CAR: All three cable cars run through San Francisco Chinatown. The conductor will tell you where to get off for Chinatown.
BUS: 1 California
Fisherman’s Wharf / Embarcadero
Welcome to one of the most touristy parts of SF! Fisherman’s Wharf is home to dozens of restaurants, shops, activities for families and kids, and kitschy attractions (merry-go-round, a wax museum, 3D rides, etc). Here you will also find the Aquarium of the Bay and the famous SF sea lions.
Whenever I visit SF, I always get a craving for their famous sourdough bread, and Fisherman’s Wharf is a great place to get it (Boudin SF is always a safe choice that never disappoints). For the true wharf experience, grab some clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl or a crab roll and watch the sea lions bark away.
Another great thing to do in this pier area is to head to The Embarcadero. Here you will find the famous Ferry Building, which is a real treat to explore. Gourmet shops and restaurants line the interior of the building, including those selling locally made cheeses, olive oil, fresh oysters, artisanal ice cream, craft beer, and much more. If you happen to be here on Saturday, you must check out SF’s best farmer’s market (on Tuesdays and Saturdays).
How to get to Fisherman’s Wharf / Embarcadero on public transportation:
Fisherman’s Wharf – STREETCAR: The F Streetcar from Union Square goes to Pier 39 San Francisco. It takes about 20 to 25 minutes.
The Embarcadero – BART: Embarcadero stop
Union Square is centrally located, close to most forms of public transit, and the hotels in this area will be your best bet for high-rise city views. It’s a good place to spend an afternoon shopping, take a ride on SF’s iconic cable car, or grab a sandwich and people watch at the Union Square plaza (wedged between a huge Saks Fifth and an even larger Macy’s). The square itself isn’t exceptionally beautiful or anything, except during Christmas when a giant sparkling Christmas tree is set up and it turns into a bustling ice skating rink, but the surrounding streets are filled with some of the best shopping in the city.
It’s a decent area to visit, but I would avoid staying here for your weekend vacation; there are a lot more interesting and charming neighborhoods to stay.
Pro Tip: If you want a casual dinner with city views in Union Square, there’s a Cheesecake Factory on the top floor of the Macy’s building.
How to get to Union Square on public transportation:
From Fishermans Wharf/Pier 39
CABLE CAR: There are two cable car lines that run between Fishermans Wharf and Union Square. This costs is $6 per person. It takes about 20 to 25 minutes to get there using the cable cars.
STREETCAR: F Streetcar. This costs $2 per person. It takes around 30 minutes or so, but is a beautiful ride along the water.
From San Francisco International Airport (SFO): You can take a taxi, shuttle, or BART from SFO.
SHUTTLE: There are about a dozen companies that run shuttles to and from SFO to San Francisco.
BART: Powell Street Station. Least expensive option.
From Oakland Airport (OAK)/East Bay: You can take a taxi, shuttle, or BART from SFO.
SHUTTLE: There are about a dozen companies that run shuttles to and from SFO to San Francisco.
BART: Powell Street Station. Least expensive option.
Hayes Valley is one of the up-and-coming districts in San Francisco, and one that I like to visit whenever I spend the day in San Francisco. It’s greenery creates a very intimate feel, making it the perfect spot for a dinner date. Walk along Hayes Street, where you’ll find a large concentration of bars, restaurants and quality boutique shops.
Something to definitely check out on warmer days—a new local outdoor beer garden called Biergarten, serving both German and locally produced brews. Within walking distance is the Civic Center, the heart of performing arts in SF. You should aim to catch a show or musical here if you’re into performing arts!
Pro Tip: Skip the taxi or Uber ride and take a walk instead. Just a block or two west of Hayes Valley, you will find the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square.
How to get to Hayes Valley on public transportation:
STREETCAR: You can take the F Street car from Fisherman’s Wharf or Union Square (runs along Market Street). Get off at the stop at Gough and Market.
LIGHT RAIL: You can also take the light rail trains to the Van Ness stop. This will take you to the corner of Van Ness and Market. From here, you will walk north and/or west to enter Hayes Valley. The trains J, K/T, L, M, & N stop here.
BUS: 21 Bus from downtown SF, get off at Hayes and Gough to explore the area.
Richmond is a residential neighborhood with an ethnically diverse population. It is sometimes referred to as the “second Chinatown” or even the “real Chinatown”, so if you’re looking for good Chinese food, you’ve found it (sorry, Chinatown). Despite it looking a bit rough around the edges, the Inner Richmond area hands-down has the best Chinese food in the city. This neighborhood’s proximity to Golden Gate Park and the Presidio are also a major plus.
This area is not known by many tourists, but as a local, it’s one of my favorite areas to grab really good Asian food. If you’re in the mood for dim sum, no one else does it better than Good Luck Dim Sum. Some other honorary mentions include Burma Superstar (a Bay Area staple for Burmese cuisine), Kevin’s Noodle House (Vietnamese/Pho restaurant named with #1, #2, and #3 at the end of each, because it’s just that good) and Marufuku Ramen.
For dessert, my go-to’s are Genki Crepes (crepes inside of a Japanese minimart and Marco Polo (amazing Asian-inspired gelato).
San Francisco Neighborhoods to Skip
The Tenderloin has a good number of local residents struggling with homelessness and is known to be common for drug dealings. While it’s not necessarily dangerous, it just isn’t the most pleasant place to be. If you’re thinking of taking a nice stroll down Market Street (from 6th to 10th Streets), just consider that while the rest of San Francisco is getting more gentrified and more expensive, that isn’t really the case with the Tenderloin area. While this might not be the nicest area, its presence is quite significant, offering a second chance for recovering addicts, domestic abuse survivors, and unsheltered people.
Pro tip: If you come from an area or state where you’re not used to seeing this, consider staying in a different neighborhood even if you come across a cheap or affordable hotel in this area.
There’s not much to do here, especially on nights and weekends. In FiDi, nearly everything closes after 5pm or 6pm since the businesses there exist to serve workers during normal business hours. I’d say skip this area unless you’re looking to marvel at the buildings and the modern city architecture in this area.
Essential Travel Tips For San Francisco, California
1. Don’t rent a car.
You and your wallet will absolutely be upset if you end up renting a car in San Francisco. While it may make sense if you plan on traveling to nearby cities outside of San Francisco (Berkeley, Oakland, Marin Headlands, San Jose, Santa Cruz, etc), it doesn’t make sense when you’re spending your time inside San Francisco, given all the public transportation options. To make matters worse, parking is also a complete hassle. Parking lots cost an arm and a leg per hour, as is metered street parking. Hotels also typically charge $35+ for overnight parking.
2. Don’t underestimate its size.
Despite how small San Francisco looks on a map, it can actually take over an hour to get from one side of the city to another on public transportation or in a car during rush hour (due to the hilliness, sheer number of people, and the abundance of traffic lights). Plan accordingly if you’re planning to go all around in a short amount of time.
3. Pack good walking shoes.
SF is such a walkable city. It would really be a shame to not walk as much of the city as you can, especially if the weather is pleasant! Plus, a lot of the best neighborhoods are close to each other, meaning you can continue your exploration seamlessly.
4. Bring layers.
San Francisco is not considered a year-round warm city. The weather is actually pretty unpredictable depending on what season you go in a well as what part of the city you’re in. You should always aim to bring a jacket, a scarf, some sunglasses, and maybe even a hat. Just pack them all with you to be sure you’ve got your bases covered. A typical day can look like this: It will be foggy and chilly until 10am, then you’ll have a few glorious hours of sun and warmth, and when 6pm hits, it will be chilly and windy again. Bring your layers in your daypack and you’ll be good to go!
5. Be prepared to see (and smell) unpleasantness.
For some of you who live in areas where homelessness isn’t as prevalent, San Francisco can be a bit of a culture shock. Many of the people that you see on the streets are struggling with mental illnesses and may act out of the ordinary, but are unlikely to harm you or interact with you in any way. Also, because there are not enough public restrooms in San Francisco, you may smell urine at some point during your stay.
6. Travel during non-commuter hours
To maximize your time, avoid the commutes and the traffic (7-9am and 5-7pm). The trains and buses at this time are packed tight with people, freeways and streets are stuffed with bumper-to-bumper traffic, and being stuck in these situations will most definitely kill your vacation vibe.
Pro Tip: 511.org is great for Bay Area transport planning.
7. Save money on museums
In addition to leveraging public transportation, there are a few other tricks that will help you save dough while in this cultural city. Most museums offer a free entry day at least once a month, usually on the first Sunday or Tuesday.
8. Plan ahead when visiting Alcatraz Island
Make reservations for Alcatraz Island at least two weeks ahead. Tours fill up fast, and it’s best to reserve them ahead of time online. Your next best options if sold out online–see if your hotel’s concierge has any tickets, go to the ticket office as soon as they open on the first day of your visit, or join a combo Alcatraz tour through Viator. Also, be careful not to accidentally book a tour that only takes you sailing past it (unless that’s what you wanted).
9. Skip the cable car lines
Don’t waste your precious time standing in the endless line at the stop on Hyde Street (by Ghirardelli Square). Instead, head to Mason and Bay Streets, where lines are much shorter. You’ll end up at Union Square on either line.
Annual Events In San Francisco, CA
- Golden Gate Park Band (April to October)
- Bay to Breakers (3rd Sunday of May)
- Stern Grove Festival Concerts (June to August)
- Yerba Buena Gardens Free Concerts (May to October)
- North Beach Festival (June)
- SF Pride Week (June)
- Shakespeare in the Park (June to September)
- Salsa Festival on the Fillmore (June)
- Fillmore Jazz Festival (July)
- Folsom Street Festival (September)
- Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (October)
Beyond San Francisco: Things To Do and Towns To Visit
Sausalito / Marin Headlands
Trendy restaurants and funky houseboats are plentiful in Sausalito, which makes it a super cute area to visit for a few hours. A beautiful area with incredible fauna and rugged trails make up Mount Tamalpais and the Marin Headlands. Luckily for you, these two highlights are pretty close to each other.
If you’re up for an adventure, consider a combo day of walking or hiking the Golden Gate Bridge, seeing Muir Woods or Hawk Hill, followed by dinner in Sausalito. You can get back to SF via the ferry.
Alternative adventure: take the ferry and bike around Angel Island. When you’re done, find yourself a nice restaurant to eat in Tiburon where the ferry leaves (believe me, they are plentiful).
Don’t want to deal with the logistics? Here’s an awesome combo tour of Muir Woods and Sausalito, transportation included.
Travel across the Golden Gate Bridge to visit Muir Woods, home to some of the oldest and tallest trees on Earth. Being only a few miles north of San Francisco, it’s a great day trip option if you’re a nature enthusiast. The monument is busiest during the weekends and the middle of the day, so I would try to avoid going during these times as much as possible (it really takes away from the tranquility). An entrance fee is charged.
If you plan on spending at least half a day north of SF, this combo trip of Muir Woods and Sausalito is a fun one. Explore the giant redwood sequoia trees at Muir Woods, then shop and eat in Sausalito, known as one of California’s prettiest towns.
Alcatraz served as a military prison from the time of the Civil War until 1934, when it was converted to a civilian penitentiary. Take a ferry to the island and explore the abandoned prison by day or by night. The 20-minute boat ride will get you to your destination, where you’ll learn about the food riots, solitary confinement, and escape attempts of the past. It’s worth taking the Alcatraz tour, which leaves from Pier 39, but be sure to book it ahead (you can book 90 days in advance).
Note: For the ferry to Alcatraz, arrive at the terminal 30 minutes prior to your departure. For more information, check the website for directions to the Pier, prices, and times.
Napa Valley / Sonoma County
Wine country— synonymous with hot-air ballooning, train rides, cycling through the vineyards and eating top-quality food. Producing legendary wines for more than a century, Napa Valley has been synonymous with great wine to enthusiasts globally. If you’re looking to eat well, look no further, as there are numerous Michelin star restaurants here. Sonoma Valley, the more “down to earth” version of Napa, is well known for world-class wines, delicious farm-to-table food, and charming small towns.
Escape to California’s famous wine country on this full-day Napa Valley and Sonoma tour from San Francisco. Taste regional varietals at the different wineries in Napa and Sonoma, including both big-name and family-run estates. Napa and Sonoma are both the ideal places to experience the countryside, learn about the winemaking process and savor gourmet food and drink culture.
Interested in both Muir Woods and wine country? Check out this full-day trip to the Northern California wine country and Muir Woods National Monument, combined at one great price.
Lastly, if you’re planning on spending a few days in Napa Valley, check out my travel guide dedicated to Napa Valley.
California is so blessed to have Yosemite National Park, and with it being less than 4 hours away, it’s a no-brainer destination if you have the time to spare. You’ll be amazed by supersized natural wonders like Yosemite Falls, Vernal Falls, and the granite cliffs of Half Dome and El Capitan. Take a hike among ancient sequoia trees and enjoy being among the incredible rock formations that have formed over countless years.
On the way there from the San Francisco area, you can pass through the historic California Gold Rush country, which is one of my favorite parts of this area (Columbia, Sonora, Jamestown). I’d highly recommend spending 2-3 days in this area if you can swing it, as it’s a part of California culture you won’t experience in the city. If you’re staying in SF and don’t plan on road tripping on your own, this full-day trip to Yosemite and Giant Sequoias from San Francisco is a great option.
ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST: THE SF BAY AREA
- Smartphone UV Sanitizer and Charger | Our phones gather all the grime and bacteria we touch throughout the day, and then they are stored in warm, dark places like purses and pockets, which make for great breeding grounds for bacteria to grow. They are the third hand we never wash, but should! Using a UV sanitizer such as PhoneSoap on a regular basis will help keep germs and illness at bay.
- First Aid Kit | It’s always good to carry a first aid kit around with you when traveling. Road trips make it easier to do this since all you need to do is toss it in the trunk!
- Hiking Boots | If you plan on hiking, bring well broken-in boots with good ankle support and good traction. My all-time favorites are the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots. They’re one of the lightest boots in its class, very durable, and provide out-of-the-box comfort, which is extremely important if you want to prevent blisters from the start.
- Hiking Socks | If hiking, make sure you have a good pair of cushioned wool hiking socks. For extra toe protection and to prevent blisters from developing from skin-to-skin contact, go with a pair of Injinji toe socks.
- Puffy Jacket | If you’re traveling in the fall or wintertime, you’re going to need layers in the Bay Area, which tends to get pretty cool nights. You have a lot of options here, but I personally have the North Face Thermoball, and it’s kept me warm throughout my many years of adventuring!
- Daypack | I’m a fan of the Deuter ACT Trail 30 Hiking Backpack. Even when I’m not hiking! It has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for the hike.
- Sunhat | Sun protection is key for any California destination.
- Hand Sanitizer | Hand sanitizer gel or wipes are a must any time you’re going to be in contact with surfaces many other people have touched. Never leave your hotel room without it! And if you do happen to forget it, remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
- Body Wipes / Feminine Wipes | Feeling a bit gross after a hike or bike ride but don’t have the time to shower right in that instant? Just whip out one of these body wipes for a quick refresher. The feminine wipes I like are infused with cucumber and aloe. Trust me, you will feel and smell so much better. Always good to have a few handy in your travel bag.
- Portable Power Bank | You’re probably going to be out all day, snapping away taking pictures… the last thing you want is to be driving along with no phone battery! A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
- Soft Hydration Flask | Stay hydrated throughout the day with a water bottle that can go anywhere with you—and fold up when not in use. I love the packability of these bottles!
And that about wraps it up! There’s certainly so much to see and do in San Francisco, and this post by no means covers everything SF offers. What are some of your favorite San Francisco neighborhoods to visit?