The Essential Guide to San Francisco’s Most Iconic Streets + Neighborhoods
To the rest of the world, San Francisco is San Francisco—the urban manifestation of an entire political and ethical ethos; home of the progressive elite and the liberal media. San Francisco is an idea, and an ideal, as much as it is a place.
But here on the the ground, there are many San Franciscos. This place we call The City and our home is actually comprised of so many neighborhoods of such distinct personalities that you may wander from block to block and find yourself in a completely different mood (and microclimate).
Whether you're new to town or planning a visit—or especially if you live here and too often find yourself feeling cordoned off in your own 'hood of choice (yes, Marina-ites, you are welcome in the Mission)—check out our guide to some of the city's most iconic streets and neighborhoods and get out to explore the best that each has to offer.
But first, a disclaimer: For being only seven square miles, SF bursts with stuff—big neighborhoods, pocket 'hoods, and ever-new things (not to mention the many beloved spots that are closing every day). Which is to say, this is in no way a capital-C-complete guide to every SF 'hood. If you feel we missed something key, or if you have a hot tip on new openings, please feel free to share with us on Facebook and Instagram.
SoMa: Blue Chip Art, Diverse Dining, Games Galore + the World's First Leather District
Perhaps nowhere are the many evolutions and dichotomies of San Francisco so readily obvious as in the city's South of Market neighborhood. SoMa is a one-time residential hub for blue-collar immigrants turned warehouse wasteland and taggers' paradise turned scene of the first dot-com boom and bust.
While Covid-19 left the streets of SoMa eerily quiet and sadly forced the closure of many a beloved mainstay—including Slim's, The Stud, Cockscomb, and Trou Normand—the neighborhood is back to life, albeit a little quieter in these WFH times.
What remains is a world-class arts district anchored by SFMOMA and its neighbors, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The Salesforce Transit Center brings an epic urban park to the downtown area, and SoMa is also home to the country's first officially designated Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District, which was thrilled to throw its annual kinky parties IRL again in 2021. And, who can forget our own SF Giants, who played a fire season again this year.
Here is what to eat, drink, do, see when you're in South of Market.
Haight Street: Books, Brews, Budget Eats + All the Costume Shops
Once the psychedelic heart of the famous Summer of Love, Haight-Ashbury is where throngs of youths, drifters, and free-wheelin', free-lovin' individuals converged for an all-out celebration of acid-induced peace and love.
(Those who missed out can head down to The Booksmith and pick up Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test for a first-hand account).
These days though, The Haight has mellowed like a fine bourbon—smoother on the palette but still kicky. There's plenty of the street's original personality, even with the influx of boutiques, organic grocery stores, hip coffee joints, and craft beer hangouts nestled between the longtime vintage clothing exchanges and tie-dye–hawking boutiques.
From edible lingerie to vegan burgers, there'll be something here to pique your interest. Be sure to snap a pic at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, which was named a national treasure in 2019.
Valencia Street: Endless Eats, Craft Cocktails + Street Art in SF's Hipster Enclave
As the modern hub of San Francisco's vibrant Mission District, Valencia Street is home to some of the city's hottest destination eateries, funky independent shops, most crowded watering holes, and eye-popping murals.
Yes, even in the wake of Covid-19.
Take a stroll down Valencia and you'll encounter endless new parklets that were elaborately designed for outdoor revelry during the pandemic, plus new lights stretching all the way from 14th to 24th Streets. You might even catch some outdoor live music as the corridor returns to its bustling self after months of closed restaurants and boarded-up storefronts. While we continue to lament the ongoing closures of neighborhood mainstays, it seems there's always something new and shiny to catch our eye here.
Dogpatch: A burgeoning arts scene meets low-key eats and drinks
Dogpatch is San Francisco's neighborhood that coulda, woulda, shoulda. We're all still waiting to see if it's actually gonna...gonna take off as the cutting-edge arts destination, gathering place, and residential enclave developers have been billing it as for the last several years now.
It's true that the much-anticipated Institute of Contemporary Art, heavily backed by Minnesota Street Project founders Andy and Deborah Rappaport, is slated to open here in 2022. It's also true that several luxurious new apartment and condo buildings have appeared in the waterfront 'hood of late—even architect Stanley Saitowitz has an address in the works—spurring a general sprucing up of the urban landscape and public parks in the area.
And while Covid wasn't kind to Dogpatch—the 'hood lost many of its mainstays in 2020—art and music lovers will still find plenty of entertainment here, and there's a solid spate of bars of restaurants where you can grab innovative Indian, a terrific bagel, craft beer, ice cream, and hipster cocktails.
Outer Sunset: Craft Goods, Cult Brunch, and Hip Cafes Near Ocean Beach
The western edge of SF, trimmed by Ocean Beach's wide stretch of white sand lapped by crashing Pacific waves, retains all the laid-back vibes of a getaway from city life.
Primed to partake of crowd-free days at the beach, the Outer Sunset is marked by rows of candy-colored houses that meet cozy coastal restaurants, cafes, surf shops, and boutiques. It's an authentic slice of SF even if the actual sunset is often obscured by the fog. Wear layers, and go explore.
Chinatown: Elevated Eats, Dim Sum + Dives
San Francisco has not one but four, count 'em four, Chinatowns. But it is the original, the neighborhood nestled between North Beach on one side and the Financial District on the other, that will take your breath away.
First established in 1848, San Francisco's Chinatown is the oldest and one of the largest in the country. Not much has changed since its early days as a refuge for Chinese immigrants and Chinese-American descendants. The community still holds out its arms in welcome to new arrivals as they find their footing in a strange new land. But the neighborhood is neither stagnant nor insular. Its culinary and cultural traditions have evolved alongside San Francisco.
With its extensive assortment of restaurants, bakeries and tea rooms, Chinatown nourishes both San Franciscans and visitors from afar, as it has for over a century. In the last five years, a new crop of storied chefs have set up shop in the neighborhood, adding vibrancy to its well-worn fabric. But there's so much more to Chinatown than just food. The best way to get a real feel for the neighborhood and the community that built it is to walk its streets. There's quite literally nothing like it in the country.
Here is what to eat, drink, and do when you're in San Francisco's Chinatown.
Pacific Heights: Posh Shops, Pretty Parks + Wellness on Tap
Take something of San Francisco's old-world elegance, sprinkle in a few local celebrities (you choose: an actor, a speaker of the House, a Fortune 500 CEO), add a quiet suburban hush, and you get Pacific Heights in all its grandeur.
If you're in the market for skincare and cosmetics (especially of the clean, green variety) and you loathe the department store makeup counters of Union Square, Fillmore Street will be your first stop. While you're there, you can shop the local flagships of such chic urban labels as Rag & Bone and Veronica Beard, get a spa treatment at International Orange, or share a crusty-chewy Neapolitan pie at the Pac Heights outpost of Pizzeria Delfina.
Be sure to walk the Lyon Street Steps and take the dogs to Alta Plaza Park.
Our guide to Pacific Heights.
Jackson Square: Where Stylish Cuisine Meets Art and Fashion
Few neighborhoods blend sophistication and charm like San Francisco's Jackson Square.
Bounded by Broadway and Washington Street on the south, Columbus Avenue on the west, and Battery Street on the east, Jackson Square is where you go for a shot of retail therapy and a stroll through streets lined with serious historical cachet.
What was once a part of the notorious Barbary Coast—a nest of brothels, bars and gambling dens during the heyday of our Gold Rush era—is now a crosshatch of spotless streets and brick buildings where cool boutiques rub shoulders with contemporary art galleries and one can partake of a refreshing cucumber gimlet without feeling the crush of tourists from nearby North Beach or Chinatown. The quiet enclave is also home to some of the city's finest restaurants.
Inner Richmond: Endless Eats + Park Life
Once written off as the "outside lands," today's Inner Richmond has all the making of the next hip San Francisco neighborhood—even if its residents might like to keep that a secret.
Situated between the Presidio and Golden Gate Park, the Inner Richmond balances the hustle of urban life with the innately laid-back nature of SF's west side. It is anchored by two main drags, Clement Street and Geary Boulevard, each dotted with countless restaurants with a heavy Asian accent—the 'hood isn't called SF's "New Chinatown" for nothing. Have fun shopping the many Chinese markets and, of course, gorging on some of the best dim sum in town.
The Castro: Hot Bars and History in America's OG Gayborhood
The Castro, it seems, is always having some kind of a renaissance.
With a legacy as the nexus of the LGBTQ rights movement and the home of icon Harvey Milk, the world's most famous gayborhood has lately reinvented itself with artisanal coffee shops, restaurants that cater to foodies, sophisticated retail, and fancy cannabis.
In recent years, a major renovation to Castro Street brought broader sidewalks, rainbow crosswalks, bronze plaques honoring gay and lesbian heroes, and a much needed revamp to Harvey Milk Plaza. Visit the SF neighborhood that's synonymous with diversity and inclusivity.
Japantown: Kitschy Shops, Stylish Hotels, Photogenic Sweets + All the Noodles
One of just three official Japantowns in the U.S., San Francisco's hub of Japanese culture is brimming with original restaurants, quirky shops, and unique community vibes.
Beyond the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival, which blooms every April, there are a slew of things to do, eat, and see, especially for young people seeking quirky Instagram ops.
NoPa: Iconic Restaurants + Indie Shops in an Emerging 'Hood
Longtime San Franciscans know this swath of the city as the Western Addition. But then some years back, one restaurant opened in the neighborhood North of the Panhandle and changed everything. Nopa is still serving some of the best French toast in town, but its presence has redefined—and renamed—the neighborhood.
Today NoPa is one of the city's hippest emerging districts, with such anchors as Bi-Rite, Rare Device, and Bar Crudo holding down the place. Here's you'll find cool dive bars alongside trendier watering holes; indie shops with cult followings; classic ice cream and kitschy Asian treats; and arguably the city's hottest restaurant opening of the last few years. Plus, it's all within walking distance to those pretty Painted Ladies at Alamo Square Park.
Mission-Potrero: Craft Everything in a Pocket Neighborhood
When most young San Franciscans think of the Mission, they think of Dolores Park and the Valencia Street corridor, that ever-bustling bastion of gentrification where it seems impossible to squeeze in even one more hipster bar or restaurant.
But San Franciscans who've been around remember toting their New York Times (yes, the actual print edition) to curb it outside Universal Cafe on Sunday mornings, where they would wait for the city's best brunch in an otherwise kind-of-desolate part of the neighborhood, then a stone's throw away from what was once the beloved Slow Club—but not much else.
Today that pocket of the Mission, which is still home to Universal (which is still truly great), is having a bit of a heyday, thanks to the slow and over-time opening of various arts venues and independent shops as well as the more recent arrival of legit cult brands (ahem, Tartine and Heath Ceramics). Now the swath of San Francisco from 18th and Harrison to 21st and Bryant streets seems deserving of a neighborhood moniker all its own. Take a day to check out its award-winning bars, destination eateries, and cutting edge arts.
Hayes Valley: San Francisco's Shopping Haven + Bountiful Food and Drink
Newish-comers to San Francisco don't even remember Hayes Valley's once-seedy days laced with crime and prostitution. In the last several years, the sunny enclave—wedged between Mid-Market, Lower Haight, and the Western Addition—has become a choice spot to while away an afternoon sipping craft beer and hunting limited-edition designer tops.
The dramatic transition was initially triggered by 1989's Loma Prieta earthquake, which tumbled part of the Central Highway that ran directly through the neighborhood. Since local residents persistently (and successfully) rallied against the rebuilding of the highway, the area has had a chance to evolve. Two decades of steady regeneration have turned Hayes Valley into a haven for shoppers and bon vivants, a place where you can pick up a unique piece for your wardrobe or indulge in delectable, internationally inspired cuisine.
The Marina: Fitness, Day Drinking, Festivals + Bay Views
The Marina gets a lot of flack for its athleisure-clad mommies who juice-lunch between Pilates and shopping and for its puffer-vest-wearing bros who share investment tips over beers.
But let's be real: We all like it for its (sometimes-sun-soaked) Marina Green—with its waterfront views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz and lush stretches grass and beach, this is hands down the city's top spot for running, biking, and playing with the pups. Plus there's something to be said for a 'hood where day drinking is encouraged and there are endless food trucks dishing out cheap eats at Off the Grid.
North Beach: The Beat (and all the pizza) goes on
Beyond the throngs of tourists and kitschy Italian restaurants hides the real North Beach, a bastion of intricate alleyways that hide dark, mixology-driven bars and the Beat-laced history lives on.
Whether you're sipping a stiff cocktail or searching for a just-right book of poetry, keep your eyes—and your mind—open when exploring this richly cultured neighborhood. North Beach has been hit especially hard by the Bay Area's real estate crisis in recent years, but if you look well enough, you'll still find some of the city's coolest spots.
The Tenderloin: Swank Cocktails, Diverse Eats + Hipster Hotels
San Franciscans understand what Shel Silverstein meant when he wrote, "somebody has to go polish the stars."
In the past, Tenderloin alleyways have looked a little too much like forgotten dreams and despair. It's no doubt that the neighborhood has carried the most questionable reputation in SF, but gentrification in recent years has given the Tenderloin some much-needed hope and shine. There is an undeniable charm in the convergence of art and style and grit here, and surprisingly, the 'hood is now home to some of the coolest stays in town for visitors seeking an authentic moment in San Francisco. Plus, a diverse range of cuisines, cocktail lounges, and theaters make the TL a sweet spot for a culture fix.
Cow Hollow: Boozy Brunches, Sweaty Workouts + Boutique Shopping
Basically the antithesis of the San Francisco hipster haven that is the Mission, Union Street in Cow Hollow is the city's yuppie mecca—land of Lululemon-clad millennial moms pushing strollers between Pilates class and mimosa brunch.
Here you'll find countless small studios where you can work up a sweat, or if you prefer to hit the gym, you'll find both Equinox and Crunch. Naturally, juice bars are also plentiful here; and when you're ready to hit the harder stuff, Union Street has a plethora of casual restaurants and taverns.
But first, get your shop on at the many indie boutiques, where you can pick up everything from fresh-picked bouquets to a tin of caviar or a Casper mattress. Look out for the local street fair each June.