San Francisco neighborhoods
Tucked at the base of Twin Peaks, between stroller-strewn Noe Valley and the free-lovin’ Haight, the Castro earned its stripes as America’s most famous gay neighborhood during the political activism of the 1960s and ‘70s. These days, the district that started out as a sleepy suburb called “Eureka Valley” is a beating political and cultural heart—and one of San Francisco’s sassiest and most welcoming ‘hoods. Here, stylish shops and hip eateries keep company with racy window displays and a bustling nightlife scene.
A must-see stop is the Castro Theater, famous for its Moorish-meets-art-deco design and “Mighty Wurlitzer Organ” that provides the soundtrack to many a lively sing-a-long. But amid the action, the neighborhood somehow maintains a bit of an old-fashioned feel. The historic “F-line” streetcars begin their journey here, and just off the buzzing main drags are surprisingly hushed side streets, lined with trees and some of the city’s most striking Victorian homes.
Stretching north of Market Street and bordering busy Union Square, tony Nob Hill and chic Hayes Valley, San Francisco’s heart of high culture teeters on the border of glitz and grit. The Civic Center ‘hood is named for an opulent complex of Beaux Arts buildings, including the glorious gold-domed City Hall and the equally impressive Opera House, Davies Symphony Hall. Just beyond these reside grand theaters and the decadent restaurants that feed their visitors.
In the midst of all this art and architecture, though, is the notoriously seedy Tenderloin, where the city’s most destitute roam. Yes, these mean streets can be sketchy, but for those who don’t mind a little grime (or babbling strangers) there are treasures to be found in the ‘Loin. It’s home to some rockin’ music venues, like the Great American Music Hall and the Warfield. And in between grubby liquor stores and strip clubs also hide funky dive bars and tasty, cheap restaurants. All you need is your sense of adventure (and street smarts).
It’s not all flower-power these days, but the Haight’s peace-and-love vibe is still very much intact. The center of the 1960s’ counterculture movement has done a great job of cleaning up its act without selling out. It straddles the lines between trendy commercial zone, progressive hub and nostalgic time capsule in a way that doesn’t feel forced. And club kids, aging hippies, fashionistas and foodies all feel equally at home among its high-end boutiques, vintage record stores and old standbys (like the Pipe Dreams head shop and the anarchist bookstore Bound Together). It’s also home to the Alamo Square’s “Painted Ladies” and Buena Vista Park, which (though best avoided at night) affords stellar city views.» See hotels in The Haight.
Haute-Hayes Valley only became San Francisco’s latest mecca for fashion, food and funky art within the past couple decades. Given its location east of Civic Center, the area was historically an extension of the Tenderloin, its streets dominated by drug dealers and “ladies of the night.” But after destruction caused by the 1989 earthquake, Hayes Valley began its transition from seedy to chic.
Today the ‘hood is a testament to a friendly sort of gentrification: It may sport a new luster, but it still has a nonexclusive feel. Pricey boutiques and quirky art galleries keep easy company with laid-back eateries and even a dive bar or two. Fillmore Street, which divides the ‘hood from the free-spirited Haight, is host to a variety of events, from weekly farmers’ markets to the Fillmore Jazz Festival, and Western Addition, the area to the north, is arguably the city’s most economically and ethnically diverse district.
The hip Marina is a picturesque “village” with exquisite Victorian homes, expanses of waterfront and killer views of the Golden Gate. It was devastated by the Great Quake and then rebuilt for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a remainder of which is the iconic Palace of Fine Arts. And after the 1989 earthquake leveled the area a second time, it got a shiny new face (and sturdier construction).
These days, the home of the Presidio and the Exploratorium is also home to yuppie types, who shop in its trendy boutiques and brunch in its sunny cafés. A buzzing nightlife and a Safeway supermarket famous for its pickup scene also make this the place where singles come to see and be seen. But amid posh spa treatments and yoga pants (the standard uniform around these parts), the ‘hood also attracts assorted free spirits, who stroll through artsy Fort Mason’s museums and nonprofits, or picnic and fly kites at Crissy Field.
In the late 1800s, Nob Hill was populated by wealthy railroad barons escaping the masses. Their mansions were leveled in the Great Quake, but the area still drips with privilege. At its heart, Huntington Park sits across from Gothic Grace Cathedral, surrounded by upscale hotels, elegant architecture and genteel cocktail lounges that recall a bygone era. (To hobnob with the blue bloods, drink in a cocktail—and 360-degree views—at the Mark Hopkins Hotel’s pie-in-the-sky bar, Top of the Mark.)
Venture west to Lower Nob Hill or north to Russian Hill and you'll find funky shops and popular bars and restaurants, especially along Hyde and Polk Streets. Do note that the southern portion of this area, sometimes referred to as the “Tendernob,” blurs with the unsavory Tenderloin neighborhood. It’s worth a visit, but keep your wits about you, especially after dark.
Wedged between Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach has a palpable buzz. If the flags painted on the light posts here don’t tell you that you’re in Italian territory, the cheery “ristorantes” and frozen-in-time caf&eactue;s should do the job. From Grant Avenue (the city’s oldest street) to iconic Coit Tower keeping watch from Telegraph Hill, North Beach's many historic landmarks tell its lively and checkered history.
There’s a curious mix of lively and quaint here. Frenzied Broadway is lit up by popular nightclubs and neon girlie signs that recall the area’s days as the infamous Barbary Coast. But head down to Washington Square Park, in the shadow of Saints Peter and Paul Church, and the feeling is altogether serene. And amid various literary hangouts and homages to the 1950s Beat movement, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore shines like a beacon on Columbus and Broadway (just off Jack Kerouac Alley).
Populated by exquisite Victorian homes and grand mansions, posh Pacific Heights has a long legacy of extravagance. What started out as the playground of the nouveau riche in the late 1800s is now home to such glitterati as Gordon Getty and Danielle Steele. Aside from gaping at grandeur, the primary activity here is shopping. Fillmore Street is lined with luxury boutiques—with plenty of sidewalk cafés for watching the daily parade of the well-heeled.
Amid all this glamour is Japantown. At its peak in the '20s and ‘30s this 'hood spread over 20 blocks, but it was virtually gutted when the Japanese were interned during World War II. Today this workaday enclave stretches only a few blocks around the pagoda in the Japan Center Mall. Still, the area seems to be making a resurgence, with a popular annual cherry blossom festival and local businesses like the Kabuki Theater keeping the spirit of Japanese heritage and pop culture alive.
Spunky SoMa sprawls from the Embarcadero to 11th Street. Its name, short for "South of Market," also recalls the days when this area was "South of the Slot," (namely, the "wrong side of cable car the tracks"). The 1990s’ dot com boom ushered in a wave of Internet start-ups and young creatives that cleaned things up, and now SoMa is hip with a downtown edge. There are still some sketchy portions, though, so it’s best to have a solid idea of where you’re going.
SoMa action is centered in three main areas. Giants fans head to South Park for the ballpark, and the well-heeled enjoy the splashy Metreon entertainment complex near Third and Market. The latter area also has a bohemian vibe, thanks to the Yerba Buena Gardens and assorted museums, galleries and quirky clubs. Then there's the industrial western edge, inhabited by the latest and greatest in trendy nightclubs. The very end of this zone (Folsom and 11th) is also the heart of the gay leather and S&M scene, mainly known for its racy Folsom Street Fair.
The heart of San Francisco’s downtown area, Union Square is named for the park that was once the site of pro-Union rallies during the Civil War. These days, it’s a shopper’s paradise, home to an array of department stores, upscale boutiques, tourist shops and salons. Just off the park, you’ll find Chinatown to the north and a cluster of theaters and art galleries to the west. The area is also a transportation and hotel hub.» See hotels in Union Square.