San Francisco: Top Neighborhoods to Explore


The City by the Bay has been a study in transitions since its founding in 1776. Constantly in flux, the current landscape may bear little resemblance to the city it was during previous generations, but some things never change: its infamously steep streets, unmistakable skyline, and views of the San Francisco Bay make it one of the most beautiful cities in the United States. It’s no wonder San Francisco is one of only three cities deemed truly worthy by Tennessee Williams.

Mission District. Photo by Piermario Eva from Unsplash.

Mission District

Mission District, San Francisco, CA, USA

Start off bright and early on a weekday with a trip to Tartine Bakery (Pro tip: most times there’s a line down the block but weekday mornings are your window of opportunity) for arguably some of the best French pastries and coffee in town. The café itself is lovely but can get a little crowded, so walk the block to Dolores Park to enjoy your winnings with a view of the downtown skyline. Bring a blanket and a book and settle in for a morning of people—and puppy—watching. Head over to Valencia Street for plenty of boutiques, bookstores, and curiosity shops; check out Paxton Gate for their selection of taxidermied critters and flesh-eating plants or the pirate shop over at 826 Valencia . On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, several of the busiest blocks of the street are closed to traffic, and bars and restaurants set up tables on the sidewalks with plenty of heat lamps and outdoor entertainment, giving the neighborhood a bit of a European vibe. For a truly memorable dining experience, make a reservation at Foreign Cinema , a restaurant gorgeous both inside and out that projects old films on the walls of its garden while you enjoy your dinner under strands of twinkling lights.

Bernal Heights Park. Photo by Daniel Ramirez licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Deep Mission/Bernal Heights

Grab a coffee at the original Philz Coffee – get the Mint Mojito if you’re going cold or the Tesora if you’d prefer hot – on 24th Street at Folsom Street and walk down shady Folsom to Bernal Heights Park for a morning hike. Take a whirl on the rope swing on the east side of the park and soak up the 360-degree panorama of the city and the San Francisco Bay. Drop down the south side of the hill to the Bernal Heights neighborhood, a quieter, more low-key counterpart to the Mission, and take a load off in the quirky back garden at Wild Side West , a neighborhood lesbian bar with stiff drinks and a pool table. Or head down the west side of the hill to El Rio on Mission Street, a long-time LGBTQ+ bar locally famous for cheap drinks and dance parties on the sunny back patio. End up at the Knockout a block away, which hosts live music, karaoke, and trivia nights depending on the day.

Golden Gate Park. Photo by jitze licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Golden Gate Park

San Francisco, CA, USA

Where else can you sit among the tulips under a windmill, watch bison roam the plains, admire a Picasso, roller skate, shoot a bow and arrow, and listen to frogs chirping in a tropical rainforest—all within walking distance of each other? Only in Golden Gate Park , the third most visited park in the United States. Golden Gate Park is home to world-class museums, hiking trails, a group of enthusiastic Lindy Hoppers who gather every Sunday, and countless other diversions to keep visitors coming back for more. Picnic in the grass on a sunny day outside the Conservatory of Flowers , a gorgeous Victorian greenhouse on the eastern side of the park. Rent a bike at one of the park’s many bike rental vendors to cover more ground, or simply stroll the length of the three-mile expanse that starts in the middle of San Francisco and ends at the ocean. Don’t miss stopping at the de Young Museum , a fine arts museum housing collections from around the globe, or the California Academy of Sciences , the park’s world-renowned science and natural history museum, home to nearly 46 million scientific specimens.

Outer Sunset District. Photo by Drngogo licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Ocean Beach/Outer Sunset

Catch surfer vibes at the western end of Golden Gate Park where land meets sea at Ocean Beach. Often obscured by fog, OB – as it’s locally known – isn’t on the radar for most swimmers and sunbathers, so the rare warm and sunny day can signal laptops closing throughout the city and a mass exodus to the coast. The Outer Sunset neighborhood next door to OB has amazing meals covered. Devil's Teeth Baking Company on Noriega Street has incredible pastries and hearty breakfasts. Try the “special” breakfast sandwich that provides sustenance against the often cool, gray days. For lunch, head over to Hook Fish Co , a counter service hole in the wall with menu items built around the fish of the day. Or hunker down at Outerlands on Judah Street, an inviting space and a warm respite from the ocean breezes. Grab a cozy blanket by the basket at the door and sip a cocktail outside while you’re waiting for your table. With an outstanding, locally-sourced menu and an eclectic wine list, Outerlands has been a neighborhood staple for more than a decade.

North Beach. Photo by Kimson Doan from Unsplash.

North Beach

San Francisco, CA

If the streets of North Beach could talk, they would be gossiping about the countless artists, writers, and poets who have roamed its alleyways since the neighborhood became a breeding ground for the Beat Generation in the 1950s. Get lost among the stacks at City Lights Booksellers & Publishers , the famous bookshop-turned-historic-landmark founded by beatnik poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Pop across the street for a pre-dinner cocktail at the bookstore’s sister business, Specs' Twelve Adler Museum Cafe , a long name for a curious little bar that would certainly have some stories to tell about the Beat authors who passed through its doors. Then head next door to Tosca Cafe for an elegant dinner in an old-school restaurant ringed by cozy leather booths. Famous for its Tuscan fried chicken and cappuccino cocktails, the century-old establishment originally opened in 1919 by Italian immigrants is a cornerstone of the North Beach neighborhood. Round out the night with a show at Cobb's Comedy Club , a venue that has hosted some serious comedy—think Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr, and Louis CK—since opening in the 1980s.

Marina District. Photo by Telstar Logistics licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Marina District

Marina District, San Francisco, CA, USA

Watch sailboats skipping across the San Francisco Bay against a backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge from Crissy Field in the Marina District. The vast expanse of grass at the northern tip of the city is the perfect place to lay in the sun, throw a frisbee, or people watch on a sunny day. Surrounded by some of the city’s most breathtaking views, the Marina has tons of shopping, plenty of amazing bars and restaurants, and a particularly preppy vibe. Grab a coffee and donut at the Dynamo Donut + Coffee kiosk and stroll along the harbor while scoping out the gorgeous homes on Marina Boulevard. Get pampered and upgrade your wardrobe at one of the many boutiques and salons that line Union and Chestnut streets, then drink and dine like the locals at a San Francisco institution, Balboa Cafe , which has been serving the neighborhood since opening in 1913. If it’s summertime, catch a movie at FORT MASON FLIX , San Francisco’s first drive-in movie theater at Fort Mason Center, a former Army-post-turned-historic-site with views of Alcatraz Island in the background.