San Francisco Neighborhood Guide
Updated: Jan 21, 2019
For a city that’s only seven miles by seven miles, San Francisco has a lot of neighborhoods. Thirty-six, in fact, that are recognized by the Planning Department, and even a couple more that aren’t. What’s even more surprising is how quickly the vibe of the city can change just by walking a block or two.
Obviously, the best way to truly understand a neighborhood is to spend time there, but for those new to the city, this guide gives a good sense of what to expect of the city’s most popular ‘hoods. Wondering why Fisherman’s Wharf and the Financial District aren’t on the list? That’s because no one in their right mind chooses to live there. If you're looking to get a sense of the cost of living and average rent in SF, you should probably start there first.
If you want to live within walking distance of the “Full House” house, this is the place to live. Not only is the namesake park a great (albeit windy) place to hang with friends and dogs, this neighborhood is also within walking distance of some of the san francisco's best casual restaurants and laidback bars (as well as a couple of fancier spots).
Bayview is on the outskirts of the city and is viewed as a little “gritty” by some because it doesn’t have the wealth most of SF’s other neighborhood’s have. There’s not a ton going on in Bayview, but there are a few breweries and distilleries, and for those in the know, some really great food.
This often-sunny neighborhood feels like a little village thanks to its main street (Cortland Avenue), charming coffee shops and restaurants, dog-friendly bars, and the fact that it’s a little out of the way (something those who live there like to deny, but is still a fact). It’s also home to a very welcoming lesbian community, as well as one of SF’s best lesbian bars (Wild Side West). Many of the homes have great views and for those that don’t, residents can go to Bernal Hill, the perfect spot for urban hikes, letting dogs off leash, and looking down over the entire city.
The Castro is SF’s gay neighborhood and is therefore, obviously, home to a lot of people and families in the LGBT community. Like most SF neighborhoods, parking is scarce, but everything is within walking distance one you get there, including a bunch of gay bars, and a couple of fantastic dining establishments. You'll get better weather for most of the year in the central part of the city which includes Castro and the Mission.
SF’s Chinatown is North America’s oldest and largest Chinatown. The architecture, narrow alleyways, and shops give it an exotic feel, but it’s also very densely populated and the crowds of both locals and tourists can be overwhelming. Still, there’s some amazing food, iconic dive bars, and it’s within walking distance to North Beach and the Financial District.
This little village is just blocks away from the iconic corner of Haight and Ashbury, but feels like it’s miles away because of its small town vibe. Still, it has everything anyone could need: a few bars and coffee shops, great restaurants, a gourmet grocery, and is very close to Golden Gate Park, which is why it’s home to lots of young families and a ton of dogs. It’s also technically almost right in the middle of the city.
Cow Hollow is basically a more grown-up version of the Marina District. Everyone’s wearing yoga pants and puffy jackets, and it has a great mix of bars, restaurants, and coffee shops, numerous exercise facilities (Soul Cycle, pilates, yoga, etc.), and lots of boutiques (even for dogs). It’s also soon to be the only place in SF with a Shake Shack.
Converted warehouses on the water draw artists and hipsters to this neighborhood that’s beyond up-and-coming, but not yet fully gentrified. There are a few great restaurant options, including The Ramp, a popular outdoor spot on the water for drinks and dancing, but not much of a nightlife scene. It’s also flatter than a lot of other SF neighborhoods and also gets more sunshine.
If you ask most people who haven’t lived in SF for long where the Excelsior is, they probably won’t be able to tell you. It’s a more humble neighborhood south of 280 and full of San Franciscans who prefer a slower paced life and easy access to the city’s second largest park. While none of SF’s trendier restaurants are in this neighborhood, there’s a ton of ethnic food (which is no surprise, since it’s one of SF’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods). There also aren’t a lot of watering holes, but The Broken Record has a great whiskey selection and one of the best burgers in town.
This neighborhood on the southeastern edge of the city is another one that a lot of people don’t know about it, but is perfect for anyone who wants to feel a little more secluded, appreciates mom-and-pop-establishments, and wants to take advantage of Glen Park Canyon, a 70-acre city park with lots of walking paths.
This bustling neighborhood is home to many of SF’s best cultural institutions, including the SF Ballet, Opera, and Symphony, and SF Jazz. It’s also one of the hottest eating and drinking destinations in the city. Diners can choose from French, German, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Scandinavian, Japanese, and American cuisine, and there are also a couple of wine and cocktail bars that are very popular. There’s also quite a bit of shopping, an outdoor beer garden, and even a playground in the middle of it all.
Those looking for the best Chinese food in SF should skip Chinatown and head to this foggy, (mostly) flat neighborhood where they’ll find amazing dim sum and Chinese restaurants. There are also a couple of decent Irish and German bars, and it’s close to Golden Gate Park.
Close to UCSF and Golden Gate Park, this neighborhood is home to students and families, and has a reputation for constantly being smothered in fog. In fact, the sun does occasionally shine on this ‘hood where there are tons of cafes and restaurants, as well as some decent bars to watch football.
The Lower Haight feels like the closest thing SF has to NYC’s Lower East Side. It’s definitely a ‘hood for the hipsters, thanks to a plethora of dive bars (including Tornonado, the best beer bar in SF, despite its surly bartenders) really good cheap eats, and a whole “IDGAF” vibe.
People either love the Marina or they hate it. That’s because it’s home to young professionals wearing athleisure wear at all times of days, and is very, very… white. If you're still looking for fraternity and sorority life, live here! That being said, it’s also steps from Crissy Field with views of the Golden Gate Bridge and a dog-friendly beach, lots of great shopping, and some truly wonderful restaurants and bars.
One word: gentrification. The Mission is colorful, vibrant, and home to the best burritos in the city. And that’s because it is home to lots of Latino families, many who have been in SF for generations. However, in recent years, it’s also become home to SF’s tech workers, some truly outstanding restaurants, and a thriving bar scene. The Mission is definitely one of the most fun and popular neighborhoods in SF, but at a cost. It’s also usually 10 degrees warmer than any neighborhood to the north, which means the popular Dolores Park is jam-packed on the weekends.
Nob Hill is city’s swankiest neighborhood that actually feels like it’s in a city. (Pacific Heights is the swankiest one that does not.) Many of city’s fanciest hotels, as well as Grace Cathedral, sit atop of it, and there is lots of old money and upper-class families living there. That being said, it borders the Tenderloin, so in certain places, it can feel a little less fancy than one might expect.
Those who don’t like dodging strollers will not want to live in this very hilly, very family-oriented neighborhood. The “main street” is mostly a stretch on 24th which isn’t big, but it does have some shopping, a few quality restaurants, and a sports bar.
No one calls North Beach “San Francisco’s Little Italy,” but that’s probably the best way to describe it. Well, maybe Little Italy meets XXX since it’s also home to almost all of the city’s strip clubs. Somehow though, it makes perfect sense that a fantastic restaurant would be across the street from a gentleman’s club which is kitty corner to the city’s most famous bookstore and a bar where Kerouac hung out that is open 365 days of the year at 6 a.m. Oddly, as much as San Francisco has changed, North Beach has managed to stay pretty much the same. It is a nightmare for parking, but it has everything anyone could ever need, so for those who live there, a car isn’t needed.
The people who live in this foggy neighborhood by the beach understand that, even though it’s really not that far away, the chances are slim that anyone will go out to visit them. What those people who won’t visit them are missing out on though is the beach, some great hiking, and a lot of excellent under-the-radar restaurants.
The Outer Sunset is known for being sleepy, foggy, and full of surfers who are good enough to paddle out at Ocean Beach. What it’s not known for is its food/bar/shopping scene, but that is rapdily changing. There are a few quality restaurants, bars, and coffee shops with more on the way. Same goes from some very only-in-SF stores, like Mollusk Surf Shop and General Store.
Pacific Heights is pretty much home to one thing and one thing only: gorgeous, enormous houses, many of which have sweeping views of the bay. The closest place for who want to eat and drink somewhere other than their million dollar kitchen is Fillmore Street (technically Lower Pac Heights) or Cow Hollow.
If a SF neighborhood has “hill” in its name, you can be sure that it’s for a reason. Potrero is full of steep hills, but also full of sunshine. It’s very residential and there aren’t a lot of entertainment options, but many of the homes have great views and parking is relatively easy to find.
Russian Hill is the place people live after they leave the Marina, but before they move to Cow Hollow and procreate. There are a lot of amazing neighborhood restaurants, a bar scene that’s probably more fun for those in the 20s than anyone else (though there are a couple of good wine bars), as well as a grocery store, hardware store, nail salons, gym (in an old movie theater), and a few boutiques.
This South of Market neighborhood is enormous—it’s shocking that realtors have yet to divide it up into mini ‘hoods—and is also where a lot of the tech/start-up people live, as well as where the SF Giants play (in one of most beautiful baseball stadiums in the world). There’s lots of new development, meaning fancy buildings with lots of amenities, but zero SF charm, as well as a good number of bars and restaurants. Unfortunately, due to its size, SoMa isn’t exactly “walkable,” though it is very flat, which helps.
There’s no getting around it: the TL has some of the highest crime rates in the city, and it would not be shocking to see someone smoking crack on the sidewalk. In fact it might be more shocking if one didn’t see that. The counterpoint to that, however, is that it’s also got a ton of really great bars and restaurants. And the rent is lower, though it’s basically impossible to live there and own a car.
Tourists call it the Haight-Ashbury, but anyone who lives there knows it as “Upper Haight.” But it’s the former moniker that defines this neighborhood which is full of colorful Victorians, head shops, sneaker stores, places to by tie-dye everything, street kids, and also some bars and restaurants that are definitely worth frequenting. Bonus points because the end of Haight Street is the beginning of Golden Gate Park.
The Western Addition includes the Divisadero Corridor, the Fillmore, what realtors have named “NoPa” (North of the Panhandle), and more. It’s a big neighborhood that is being rapidly gentrified which means that the bar and restaurant scene is thriving more and more every day.
So now that you're up to speed on neighborhoods, make sure you check out our posts on must-know accounts to follow if you live in San Francisco as well as the apps every SF local should have (including discount codes!) to get stuff done.