San Francisco is quite small, yet its hilly terrain and patchwork demographic profile gives it more distinctly defined neighborhoods than a city five times its size. As a result, the sights, sounds and flavors of this community—and even its climate—can change within a single block.
Castro Street & Noe Valley
The center of San Francisco's gay community and a landmark for gay culture everywhere, the Castro is full of bars, dance clubs, restaurants, and one-of-a-kind shops, located in the commercial area around 18th and Castro Street. There's arguably more street life in the Castro than anywhere else in the city, especially on weekends. The gleaming neon sign of the Castro Theater greets visitors as they make their way down the street, with its Spanish colonial architecture and various blockbuster and independent film screenings. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence sometimes make an appearance at special events (they're really men in nun drag) such as the Castro Street Fair, and take it from us—this is the place to be on Halloween. Trek up Castro to Liberty Street to see exceptional Victorian homes. Over the hill lies Noe Valley and its main shopping strip, 24th Street. Cute and relatively quiet, Noe Valley has enough great restaurants and gourmet food shops to make it sophisticated, but not enough many chromed-up bars and Italian clothing boutiques to make it stuffy.
The greatest single concentration of Chinese people outside of Asia—a population of roughly 80,000—live in the approximately 24 square blocks of Chinatown , making it the most densely populated area of San Francisco. As you walk around, you'll be richly rewarded by the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of this vibrant community. Grant Avenue is the decorative showpiece of Chinatown, each year hosting the Autumn Moon Festival Street Fair and the ever popular Chinese New Year Festival & Parade. The neighborhood is also known for its excellent Chinese dishes from freshly-prepared poultry and seafood, to the staple, Dim Sum.
Civic Center & Hayes Valley
Stately Beaux Arts buildings like the War Memorial Opera House and the domed, renovated City Hall are situated near the modern Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall and the Public Library's graceful Main Branch. The Asian Art Museum is also in the area, housed in the former Main Library building. Nearby Hayes Valley offers fine dining and apres-symphony toddies for concert-goers, as well as tastefully creative stores for clothing and gifts.
Cow Hollow & Union Street
The grand, imposing homes of Cow Hollow (so named for its original bovine residents) are nestled against the Presidio where Pacific Heights dives to the Marina. Spectacular views are the norm. Straight, single yuppies pack the Balboa Cafe , Sushi Chardonnay, and other bars and restaurants on Fillmore and Union Streets. Clothes hounds can easily fritter the day away in Union Street's many upscale and tasteful boutiques.
Downtown & Union Square
Union Square is the heart of San Francisco's bustling and stylish downtown shopping district. Posh department stores such as Neiman Marcus and Macy's ring the one-block square park. Hundreds of other exclusive stores, boutiques and shopping centers, such as the Westfield San Francisco Shopping Centre , lie within a three-block radius of the square. If you've shopped till you've dropped, pick yourself up at an outdoor cafe in tiny Maiden Lane , and restore the soul at one of the many art galleries on Sutter and Geary Streets. This is also the home of San Francisco's modest Theater District.
Financial District & The Embarcadero
"The Wall Street of the West": Bank of America, Charles Schwab, and the Transamerica Corporation (in its landmark, 48-floor Pyramid ) are among the many banks and corporations headquartered here. The Embarcadero Center features dining, shopping, a fine art cinema, and a health club, while Justin Herman Plaza is the site of many New Year's Eve bashes. The Embarcadero itself fronts the Bay for miles on either side of the imposing Ferry Building Marketplace , modeled on the cathedral tower in Seville, Spain.
Fisherman's Wharf, Ghirardelli Square & Aquatic Park
This area was once the thriving center of San Francisco's fishing industry. Many fishing boats still dock at the Wharf, but Fisherman's Wharf today is more of an extended tourist trap. Pier 39 is a great place to catch a view of the bay thanks to the delightful colony of sea lions. Aquatic Park features a beach, of sorts, and a long pier spiraling out into the Bay. Old sea-dogs will enjoy adjacent Hyde Street Pier, where several historic ships are docked, along with the Maritime Museum . Ghirardelli Square , a chocolate factory turned shopping and restaurant complex, features some of the city's better dining and views. This area is nice for an evening stroll.
Golden Gate Park
With 1000 acres of gardens, meadows, lakes, golf, archery, and internationally recognized art and science museums, Golden Gate Park offers endless recreational possibilities for visitors and locals. The DeYoung Museum and the Japanese Tea Garden are some of the main attractions of the famous park, drawing millions of visitors each year. At the western edge of the park, Ocean Beach, although unappealing for swimming, attracts hard-core surfers with its rough, frigid and unpredictable waves.
At once, the area around Haight and Fillmore feels more bohemian and less unsavory than the Haight Ashbury to the west. The streets are usually packed with college-age inhabitants who tote guitars and well-worn paperbacks. Ethnic restaurants like Persian Aub Zam Zam , unpretentious cafes, and independent bookstores are mushrooming in this neighborhood. The street life is lively on nights and weekends at popular haunts like Nickie's and Toronado .
Nob Hill & Russian Hill
On impossibly steep Nob Hill , California's early industrialists built fabulous mansions that looked down upon the rest of San Francisco. While only the imposing Flood Mansion remains—now the Pacific Union Club—the area's five-star hotels bear the names of other Nob Hill denizens: the Mark Hopkins , the Renaissance Stanford Court Hotel , and the Huntington . Facing Huntington Park is Grace Cathedral , a 3/4 replica of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Adjoining Nob Hill is Russian Hill, where San Francisco's old money has a great view of the Bay. The "Crookedest Street in the World" resides here and snakes down Russian Hill for the 1000 block of Lombard Street . The traffic is generally impossible—walk it!
North Beach & Telegraph Hill
Originally settled by Italians, North Beach became a magnet for Beat Generation writers and poets in the 1950s. City Lights Bookstore and the cafes and shops on upper Grant Avenue still exude Beatnik funk. A new wave of entrepreneurial Italians has brought a sense of Roman style to exciting new restaurants along Columbus Avenue. On Broadway, barkers still pull tourists and sailors into charmingly seedy strip joints. Clapboard sea captains' cottages and mossy flower gardens seem to dangle in space from the cliffs of Telegraph Hill. Coit Tower , at 210 feet, commands a stunning panorama from the hilltop. The boardwalk Filbert Steps leads from the Tower down through the Grace Marchand Gardens to Levi's Plaza Park at the base of the hill.
Fillmore Street & Japantown
Fillmore Street, Pacific Heights' commercial spur, features noteworthy restaurants, epicurean food, and antique shops, all attended by a lively trade from young professionals. Fillmore and Geary has become a popular nightlife destination, thanks to John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom Room and the Fillmore Auditorium . Be advised that the neighborhood gets a bit sketchy to the south and west of Geary and Fillmore. The Kabuki Cinema and neighboring Kabuki Springs & Spa are part of the Japan Center, the commercial heart of Japantown. A sort of miniature Ginza, the Japan Center features a 100-foot pagoda, bonsai gardens, sushi bars and other businesses. Each spring it holds the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival.
Pacific Heights & Presidio Heights
Stately homes and high-rent apartment buildings line the ridge high above Cow Hollow in old-money Pacific Heights. Genteel, renovated Victorians ring the peaceful Alta Plaza Park . Washington Street between Presidio and Arguello features exceptionally palatial residences. Those fortunate enough to live here shop for antiques and dine in quiet refinement on a few understated blocks of nearby Sacramento Street. San Francisco's largest synagogue, Temple Emanu-el , can be found on Arguello Street.
Once an unglamorous stretch of warehouses with a seedy undercurrent, an exciting modern San Francisco has emerged in the area South of Market Street—SoMa. Conventions, art, and entertainment possibilities abound in the Moscone/YerbaBuena Center area. Locals can be seen at leisure at the South Park Cafe , Brain Wash (a cafe/performance space/laundromat), or other fashion-forward restaurants and watering holes.
South Beach/China Basin
One of the city's most popular residential areas for young professionals, South Beach arose from a virtual wasteland at the southern end of the Embarcadero and the western edge of SoMa. Apartment complexes and boat marinas squeeze together between the foot of the Oakland Bay Bridge and the San Francisco Giants' waterfront baseball stadium, AT&T Park . Warehouses and factories have either been converted into stylish lofts or are being razed in a swath of development extending down Third Street to the Mission Bay development.
Haight-Ashbury & the Panhandle
This small, but densely concentrated cradle of the hippie movement has tried to retain much of its flower-power, peace and love appeal. While real Summer-of-Love generation hippies may be hard to find, young people, dreadlocked, skinheaded, or skateboard-crazy have continued to come to the Haight to break boundaries. The colorful bars and restaurants of upper Haight Street, however, are always packed with professional twenty-somethings. The annual Haight-Ashbury Street Fair is quite a scene. Architecture buffs will want to take a look at the regal Victorians on the Panhandle—the grassy, tree-lined strip extends east from Golden Gate Park along Fell and Oak Streets.
The Marina District
Tanned, fit and energetic twenty-somethings run and rollerblade along the Marina Green, a vast expanse of grass fronting the Bay between two yacht harbors. Mountain bikers crowd cafes, restaurants, and brunch hangouts along busy Chestnut Street after Sunday morning rides to Mount Tamalpais. The graceful Palace of Fine Arts houses the Exploratorium , the one-of-a-kind, hands-on science museum—a must-see for those with kids. At the southern end of the Marina Green is Fort Mason Center , a waterside arts and cultural center.
The Mission District
The nexus of Hispanic culture, and a mecca for edgy bohemians, the Mission now houses increasing numbers of young professionals and their sport utility vehicles. Mexican and Central American businesses line teeming Mission Street. Visit popular La Taqueria , and be assured that the wait is worth it. Along the Valencia Corridor, one block to the west, bars, cafes, and restaurants of every description, notably Casanova Lounge , lead to the buzzing 16th and Valencia hub. Paxton Gate stands as one of the most unique among the array of shops in this stretch. The neighborhood draws its name from nearby Mission Dolores , founded in 1776. The dolled-up, postcard-perfect Victorians on Dolores Street are worth a look—in the daytime—from adjacent Dolores Park .
14,000 acres of forests and beaches, 75 miles of bicycle-friendly roads, a golf course, and scenic grandeur without end make this the jewel of the Fort Miley Golden Gate National Recreation Area . The Presidio was a military base from 1776 to 1994; antebellum Fort Point , under the Golden Gate Bridge , is a favorite for cannon enthusiasts, as well as for surfers, sailboarders, and Hitchcock aficionados (it's the site of Kim Novak's attempted suicide in Vertigo).
The Richmond District
Fog-bound and quiet residential streets stretch to the Cliff House and Sutro Baths at the ocean, with the occasional Irish pub along the way. Some of the city's best Chinese restaurants are to be found in "Little Chinatown" on Clement Street, and Cyrillic lettering fills store windows around the imposing, gold-domed Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Cathedral on outer Geary Boulevard. Exclusive Seacliff, home to Robin Williams and other celebrities, is next to Lincoln Park, site of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor and a spectacular golf course.
A quiet and intensely foggy residential district, the principal attractions to the Outer Sunset are the San Francisco Zoo and the natural amphitheater at Stern Grove, where free concerts are held on summer Sundays. As well as being home to the Strybing Arboretum & Botanical Gardens , the Inner Sunset features a lively stretch of shops on Irving Street, near 9th Avenue where students from nearby UCSF Medical School crowd ethnic restaurants of every stripe, from Ethiopian to Thai.
As a restaurant town, San Francisco is rivaled only by New York. As varied as San Francisco's ethnic patchwork is, so is the plethora of dining choices. One can eat Chinese in Chinatown and Italian in North Beach, but a rainbow spectrum of ethnic cuisine awaits you in central and outlying neighborhoods. Have you enjoyed the specialties of Eritrean, Afghan, and Tibetan fare? In San Francisco, you can. Shining out over this sea of ethnic delights are the downtown beacons of fine dining that have really kept San Francisco on the culinary map, such as the stylish downtown restaurants Postrio , Masa's and Fringale . Chic and elegant or funky and loud, in San Francisco you'll eat better than you ever have. Bon Appetit!
Castro Street & Noe Valley
In the Castro, casual, inexpensive and fun dining prevails along with lots of gay bars. Relaxed Nirvana is a favorite meeting place with huge windows overlooking the action on Castro Street, while Orphan Andy's serves what may be the best hamburgers in the city. The loud and lively Detour, one of the most popular bars in the Castro, is a favorite cruising spot while Harvey's offers more relaxed conversations. Noe Valley contains more than its share of the City's better, smaller, less pricey but well-reputed eateries. The Firefly and Eric's , both favorites with locals, often have lines out the door.
Avoid the upstairs restaurants on Grant Avenue, which cater to the tourist trade. Instead, head up the side streets and take your chances at one of the scores of great and inexpensive Cantonese rooms that feed locals. Try the sedate and elegant Imperial Tea Court for a rare and exquisite selection of the finest Asian tea, or the frenetic House of Nanking on Kearny. On the edge of North Beach and Chinatown, Brandy Ho's carries the banner of "spicy Hunan cooking," and Dol Ho is a fixture with the Chinese shoppers and businessmen during lunch.
One of the best restaurants in Chinatown, Tommy Toy's on Montgomery Street, is not technically in Chinatown, but it's just a short walk down Washington Street past Portsmouth Square. Tommy Toy's is elegant, where gentlemen are expected to wear jackets and ties and where the food (bearing a French accent), is absolutely superb. One of the few bars in Chinatown, dimly lit Li Po's , is a legendary literary hangout. Check out its over-the-top facade.
Civic Center & Hayes Valley
If dining before the opera, Hayes Valley, west of the Civic Center, has its share of the city's finest dining. One of the stars of the area, Jardiniere , features a dining room so remarkably styled that it's worth a peek even if you can't get a reservation. On Hayes Street, Absinthe offers innovative California-French fare in a fanciful, dark velvet surrounding. Then there's the Caffe Delle Stelle's more homey, trattoria-style ambiance with clever and unerring renditions of Italian specialties. The Hayes Street Grill is a reliable favorite. Up the street, Suppenkuche offers modern renditions of German favorites and dozens of beers on tap in an ambiance as boisterous as it is spartan. For a quick and cheap oasis, try hip and funky Momi Toby's Revolution Cafe .
Cow Hollow/Union Street
The clientele here is young, brash, beautiful and successful. Great restaurants line Union Street and side streets. For wonderful neighborhood Italian, duck into Pane E Vino on Steiner, just off Union.
Downtown & Nob Hill
Masa's , Boulevard and Wolfgang Puck's Postrio offer variations in the spectrum of French/California cuisine, all of them expensive, and all of them worth it. For lovers of seafood and creative design, Farallon , also pricey, is styled on an undersea grotto theme. Don't think of going to these places without a reservation. A large number of great sushi restaurants are to be found in the area south of Post Street. For drinks, try some of the great bars and lounges in Nob Hill hotels, especially if you can't afford to be a guest there. The Top of the Mark (at the Mark Hopkins InterContinental ), Harry Denton's Starlight Room (atop the Sir Francis Drake ), and the classic Tonga Room (at the Fairmont Hotel ) will all let you say you've "been there, done that" without breaking the bank.
Embarcadero & Financial District
Restaurants here, whether stylish or traditional, are informed by discretion and lack of pretense as befits a business environment. On California Street, in the heart of the Financial District, is the Tadich Grill , the City's oldest restaurant. Heavy on tradition, this seafood house hasn't changed much during its extensive existence. Delightful Aqua does incredible things with seafood. The shiny Fog City Diner , near the Embarcadero Center , tips its hat to the American railroad diner, but serves excellent food. Nearby Il Fornaio , at Levi's Plaza Park , offers an exhaustive Italian menu, as well as a takeout deli and bakery. The Royal Exchange is a popular after-work destination for the young movers and shakers of Montgomery Street.
Fisherman's Wharf, Ghirardelli Square & Aquatic Park
One word: seafood. Places like Alioto's and Scoma's have been here forever, serving serviceable seafood to tourists, and of course have tremendous views with their bayside seating. Ghirardelli Square offers everything from a mind-boggling array of seafood at McCormick and Kuleto , to superb and elegant Chinese at the MO Bar . For anyone with a sweet tooth, the huge sundaes at the Ghirardelli's Chocolate Shop are big fun.
For young bohos around the corner of Haight and Fillmore, Nickie's is a favorite watering hole and dance hall. If you're hungry, go to the Indian Oven around the corner. Or, head to Axum for great, inexpensive Ethiopian food. This area also has more than its share of comfortably scruffy cafes, as well as bars such as the Noc Noc , Toronado , Mad Dog in the Fog , and Ad Bodhran.
You're in the culinary heart of the city! What to eat? Italian, of course! Mangia! The only problem here is deciding just what kind of Italian. Check out unpretentious, hearty North Beach institutions like the family-style Calzone's . Off-kilter Sicilian, with gargantuan proportions and chairs on the ceiling? Well, that could only be Caffe Sport . You can also treat yourself to a more elegant and innovative approach to Italian food at hard-to-get-into Rose Pistola . But if you're just looking for a quick snack before scaling Telegraph Hill, have a panini sandwich and espresso at venerable Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store or cross Washington Square Park for fresh focaccia at Liguria Bakery .
But there's more to North Beach than Italian food, of course. Cocktail hour? If you want to get close to the beatnik soul of North Beach, Vesuvio , Saloon , the Tosca Cafe and Savoy Tivoli are where you must go.
Fillmore Street & Japantown
Fillmore Street has dozens of great restaurants so it's hard to know where to begin. Meet and greet at the Elite Cafe , one of the best places in town to have Cajun blackened redfish. Enjoy cozy Thai at the Thai Stick or squeeze yourself into tiny, tasty La Mediterrane . Harry's On Fillmore serves drinks and food and features jazz on weekends. At Fillmore and Geary, pay a cover charge and drink your blues away (or blues your drink away) at the Boom Boom Room . Great noodle houses and sushi bars like Mifune and Sanppo pack Japan Center.
Edgy cafes like the Universal Cafe and restaurants like the Slow Club attract the bohemians and black-clad yuppies in this transitional loft/industrial area.
The dynamism of this emerging area can be felt in its restaurant scene, with more "important" restaurants than almost anywhere else in the city, as well as places where the atmosphere's the only thing that counts. Fringale is considered among the very best French restaurants in the entire city, if not the entire state. Restaurant LuLu attracts a haute-yuppie clientele and offers imaginative food, an extensive list of single-malt scotches, and a very loud dining room. Brain Wash is one of the best, and perhaps only, places to have a beer, listen to a local band and wash your clothes all at the same time. The wonderfully unrefined Paradise Lounge features open-mic poetry readings.
South Beach/China Basin
Town's End and Delancey Street are among the better restaurants at the end of the Embarcadero, serving wholesome but refined California cuisine. Recently relocated from the Mission, the Slanted Door styles Vietnamese dishes with a California sensibility and consistently makes top SF restaurant lists. Momo's , ideally located across from AT&T Park , suddenly has the best address in San Francisco, and the powerful and glamorous clientele to match.
Haight-Ashbury & Cole Valley
Colorful, funky and intensely popular restaurants like Cha Cha Cha draw a young and festive crowd in the Haight Ashbury. Nearby Cole Valley is less unkempt but features quite a few good restaurants for its tiny size, most notably the wine bar EOS .
The Marina District
On and around Chestnut Street, the college sweatshirt crowd dines and socializes at quick, comfortable, stylish-but-not-edgy places like Ace Wasabi's Rock 'N' Roll Sushi . Nightlife centers around lively singles bars like Bar None , and on Sundays brunch is hugely popular with bicyclists and rollerbladers at numerous places in the area.
The Mission District
The city's hippest, most popular, inexpensive restaurants are to be found in the area around Valencia and 16th Streets, referred to as the Valencia Corridor. Ti Couz and Picaro are among the dozens of imaginative, vibrant places to dine without spending a fortune. Be forewarned of lines and waits, however. For drinks, there are scads of places to go along Valencia Street, among them, the Elbo Room offering drinks, music, and photo booths, and the Oxygen Bar, which offers not only fine sake and wine but, yes, pure oxygen. (You can inhale it in 10 or 25-minute segments.) In a parallel universe to this boho scene are the dozens of great burrito places on Mission and Valencia. Each have their adherents but El Toro Taqueria , Cancun and the legendary La Taqueria are the most popular. All serve popular Mexican beers.
The Avenues: The Richmond & Sunset Districts
In Clement Street's "Little Chinatown," you'll find Chinese food rivaling (some say surpassing) the best Chinatown has to offer. Ton Kiang Restaurant , a Martha Stewart favorite, and dim sum specialists Yet Wah are but two of the many remarkable places to eat here, with every one of them unpretentious and a good value. On the other side of Golden Gate Park, on Irving Street around 9th Avenue, are dozens of lively and inexpensive restaurants catering to medical students at nearby UCSF. Sushi, curry, won ton, pad thai, pizza, falafel, crepes, burritos, hamburgers, and Ethiopian favorites can all be found shoehorned into that one intersection. Some of the city's best Chinese restaurants can also be found on outer Irving and Taraval, as well.