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8 Must-See San Francisco Neighborhoods and How to Visit

Compact by American standards, San Francisco is full of charming, walkable neighborhoods. These are the best.

Hi, I'm Gianmaria!

Gianmaria Franchini is a writer based in Oakland, CA who makes his life between California and Italy. He’s a Senior Writer with Viator, and the in-house San Francisco expert.

Travelers often approve of San Francisco’s compact size. There are few lumbering street grids here; instead, the city packs steep hills, open-air spaces, and dense neighborhoods into a small coastal peninsula. When visiting, plan on mostly walking between destinations while making up longer distances on public transport. After all, there are old-school enclaves to visit, waterfronts made for tourism, and edgy quarters where hipsters rub shoulders with the working class.

In recent years, communities left off the typical tourist circuit, such as Potrero Hill and the Dogpatch, have blossomed into local favorites. Unsure about which parts of the city to visit? Fear not—these are the best.

1. North Beach

A mural at City Lights, a bookstore in the North Beach neighborhood, in San Francisco.
San Francisco's hilly North Beach neighborhood.Foto: Ronnie Chua / Shutterstock

For a taste of Italian-American culture and days of Beat poetry gone by.

Washington Square, Coit Tower, and Telegraph Hill cluster around North Beach, a neighborhood steeped in Italian-American heritage. First-timers often start their visit by walking up Columbus Street past the Italian cafés and restaurants—Caffe Greco and Caffe Trieste are local icons—to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Walking food and cultural tours are ideal for experiencing the buzzy neighborhood, with some even venturing to Chinatown next door.

Insider tip: if you need a break from walking, browse the collections at City Lights Bookstore or check out the Beat Museum.

2. Fisherman's Wharf

Boats parked at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.
Pier 39 is one of Fisherman's Wharf's most popular spots.Foto: Gabriele Maltinti / Shutterstock

The waterfront is home to sea lions, bay-bound ferries, and a carnival-like atmosphere.

It’s totally kitschy and short of working fishermen, but Fisherman’s Wharf is a lot of fun. Here, you can devour a Dungeness crab steamed whole, ride an Italian-made carousel, play vintage penny arcade games, and watch barking sea lions laze around Pier 39.

To visit, ride a cable car from Union Square to the end of the line. You can also combine your visit with trips to Alcatraz or bay cruises. Popular Segway tours dash along the waterfront, stopping at Ghirardelli Square and the Embarcadero, while Aquatic Park and the Maritime Museum are nearby options for respite from the crowds.

3. Chinatown

One of the gateways into Chinatown in San Francisco.
San Francisco's Chinatown is where it's at.Foto: cla78 / Shutterstock

Head to the oldest Chinatown in the US for dim sum, local bakeries, and historic back alleys.

San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the largest and oldest in the US—and a must-visit neighborhood. From the intersection of Bush Street and Grant Avenue, pass the Dragon Gate and head north on Grant, taking in the bustle of souvenir shops, tea houses, herbalists, bakeries, and hole-in-the-wall eateries. Most city sightseeing tours visit Chinatown in passing, often stopping at Portsmouth Square, known as the “Heart of Chinatown,” and one of the oldest public monuments in San Francisco.

It’s better, however, to spend time wandering the warrens of historic alleys and shops, sampling tea, fortune cookies, dim sum, and other treats along the way.

Related: An Insider’s Guide to San Francisco’s Chinatown

4. The Mission

Visitors pass through The Mission neighborhood in San Francisco.
The Mission is one of the city's best foodie neighborhoods.Foto: Alfred Sonsalla / Shutterstock

A historic neighborhood home to San Francisco’s best street food and street art.

It’s good foodie practice to forage the Mission, a traditionally Latinx neighborhood, for “Mission-style” burritos and some of the city’s most progressive restaurants.

Start at the Mission Dolores, a Spanish California mission and the oldest surviving structure in San Francisco. It’s conveniently located next to Mission Dolores Park, where hordes of hipsters people watch and throw ultimate frisbees on sunny days. Make your way south on Valencia or Mission Street, stopping to check out murals in Balmy and Clarion alleys. Finish your visit by hiking to the top of Bernal Hill, where locals walk their dogs and catch top city views.

5. Haight-Ashbury

Exterior of Victorian houses in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco.
Victorian houses in Haight-Ashbury.Foto: lunamarina / Shutterstock

Relive the Summer of Love—walk through the “panhandle” of Golden Gate Park.

San Francisco’s most iconic neighborhood, Haight-Ashbury is forever associated with 1960s counterculture and the Summer of Love. Today many (but not all!) of the hippies have moved on, and the neighborhood is better known among locals for its gritty bars and proximity to the “panhandle” of Golden Gate Park.

Walk the main drag in the Upper Haight intersecting Ashbury, home to vintage clothing shops, dive bars, record stores, and Victorian homes, including the storied Grateful Dead House. Ride your bike through the district toward Golden Gate Park, or check it out on a 60s-inspired hippie “magic” van tour.

6. The Richmond

Beach sand and buildings in the Richmond District of SF.
The beach in the Richmond District.Foto: Kusska / Shutterstock

A quiet neighborhood that’s full of surprises—and a great food scene.

A quiet neighborhood with few top attractions, the Richmond District (“the Richmond” in the local lexicon) isn’t a major tourist destination. Take a close look, however, and you’ll find one of the best under-the-radar food scenes in the city. It’s multicultural, too, with Russian markets and French and Chinese bakeries lining the outer avenues.

Plus, the neighborhood is also close to Golden Gate Park, Land’s End, and the Presidiorent a bike and ride the dedicated lane on Cabrillo Street to the far west side of the city, where you can explore Ocean Beach and hike the Land’s End Coastal Trail.

7. The Dogpatch

The Dogpatch industrial area by the water.
The Dogpatch has its own unique vibe.Foto: Extrospectively / Shutterstock

This former industrial hub is now the coolest neighborhood in San Francisco.

Once the haunt of shipbuilders, the Dogpatch is an up-and-coming neighborhood that hasn’t lost its industrial vibe … yet. Take the T light-rail line to Chase Center and wander down Third Street—the dockside area to your left has a clutch of former warehouses turned into galleries and shops.

Also, check out the mix of trendy restaurants, brew pubs, and wine bars—and don’t miss the Institute of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Craft and Design. Better yet, explore the shoreline near Crane Cove Park, a former shipbuilding site lined with industrial relics, on the water.

8. The Castro

Rainbow flags line a street in The Castro.
Rainbow flags in The Castro.Foto: AdrianoK / Shutterstock

This neighborhood is synonymous with San Francisco’s LGBTQ culture and history.

Hop off an F-Market heritage street car at the end of the outbound line and head straight for the Castro, dense with pride flags, restored Victorians, and adult-themed bars and shops. Spot the Castro Theater, an offbeat movie palace, and treasured local icon—sneak inside or catch a screening, and continue to Harvey Milk Plaza and Pink Triangle Park and Memorial.

Don't miss the GLBT Historical Society Museum, either, which covers more than a century of Bay Area GLBT history. Another hidden gem is the Randall Museum atop nearby Corona Heights Park, which has live animal and nature exhibits perfect for kids.

Related: An Insider’s Guide to LGBTQ San Francisco

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