Top 5 Neighbourhoods to Explore in San Francisco

Like any great city, San Francisco is composed of many distinct and vibrant neighbourhoods. Some of them are known for their food, some for their history or their cultural impact, and some are just great places to hang out. The best thing is, many of the city’s areas are a combination of all the above. Join us on a trip through the top five neighbourhoods to visit in San Francisco.

North Beach

In the city’s northeast section, North Beach is San Francisco’s Little Italy, a colourful neighbourhood dotted with idyllic sidewalk cafes, shops and restaurants. Feast on the award-winning Margherita at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana (1570 Stockton St.) or house-made pastas at Rose Pistola (532 Columbus Ave.). For a romantic night out, there’s the cozy Cafe Jacqueline (1454 Grant Ave.).

City Lights Bookstore, on Columbus Avenue near Broadway, is one of the most famous bookstores in the world, having served as home base for the Beat Generation writers in the 1950s. The spirit of the Beats endures also at places like Caffé Trieste and Vesuvio, favourite haunts of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

If Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco, as the song says, then it’s a good guess that he fell in love with the city from the view atop Coit Tower. High on a hill – Telegraph Hill, to be exact – it offers a perfect view for photos of the bridges and the bay. As you make your way up the steps of Telegraph Hill to the tower, you may see the flocks of parrots that call the area home.

Chinatown

San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest in North America. Walk through the “Dragon’s Gate” at Grant Avenue and Bush Street and you enter a city within a city where you’ll find restaurants, temples, markets, museums and exotic herbalist shops selling ancient potions. And while the top-rated Chinese cuisine may be elsewhere in the city, there are some Chinatown restaurants that stand out from the rest, such as Bund Shanghai (640 Jackson St.), Hunan Homes (622 Jackson St.) and Z&Y Restaurant (655 Jackson St.).

The bakeries in Chinatown are great for getting a quick pick-me-up while you’re exploring. In addition to sweets and cakes, you’ll also discover a variety of moon cakes, with a thin crust enveloping red bean, lotus seed paste or salted yolks from duck eggs – perfect for sharing on the go. Chinatown is the birthplace of the fortune cookie, and at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (56 Ross Alley near Jackson Street), you can watch fortune cookies being made, sample them and even buy a bag to take home.

But wherever you go in Chinatown for dining or shopping, be sure to bring cash; most businesses don’t accept credit cards.

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The Castro

Next we head to the Castro, North America’s first and perhaps most famous gay village. If you take one of the historic trolley cars on the Embarcadero (the F line), it will bring you all the way to Castro Street station at the end of the line where you’ll find pedestrian-friendly streets, trendy shops, Victorian houses and lots of outdoor cafes. Known for being a colourful enclave for the LGBTQ community, the Castro is a diverse and welcoming neighbourhood that’s fun to hang out in. For great people-watching, order a beer at the Lookout and grab a spot on the balcony.

Hot Cookie offers delicious treats, provided you’re open-minded and you don’t mind anatomically correct cookies and brownies, and walls lined with photos of customers modeling their Hot Cookie-branded underwear. Next door to Hot Cookie, you’ll find the famous Castro Theater, a perfectly preserved 1920s movie palace that specializes in fine art house and rep cinema, some showings featuring a real live Wurlitzer organist.

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Haight-Ashbury

From the Castro, it’s a short walk to Haight-Ashbury. Regarded as the birthplace of America’s counter-culture, most of the hippies that once lived in the neighbourhood’s colourful Victorian houses in the 1960s were eventually replaced by more affluent yuppies, but despite the presence of high-end boutiques and chic restaurants, the neighbourhood still retains some of its bohemian vibe. There’s no shortage of thrift shops, cool cafes, eclectic bars and organic restaurants that represent the contemporary torchbearers of that hippie heritage.

For clothes shopping, the trendsetters at Wasteland (1660 Haight St.) keep an eye on what’s happening on the street, and then reinterpret that into their own vibrant take on modern, vintage and designer styles. The Alembic Bar (1725 Haight St.), with its mustard-coloured walls and pressed tin ceiling, is home to famous mixologist Daniel Hyatt’s cocktails and chef Ted Fleury’s adventurous menu. Their signature dessert is chocolate pudding made with bourbon, topped with crumbled Graham cracker and almond mousse. And if you’re looking to pick up some music from yesterday or today, you’ll want to check out Amoeba Music (1855 Haight St.) – 24,000 square feet of a former bowling alley housing 2.5 million CDs, vinyl LPs, DVDs and video games.

The Mission District

The Mission District, in the east-central part of the city, is a diverse area, home to many hip, young locals and some of the city’s hottest new galleries and restaurants. Stroll down 24th Street and you’ll find lots of great taquerias, cafes and boutiques, as well as many of the incredible street murals inspired by the work of Diego Rivera. The Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Center (2981 24th Street) boasts a collection of over 30 murals, and it’s also just a half block from Balmy Alley, where every building on the street features a mural. The Visitors Center offers guided tours of the area’s murals on Saturdays and Sundays.

The Mission may very well have the best selection of eateries in San Francisco, but it’s especially blessed with an abundance of great Mexican cuisine. La Taqueria has been an institution in the city for 50 years, having essentially invented the local taco and burrito styles, along with other restaurants like El Farolito. Their taco dorado is highly recommended: a deep-fried taco shell wrapped in a soft corn tortilla and filled with the meat of your choice.

A note about San Francisco weather

Autumn is the best time to visit San Francisco. Days tend to be sunny and warm, while nights are clear and mild. It rarely rains and the fog that haunts summer days has cleared away. But the weather in San Francisco can be unpredictable at any time of year. Because of the many hills, and the fact that it’s surrounded by water on three sides, the city can experience a multitude of distinct micro-climates. The weather can vary quite dramatically even from one neighbourhood to the next.

So how does one dress for San Francisco? In a word: layers. Even in the warmest months, you should always carry a light jacket. If you’re visiting San Francisco, pack long sleeve shirts, jeans, light sweaters and closed-toed shoes along with your shorts and sandals.

What part of San Francisco do you love best? Got any favourite neighbourhoods that we missed? Share them in the comments below!

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