|Part of San Francisco's abundant charm is in
the variety of its neighborhoods. With only 49 square miles, San Francisco
is really quite small, yet its hilly terrain and patchwork demographic
profile give it more distinctly defined neighborhoods than a city five
times its size. As a result, the sights, sounds and flavors of a
community, and even its climate, can change within a single block.
Castro Street and Noe Valley
The center of gay San Francisco, and a landmark for gay culture
everywhere. Bars, dance clubs, good restaurants, and one-of-a-kind shops
abound in the commercial area around 18th and Castro. There's arguably
more street life in the Castro than anywhere else in the city, especially
on weekends. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence sometimes make an
appearance at special events (they're really men in nun drag), 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 so 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 80,000, live in the approximately 24 square blocks of
Chinatown, making it the most densely populated area of San Francisco. You
can't drive here - walk. You'll be richly rewarded by the sights, sounds,
smells and tastes of this vibrant, and in many ways autonomous, community.
Grant Avenue is the decorative showpiece of Chinatown. Look at the
fanciful chinoiserie facades on the buildings and Stockton Street where
most of its real business gets accomplished. Try dim sum for lunch and
select your dinner while it's still swimming!
Civic Center and Hayes Valley
This is the administrative and cultural center of San Francisco. Stately
Beaux Arts buildings like the Opera House and the domed, renovated City
Hall tolerate the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall and the Public Library's
graceful Main Branch, both architectural newcomers. Nearby Hayes Valley
offers fine dining and apres-symphony toddies for concert-goers, as well
as tastefully creative stores for clothing and gifts. Nocturnal wanderings
in any direction except north (on Van Ness) are discouraged.
Cow Hollow: Union Street
The most gracious, 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 - either affluent or getting there fast - pack the Balboa Cafe,
Sushi Chardonnay, and other bars and restaurants on Fillmore and Union
Streets. Clothes hounds can easily fritter away a day (and thousands of
dollars) in Union Street's oh-so-tasteful boutiques.
Downtown: Union Square
Union Square is the heart of San Francisco's bustling and stylish downtown
shopping district, adding up to the greatest concentration of high-end
retail west of New York's Fifth Avenue. Posh department stores such as
Neiman Marcus ring the one-block square park. Hundreds of other exclusive
stores and boutiques 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
Financial District and 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. Bursting with
energy 9-to-5, quiet as a tomb after hours. The Embarcadero Center
features dining, shopping, a fine art cinema, and a health club. Wide open
Justin Herman Plaza is the starting point for the infamous Critical Mass
bike ride and the site of New Years Eve bashes. The Embarcadero itself
fronts the Bay for miles on either side of the imposing Ferry Building,
modeled on the cathedral tower in Seville, Spain.
Fisherman's Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, and Aquatic Park
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 fun thanks to the noisy, delightful
colony of sea lions which annexed its boat marina. Aquatic Park features a
beach, of sorts, and a long pier spiraling well out into the Bay. Old
sea-dogs will enjoy adjacent Hyde Street Pier, where the tall ship
Balclutha and other historic ships are docked, and the Maritime Museum.
Ghirardelli Square, a
chocolate-factory-turned-shopping-and-restaurant-complex, features some of
the city's better dining and views. 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 M.H deYoung Memorial Museum, the remarkable Asian Art Museum, and
the California Academy of Sciences are the main cultural attractions in
the Park. Along with the San Francisco Zoo and the Japanese Tea Garden,
they draw 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.
Often called the Lower Haight, the area around Haight and Fillmore feels
at once more bohemian and less unsavory than the Haight Ashbury to the
west. Ethnic restaurants, unpretentious cafes, and independent bookstores
are mushrooming in this neighborhood that as recent as teh early 1990s was
dangerous. The youngish street life is lively on nights and weekends. The
Haight Ashbury Street Fair is also popular.
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 Stanford Court, and the Huntington. Facing Huntington
Park is Grace Cathedral, a 3/4 replica of Paris' Notre Dame. 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. The traffic is
generally impossible - walk it!
North Beach and Telegraph Hill
The cafe conscience of San Francisco and light of its night life.
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 funkiness. 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 at the
base of the Hill.
Fillmore Street and 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, the
Fillmore Auditorium, and the AMC Kabuki 8 Theater multiplex, a favorite
for film festivals. Be advised that the neighborhood gets a bit sketchy to
the south and west of Geary and Fillmore. The Kabuki 8 Theater and
neighboring Kabuki Hot Springs 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
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. West of Pacific Heights lies Presidio
Heights. Washington Street between Presidio and Arguello features some
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, is to be found on Arguello Street.
A cool neighborhood where light industry coexists with design and
photography studios. The bohemian creatives live next door to low-income
families. Quirky postmodern lofts are going up quietly in the shadow of
huge, empty factories. The neighborhood has undergone a subtle
renaissance, but has kept its industrial charm. Big changes will take
place, however, once UCSF's Mission Bay development is completed at the
Western edge of the Potrero.
From what was not long ago a decidely unglamorous stretch of light
industry, warehouses, and a seedy undercurrent, an exciting new San
Francisco has emerged in the area South of Market Street, SoMa.
Conventioneering, art, and entertainment possibilities abound in the
brand-new Moscone/YerbaBuena Center area. The dot.com businesses of nearby
"Multimedia Gulch" spawn new twenty-something cyber-millionaires
every week. Many of them can be seen at leisure at the South Park Cafe,
Brainwash (a cafe/performance space/laundromat), or other fashion-forward
restaurants and watering holes.
South Beach/China Basin
One of the city's most popular new 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 Bay Bridge and
Pacific Bell Park, the San Francisco Giants' brand new waterfront baseball
stadium. 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 forthcoming Mission Bay development.
Haight-Ashbury and 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. Aggressive panhandling is not uncommon here.
The colorful bars and restaurants of upper Haight Street, however, are
always packed with job-holding, going-places 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
The Marina District
Fresh ocean air, pastel-colored, stucco duplexes, and college sweatshirts.
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 and a perfect spot for flying kites. 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
Long a nexus of Hispanic culture, more recently a mecca for edgy, Anglo
Bohemians, and now home for increasing numbers of young professionals and
their sport utility vehicles. Possibly the most hip, vibrant, sunny part
of the city. 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 west, bars, cafes, and
restaurants of every description lead to the buzzing 16th and Valencia
hub. 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.
Fourteen thousand acres of forests and beaches, seventy-five miles of
bicycle-friendly roads, a golf course, and scenic grandeur without end
make this the jewel of the 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 Blvd. Exclusive Seacliff, home to Robin
Williams and other celebrities, gives onto the Golden Gate 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. The Inner Sunset features a lively stretch of Irving Street, near
Ninth Avenue. Students from nearby UCSF Medical School crowd ethnic
restaurants of every stripe, from Ethiopian to Thai to one serving only