San Francisco's Must-See Neighborhoods
On fog-wrapped, wooded hills above a vast bay and the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco is a city of ethnic and historic neighborhoods, established by 18th century Spanish explorers; Europeans and Asians who came for the 1800s Gold Rush; and an increase in Latino immigrants in the 20th century. From North Beach to Castro, here’s our list of the city’s most culturally diverse neighborhoods and our recommendations on why you should visit them.
Mediterranean-style mansions overlook yachts in the marina, the bay and a sweeping greensward where kites fly, dogs romp and well-heeled locals jog. Swans swim in a lake by the gloriously rococo Palace of Fine Arts, a remnant of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition. A short stroll away is the Civil War-era Fort Point National Historic Site, and Fort Mason Center, where art galleries, the famous vegetarian Greens restaurant, and outdoor markets and music festivals attract crowds.
Saints Peter and Paul Church watches over Washington Square and the pizzerias and coffee houses, bakeries, and fragrant delicatessens of Columbus Avenue. Cappuccinos, focaccia and the passing scene are on offer at Café Trieste, while “Beat Generation” writers are recalled at City Lights Bookstore and at mural-bedecked Vesuvio Café on Jack Kerouac Alley, since 1948 the haunt of artists, cab drivers, sailors, and the occasional off-duty exotic dancer. Lighting up the night are cabarets, a sprinkling of strip joints and the outrageous pop culture “Beach Blanket Babylon,” the longest-running musical review in town.
Hop on a Cable Car for dazzling bay views and a ride to the top of Nob Hill, once called “Snob Hill,” to see historic hotels and grand 19th-century buildings. Grace Cathedral’s Gothic towers loom above tiny Huntington Park, where art shows are held and posh poodles are paraded around the Roman-style "Fountain of the Tortoises." Since 1907, tourists have flocked to the Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar in the Fairmont San Francisco, and to the InterContinental Mark Hopkins’ Top of the Mark sky-lounge, where servicemen proposed to their girls before heading to WWII.
The epicenter of the gay rights movement since the 1970s, the Castro is fascinating to tourists who guided tours and peek, wide-eyed, into the many bars, bookstores and boutiques. Eateries on Castro Street are among the best in the city; the Réveille Coffee Company is the perfect perch for lunch and people-viewing. Fancifully dressed (or, almost dressed) same-sex couples cruise the nightclubs, with the Twin Peaks Tavern -- a favorite of all genders. At the Castro Theater, the audience gets into the act by hooting, cat-calling and repeating every line of old movies. A very big deal in this town is San Francisco Pride, led by Dykes on Bikes, the notorious parade and LGBT celebration.
The annual Cherry Blossom Festival is held in Japantown, a three-block shopping and restaurant zone. Around a five-tiered Peace Pagoda are a landscaped plaza and block-long, Ginza-style mall loaded with sushi bars, bath houses, and shops selling vintage kimonos, pearl jewelry; flower arranging, garden and kitchen tools, and plenty of toys and souvenirs. Find cheap sake sets in Daiso and anime in Kinokuniya, watch indie films at Kabuki Sundance Cinemas and settle into the communal baths at Kabuki Springs.
Named for Mission Dolores, founded here in 1776, the Mission is all about ethnic restaurants and avant-garde galleries heralding immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America. Guided tours of nearly two hundred murals–-some political, some whimsical––begin at Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center. La Taqueria is the best of a gang of taquerias, and authentic Cuban, Puerto Rican, Peruvian, and Cambodian eateries abound. Thousands turn out for Cinco de Mayo, and for the eye-popping costumes and Latin dancing at the Carnival San Francisco parade.
Major museums are clustered South of Market around Yerba Buena Gardens, a sprawling park studded with outdoor sculptures. Reopening in May, 2016, in a massive new building embedded with sparkling crystals, SFMOMA will boost its international star status with seven levels of 20th-century art, six sculpture gardens and a rooftop terrace. The Museum of the African Diaspora focuses on ethnic origins while the California Historical Society showcases early California, and the Contemporary Jewish Museum presents art and culture exhibits, parties in the plaza, and pastrami sandwiches at “Wise Sons Jewish Deli.”
Tea, medicinal herbs, fish and fresh produce waft aromas past the carved dogs guarding the Dragon’s Gate into Chinatown. Since the 1850s, red and gold pagodas, trading emporiums, little groceries and restaurants have lined Grant Avenue, and in the alleyways are fortune cookie factories, kite shops, and circa-1920 Tim How Temple, a world of altars, incense and carvings of the Goddess of the Seven Seas. Art, history and culture are on display at the Chinese Historical Society of America and the Chinese Cultural Center. Food is legendary in lantern-lit dining rooms and noodle shops, and at the Hang Ah Tea Room, since the 1920s serving traditional dim sum dumplings. Crowds thrill to crashing cymbals, exploding firecrackers, illuminated prancing lions and block-long dragons at the Chinese New Year Parade.
The 1960s “Summer of Love” hippie culture lives on along Haight Street in head shops and shops selling vintage clothing and posters of former residents The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin (find their vinyls and thousands more records at Amoeba Music). The Red Victorian B&B is one of dozens of vibrantly-painted, restored Victorians; sit in the café here to watch the passing procession of denizens sporting spiked hair and studded body parts.