Travel

The Best Neighborhoods in San Francisco to Spend a Weekend

There are 43 neighborhoods in SF. Where should you stay?

San Francisco may technically be a small city, measuring in at ~47 square miles, but it’s also home to at least 43 neighborhoods, depending on who you ask (which should not be a realtor as they really get off on making up new ‘hoods). 

So if you’re coming to visit, how on earth are you supposed to decide where to stay? Most of the internet would have you think that the spot to be is Fisherman’s Wharf -- and even though we love it there for bowls of clam chowder in sourdough bread bowls and visiting the sea lions, it’s full of tourist traps and cheesy souvenir shops and really doesn’t represent what the city’s truly about. Luckily, we’re not “most of the internet,” which means we’re going to give you the real low-down on the best places to stay, as well as where to eat and drink, and what you definitely want to see & do before you leave. After all, you may not be from San Francisco, but as long as you’ve got a local friend in tow (that’s us), you’ll totally seem like you are. Especially if you remember to pack a jacket in July and never ever call it “San Fran.”

Palace of Fine Arts at night | Anil Kumar D / flickr

Cow Hollow/Marina

People tend to conflate Cow Hollow and the Marina, which are actually divided by the major thoroughfare of Lombard Street (Cow Hollow is to the north; the Marina to the south), but for the purposes of a fun weekend, that works just fine. These affluent neighborhoods are looked down upon by some for being home to a lot of young professionals, fitness studios, and athleisure wear shops (“Marina Bros” even have a nickname of their very own), but it’s also a gorgeous part of the city with outdoor space, waterfront views, and top-tier bars, restaurants, and shopping.

Stay: This is a pretty residential area, though there are a smattering of old school motels along Lombard Street. Our favorite of those is the Hotel Del Sol, a reasonably priced 1950’s motor lodge turned funky and colorful boutique motel. For a one-of-a-kind experience, stay at the Inn at the Presidio, a historic hotel that was once a home for bachelor officers when the Presidio was a U.S. Army post, and is the perfect destination for those who want to enjoy nature while still being within walking distance of everything fun. Finally, if you’re looking for an elegant splurge, you can’t go wrong with the Hotel Drisco up the hill in Pacific Heights. The 1903 Edwardian was recently remodeled and is away from the hustle and bustle of the neighborhoods down the hill, but within easy walking distance.

Breakfast/Lunch: The hardest part about hanging out in this neighborhood is choosing where to eat. For a boozy brunch, there’s nothing better than The Tipsy Pig. Sit on the back patio (if weather permits) and order a Strawberry Fields cocktail. For something a little less raucous, Rose’s Cafe is a great choice, especially if you love a breakfast pizza. Another option is to grab what may be the best toasted deli sandwich in all of San Francisco at Marina Submarine and walk down to Crissy Field to enjoy your lunch on the beach with views of Alcatraz, Angel Island, and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Do: Explore the Presidio, a former military fort that’s now a 1,491 acre national park home to tons of hikes with scenic overlooks, four installations from artist Andy Goldsworthy, Fort Point, a masonry seacoast fortification that sits right below the Golden Gate Bridge, the San Francisco National Cemetery (which has a very peaceful overlook that’s easily accessible), the Walt Disney Family Museum, several great restaurants, and much more.

If you’re into architecture, you’ll want to visit the Palace of Fine Arts, a stunning structure built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, the McElroy Octagon House, which, yes, is a house with literally eight sides that was built in 1861, and the Haas-Lilienthal House, a Queen Anne constructed in 1886 that shows off the opulence and grandeur of a time long gone. If you’re in the mood to shop, eat, and drink, all you need to do is walk down Union Street, Fillmore Street, and Chestnut Street, and you’ll find plenty of all three.

Dinner/Drinks: It’s not a successful visit to Cow Hollow if you don’t stop by The Black Horse London Pub, the smallest bar in San Francisco (7 feet wide by 19 feet deep) where the beer is kept in a clawfoot tub filled with ice. If you’re more of a wine drinker, West Coast Wine Cheese and California Wine Merchant both have a great selection and friendly service. Eventually, you’ll need to eat. There’s the classic Balboa Cafe, which remains as popular now as it was when it opened in 1913 (order the burger), A16, one of the best Italian spots in town (note: it gets loud), The Greenwich for a casual meal with friends (the happy hour is great), and for a vegan meal that you won’t even realize is vegan (in a good way): Wildseed.

Cole Valley/Upper Haight/Golden Gate Park

These three places could not be more different from each other, and yet, are all within close proximity, making for the perfect weekend adventure. Cole Valley is a little village where you’ll mostly venture for eating and drinking, the Upper Haight, or as the tourists call it “Haight-Ashbury,” is home of the Summer of Love and the Grateful Dead and still represents all of that 50+ years later. And at the end of Haight Street is where the iconic Golden Gate Park begins, spanning over 1,000 acres of museums, gardens, lakes, and history.

Stay: Like so much of San Francisco, this area is very residential, but there are a few good housing options, starting with the Stanyan Park Hotel, a boutique Victorian hotel with San Francisco charm. If you’re looking for something with more of a Haight-Ashbury hippie vibe and don’t mind creaky floors and other quirks, then you’ll love the Red Vic, “an experimental hotel” that doubles as a community space with lectures, art shows, and live music.

Breakfast/Lunch: Haight Street is full of quick counter-service options; our favorites are Slice House for great pizza, Street Taco for a stellar tostada salad, and What the Cluck for Thai chicken and rice. For a more leisurely brunch, the romantic back garden at Zazie, an adorable French-inspired bistro, is the best choice, though the wait can sometimes be a bit long.

Do: You can’t go to Haight Street without spending a little time exploring the shops. Whether you’re looking for vintage clothing, expensive sneakers, a new bong, or something tie-dye, Haight Street has it all -- including a cannabis dispensary if that’s your vibe. And since you’re there, you should also take a picture in front of the Grateful Dead House at 710 Ashbury Street where Jerry Garcia and other band members lived from 1965 to 1968.

The other must-explore area is Golden Gate Park. You could spend a week wandering around this urban park that was once just sand dunes and still not see everything, but highlights include: the California Academy of Sciences, which is among the largest museums of natural history in the world (go on a Thursday night for the 21+ party with cocktails and DJs); the de Young Museum, a fine arts museum that usually has great special exhibitions (the Harmon Observation Tower, which has 360 degree panoramic views of the city is free, as is the sculpture garden -- be sure to find the Turrell Skyspace, a walk-through meditation space); the Japanese Tea Garden, the oldest public Japanese garden in the U.S.; and the Conservatory of Flowers. Walking around Stow Lake and up Strawberry Hill (the highest point in the park) is a fun, mellow hike, and you can also rent row boats and pedal boats, an experience we find is even better enjoyed if followed by a beer at the Boat House.

If you dine in Cole Valley, find The Sword and the Rose, a “spiritual and metaphysical” shop hidden in a courtyard where you can shop for incense, crystals, and get your tarot cards read.

Dinner/Drinks: There are two bars that are must-visits on Haight Street: The Alembic, which pioneered the craft cocktail movement in San Francisco, and Aub Zam Zam, a dimly lit Persian-inspired bar that’s been around since 1941 and is famous for its martinis. For dinner, if you didn’t hit Zazie for brunch, then be sure to go now (the coq au vin is divine), or if you’re in the mood for delicious, upscale Mexican, Padrecito is the spot. The food and cocktails are both exceptional. 

Lazy Bear
Lazy Bear | Courtesy of Finch Photography

Mission

The Mission is one of SF’s most popular neighborhoods thanks to its warmer and sunnier climate, Dolores Park (one of the city’s most frequented parks), enormous amount of diverse eating and drinking establishments, as well as its arts and music scene. Traditionally a Latino neighborhood, the Mission has been a victim of gentrification, but local activists are doing their best to make sure the heart of this vibrant neighborhood keeps beating despite the changes that are occuring.

Stay: Since this is a residential neighborhood -- despite an abundance of shops, bars, and restaurants -- there aren’t a lot of hotels (the redundancy of this statement isn’t lost on us). Union Square is not too far, but if you’re determined to stay in the area, there are a few options. We’ve got the Inn San Francisco, a bed and breakfast in an 1872 Victorian mansion; Nineteen 06 Mission, an affordable, no-frills, but clean and comfortable hotel with shared bathrooms; or this modern one bedroom with city views on AirBnB.

Breakfast/Lunch: In a neighborhood with so many fantastic restaurants, it’ll be hard to pick a favorite. But a few can’t-go-wrong spots include Tartine Manufactory, a huge bakery/restaurant/bar/coffee shop where the bread and pastries are the star (a morning bun is a must); Media Noche, an adorable counter-service spot with delicious Cuban sandwiches; Zeitgeist for burgers, beer, and gruff service in a (sometimes) sunny beer garden; and Wise Sons Deli for traditional Jewish comfort food. Of course, you can’t go to the Mission without getting a burrito. The world will never agree on which taqueria has the best one, but El Farolito, La Taqueria, and Taqueria Cancun will all leave you very happy and very full.

Do: One of the most beloved parts of the Mission is Dolores Park. Consider taking your burrito or an ice cream from Bi-Rite Creamery there to enjoy while sitting on the hill, people watching, and taking in the views. Misión San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores), the oldest surviving structure in San Francisco (1791), is just a couple of blocks away; stop in to learn about its unique history and architecture, as well as to spend some time in the cemetery and gardens. The Mission is also home to two mural projects: the Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP), where the murals support “political, economic, and social justice messaging,” and Precita Eyes Muralists, dedicated to building community around the art of mural-making. Finally, there’s some great and unique shopping, including Dog Eared Books, a new and used bookstore with offbeat titles and stationery, Luz de Luna, a gift shop featuring Latin American crafts, art, jewelry, and more, and even a Pirate Supply Store, which is exactly what it sounds like.

Dinner/Drinks: If we’re forced to play favorites, we’ll say ABV, Trick Dog, and The Beehive for cocktails, El Techo for rooftop margaritas, True Laurel and Bon Voyage for excellent cocktails AND food (get the patty melt at Truel Laurel and anything from the wok at Bon Voyage), and either Foreign Cinema (California-Mediterranean food in a charming courtyard) or Delfina (a classic Italian spot responsible for helping make the Mission a dining destination) for a quintessentially San Francisco dinner experience. Looking for something a little more unique? See if you can get reservations for Lazy Bear, a dinner-party-style meal that isn’t cheap, but is worth the splurge for a special occasion.

North Beach

No one in San Francisco calls North Beach “Little Italy,” but it’s probably the best way to describe this touristy part of town that is known for its Italian roots, being the epicenter of the Beat Generation, and well, innovating the strip club industry (the Condor Club, which opened in 1964, was the first topless bar in the U.S.).  

Stay: North Beach is within walking distance of Fisherman’s Wharf, which, as one of San Francisco's most popular tourist destinations, has tons of hotels. Our favorite boutique hotels are the Argonaut Hotel, a nautical-themed hotel in a historic exposed brick building, Hotel Zephyr, a waterfront hotel with an outdoor lounge with fire pits, shuffleboard, and other games, and Hotel Zoe, a recently remodeled hotel with high-tech touches in the relaxing and contemporary rooms. There are also a bunch of chain hotels like a Hyatt, Marriott, and Holiday Inn, but where’s the fun in that?

Breakfast/Lunch: You might have to wait in line to get into Mama’s on Washington Square, a cozy breakfast spot with gigantic fluffy omelettes, indulgent French toast options, and so many tasty baked goods, but most will concede it’s worth the wait. Another line worth the wait? The one at Liguria Bakery where the only thing on the menu is 10 different types of focaccia (if you have to pick one, pick the pizza, and be sure to bring cash as they don’t take cards). Craving actual pizza? The hardest thing will be picking what kind to get at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, home of 13-time World Pizza Champion, Tony Gemignani. The restaurant has seven different pizza ovens and offers12 styles, including Napoletana, Detroit, and Coal-Fired. 

Do: Get a workout by climbing the Filbert Street Steps to the top of Telegraph Hill. On your way you’ll see amazing views of the city and might catch a glimpse of the famous wild parrots who live there. Once at the top, play tourist and go up Coit Tower, a 210-foot Deco fluted tower built in 1933 with some of the best 360-degree views of the San Francisco Bay you’ll find. Be sure to check out the murals at the bottom as well, which were commissioned in 1933 and many of which express ideas of racial equality and Marxist views. You’ll also want to stop by City Lights Bookstore, which was founded in 1953, and whose original owner is famous for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Poems” and was, as a result, tried for obscenity.

Dinner/Drinks: There are lots of excellent places to get a drink in North Beach, including Tony Nik’s, an old school bar with great cocktails and a mix of locals and tourists, 15 Romolo, a back-alley bar with a jukebox that will make you want to stay all night, Vesuvio Cafe, a go-to spot for Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg back in the day, Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Cafe, a bar that is mostly bar (with cheap drinks), but also part museum with things like historic mugshots, postcards from around the world, and even a whale penis bone. As far as dinner goes, you need to do Italian at least once. Firenze by Night serves classic dishes and has excellent service while Sotto Mare, another great option, focuses on seafood and has a killer cioppino. North Beach is adjacent to Chinatown, which has some excellent Chinese restaurants including Mister Jiu’s, high-end Chinese food in a beautiful space, and Z & Y Restaurant, where you’ll find award-winning Chinese dishes.

Union Square

Other than Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square is San Francisco’s most touristy neighborhood. But while that may mean that locals avoid it, it also means that there’s a lot to do in the form of shopping, theater, museums, and even some decent restaurants. It’s also flanked to the north by the Tenderloin, SF’s grittiest neighborhood -- so don’t be surprised if only a few blocks from Neiman Marcus, you stumble across homeless people, drugs, and possibly even excrement. The good news that the neighborhood is still relatively safe for tourists and has some great nightlife. Just, you know, be sure to look down while you’re walking and keep your wits about you. 

Stay: Union Square is where you’ll find San Francisco’s top hotels, including the recently renovated and luxurious Westin St. Francis, the only hotel located directly on Union Square, the Hilton San Francisco Union Square, which has an outdoor heated swimming pool (rare) and the city’s tallest skybar, and the San Francisco Marriott Marquis, a business hotel that also has a bar with stunning city views. If you’re looking for something a little less “chain,” try the Hotel G, a boutique hotel with stylish rooms and an amazing hidden bar, or Hotel Zeppelin, a stylish hotel with psychedelic ‘60s decor.

Do: Okay, so Union Square is all about shopping, but if that’s what you’re there to do, we assume you already know which stores you want to check out. Other than that, there are also several museums within walking distance, including the SFMOMA, Asian Art Museum, Contemporary Jewish Museum, Museum of the African Diaspora, and Tenderloin Museum. The latter has an adults-only “Night Moves” walking tour where a local resident will walk you through the neighborhood and talk about its history, including stops at a couple of bars. If you love theater, the Curran, American Conservatory Theater, Golden Gate Theatre, and Orpheum Theatre are all close by and feature contemporary and classic plays, musicals, and more. If you want to hear live music, see who is playing at August Hall, a historic venue that is gorgeous inside and has amazing acoustics.

Dinner/Drinks: For before-or after-dinner drinks, be sure to check out Pacific Cocktail Haven, a simple bar with some of the best drinks in SF. If you love beer, pop in to Hogwash next door, which has a huge selection of beers on tap. If you want a cocktail unlike anything you’ve ever had before, find your way to Gibson where the chef-driven cocktails feature unusual ingredients and techniques. Stay at Gibson for dinner to enjoy bold French-inspired dishes in a whimsical Art Deco space. Other great restaurants include Del Popolo, which serves the city’s best Neapolitan pies and Ryoko’s Japanese Restaurant and Bar, a late night sushi spot housed in a basement with a DJ and a lively crowd. If you’re looking for Michelin-starred food, then check out Kin Khao, a Thai restaurant with phenomenal Thai staples, or Campton Place Restaurant, a fine dining restaurant with some of the best Cal-Indian food you’ll ever be lucky enough to eat.

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Daisy Barringer is a freelance writer who grew up in San Francisco and has spent her life exploring all of these neighborhoods. If you’re hanging around Cole Valley, you might spot here with her 150-pound Saint Bernard. Follow her on Instagram @daisysf to see where she’s eating and drinking.