In this San Francisco city guide, we explore the best neighbourhoods in the city. From what to do in the Castro to where to eat in Chinatown, our San Francisco neighbourhood guide has all of our favourite finds.
San Francisco: a city of bohemian, radical-thinking, inhabitants. It was in San Francisco that the ’Summer of Love’ happened in the 1960s, and the Gay Rights movement has its roots.
Now, the city has been rapidly transformed by the explosion of tech startups in Silicon Valley. The boom has driven up the cost of living (and the price of travelling) across the city. But if you can bear the high price tags, travelling in San Francisco is a lot of fun.
San Francisco City Guide
Our San Francisco city guide includes the best things to do and the best vegetarian food recommendations for each neighbourhood.
San Francisco Centre and the Tenderloin
Frist up in our San Francisco city guide is the city centre. In San Francisco’s central area, you can find high-end shops in Union Square. San Francisco’s historic cable car – the world’s last manually-operated cable car – runs across the city and can be caught from the city centre. We rode it across to North Beach, which is super worth doing at sunset.
The Tenderloin in San Francisco’s downtown neighbourhood, situated a few blocks from Union Square. The area is one of few in the city which has had little gentrification and it’s still somewhat seedy. Many of the city’s homeless hang around the streets here and though it’s not a comfortable place to walk at night, we had no problems. In recent years, the area has had a local arts revival and there is amazing and cheap banh mi thanks to the neighbourhood’s Vietnamese community.
Don’t miss the very cool art collection at the Asian Art Museum ($15 entry) which sits southwest of the Tenderloin district, as well as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) ($20 entry).
Where to Eat in the Tenderloin
Dragon Eats – small but delicious Vietnamese sandwich chain
This small banh mi chain was our favourite eat in the city. We are crazy about Vietnamese sandwiches, and Dragon Eats served up the best I’ve eaten outside of Vietnam. Dragon Eats was one of the cheaper options around, whilst still being super clean and quite authentic. Vegetarians and vegans can enjoy a tofu banh mi with fresh coriander and pickled carrots.
Google Map: 520 Gough St, San Francisco, 94102
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest in the US, covering 24-blocks that are absolutely packed with history. We took a free walking tour of Chinatown to learn about the neighbourhood. During the tour, we heard about the Single Occupancy Rooms (SORs) where many of the locals live up to 12 people to a room. Sometimes multiple families share the one room, with one family working during the day and the other working during the night.
When walking through Chinatown, head over to Dragon’s Gate, an ornate archway donated by Taiwan in 1970. The gate marks the entrance to Chinatown. Traffic still uses the road going through the gate, so be careful when taking photos.
Don’t forget to visit the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on Ross Alley. Fortune Cookies are actually an American invention from San Francisco. At the factory, the workers place fortunes inside the cookies by hand and you can try a sample of one of the cookies fresh from the press.
Where to Eat in Chinatown
Enjoy Vegetarian – authentic Chinese vegetarian restaurant
Locals in Chinatown pour into this vegetarian Chinese restaurant. This place does a roaring trade at lunchtime, serving up authentic Chinese dishes like chow mein noodles and spicy ma po tofu. This is a bustling place, so expect a short wait at peak eating times and staff to be running back-and-forth.
Google Map: 839 Kearny St, San Francisco, 94108
North Beach is San Francisco’s ‘Little Italy.’ Once home to many Italian immigrants, the neighbourhood has a number of beautiful-looking Italian restaurants. As emigration from Italy has declined and gentrification of the area has increased, North Beach’s Italian population has shrunk.
In the daytime, take the steep walk up Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower. The tower has stunning views of the city on a clear day ($8 viewpoint entry). If it’s too foggy for a good view of the city, inside the tower are murals painted by 27 different artists. Many of the artists were students of Diego Rivera, the famous Mexican artist and husband to Frida Kahlo. The murals are free to visit.
Runners, locals and tourists can all be found strolling the boulevard along the bay that stretches round from Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf. The Ferry Building Marketplace is a local and organic food hub in Embarcadero where you can find everything from freshly ground organic coffee to local cheese and artisan ice cream.
Continue along the bay until you reach Pier 33 where you can take the ferry to Alcatraz. Visiting the old prison is one of the most interesting activities in San Francisco and well-worth the $35 ticket fee. At Alcatraz, you take an audio tour narrated by the prison’s guards and former inmates, learning about life in the prison and attempted escapes. Book ahead online as the ferry port gets busy.
Twenty minutes further is Pier 39, also known as Fisherman’s Wharf. Though not looking to eat clam chowder (because we’re vegetarian), we wanted to check out Fisherman’s Wharf anyway. It’s stuffed with fish and seafood restaurants but also a number of shops including a hot sauce shop that stocks chilli sauce from around the world.
Much to our surprise, a colony of sea lions calls Pier 39 home. When we walked onto the pier, we were excited to see one sea lion and spent 10 minutes watching it swim through the water and jump on the dock. Only later did we realise that we just needed to turn slightly to the right to see a hundred-strong colony! Over a thousand Californian sea lions currently use K-Dock at Pier 39 as their home base.
Around the corner from Pier 39 is the Musée Mécanique, an arcade of antique, coin-operated games that still work today!
Mission District has become known as San Francisco’s ‘hipster’ neighbourhood. There has been an influx of a young, urban generation thanks to the dot-com boom, but the Mission is also home to many Latin American families.
When you’re in Mission District, be sure to walk around the back streets to see the neighbourhood’s famous street art and murals. A number of community arts organisations were set up in the area and the walls are adorned with Latino art featuring Zapatistas, Frida Kahlo and so on.
On a sunny day, walk through nearby Dolores Park, one of the most popular parks in the city. From the top of the park’s hill, you can see a view of San Francisco’s skyline in the distance. If you continue through the park walking west, you’ll hit Castro neighbourhood.
Where to Eat in the Mission
La Taqueria – local spot for Mexican food in Mission
Craving Mexican food like how the Mexicans make it? This is the place. We came to San Francisco after nine months of travelling in Mexico and, truth be told, we thought La Taqueria’s tacos and burritos were some of the best we’d had (vegetarian options available). Expect Spanish-speaking staff serving up fully-loaded tacos and burritos with lots of flavour.
Google Map: 2889 Mission St, San Francisco, 94110
Where to Eat in Mission Bay
Spark Food Trucks – outdoor food trucks with different international foods near the Caltrain station
Got a group of people and can’t decide on what cuisine to eat for dinner? The food truck park has loads of different food carts and a fire to sit around. We ate here with two meat-loving friends and no one left disappointed. I tucked into a vegetarian Korean bibimbap while Luke opted for Central American pupusas (corn flatbreads with cheese) and fried plantains. Other options include wood-fired pizza, Japanese and burgers. If you get here during happy hour (before 7 p.m.) pitchers of sangria cost only $10. This was easily the cheapest drinks deal we found in San Francisco!
The Castro is San Francisco’s gay neighbourhood, and one of the first gay neighbourhoods in the USA. Expect to see rainbow flags hanging from the street lamps, rainbow stripes painted across the road instead of zebra crossings and penis-shaped doughnuts in the bakery.
Stop by the GLBT History Museum ($3 entry) where you can learn the history of gay activism in the Castro during the 1960s and 70s and queer culture in the Bay area today.
Presidio and Golden Gate Park
After our 2-day hike in the Marin Headlands (see below) we walked back to the city across the Golden Gate bridge and into Presidio. It’s a picturesque neighbourhood with painted wooden clad houses and tree-lined streets. We met up with travel bloggers Laura and Tanbay from Travelling Weasels for a fun vegan lunch.
Walk through Presidio into Richmond and you’ll reach the wonderful Golden Gate Park. This massive park is where many of San Francisco’s museums are located. We loved the California Academy of Sciences, which has a 4-storey rainforest that replicates the climate of different rainforests around the world. We also went on a trek across the park to see the bison enclosure.
Where to Eat in Presidio
Nourish Cafe – clean eating vegan cafe with good salad bowls
If you love clean and healthy eating like me, then go to Nourish Cafe. I absolutely loved the food here because it was simple, packed full with veggies and generous portions. The big thing here are the salad bowls. We both ate a scrumptious vegan bibimbap bowl with brown rice, tofu, sprouts and veggies. Dishes are $13-20 each.
Google Map: 189 6th Ave, San Francisco, 94118
Day Trips from San Francisco
Travellers looking for a San Francisco city guide that extends outside of the city are in luck. We took three day-trips during our week in San Francisco. Both Muir Woods and Silicon Valley could be done as half-day trips if you’re wanting to pack a lot into your San Francisco trip.
Across the Golden Gate bridge is the Marin Headlands. This beautiful area has lots of hiking routes, including ones that overlook the bridge. We took a weekend trip to go walking in the Marin Headlands and absolutely loved it. We started our walk at the Golden Gate Bridge and followed the path up through the headlands to the Marin Headlands Hostel ($82/night for a private double). It’s a charming hostel in a historic building. Nearby Rodeo beach and lagoon is the best place to catch a gorgeous California sunset.
Muir Woods is a national park and redwood forest close to San Francisco. The redwood trees here can grow to around 115 metres in height – they’re impressive. Walking trails start from the park entrance. The main trail follows a wooden deck that loops back around to the entrance (a 2-hour walk). We took this route during a very rainy day and the path was clear. If you can get here in good weather, I definitely would recommend that over a rainy walk! Entrance to the park is $10 per person. There’s a good cafe at the park entrance serving organic and sustainable food.
Silicon Valley is the area to the south of the San Francisco. It’s home to many of the most well-known high-tech corporations, including Google and Apple, as well as thousands of startups. Unfortunately, aside from a gift shop and the occasional self-driving car, both Apple HQ and Google HQ are not really set up for visitors (I think that with all the startups in San Francisco it’s ridiculous that there’s no-one yet offering a decent Silicon Valley tour!).
Where to Stay in San Francisco
The Adelaide Hostel – warm hostel for travellers on a budget
If you’re backpacking on a budget in San Francisco, then Hostel Adelaide is one of the best deals in the city. A dorm bed costs $30 per night and an unlimited breakfast buffet of three different types of bagels, five kinds of jam, porridge and fruit are all included. The hostel itself is warm and central – not to mention that the staff are super keen to help you out with ideas for things to in San Francisco.
Google Map: 5 Isadora Duncan Street, San Francisco, 94102
The Alise – A Stay Pineapple Hotel – sophisticated but quirky hotel
The Alise is a more up-market hotel in central San Francisco. Adorned with quirky pineapples, the Alise is a sophisticated but fun hotel. They had the comfiest beds we’ve slept in in the Americas – it feels as though you’re sinking into a pile of soft feathers – and when you wake up there’s a nice breakfast menu that includes coffee and yoghurt and granola parfait. A double room at the Alise starts at $180 per night. The hotel is dog-friendly.
Google Map: 580 Geary St, San Francisco, 94102
Are you travelling to San Francisco?
If you’re travelling or already been to San Francisco, I’d love to hear what you think of my San Francisco city guide. What were your favourite things to do in San Francisco, and where would you recommend to other travellers?