San Fran. The Golden City. SF. The City by the Bay. Whatever you call it (just steer clear of “Frisco”), San Francisco is undeniably one of America’s most exciting and iconic cities. Located on the country’s world-famous west coast and within reach of Californian favourites as the Napa Valley and Yosemite, San Fran is understandably a very popular destination for travellers. Plus, a direct flight from Auckland to San Francisco will have you bayside in just 12 hours! However, choosing the best area to stay in San Francisco requires a little know-how.
While the city may consist of only 49 square miles, it also features at least 27 distinct neighbourhoods. Each one offers its own charm, and its own pros and cons. So, whatever your reason for visiting The City by the Bay, here are tips for where to stay in San Francisco.
Best for: Upscale accommodation.
If you’re keen on great restaurants, primo shopping and staying in some of the fanciest San Francisco hotels, then Nob Hill is the place for you. Dating back to the Gold Rush era, this neighbourhood was once flush with mansions, and still retains that air of exclusivity. Here, you are in the thick of it all, with the Cable Car Museum, North Beach, Grace Cathedral, Huntington Park, Union Square and Chinatown all at your front door. You’ll also be just a short walk from Lombard Street, which is known as the most crooked street in the world, and Polk Street, known for its exciting collection of bars. Just make sure you wear your walking shoes every day, as Nob Hill is one hilly area.
Best for: A historical setting.
Haight-Ashbury was at the heart of California’s ‘hippie movement’, as it was the epicentre of the Summer of Love in 1967. The neighbourhood has retained much of its bohemian charms, and as such, offers a very interesting perspective within the city. The streets are lined with vintage shops, record stores, tattoo parlours and eclectic boutiques, with quirky restaurants and cafes working to keep your explorations well-fuelled. Golden Gate Park is also close at hand, which is where The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane used to play impromptu concerts, and where today you may be greeted by the sound of drum circles. The views from Buena Vista Park are also not to be missed, so if your legs are up for it, this is definitely the best neighbourhood in San Francisco to wander.
Best for: Families.
Close to all of the city’s most famous landmarks and enjoying a reputation as one of the safest areas in the city, Fisherman’s Wharf is easily the best area to stay in San Francisco with a family. You’re close to tourist hot spots such as Madame Tussauds Wax Museum and the San Francisco Dungeon, and have easy access to Alcatraz and restaurants dishing up the city’s famous clam chowder. Because of this, it may be a little too touristy for some travellers, but if you’re looking for a bayside location packed with those iconic colourful buildings, then look no further.
Best for: First timers.
For the same convenient proximity to attractions as Fisherman’s Wharf, but without as many tourists, your best bet is Union Square. This neighbourhood is quite central, and offers a lot of great transportation options, making it easy for newcomers to get around. It’s also a great place to shop, with the red-light-district-turned-pedestrian-mall of Maiden Street nearby, and countless boutiques, art galleries and retail shops right at your fingertips. As such, it’s the ideal choice for where to stay in San Francisco for the first time.
South of Market
Best for: Travellers on a budget.
South of Market (or SoMa) is one of the best cheap areas to stay in San Francisco, with plenty of budget hotels and hostels available. This pocket of the city used to be a warehouse district, but has since transformed into a trendy area packed with great food, live music and nightlife choices. It’s also a great place to base yourself if you’re visiting during baseball season and plan to head along to a game at the AT&T Centre. It’s a little further out from the central area, but it offers great value and a more local experience.
Best for: Exploring San Fran’s hipster scene.
There’s a lot to love about the Mission. Known for its hipster cafes, quirky shops, traditional taquerias and Mexican grocery stores, this neighbourhood is deeply influenced by Hispanic culture, and is even named after a Spanish-era mission, Mission San Francisco de Asis. Walking the streets, you’ll find colourful murals, aromatic coffee shops, bars spruiking cheap eats and plenty of tourist items. It’s a real melting pot of cultures, and best enjoyed on foot.
Best for: Italian culture.
If your priority while visiting San Fran is delicious food, incredible bars and a real local experience, then you’ll want to base yourself in North Beach. Located south of Fisherman’s Wharf, this neighbourhood has something to do at every time of day. In the morning, visit a quaint cafe or peruse an independent bookshop. In the afternoon, enjoy a picnic at Washington Square Park and take in some views. Then in the evening, delve into Little Italy’ for an amazing meal and cap it all off with a drink at a local bar or club.
Best for: Unique shopping opportunities.
There’s no other way to put it: Hayes Valley is cool. The trendy neighbourhood is home to Patricia’s Green, which serves as a sort of town square where people mingle with their dogs, while the main strip of Hayes Street offers numerous clothing and jewellery boutiques. By basing yourself here, you’re also close to San Francisco’s arts district, which includes the likes of Davies Symphony Hall, Nourse Theater (now the Sydney Goldstein Theater), the Asian Art Museum and the San Francisco Opera House. You’ll also want to pay a visit to Proxy SF, which has a slew of food stands, food trucks and pop-up markets. As such, it’s a great option for where to stay in San Francisco for a weekend.
Best for: That quintessential San Fran charm.
If you’re keen to take in San Fran’s iconic Victorian homes and hilly streets, then be sure to stay in Pac Heights. Visit the Lyon Street steps, browse the designer boutiques on Fillmore Street and wander through the Presidio, a vast green area featuring 300 acres of protected eucalyptus, pine, and cypress forests. Located on the neighbourhood’s western edge, Presidio is also based right at the Golden Gate Bridge, making for a lovely day of relaxation in the heart of SF.