Choosing where to stay in San Francisco can get you off to a running start, and help you avoid unwanted mistakes. We've put together a list of places worth considering in the city to start your trip in style and end it with memories of a lifetime.
When we think of the city of San Francisco, most of us envisage the iconic Golden Gate Bridge towering through the clouds of mist with the glittering city beyond. Sitting at the edge of a peninsula and surrounded by ocean on three sides, San Francisco is one of America's most recognisable cities and a coveted spot to explore in California. It has a lot to offer, from enviable cuisine, decadent architecture, renowned museums and art galleries, thriving nightlife scenes, celebrated diversity; and of course amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge. The city is perfect for families, foodies, couples, LGBTQ crowds, budget to luxury travellers and anything in-between. So what is the best area in San Francisco for first-time travellers?
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Where to stay in San Francisco
The major part of the city is walkable and reasonably compact, but it can be difficult to choose between the multitude of fascinating suburbs in which to stay and soak up the vibes. There's so much on offer among the quaint and hip neighbourhoods that everywhere and anywhere is a divine choice. So deciding what side of San Francisco you wish to see can be a challenge. The most touristy places like Fisherman's Wharf and Haight-Ashbury have their perks, and everyone visiting San Francisco should try the clam chowder bread bowl and spend a day sifting through old records in the beautiful old Victorian houses. But, San Francisco has such a huge range of diversity that there's something and somewhere for everyone to connect with down every street and around every corner. Discover traditional Italian cuisine in North Beach, or indulge in Mexican flavours in The Mission. Experience the contrast of down and out life along the Tenderloin, against the hedonistic lifestyles in Nob Hill and Pacific Heights.
Downtown - For the best shopping and central location
Why stay in Downtown
Downtown consists of several different neighbourhoods in the area between the hills and the waterfront. At the heart of it all is Union Square, which can't be beat for its central location. All the major retail brands are based here as well as a wide range of hotels and accommodations. It's the perfect spot if you want to be in the middle of everything. As the cities main shopping district, Union Square has great links to the main transportation lines, including the quaint and rustic cable car lines that make you feel like you just stepped into an old Judy Garland movie. If that gets you in the mood, there are a host of theatres close to Union Square to catch a show or two. Locals and tourists alike meander through the hectic squares of glittering storefronts and restaurants catering to all budgets.
Why avoid Downtown
Union Square is a crowded and popular area with lots of people flashing their cash. Be aware of pickpockets and keep your valuables safe.
Where to stay in Downtown
North Beach and the hills - For Italian food, classic San Francisco experience and luxury
Why stay in North Beach and the hills
North Beach is the 'Little Italy' of San Francisco, where a passion for pasta, gelato, and espresso comes to life. A place for fabulous food, views and local vibes. The steep residential streets are ideal for wandering and taking in the expanding views of the city. At the top of The Hills, the views don't get much more sublime. The rising towers and skyscrapers punctuate the horizon creating a covetable view whatever the weather. The Telegraph Hill and Russian Hill areas feature the more opulent homes with views towards Nob Hill in the South. The area is commonly known as Snob Hill due to its numerous swanky hotels and grand mansions. Nob Hill is one of the original seven hills of San Francisco and you can definitely sense the nostalgia here. For a taste of the high life stay in one of the many luxury hotels around the Hills.
Why avoid North Beach and The Hills
If you're on a budget, it's best to stay out of accommodation in The Hills and splash your cash on the cities numerous offerings, like the many celebrated restaurants and galleries.
Where to stay in North Beach and the hills
Northern Waterfront and Pacific Heights - for the freshest seafood and the best views
Why stay in the Northern Waterfront and Pacific Heights
The Northern waterfront features a little of everything. Showcasing glorious views over the water, passing through commercial areas, spots of extensive wealth, some major tourist hotspots, and ending at the site of San Francisco's biggest icon: The Golden Gate Bridge. On the East side of the waterfront is Fisherman's Wharf, where you'll regularly hear the gruff call of a sea lion and taste the cities absolute best seafood. Don't miss the San Francisco classic clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. Fisherman's Wharf is arguably the most touristy area in the city, but it's a must do on the list of any visitor. It's also an easy place to base yourself for day trips to Alcatraz, the infamous offshore prison, and the surrounding sights of the bay area. Standing sentry in the Northern Waterfront is Pacific Heights, home to the glamorously wealthy and San Francisco's old money. Here you'll find a plethora of luxury hotels surrounding the heights offering outstanding views over the city, though you'll have to dip deep into your pocket for a room.
Why avoid the Northern Waterfront and Pacific Heights
Fisherman's Wharf is overpriced and unapologetically designed for tourists, but provides easy access for the trip to Alcatraz and Angel Island. It's a better fare for a day trip and to try some serious seafood.
Where to stay in Northern Waterfront and Pacific Heights
South of Market and the Tenderloin - best for foodie travellers
Why stay in South of Market and the Tenderloin
There aren't many places to actively avoid in San Francisco, and you should be as vigilant as anywhere else when travelling to keep yourself and your belongings safe. One particular area to avoid staying in is the Tenderloin, a known area for drug trafficking and less salubrious sights. In the South of Market, one popular spot is the Vertigo Hotel, where the renowned auteur Alfred Hitchcock famously shot his hit film Vertigo. Looking for a hotel in South of market or SoMa maximises your chances of eating your way through the best of dining experiences on offer in the city. If you don't want to stay in a hostel but are still wanting something cheap, there are some nice accommodations here. It's also great to access The Mission, where the burgeoning Latino culture offers up a smorgasbord of delectable eateries.
Why avoid South of Market and the Tenderloin
Wander into the West and South of Downtown into the Tenderloin and the utopian view of San Francisco will fall away to reveal the harsh reality of the cities diversity. The neighbourhood has its fair share of dodgy dealings to be wary of and a startling amount of homeless people.
Where to stay in South of Market and the Tenderloin
The Mission and the Castro - for best Mexican food and experiencing Pride
Why stay in the Mission and the Castro
If San Francisco had a heart, it would beat contentedly from the inner suburbs of the Mission and the Castro. Here, San Francisco's diverse culture and personality pulses through the streets. The areas are filled with galleries, local pop up shops, vibrant bars and restaurants and a thriving, rich nightlife. A melting pot of cultures commandeers the food scene with a mix of hipster cafes, Mexican eateries and traditional taquerias. This is also where you'll find the oldest building in San Francisco - Mission Dolores, built in 1776 and survivor of two earthquakes. The Mission also has the cities largest and oldest collection of murals. You could spend hours wandering the quaint streets in search of hidden gems. The Mission is the heart of Latino expression, whilst the Castro is literally bursting with Pride; an expanding LGBTQ neighbourhood with regular events and always something new to experience. Castro is proud to pronounce itself the “gay capital of the world.” Many B&B's in these areas are housed in beautiful historic buildings and offer home cooked scrumptious breakfasts. The towering heights of Twin Peaks stand nearby, with a hilltop park providing an epic 360 view of the bay area.
Why avoid the Mission and the Castro
In many areas of the city, car break-ins are frequent. Be extra vigilant if choosing to drive in the city, especially in the busier neighbourhoods.
Where to stay in the Mission and the Castro
Haight-Ashbury and West of Civic Center - for 60s counterculture and Jazz lovers
Why stay in Haight-Ashbury and West of Civic Center
San Francisco has a rich creative history. Back in the 60s and 70s, famed artists such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Janice Joplin all found a home for their creative and experimental endeavours within the walls of the epicurious city. Haight Ashbury was once the epicentre of the beatnik movement and counterculture. Attracting the poets, wayward creatives and the peace and love campaigns of the 60s and 70s. The bright and colourful Victorian houses in the area are filled with vintage boutiques, tattoo parlours, record stores, and thrift stores. The cities artsy heart still beats in the cracks and corners, but these days it's more hipster than hippy. A more modern counterculture in San Francisco is found to the East in Lower Haight. Nearby is Alamo Square, the perfect pitstop to capture one of San Fran's most quintessential views. The 6 colourfully restored Victorian Houses set against the backdrop of the modern city. Staying around here offers fabulous views over Golden Gate Park, where 60s freedom fighters would stage impromptu music festivals and performances. Next to Alamo Square is Fillmore, a diverse neighbourhood full of a variety of ethnic restaurants and jazz clubs. Connected on the East side is Japantown, San Francisco's vibrant Japanese Quarter.
Why avoid Haight-Ashbury and West of Civic Center
The ‘vibes’ can get a little too strong in Haight Ashbury and there can be political and cultural disputes amongst its residents and those trying to hold onto the past.
Where to stay in Haight-Ashbury and West of Civic Center
Embarcedero and Financial District - for luxury hotels
Why stay in Embarcedero and Financial District
Embarcedero is San Francisco's gateway to the world, and oh “the places you’ll go!” The ferry building stands at the foot of Market Street and houses a food hall, restaurants and a farmers market. The man made treasure Island lies across the bay and is easily reached from Embarcadero’s ferry ports; as well as nearby Marin County, Vallejo, Oakland, and Alameda. Bordering the Financial district is Chinatown, one of the oldest Chinese settlements in the whole of the US. The streets and alleys here are full to the brim with rich street foods and traditional eateries. Head here for a taste of Asian culture, elaborate temples, and some of San Francisco's oldest cocktail bars.
Why Avoid Embarcedero and Financial District
Places close early around Embarcedero and the Financial District, so it's not the best place to find nightlife.
Where to stay in Embarcedero and Financial District
The Sunset - off the beaten path
Why stay in The Sunset
For good clean fun try the Sunset neighbourhood. Made up of Sunset District and Outer Sunset, providing a relatively calmer area with more of a local vibe. It lies on the outskirts of the Westside, so is a little way out of the city centre. Locals refer to the Sunset as the 'Avenues,' where a grid of attractive pastels houses lay in grids towards Ocean Beach on the West Bay. Sunset doesn't lack attractions, with golden Gate Park sitting on the North side and San Francisco Zoo to the South.
Why Avoid The Sunset
The Sunset is the furthest neighbourhood away from the city centre and is a 30-45 minute drive into the main hub. As it's a local suburban area it's less set up for tourists than other neighbourhoods, but that may be exactly why you'd like to stay there.
Where to stay in the Sunset District?
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Becky Alice Coe is the founder of Findingsummersend.com, where she writes about her travel adventures and disasters. She's lived in England, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand but is still looking for the perfect home. She loves Harry Potter, cats, and discovering charming little secrets from around the world.