The Mission District
Before the dot -com boom hit San Francisco in the early Noughties, the Mission District was primarily home to working-class Latin-American families. The area has since significantly gentrified, although still nods to its heritage, especially around the south end and 24th street. Those interested in the history, art and architecture of San Francisco, will enjoy a stay in the Mission District, as will young professionals and families looking for trendy cafes and boutiques.
Visitors of all ages will enjoy discovering the vivid murals painted around the district, which originated from a Central American painting style, and approach local issues and culture. Up high on the hill in the east end of the Mission is Dolores Park, a very good reason to stay in the area during your visit to San Francisco. The park is beautiful, and a favoured meeting place of locals, with a fabulous view over the gridded streets of the city below. Next door is the Mission Dolores, a beautiful old Spanish mission after which the area is named, and one of the city’s most interesting attractions.
The Castro was famously one of the first gay districts in the US, and is still a important place for the LGBT community in the US. Like the Mission District, it has gentrified significantly in recent decades and has become fashionable and quite expensive. However, most tourists still visit to learn about it’s place as a centre of queer activism and culture. Recently the Castro and one of it’s 1970’s leaders, Harvey Milk, were popularised in the film Milk, featuring Sean Penn. The area is tolerant, proud of its history and is a great place to stay if you’re interested in nightlife and exploring. It’s fun to get on the trolley (it’s like an old tram) and ride along the main strip, Castro Street. Look out for the iconic Castro Theater, a beautiful old cinema showing arthouse and vintage films. Just down the street is the decidedly less classic ‘Hot Cookie Bakery’, who famously serve up adult-rated baked goods.
Tucked in between the rugged Twin Peaks hills and the Mission District is Noe Valley. Like other central districts of San Francisco it’s seen a renaissance in recent years as tech money has flooded the city. If farmers markets, delis, wine bars, chocolate and cheese shops sound good to you, you should enjoy staying in Noe Valley. Noe Valley is certainly upscale (Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook lives on the border of Noe Valley and Castro) but trendy, with more young tech families than older couples. There seem to be babies everywhere, so families looking for a kid-friendly place to stay and hang out will definitely find Noe Valley to their liking. The gorgeous Victorian houses, pretty parks and wooded hills make it extra appealing.
Haight Ashbury and Lower Haight
The district locals just call the Haight is actually two enclaves separated by a hill. On the east side is Haight-Ashbury and on the west, Lower Haight. It was the birthplace of the hippie subculture, as thousands of young Americans flocked here in 1969 for the ‘Summer of Love’ . The Haight is also highly regarded for it’s beautiful architecture, namely, the restored old Victorian terraces and ‘Painted Lady’ mansions that dot the streets. You might remember them from Mrs Doubtfire! Alongside Alamo Square Park in Lower Haight is where the best examples are (including the Mrs Doubtfire family home), but these beautiful houses can be found throughout the Haight. You could even stay in one.
SoMa is actually a huge district, so it pays to find a place to stay close to transport, and the parts of SoMa that interest you. Mission and Howard streets will be of particular interest to arts enthusiasts, with dozens of galleries, ranging from small collectives to full state institutions such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. There are parts of the area with a more industrial vibe, and many former warehouses have been converted into clubs.
The Richmond is another laid-back, family friendly area. Nestled between Golden Gate Park, Presidio Park and the Pacific Ocean, it feels quieter than other parts of the city but is very close to action. You do feel that closeness to the Pacific – it is a little cooler and foggier here than the rest of the city, but as long as you’re prepared it’s not a problem, and the rugged beauty of the coast (if it isn’t too foggy) more than makes up for it. On a fine day it’s a great spot for a postcard-perfect view of the Golden Gate Bridge and surrounding mountains.