Five Unique San Francisco Neighborhoods And The Best Things To Do in Each One

From The Mission to Japantown, here are five fun San Francisco neighborhoods to explore, and the best things to do, see and eat in each one!

Whether you’re a tourist or a local, The City By The Bay is always a fun, unique place to explore. It’s a diverse city that offers any type of cuisine you could ask for, along with distinct San Francisco neighborhoods with their own history, vibes and flair. As someone who’s born and raised in the city, I’ve definitely seen it change and transform in tons of ways, but one thing remains. San Francisco has a unique collection of neighborhoods, each one worth experiencing.

A few tips? Layer up. You never know what the weather is going to do in any given San Francisco neighborhood. If you’re driving, be aware of parking rules and do not leave anything visible in your car. Sadly, car break ins are a normal occurrence here, particularly in touristy neighborhoods. Wear comfortable shoes — we are a city of hills.

Here’s our round up of five must-see San Francisco neighborhoods and what to do at each! For my complete guide on all things San Francisco, click here!

Mission District

The Mission District is a vibrant part of San Francisco, anchored by one of the city’s oldest icons: the 18th century Mission Dolores, built by the Spanish. It has a large arts and culture scene, with many Latino institutions based here, the most notable being the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts.

The typically sunny area is home to the sprawling Mission Dolores Park. This is where the entire city goes on a sunny day (at least it feels like it!). You’ll find people picnicking, sun-bathing, playing tennis, tons of dogs, and, of course, a few crazy people so keep an eye out. It’s also a place I take everyone for stunning views of the city.

The Mission also has countless unique boutique shops, cafes, restaurants and more along Valencia Street. Some of the coolest shops include Paxton Gate, Dog Eared Books, and Gravel and Gold.

Popular burrito spots include La Taqueria and La Cumbre — both of which have fantastic Mission-style burritos. Other great places to eat are Curio, Hawker Fare, Foreign Cinema, Penny Roma, Lolinda… It’s best to come hungry!

Keep your eyes peeled for colorful street art that can be found everywhere from sides of buildings to alleys.

Japantown

San Francisco’s Japantown is only one of three remaining in the country. It all began in the 1860’s when generations of Japanese immigrants settled here and began to share their art and culture with the city. Today, it’s home to countless ramen and udon eateries. Marufuku Ramen, Umai, Waraku, Hinoyeda and Ramen Yamada are some of my favorites. For my list of best ramen spots, click here. There are also countless sushi restaurants and sweet shops where you can get imported, special treats that Japan is known for, especially different types of mochi.

A few popular places for confections include Nippon-Ya, which offers fresh mochi in both traditional and fusion flavors, and Uji Time, which serves the fun, fish shaped Taiyaki Ice Cream. And if you want something outside of Japanese food, Hotel Kabuki’s neighbor, Nari, offers some of the country’s best Thai food. Japantown also has shopping centers that feature everything from kimonos and manga from Japan (Kinokuniya is the best bookstore for graphic novels, books, magazines, unique gifts and more!), to imported teas and folk art. 

Haight Ashbury

This unique neighborhood of San Francisco is the birthplace of flower power and the hippy movement of the 60’s, more specifically home of the famous “Summer of Love” in 1967. Haight Ashbury was the place to come for free love, drugs and rock and roll. Notable artists who lived here during their fame were the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin. Today the neighborhood is still plenty colorful, offering an eclectic selection of music venues, clothing shops, second-hand and vintage stores, spiritual shops and more. While here be sure to check out Rasputin Music which has been around since the 70’s and Amoeba Music, The World’s Largest Independent Record Store. When you get hungry, take a seat at the lively Caribbean spot Cha Cha Cha’s or the popular Puerto Rican spot Parada 22, and when your sweet tooth hits grab a scoop of ice cream at the iconic Ben & Jerrys.

Chinatown

San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia as well as the oldest Chinatown in North America. Guests can’t miss the ornate Chinatown Gate, which is the official entrance on Bush Street. An excellent place to explore on foot, Chinatown has many stunning, historic buildings including the Bank of Canton and the Sing Chong Building. The alleys also are home to colorful murals and street art, so be sure to keep your eyes open. This area of the city offers tons of unique gift shops, herbal shops, bustling produce markets, dim sum eateries and more.

While here, be sure to enjoy fresh fortune cookies from The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory and if you’re craving authentic Sichuan cuisine, take a seat at Z and Y Restaurant. For upscale Chinese cuisine, book a reservation at Empress By Boon, Michelin-starred Chef Ho Chee Boon namesake restaurant. Empress by Boon is a gorgeous, modern Cantonese restaurant which showcases the inimitable flavors of Cantonese cuisine in a refined, upscale manner. 

The Castro

The colorful Castro District in San Francisco has been and remains a major part of this city’s identity. It gained national attention with Harvey Milk’s campaign for social change surrounding the LGBTQ community in the 60’s and ‘70s and today continues to be a cultural hub recognized as one of the most famous LGBTQ-supporting neighborhoods in the world. Catch a foreign film at the historic Castro Theatre originally built in 1922 or stop by the GLBT Historical Society to learn more about the LGBTQ world.

When you get hungry stop by Anchor Oyster Bar for fresh oysters and chowders; Dumpling House for a variety of freshly made dim sum; Copas for upscale Mexican tapas; and be sure to get a fresh cookie from Hot Cookie!

Pin this the next time you’re exploring San Francisco!

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Chelsea is a bicoastal freelance journalist whose passion revolves around exploring the world, immersing herself in foreign cultures, and of course, eating and drinking everything delicious.

Her work can be found in TravelPulse, Forbes, This Is Insider, Fox Lifestyle and more. She covers all things food, drink and travel and is always up for an adventure, whether that means an adrenaline-pumping excursion or trying a new cuisine.

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