San Francisco area guide

The essential sights at America’s iconic West Coast gem

Every city worth its salt can be said to offer something for everyone. The astonishing thing about San Francisco is that it does so within such a small area, just seven miles long by seven miles wide.

The city feels squeezed together at times, as well it might: the streets around Union Square are packed with both buildings and people, the latter a mix of workaday commuters and curious tourists. But you don't have to travel far from the centre to encounter a variety of different worlds: buzzing ethnic 'hoods, chi-chi shopping corridors, eye-catching new buildings, expansive old parks... The variety here is virtually endless.

At the centre of the action is handsome Union Square, where visitors often go to procure a hotel or emerge from public transport. The rest of Downtown north of Market Street encompasses the high-rise Financial District, the lovely Embarcadero, the run-down Tenderloin with its gritty dive bars and the grand Civic Center.

SoMa & South Beach
South of Market is SoMa: centre of the dot-com boom and bust, but now up and coming again, also home to the San Francisco Giants.

Nob Hill & Chinatown
Named after the wealthy 'nabobs' who lived there, Nob Hill is a 'hill of palaces' according to Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived their briefly. The step hill can be taken on cable car. Next door is San Francisco's vibrant China Town, a thriving tightly-knit community for 150 years with Taoist temples, restaurants and shops of all kinds.

North Beach & Fisherman's Wharf
The scent of espresso wafts over café-lined North Beach, the area was home to the Beat poets of the 1950s and still draws the both locals and tourists. Nearby Fisherman's Wharf was once a genuine port but is now a dreary tourist trap.

Mission & Castro
Latino-meets-hipster Mission has everything from taco stands to taxidermists selling stuffed vampire mice. The Castro is the city's gay heartland, quiet and cheerful in the week, packed with exuberant queer partygoers at the weekends. Its neighbour Potrero Hill is a sunny residential area and pretty Noe Valley feels like a self-contained village.

Haight & around
Once counter-culture central the Haight is still one of the liveliest areas in town, the sprawling Western Addition boasts Japanese restaurants and good jazz joints while smart Hayes Valley has emerged as a enclave of considerable hipness.

Sunset, Golden Gate Park & Richmond
In the West, Richmond and the Sunset, are largely residential areas that sandwich the verdant expanse of Golden Gate Park. Less flashy and more foggy, locals like to consider this the real San Francisco.

Pacific Heights to Golden Gate Bridge
North from the Western Addition, lie the upmarket trio of Pacific Heights, Cow Hollow and the Marina, the former military base of the Presidio and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.

The East Bay
Finally, we cross the Bay Bridge to the East Bay, to ethnically diverse Oakland and the ‘People's Republic’ of Berkeley, with its reputation for avant-garde arts, leftist politics and marvellous food.

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