Our Favorite Hotels in San Francisco
• 5-Star Hotel: Fairmont
• Cheap Hotel: Stanyan Park
• For Families: Palace Hotel
• For Couples: 1 Hotel
• Best Pool: Palace Hotel
• Airport Hotel: Grand Hyatt
• Near Union Square: Westin St. Francis
• Near Fisherman’s Wharf: Argonaut
• Near Golden Gate Bridge: Cavallo Point
• Best New Hotel: Four Seasons Embarcadero
Best Areas to Stay in San Francisco
One of America’s most beautiful cities, San Francisco lies in the center of California’s Pacific coast, celebrated for its old-fashioned cable cars, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz prison, its legendary LGBT scene, and host of iconic companies, from Levi’s to Twitter. The city proper is relatively compact, but the metropolitan Bay Area is home to over eight million people, living in an incredibly diverse array of neighborhoods.
Downtown San Francisco is anchored by Market Street, the city’s main drag, lined with stores and office towers, beginning at the Embarcadero on the harborfront. Market runs southwest from here past the iconic skyscrapers of the Financial District, the shopping hub of Union Square, and the elegant government buildings of Civic Center before reaching the Castro, the center of LGBT life in San Francisco. Below Market Street is South of Market (SoMa), a former industrial enclave now home to its own skyscrapers, tech start-ups, high-end restaurants, and museums. North of Downtown lie some of the city’s most enticing neighborhoods, all eminently walkable: Chinatown, one of the oldest in the US, Italian-American North Beach, known for its connection with Beats, and Fisherman’s Wharf, the city’s fun, touristy harborside district. Further afield is the old hippie hangout of Haight-Ashbury, the green spaces and world-class museums of Golden Gate Park, the Golden Gate Bridge itself, and the Mission, the historic Latino neighborhood now known for some of the best eating and drinking in the city. On the other side of the harbor lies gritty Oakland, student enclave Berkeley, and the romantic waterside village of Sausalito.
We’ve covered our favorite neighborhoods to visit and stay in more detail below, but with more time these districts are also worth checking out:
• Embarcadero: Downtown’s breezy harborfront features a couple of key attractions: family-friendly Exploratorium at Pier 15, Fisherman’s Wharf at Pier 39, and the Ferry Building Marketplace, crammed with food stalls, bars and a farmers’ market. Our favorite hotels here are the 1 Hotel, Hyatt Regency, and Hotel Griffon.
• Civic Center
Civic Center Plaza anchors the city’s administrative heart, with grand City Hall the main attraction (tours available) – this is where Mayor George Moscone and iconic gay City Supervisor Harvey Milk were tragically murdered in 1978. San Francisco’s professional opera, symphony and ballet companies are all located nearby, while the Asian Art Museum is one of the nation’s best. Our favorite hotels here include Inn at the Opera, San Francisco Proper, and YOTEL San Francisco.
The Fillmore District (with Fillmore Street its main drag), is one of most important entertainment areas in the city, especially for live jazz, blues and rock-and-roll (see The Fillmore). Adjacent Japantown is a compact but alluring neighborhood of Japanese stores and eateries. We like the Kimpton Buchanan Hotel and Hotel Kabuki here.
• Cow Hollow & Marina
Harborside Marina District is mostly residential, but does encompass the historic Fort Mason and Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, as well as the must-see Palace Of Fine Arts. Just to the south, Cow Hollow primarily refers to the strip of galleries, bars, restaurants and stores along Union Street. Attractions here include the Octagon House. Lombard Street is packed with relatively cheap hotels: we like the Cow Hollow Motor Inn, Chelsea Inn, and Seaside Inn.
• Russian Hill
Upscale Russian Hill is best known as being the home of crooked Lombard Street, the section between Leavenworth and Hyde that famously winds its way around impossibly steep hairpins. Also here is the mural-rich Diego Rivera Gallery at San Francisco Art Institute, and the bars and restaurants of Polk Street. There is not a lot of accommodation here, but Russian Hill is close to Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach, and Downtown.
• Polk Gulch is the strip of Polk Street that runs through Nob Hill and Russian Hill, best known as another nightlife hub, ideal for bar hopping. Holiday Inn San Francisco-Golden Gateway is within stumbling distance.
• Don’t rent a car. Parking is expensive, the traffic is horrible, and parking spots are hard to come by. Public transportation is great in San Francisco and beyond that, an Uber is always a great option. Plan accordingly for sightseeing because, despite San Francisco’s relatively small size, it can take an hour or more to get from one side of the city to another on public transportation due to the hills and traffic.
• In the Bay Area it’s all about “micro-climates”. San Francisco is often inundated with mist or cool breezes, and in the city proper temperatures rarely exceed 80°F and usually hover in the mid-60s, even in the summer. Yet a few miles inland it can be scorching hot for much of the year – be prepared for wild swings of temperature if traveling throughout the area. When I lived in the Inner Sunset I would regularly walk to Cole Valley for coffee. And in just that span of 7 or 8 blocks, the skies would clear and the weather would change from cloudy and cool to sunny and warm.
Best Places to Stay in San Francisco
- Best Luxury Hotels in San Francisco
Fairmont (Nob Hill) • Four Seasons San Francisco • The St. Regis • Four Seasons Embarcadero • Fairmont Ghirardelli Square
- Best Boutique Hotels in San Francisco
1 Hotel • Hotel Drisco • Tilden Hotel • Hotel G
- Best Cheap & Midrange Hotels in San Francisco
White Swan Inn • Inn at Union Square • Stanyan Park
- Best Hostels in San Francisco
HI San Francisco Downtown Hostel • HI San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf
- Best Hotels for Families in San Francisco
Best Neighborhoods in San Francisco for…
Best Neighborhood in San Francisco for Families: Fisherman’s Wharf
Staying at Fisherman’s Wharf means being within walking distance of the harbor, a vast range of family-friendly attractions, whale-watching and boat trips to Alcatraz, a wide array of eating options (from In-N-Out Burger and fresh crab shacks, to the original sourdough bakery at Boudin), and even access to those fun cable cars. Kids will love quirky attractions such as the Musée Mécanique and Madame Tussauds San Francisco, plus the historic boats on Hyde Street Pier, the Aquarium of the Bay and the barking sea lions lounging off Pier 39.
Best Neighborhood in San Francisco for First-Timers and Sightseeing: Union Square
Though Fisherman’s Wharf is San Francisco’s tourist hub, we recommend Union Square for anyone traveling without kids. It’s the city’s bustling commercial heart, its primary shopping district, and peppered with iconic bars and eateries. There’s also plenty of accommodation, and it’s one of the central hubs of San Francisco’s public transportation system, meaning relatively easy access to the whole city. From here it’s relatively easy strolls to the attractions of Chinatown and North Beach, the museums of SoMa, and the mansions of Nob Hill.
Most Romantic Neighborhoods: Sausalito & Nob Hill
A small, quirky community just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito makes for an ideal getaway for couples. In addition to the sensational views back across the harbor, Sausalito boasts a lovely boardwalk, kayaking and paddle-boarding at Sea Trek, waterside cafes like Fish and Le Garage, and wine tasting at the Madrigal Family Winery. Hotels here are appropriately luxurious and charming: we love Cavallo Point Lodge and Casa Madrona. Sausalito is also an easy ferry ride from San Francisco’s Pier 41 or the Ferry Building.
For somewhere closer to the main city sights, upscale Nob Hill offers similarly stunning views and plenty of luxury: InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco (with its panoramic Top of the Mark bar), Ritz-Carlton San Francisco, Hotel Fairmont San Francisco, and the White Swan Inn are all located here. Nearby Polk Street provides plenty of eating and drinking options.
Best Neighborhood for Nightlife: Mission, SoMa and Castro
Nightlife is spread out all over San Francisco, but the Mission District is generally considered the top spot to party – it’s especially known for its atmospheric dive bars. Named for the Spanish colonial Mission Dolores (still its main sight; www.missiondolores.org), today the district is one of the city’s most dynamic residential neighborhoods, home to a sizeable Latino community, colorful murals (Balmy Alley, Precita Eyes Muralists), an incredible culinary scene (especially for Mexican food) and thumping nightlife. Valencia Street is the best target for bar-hopping, home to Blondies’ Bar, Beehive, and Casanova Lounge, plus live venues such as The Chapel. Valencia is just one block from the BART station at 16th St Mission. Our favorite hotels in The Mission are Inn San Francisco, Nineteen 06 Mission and Noe’s Nest Bed & Breakfast.
Elsewhere, SoMa is the best place for clubbing and dancing, especially on and around 11th Street (DNA Lounge, Audio, LGBT hotspot Oasis, also Cat Club).
For LGBT nightlife, the Castro is ground zero – Lookout, Twin Peaks Tavern, and Moby Dick (4049 18th St) are all iconic spots. It’s primarily apartment rentals in the Castro, but of the few hotel options we like Parker Guest House, Willows Inn Bed & Breakfast, and the cheapish Beck’s Motor Lodge.
Best Neighborhoods for Food and Restaurants: The Mission, SoMa, and Hayes Valley
San Francisco is one of America’s undisputed culinary capitals, with good eating in almost every neighborhood. Nevertheless, there are some standouts. Once again, the Mission District is a top choice, with the best taquerias and Mexican restaurants north of the border (Valencia Street, Mission Street, and 24th Street are the main hubs). “Mission-style” or “super” burritos originated here, in joints such as Taqueria Cancún, La Taqueria, and Taquería El Farolito. Yet this just scratches the surface. There’s highly acclaimed gourmet restaurant Lazy Bear, high-end vegetarian Al’s Place, Flour + Water Pizzeria, and the original Mission Chinese Food, among many others.
SoMa is best known for its contemporary, award-winning restaurants: Benu, Marlowe, Bellota, Saison, and Omakase are all incredible.
Finally, the neighborhood known as Hayes Valley (centered on Hayes Street west of Market) is known for its inventive culinary scene, with restaurants such as Petit Crenn, Rich Table, Cala, and Suppenküche leading the way.
Best Neighborhood for Shopping: Union Square
Union Square is by far the most convenient location for shoppers, with a vast choice of luxury stores, indie boutiques, and department stores in the neighborhood; Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcus are all here, along with Nike, Zara, Victoria’s Secret and Disney superstores. Maiden Lane, just off the square, is the home of upscale boutiques such as Chanel and Hermès, while Westfield San Francisco Centre over on Market Street contains over 200 stores.
For a more quirky selection of local brands and retailers, peruse the stores on Haight Street (Haight-Ashbury), or along Hayes Street in Hayes Valley.
Best Neighborhood for Local Vibe: Hayes Valley
To escape the tourists and hangout with locals, spend time in Hayes Valley, where Hayes Street is lined with locally-owned coffee shops, bars, restaurants and stores – Azalea Boutique, Reliquary, and Siren and good examples, while we like Urban Ritual Café for teas and coffee. Hayes Valley is also just a short stroll from Alamo Square Park, home to San Francisco’s famous “Painted Ladies”. It’s not a big area for hotels, but we like Hayes Valley Inn and The Parsonage.
Safest Areas of San Francisco: Nob Hill and the Marina District
Nob Hill is considered one of the safest places in San Francisco due to its low crime rate. Marina District is another great neighborhood that is generally safe during the day and night, with a clean environment and easy parking. Most touristy districts – Union Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, Golden Gate Park, The Presidio, Chinatown etc – are perfectly safe during the day, though wherever you are in San Francisco, expect to see panhandlers and homeless people.
Unsafe Areas of San Francisco
Most of the neighborhoods in San Francisco are safe but as with many large cities in California, panhandlers, transients, and homeless are evident throughout the city. There is a problem with drugs with many of the transients and it’s not uncommon to see drug paraphernalia on the streets and in the gutters. A neighborhood to avoid, especially after dark, is the Tenderloin (in and around the intersection of Turk and Taylor streets). In the summer, when the crowds are at their peak, areas such as Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square can be very busy and it’s wise to be on the lookout for pickpockets. Car break-ins are sadly rampant throughout San Francisco, so if you rent a car, do not leave any valuables in sight. Similar to any big city, be careful, especially at night, and don’t wander alone.
10 Best Neighborhoods in San Francisco for Tourists
1. Union Square/Central Market
At the commercial heart of Downtown San Francisco lies Union Square, a large plaza created in 1850 and now lending its name to the busy shopping, hotel, and theater district that surrounds it for several blocks. The neighborhood spills over onto Market Street, the city’s main drag, and an especially dynamic strip known as Central Market or “Mid-Market”. In addition to shops and restaurants, several tech companies have their headquarters here, including Twitter, Square, and Uber. Adjacent to both neighborhoods is the gritty Tenderloin, home to the famously inclusive Glide Memorial Church and the Tenderloin Museum.
• There’s plenty of eating, shopping, and drinking options around Union Square, and the best selection of accommodation in the city; plus staying here means being at the central hub for city transportation and being within walking distance of the museums of SoMa.
• On the other hand, Market Street tends to empty out at night and the area supports a large homeless population.
The Best Hotels in Union Square/Central Market
• Westin St. Francis • Hotel phone: 415-397-7000
• Inn at Union Square • Hotel phone: 415-397-3510
• Marines’ Memorial Club & Hotel • Hotel phone: 415-673-6672
• Palihotel San Francisco • Hotel phone: 323-327-9702
• Taj Campton Place • Hotel phone: 415-781-5555
SoMa is “South of Market”, literally the neighborhood below Market Street, from the Embarcadero in the northeast to the Mission in the southwest. Once a district of factories and warehouses, today SoMa is all condos and skyscrapers, home to high tech companies, the city’s new transportation terminal (Salesforce Transit Center) and its tallest building, César Pelli’s Salesforce Tower. For visitors the main attractions include some of the best restaurants in the city (like Benu), and a cluster of museums around Yerba Buena Gardens. Within walking distance is the Museum of the African Diaspora, California Historical Society, Children’s Creativity Museum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Contemporary Jewish Museum, along with historic sites such as St Patrick Church. The brand-new Mexican Museum is also slated to open here.
• Staying here means easy access to some of the city’s best museums, restaurants, and transportation networks.
• The area lacks historic charm and character, and can also feel a little deserted at night.
The Best Hotels in SoMA
• Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco • Hotel phone: 415-633-3000
• Hotel VIA • Hotel phone: 415-200-4977
• Hotel Zetta • Hotel phone: 415-543-8555
• Palace Hotel • Hotel phone: 415-512-1111
• St. Regis San Francisco • Hotel phone: 415-284-4000
Best Cheap/Midrange Hotel
• Mosser Hotel • Hotel phone: 415-986-4400
Though it covers only a few steep blocks around Stockton Street and Grant Avenue, Chinatown is a tourist favorite for good reason, crammed with food stalls, souvenir shops, dim sum joints, herbalists, fish sellers and a vast range of good value restaurants. It’s a place for wandering, with local highlights bustling Portsmouth Square, small places of worship like Tin How Temple (125 Waverly Place), the pagoda-like Chinese American Telephone Exchange (743 Washington St), Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (56 Ross Alley), and the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum. Today historic eateries like Far East Café (631 Grant Ave) are complemented by acclaimed contemporary restaurants such as China Live, and Mister Jiu’s. There’s really nowhere good to stay in Chinatown itself (Hilton San Francisco Financial District lies just across from Portsmouth Square, and Pacific Tradewinds Hostel is close by), though it’s easily accessible from Downtown and North Beach.
4. North Beach
In between Fisherman’s Wharf and Downtown lies North Beach, traditionally home to San Francisco’s Italian population (Joe DiMaggio grew up here), but more famous for its connections with the Beats in the 1950s and 1960s (the likes of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac). It’s the location of some of San Francisco’s most historic cafes (Vesuvio Café, 255 Columbus Ave; Tosca Café) and Italian restaurants (Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Café, 566 Columbus Ave; Tony’s Pizza Napoletana), as well as the small Beat Museum and legendary City Lights bookstore, opened in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who passed away at the age of 101 in 2021). To the east of central Washington Square lie the wooden townhouses of Telegraph Hill, crowned by panoramic Coit Tower, built in 1933 and smothered inside with murals depicting Californian history.
• There’s plenty of character in this neighborhood, with easy access to some of the city’s most storied cafes, bars, and restaurants.
• It’s not quite as convenient for public transport (the cable car brushes its western side), though it’s not far from Downtown/Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf.
The Best Hotels in North Beach
Columbus Motor Inn • Hotel phone: 415-885-1492
Hotel Boheme • Hotel phone: 415-433-9111
San Remo Hotel • Hotel phone: 415-776-8688
Washington Square Inn • Hotel phone: 415-981-4220
Best Cheap/Midrange Hotel:
SW Hotel • Hotel phone: 415-362-2999
Green Tortoise Hostel • Hotel phone: 415-834-1000
5. Fisherman’s Wharf
San Francisco’s most touristy neighborhood is great fun for families, with seal lions lounging off the piers, lots of themed restaurants and stores, and plenty of attractions, from Madame Tussauds and Ripley’s Believe It or Not, to Aquarium of the Bay and the Cartoon Art Museum. San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park manages the historic boats on Hyde Street Pier, while USS Pampanito is a WWII submarine turned museum. Learn about sourdough at the Boudin Bakery Museum, chocolate at Ghirardelli Square, and sample fresh seafood at crab shacks on Taylor Street. This is also the place to catch boat trips around the harbor, whale-watching excursions, and the ferry to Alcatraz.
• Staying here means being in the heart of the tourist action, with plenty to do, eat and to shop – it’s also convenient for boat trips.
• As the city’s tourist hub, it lacks local character (most locals actually loath it), and it’s not so convenient for exploring the rest of the city.
The Best Hotels in Fisherman’s Wharf
Argonaut Hotel • Hotel phone: 415-563-0800
Hotel Fairmont Heritage Place – Ghirardelli Square • Hotel phone: 415-268-9900
Kimpton Alton Hotel Fisherman’s Wharf • Hotel phone: 415-771-9000
HI San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf • Hotel phone: 415-771-7277
Two miles west of Downtown, Haight-Ashbury (aka “Upper Haight” or just “the Haight”) is best known for being ground zero of the hippie movement in the late 1960s: the massive “Human Be-in” was held nearby in Golden Gate Park in 1967 and the “Summer of Love” happened here soon after. Today Haight Street is one of the city’s most compelling shopping districts and places to stroll, with shops offering hippie-themed souvenirs and vintage fashion. Highlights include the giant Amoeba Music store, and former home of the Grateful Dead at 710 Ashbury St (and the Hell’s Angels’ across the street). There are not many places to stay here – we recommend the hip Metro Hotel and the mid-range Stanyan Park hotel, right across from Golden Gate Park.
7. Presidio & Richmond (Land’s End)
The northwest corner of San Francisco is dominated by the Golden Gate Bridge and the Presidio, a former military base now converted into a wooded park of rolling hills, installation art by Andy Goldsworthy and a series of historic landmarks. Its refurbished red-brick army buildings now house the Walt Disney Family Museum, Society of California Pioneers Museum, and the Presidio Visitor Center. To the south lies the Richmond district, a largely residential neighborhood celebrated for its diverse culinary scene, especially when it comes to Asian food (Clement Street and Geary Boulevard are the main drags). The far western end of Richmond is dominated by Lincoln Park and the rocky promontory known as Land’s End. The famous Legion of Honor art museum is also here.
• Staying at the Presidio can be atmospheric and much quieter than the rest of San Francisco, but not so convenient for eating, drinking, and sightseeing in the rest of the city.
Best Mid-range Hotels:
Travelodge by Wyndham Presidio • Hotel phone: 415-906-3493
8. Golden Gate Park
The vast swathe of green known as Golden Gate Park stretches from Haight-Ashbury for three miles all the way to the Pacific Ocean. In addition to leafy trails, ponds, boating lakes and even a bison paddock, the park contains some of San Francisco’s show-stopping attractions: California Academy of Sciences, de Young Museum of Art, San Francisco Botanical Garden, and Conservatory of Flowers. There’s also the famous Japanese Tea Garden, where the Teahouse serves matcha tea and fortune cookies. There are no hotels in the park, but Stanyan Park hotel overlooks the eastern end.
One of the largest ports in the US, once blue-collar Oakland has been experiencing its own gentrification over the last decade, with the waterfront redeveloped as Jack London Square. At the eastern end, Heinhold’s First and Last Chance Saloon dates from 1883 and was a favorite watering hole of writer Jack London. There’s not much to see in Downtown Oakland itself, beyond the Oakland Museum of California, which has exhibits on California ecology and history, including the Black Panther Party, which was founded in Oakland in 1966. High above the city in hilltop Joaquin Miller Park stands the Chabot Space & Science Center.
• The roster of accommodation in Oakland is not great; there are cheapish motels Downtown, another cluster of decent chain hotels close to Oakland Airport and also near the Amtrak Station in Emeryville, and finally on West MacArthur Blvd, at the junction of I-580 and I-980.
• The fastest way to zip between Oakland and San Francisco is to take the BART train, though buses and ferries also shuttle across the bay.
The Best Hotels in Oakland:
Hampton Inn Oakland Downtown-City Center • Hotel phone: 510-607-8200
Hyatt Place Emeryville • Hotel phone: 510-285-9232
Oakland Marriott City Center • Hotel phone: 510-451-4000
SpringHill Suites by Marriott Oakland Airport • Hotel phone: 510-569-7000
Best Mid-range Hotels:
Courtyard by Marriott Oakland Downtown • Hotel phone: 510-625-8282
Berkeley, north of Oakland and also across the harbor from San Francisco, is dominated by the famous University of California, Berkeley, campus, one of America’s top (and most progressive) colleges. Its tree-shaded pathways are a pleasant place to stroll, while nearby Telegraph Avenue is lined with bars, cheap restaurants, and book- and music stores. Attractions include the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology and Berkeley Natural History Museums on campus, plus the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive just outside.
• The fastest way to travel between Berkeley and San Francisco is to take the BART train.
The Best Hotels in Berkeley
Bancroft Hotel • Hotel phone: 510-549-1000
Berkeley City Club • Hotel phone: 510-848-7800
Channing Guest House • Hotel phone: 510-7348-783
Claremont Club & Spa • Hotel phone: 510-843-3000
Best Mid-range Hotels:
Travelodge by Wyndham Berkeley • Hotel phone: 510-295-2297
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