More than anything else, San Francisco is a city defined by it's neighborhoods. Because of the hilly terrain of the city, many neighborhoods lie in their own tiny valley, each with a very unique and specific feel, look and even micro-climate. Add to this the cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic and bohemian make-up of the city's residents and you get a patch-work quilt of different fascinating neighborhoods, each offering its own selection of delights to the visitor.
1. North Beach
San Francisco's picture perfect Little Italy is one of the most visited areas of the city. This is the place to grab a steaming Italian coffee a in historic cafe, wander up to Coit Tower to check out the views and enjoy the European ambiance of the charming parks and ornate churches. At night, North Beach becomes one of the city's hottest nightlife districts and is flooded by locals and tourists alike. North Beach is also home to many of the Best Italian Restaurants in San Francisco.
San Francisco's pleasant gay and lesbian enclave feels like a small city in and of itself. Here you will find tons of excellent restaurants, some of the city's most rambunctious festivals, fashionable shopping options and a booming nightlife scene. Don't get so overwhelmed that you forget to check out the historic Castro Theater and the LGBT Museum.
Once the headquarters of the hippie movement that swept the nation in patchouli scented smoke and psychedelic colored clothing, the Haight-Ashbury is still a bastion of West Coast counterculture. This is the place to buy vintage rock posters, check out the latest in eco-fashions and catch up on news of the world from street kids. The Haight is also the entrance to Golden Gate Park and is home to some of the city's finest and most elegant Victorian mansions.
San Francisco's bustling Chinatown is not only the oldest and largest Chinese community in the United States, it's also by far the most stunningly beautiful. Ornate Buddhist and Taoist temples grace the top floors of many of the building that line its main drag, Grant Avenue, while tea shops, antique dealers and Chinese pastry shops hug the sidewalk. Over on Stockton Street, visitors can leave the country completley as they wander through open air fish and produce markets, shop for medicinal herbs and be baffled by the omnipresent Cantonese.
This upscale waterfront neighborhood not only holds impressive landmarks like the Palace of Fine Arts and great museums like the Exploratorium but its also one of the best places in the city do spend a day boutique shopping. The Marina also boasts a green waterfront park, a slew of great cafes and restaurants and a happening nightlife scene, making it a great place to escape the city's tourists and rub shoulders with the locals.
The Spanish influence in San Francisco is felt strongly in the Mission District, both in it's Colonial-style architectual landmarks and in it's Latin-American residents, who fill the area with festive restaurants, specialty shops and markets. The Mission is also the center of the city's hipster scene, and boasts a high number of art galleries, independent book stores and vintage clothing shops. At night the Mission heats up like no other residential neighborhood with bars, live music venues and salsa dancing clubs dotting both Valencia and Mission Streets.
Jazz clubs, ethnic dining and cultural attractions like the The African American Art and Culture Complex makes the Fillmore District a truly one of a kind urban destination. Check out the John Coltrane church, stop by the Jazz Heritage center and have the night out of your life at John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom Room or Rassela's Jazz Club and Restaurant. Don't forget the Fillmore Jazz Festival every July, it's the largest free jazz fest on the west coast!
Fisherman's Wharf is the city's attraction-packed waterfront district, an area that many locals swear they never come to although they usually actually do come several times a year: whenever visitors are in town. While it's true that Fisherman's Wharf is loaded with tourist traps and cheesy trinket vendors, its also home to several true San Francisco institutions like the ferries to Alcatraz, the Sea Lion colony at Pier 39 and the free outdoor magic shows of historic Ghiradelli Square.
10. Union Square
The commercial heart of San Francisco, most visitors stay near Union Square as it is home to the city's largest and most elegant hotels. Union Square is packed with attractions, from live broadway theater to the historic Cable Cars, and the shopping in the area is unequaled anywhere else in San Francisco. At night, Union Square transforms into a throbbing nightlife district and offers visitors an abundance of party options.