Dense with history and humanity, Downtown San Francisco comprises several vibrantly distinct neighbourhoods jammed together between the waterfront and the hills.
At the heart sits Union Square, one of San Francisco’s liveliest urban spaces, the city’s main hotel and shopping district, and the junction of its major transportation lines (including cable cars). Along the waterfront stands the elegant Embarcadero, anchored by the Ferry Building and its immensely popular marketplace, which rims San Francisco’s stalwart Financial District.
Union Square can’t be beat for its variety of options and central location, while a few hotels near the Embarcadero offer a mix of both luxury and Bay views.
For art-lovers: Hotel des Arts. This buzzy spot is a hybrid art gallery and hotel, and many rooms are custom-decorated by local artists. A fun, bargain place to stay.
For classic luxury: Hotel Union Square. One of the top Art Deco hotels Downtown, this boutique destination features brick walls, mosaics galore and an impeccable overall design; cable cars rattle by directly outside its main entrance.
North Beach and the hills
Inland North Beach was named when the area sat along San Francisco’s original northern waterfront, and is best known as home to the city’s Italian community. In recent years its original blue-collar character has been largely eroded by gentrification, but it retains an easy, worn-in feeling, and its sloping residential streets and vibrant main drags are ideal for aimless wandering.
Primarily residential Telegraph Hill and Russian Hill, meanwhile, boast beautiful old homes, as well as hidden gardens tucked away down pathways off steep hillside streets. To the south of Russian Hill lies pristine, yet historically snooty Nob Hill.
For a B&B style hotel: Washington Square Inn. 1660 Stockton St at Filbert, Overlooking Washington Square this hotel has large and airy rooms with a European flavour – some boast bay windows.
For big budgets: The Fairmont. The most famous of Nob Hill’s landmark hotels, this showy palace offers fantastic views despite being relatively low-rise for the neighbourhood.
The Northern Waterfront and Pacific Heights
From east to west, San Francisco’s Northern Waterfront begins with crass commercialism, passes through areas of vast wealth, and ends at the city’s most famous landmark.
This is an area that almost every visitor at least drops into. Its stunning vistas, opulent (if homogenous) neighbourhoods and even the tourist schlock seem to hold something for everyone.
Overpriced and unapologetically tacky, Fisherman’s Wharf is convenient for trips to Alcatraz and Angel Island. Things take a turn for the affluent in the Marina and Cow Hollow neighbourhoods, where yacht clubs and boutiques dominate the scene. Perched on the tall hill above stands stately, exclusive Pacific heights, home to much of San Francisco’s oldest money, and some of its new wealth as well.
For budget cool: Hotel del Sol. An offbeat, updated motor lodge with a tropical theme all the way down to its small, but inviting outdoor swimming pool (a San Francisco rarity).
For a boutique B&B: Queen Anne Hotel. Gloriously restored Victorian building enjoying its second life with gold-accented Rococo furniture and bunches of silk flowers.
Alcatraz island in the San Francisco Bay © Nickolay Stanev/Shutterstock
South of Market and the Tenderloin
The idea of San Francisco as a Victorian-lined utopia holds fast until you wander into the areas to the west and south of Downtown.
After languishing for decades as a warehouse wasteland, South of Market took an upswing in the mid-1990s, when its low rents attracted first art, music and tech communities. In the economic ebb and flow since, the neighbourhood has alternately languished and prospered. The adjoining Tenderloin and Civic Center districts reveal harsher realities, with heavy drug traffic and prostitution in evidence, along with a shocking number of homeless people.
If you’re on a particularly tight budget, but don’t wish to stay in a hostel, these areas are your best option, with some trendier accommodation in South of Market. Be aware, however, that the neighbourhoods can sometimes be dodgy (even during daytime), and the Tenderloin in particular has its share of seedy hotels.
For film fans: Hotel Vertigo. Famous as the place where Alfred Hitchcock filmed the dramatic stairway scenes in Vertigo, this swanky spot boasts a mix of classic French style and modern urban sophistication.
For boutique luxury: Hotel Vitale. Steps from the ferry building, this hotel boasts elegant contemporary rooms (many with bay views) and an on-site spa with rooftop soaking tubs.
The Mission and the Castro
Together, the Mission and the Castro make up the beating heart of San Francisco, and here more than anywhere else in the city, a number of cultures exist far outside the boundaries of mainstream America.
These compelling neighbourhoods are filled with galleries, murals, one-of-a-kind local shops, vibrant restaurants and thriving nightlife. The Mission is the centre of San Francisco’s largely working-class Latino community, while the Castro is the Bay Area’s – and some would say America’s – epicentre of gay culture.
Many B&Bs here are housed in historic buildings, but the sacrifice of a private bathroom for the charms of a home-cooked breakfast can be worthwhile.
For a B&B with a view: Inn San Francisco. Superb, sprawling B&B set in two adjoining historic Victorians with stunning views across town from the smokers’ terrace on the roof.