One of America’s most iconic cities, San Francisco sits poised on the 47-square-mile fingertip of a peninsula at the western edge of America.
The city has much to gloat about, from the rugged coastline and fog-capped hills to its distinct neighbourhoods, by turn quaint or hip, lined by rows of preserved Victorian houses or dotted with chic clubs in converted warehouses.
Depending on what you’ve got planned for your visit, certain parts of the city may be a better base than others. To help you decide, we’ve put together an area-by-area guide on where to stay in San Francisco:
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.
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.
Haight-Ashbury and west of Civic Center
The districts between Civic Center and Golden Gate Park are perhaps the city’s most racially and economically diverse; once grubby and crime-ridden, they now make up an eclectic patchwork.
Haight-Ashbury, once the centre of the hippie movement, has adopted its peace-and-love past as a de facto marketing campaign, but is still worth visiting. If you’re really looking to connect with modern-day counterculture, however, you’re better off in the Lower Haight, immediately to the east.
Elswhere, the affluent nook of sleepy Cole Valley is a pleasant diversion, and Alamo Square is certainly worth a stop, where six restored Victorian houses and the Downtown skyline provide one of San Francisco’s most popular photo opportunities.
North and west of Alamo Square, is the Fillmore, once home to some of the city’s most notorious housing projects and still economically deprived. Grafted onto its eastern edge is Japantown, an awkwardly artificial development but the heart of the city’s Japanese community.
For a taste of Japan: Hotel Kabuki. The Kabuki strikes a sophisticated, streamlined look in architecturally drab Japantown, with tea service rituals and workshops on Japanese traditions.
For park views: Stanyan Park Hotel. Overlooking Golden Gate Park, this small hotel has 35 sumptuous rooms that are incongruous in its countercultural neighbourhood, busily decorated in country florals with heavy drapes and junior four-poster beds.
Explore more of San Francisco with the Pocket Rough Guide to San Francisco. This feature contains affiliate links; you can find out more about why we’ve partnered with booking.com here. All recommendations are editorially independent and taken from the Rough Guide to San Francisco and the Bay Area.