One of America’s most iconic cities, San Francisco sits poised on the 47-square-mile fingertip of a peninsula on America's western edge. Here's our guide to the best places to stay in San Francisco.
The city has much to gloat about, from the rugged coastline and fog-capped hills to its distinct neighbourhoods. Some are quaint, others 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.
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At the heart sits Union Square. This is 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. A few hotels near the Embarcadero offer a mix of both luxury and Bay views.
If you're wondering what to do in San Francisco, try our day-by-day itinerary for the perfect weekend in San Francisco that will keep you busy
North Beach is many neighbourhoods in one; the Little Italy of San Francisco (though nobody calls it that), the former haunt of Beat poets like Jack Kerouac, the city’s strip club hub, and a destination for night owls looking to mingle at bars and dance clubs. Because it offers so much, it is a great place when deciding where to stay in San Francisco here.
Above North Beach, at the end of Lombard Street, Telegraph Hill is crowned. Built in 1934 on the site of an early telegraph station, and funded by heiress Lillie Hitchcock Coit, it lures visitors with momentous views and WPA frescoes in the style of Diego Rivera. The lovely Filbert and Greenwich street staircases drop down the east side of Telegraph Hill, flanked by attractive and lush private gardens.
If you are lucky you will hear and spot the flock of wild redheaded parrots who live there, and who starred in the 2003 documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.
The cable cars from Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square climb one of the city’s best-known slopes, Nob Hill hailed as the “Hill of Palaces” by writer Robert Louis Stevenson. The hill is celebrated mostly for the size and elegance of the mansions and hotels built there more than a century ago which makes this place an attractive area to stay in San Francisco.
Russian Hill, next to Nob Hill, is known for magnificent views, stately homes, hidden bistros, and a labyrinth of secret streets, stairways, and alleys like Macondray Lane, which connects Taylor and Jones streets and provided the setting for writer Armistead Maupin’s much-loved Tales of the City saga.
After dark, the same crowd meets in the plethora of tasty and inexpensive restaurants, then heads to the post-collegiate-type bars. Union Street is a chic stretch of boutiques, antiques stores, gourmet shops, delicatessens, and classy restaurants.
In summer, when the narrow boardwalks are jammed with sightseers, it’s easy to forget this is a major historic site. Along with hundreds of sailboats and yachts, and the ferries packed with visitors and commuters, much of San Francisco’s maritime past is moored here.
Better known as SoMa, South of Market is a sprawling district with wide traffic-filled streets stacked with tall office buildings, condo high-rises, hotels, nightclubs and major museums. The adjoining Civic Center and Tenderloin districts show a different side of the city. The Civic Center has grand government and cultural buildings, and a cluster of visual and expressive arts venues. Tenderloin, meanwhile, is one of the city's poorest areas.
Be aware that it maintains a bad reputation, and most tourists choose to avoid it. 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.
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. The Castro, meanwhile, is the Bay Area’s – and some would say America’s – epicentre of gay culture.
Many B&Bs here are housed in historic buildings. The sacrifice of a private bathroom for the charms of a home-cooked breakfast is worthwhile.
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.
Elsewhere, the affluent nook of sleepy Cole Valley is a pleasant diversion. Alamo Square is worth a stop, too, 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.
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Hayes Street, the neighbourhood's main shopping street, is home to many high-end designer clothing and home décor shops. There are also patisseries, trendy bars and restaurants. There's a community garden and an installation park on the block. Here, next to the administration building, you can watch plays and listen to music.
The beauty of the landscape dates from the late 19th century, when the trees were planted on what had been forbidding, rocky heights. Feel free to explore the Presidio, by bus or car or on foot, for its tastefully designed and impeccably maintained headquarters buildings, officers’ quarters, and even model enlisted men’s barracks.
Sunset and neighbouring Richmond are often locally referred to as 'Avenues', much of both areas run along numbered avenues from north to south.
One of San Francisco’s most beautiful museums, the Palace of the Legion of Honor is located in the city’s most northwestern corner, at Lincoln Park in the Richmond District. A collection of 4,000 years of ancient and European art is housed in a Beaux-Arts building in an exquisite setting overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.
Where to go after San Francisco? Try nearby Mammoth Lakes, California. Don't miss our guide to Mammoth Lakes. And if you are interested in other destinations in the US, explore our guide to the most beautiful places in the United States.
If you prefer to plan and book your trip to San Francisco without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.
Ready for a trip to San Francisco? Check out the snapshot Pocket Rough Guide San Francisco or The Rough Guide to the USA. If you travel further in the USA, read more about the best time to go and the best places to visit in the USA. For inspiration use the itineraries from The Rough Guide to USA and our local travel experts. A bit more hands on, learn about getting there, getting around the country and where to stay once you are there.
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