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September 3, 2014

San Francisco Neighborhoods: Endless Possibilities

Visiting San Francisco is a different experience for everyone, yet everyone wants to come back because this city of 49 square miles speaks to them. It conjures up romance, beauty, adventure and free-thinking among other things. There is no better way to experience all these things than through the many diverse neighborhoods with Big Bus.

Take a leisurely bus ride through the city, admiring the views and exploring these great neighborhoods:

Alamo Square

One of the most photographed locations in San Francisco, Alamo Square’s famous “postcard row” is indeed a visual treat. A tight, escalating formation of Victorian houses is backdropped by downtown skyscrapers, and the grassy square itself is an ideal midday break. One of 11 historic districts designated by the Department of City Planning, the area includes several bed-and-breakfast inns.

Tip: After walking around the park, you'll build up an appetite. Head over to NOPA, a neighborhood adjacent to Alamo Square. Explore the many boutitque shops and get a taste for San Francisco at restaurants like NOPA and Bar Crudo. For dessert, head to Bi-Rite Market for ice cream or the Mill for Four Barrell Coffee and their world-famous toast.

Fisherman's Wharf

Fishing boats, seafood stalls, steaming crab cauldrons and seafood restaurants... you know you’re at world-famous Fisherman’s Wharf. Souvenir shops and museums augment the atmosphere. The annual Blessing of the Fishing Fleet occurs on the first Sunday in October and the crab season extends from mid-November to June. Two cable car lines terminate in the area, with sightseeing boat tours leaving from Piers 39, 41 and 43½; cruises to Alcatraz Island depart from Pier 33. Many bus lines and the historic F-line serve the area.

Tip: Fisherman's wharf, known for its novelty shops and fishing boats, is home to some of the best seafood in San Francisco. Peruse the streets lined with fresh crab markets and grab a bowl of warm clam chowder or fresh sourdough bread from Boudin. Stop by PIER 39 and catch a view of the sea lions before heading over to ride the thrilling simulator, 7D Experience.

North Beach

There’s no beach like North Beach — in fact, there’s no beach at all. The area’s name derives from the 1850s when a finger of the bay extended inland and the neighborhood was a sunny shore. Today it encompasses one of San Francisco’s busiest nightlife areas, a mosaic of cabarets, jazz clubs, cappuccino houses, off-beat bistros and established restaurants. All around are the vibrant accents of the city’s more than 100,000 inhabitants of Italian descent. Delicatessens are filled with enticing appetizers: provolone, prosciutto, frittata, mozzarella, ravioli, galentina and on and on. Washington Square is an ideal spot for lunch in the sun.

Tip: Revel in the days of beat culture. Although Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg are gone, their favorite haunts are still standing. Head to Vesuvio for a drink and then peruse the books over at City Lights Bookstore, the birthplace of Ginsberg's literary masterpiece, Howl. From their, head across the street to Spec's Twelve Alder Museum Cafe and the recently renovated Tosca Cafe (helmed by the fame April Bloomfield).

Union Square

The hub of San Francisco’s downtown is strictly uptown. It’s Fifth Avenue, Rodeo Drive, State Street and local success stories all in one. Within a four-block radius of the park, elegant stores and richly appointed shops cater to every taste and do it with style, accented by a palette of posies brimming from sidewalk flower stands.

Tip: During the summer months, the square fills up with concerts and festivals. During the winter months, Union Square is home to ice skaters and holiday cheer. It is truly bustling year-round.

Civic Center

A monumental grouping of federal, state and city structures, San Francisco’s Civic Center is the most spacious and, for many, the most impressive in the United States. The magnificently restored City Hall is crowned by a dome taller than the one on the nation’s Capitol. Tours of City Hall are conducted on a regular basis. For information, call 415-554-6139. Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, the War Memorial Veterans Building and the War Memorial Opera House are now collectively known as the San Francisco Performing Arts Center (see this section for more detailed information). Bill Graham Civic Auditorium — the scene of concerts and civic events — the Main Library and other civic structures are all nearby. The old Main Library has been transformed into the new Asian Art Museum.

Tip: Blocks away is Hayes Valley, a neighborhood making a name for itself with stellar dining options, boutique craft and clothing shops and public art taken from Burning Man. A few classics that should be on everyone's list are restaurants, Absinthe, the Boxing Room and Suppenkuche, along with plenty of outdoor options like the Biergarten.

Haight Ashbury

The “Summer of Love” lives on mainly in stores: vintage clothing, books and records are abundant along Haight Street, the neighborhood’s busiest stretch. Places of interest include 710 Ashbury St., once home to the legendary band The Grateful Dead; 112 Lyon St., where famous singer Janis Joplin lived; Buena Vista Park, with its views of the city; and, for architectural highlights, Masonic Avenue, Piedmont and Delmar Streets.

Tip: Home to many musicians back in the day, Haight Ashbury is a walkable tour of who's who from the 1960s and 70s. Here's a Google Map Tour to lead you in the right direction.


The same vision that transformed Golden Gate Park into a green oasis influenced the transformation of the Sunset in the early 1900s. Now Sunset magazine is hailing the area for its new restaurants and “surfing vibe.” There are some serious coffeehouses to take the chill off after a stroll along Ocean Beach, and La Playa Park, a sliver of green between Kirkham and Judah right on the edge of the Pacific, is a good spot to relax and watch some coastal swells.

Tip: In recent years, this sleepy neighborhood has awoken with must drink coffee to never-ending lines for Sunday brunch (it's well worth the wait). Take a bike ride through Golden Gate Park and head back through the Sunset on Judah and you'll pass Trouble Coffee and Outerlands (two places on every locals list).

The Presidio

Founded in 1776, the Presidio served as a military garrison under the flags of Spain, Mexico and the United States before it became a national park in 1994. Its long history is reflected in many places: 17th-century cannons, a diversity of architectural styles and a forest planted beginning in the 1880s. Within the boundaries of this 1,480-acre (599 hectares) preserve are the Walt Disney Family Museum, Main Post, the Officers’ Club, San Francisco National Military Cemetery, Fort Point and the Herbst International Exhibition Hall. The Presidio is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. 

Tip: Flanked on one side by the Golden Gate Bridge and the Richmond District on the other, the Presidio is a wooded oasis in the urban jungle. Secluded by trees are a couple of pieces by Andy Goldsworthy, the Wood Line, Tree Fall and Spire


San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the largest outside Asia, offering an array of exotic shops, restaurants, food markets, temples, museums and venerable Chinese institutions. Language here is mostly Cantonese and Mandarin. Pagoda-style roofs and decorative balconies dominate the architecture, and street lamps are dragon-entwined. Grant Avenue, the district’s main street, is a perpetual pageant during the annual Chinese New Year and Moon Festival celebrations. In 2012, the New Year’s celebration runs from Jan. 21–Feb. 5. The Autumn Moon Festival will be celebrated on Sept. 10–11, 2011. For eight blocks, between Bush Street and Columbus Avenue, visitors are assured one of the most unusual walks in America.

Tip: Home to some of the best dim sum on the west coast, you don't want to miss R&G Lounge and Empress of China.

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