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For a city with such a big personality, San Francisco is surprisingly small. Bound on three sides by water, it measures only about seven miles by seven miles—you could easily walk across it in a day. And yet, upwards of 40 distinct neighborhoods cram into this relatively small space. (The secret? Those famous hills add much-needed surface area.)
The tech boom in Silicon Valley has reverberated up in the City by the Bay: Sleek high-rises have altered the skyline, swanky hotels are transforming formerly seedy areas, and everything from taxis to takeout has gone digital. These shifts present a challenge to a proudly free-thinking place with a long, quirky history. But San Francisco has always been a city of change with 250 years of practice blending history and tradition. From the docks of the San Francisco Bay in the east to the breakers along the city’s Pacific coast in the west, you’ll find Michelin-starred restaurants standing shoulder to shoulder with decades-old noodle shops and chic storefronts below elegant 1920s-era apartments. These are the neighborhoods where you’ll find the heart of San Francisco.
San Francisco’s official downtown neighborhood is the Financial District, the busy business center. Here multistory offices and fast-casual restaurants crowd in around historic edifices such as the Flood Building, which survived the 1906 earthquake. But unofficially, “downtown” also includes the Embarcadero along the waterfront and Union Square—the central shopping district where you’ll find Neiman Marcus, the Apple Store, and designer boutiques along Maiden Lane. The Embarcadero is a main hub for public transportation, and most of the city’s hotels cluster here, so many visitors call it home base.
Rise above the commercial fray on a cable car—hop on at the base of Powell Street and ride to the top of Nob Hill. Here, take in the sweeping view of the city while surrounded by stately, early 20th-century grand dame hotels like the InterContinental Mark Hopkins and the Fairmont San Francisco as well as the French Gothic-style Grace Cathedral. Or grab the next cable car heading east on California Street and make your way down to the Ferry Building. More than a docking point for commuter ferries, the structure also houses an upscale market hall where you can shop for local, artisanal food and homegoods at Humphry Slocombe, Heath Ceramics, and more. In the evenings, discover intimate hole-in-the-wall sushi bars and French bistros along the narrow, hilly streets of downtown, or stroll the Embarcadero promenade in search of ritzier options—such as the Michelin-starred Angler—that look out at the Bay Bridge.
Chinatown and North Beach
Founded in 1853, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the country’s oldest. The strings of red lanterns, pagoda rooflines, and latticed woodwork make the neighborhood look a bit like a movie set, but if you stop by the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum, you’ll learn that the stylized architecture was a tactical addition to keep the area a haven for Chinese Americans when they faced displacement during the post-earthquake rebuilding efforts. Sure, souvenir shops are jammed around the ornate Grant Street Gate, but tucked in along alleyways and between sprawling Chinese groceries, you’ll also find tiny herbalist stores owned by the same families for generations, refined tea shops like Red Blossom Tea Company, and such buzzy restaurants as Michelin-starred Mister Jiu’s and China Live. Dim sum should be on your menu: Dim Sum Bistro and City View are reliable spots, but really, anywhere that looks crowded will likely be a winner.