san francisco neighbourhood guide

The Castro

Concentrated on Castro Street from Market Street to 19th Street, The Castro is San Francisco’s gay village, and was the country’s first gay neighbourhood of any significance. In the 1950s, the area was a working-class neighbourhood of Irish and Italian immigrants. Beginning in the 1960s, the district began to attract gay men and women from across the country, and during the 1970s and ’80s the gay rights movement matured in the neighbourhood. In the 1970s The Castro rallied around Harvey Milk, who became the first openly-gay elected city official. He was fatally shot by a fellow supervisor in 1978.

The Castro still has a sizeable gay population — about 40 percent — and its streets are lined with shops, clubs, and restaurants that cater to the homosexual population. However, it is a popular spot for everyone, and is worth visiting for its friendly vibe and eclectic assortment of attractions.


Bordered by California Street on the south, Kearney Street on the east, Broadway on the north, and Powell Street on the west, San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the largest and most authentic in the world. Chinese first began immigrating to the city in the mid-nineteenth century to prospect for gold and to work on the railroads. The mostly-male population congregated in this district, and by the early-twentieth century the neighbourhood had spawned an underworld that was ruled by infamous tongs (gangs) that operated brothels and opium dens in the area’s alleys.

Today, new immigrants from China have replaced the integrated families who have left the district. Grant Avenue is lined with authentic souvenir shops, while Stockton Street has many crowded markets with live animals ready for the slaughter. Visitors can watch elders assemble in Portsmouth Square to play checkers and gamble.

Fisherman’s Wharf

Stretched along the north waterfront of the peninsula from Grant Avenue to Van Ness Avenue, Fisherman’s Wharf is a tourist-oriented mix of carnival attractions, chain restaurants, and souvenir stands. Nevertheless, it is one of the city’s liveliest districts that visitors should see at least once. The wharf was once a working waterfront, but after the Second World War seafood restaurants became more profitable than fishing and soon replaced the authentic industries.

The Wharf is comprised of ten blocks: Pier 39 at the east end is a faux-New England village, and the area’s most famous attraction — its sea lions — bask on the abandoned marina at Piers 39 and 41. The Wharf also has two collections of historic ships from the Second World War and the nineteenth century, as well as the city’s only bayfront beach at Aquatic Park, which also houses a Maritime Museum.

The Haight

The neighbourhood centred around Haight and Ashbury streets is synonymous with the youth culture of the 1960s. This once run-down neighbourhood hosted a famous drug and music culture that attracted figureheads of the hippie movement, including Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Ken Kesey. Today, the district’s beautiful Victorian homes often fetch prices of well over one million dollars, and while the anti-establishment idealism of the ’60s is still alive in the many former hippies who call the neighbourhood home, chain stores and ice cream parlours now line Haight Street. Still, visitors can experience the free-thinking and artistic flair of the neighbourhood in its many used record and vintage clothing stores and in its quirky cafes and restaurants.

The Mission

Scattered along Valencia, Mission, 16th, and 24th Streets, the Mission is a gritty and diverse district of the city with an unpredictable and vibrant energy. The Mission is San Francisco’s oldest settlement: the Mission Dolores, which is the area’s defining attraction, was consecrated only five days before American independence in 1776, and its permanent structure was one of the few large buildings to have survived San Francisco’s devastating earthquake of 1906. The district was once populated by working-class Irish and Italian families, but these were later replaced by the influx of Latino immigrants who first arrived in the city in the 1960s. Today, the Mission is alive with Latino culture, reflected in its many family-owned stores and eateries. It is also home to a thriving art culture, with many off-beat artists’ studios and experimental theatres in the neighbourhood, and the streets of the Mission are lined with public art and colourful murals.

North Beach

Variously known over the years as the city’s red light district, its Little Italy, and the Greenwich Village of the West Coast, North Beach defies any single definition. Bounded by Broadway, Grant Avenue, Chestnut, and Sansome Streets, North Beach is full of sidewalk cafés, bookstores, and bars and restaurants that support a vibrant food and nightlife scene.

The area used to be the northern shoreline of the peninsula before landfills extended it to its current location, and during the city’s embryonic days the area was the site of numerous bordellos and burlesque houses, earning it the nickname the ‘Barbary Coast’. Italian immigrants who soon congregated in the district injected their own culture into its streets and built many churches and monuments, including the impressive Church of Sts. Peter and Paul. During the 1950s, the neighbourhood became a refuge for struggling artists, including members of the Beat Generation. Centred around Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore (still in operation on Columbus Avenue), the district became the nexus of the ‘San Francisco Renaissance’ that created a tide of poetry and jazz music.

North Beach is also the site of Telegraph Hill, on top of which is perched Coit Tower — a magnificent, 210-foot, fire nozzle-shaped tower that overlooks the rest of the city like a sentinel and whose observation deck has the best views of the Bay Area.