San Francisco: A neighbourhood guide

By Amy Sherman, San Francisco-based writer

Photography by Scott Wilson / Alamy

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Whether you want to delve into the city’s history, shop till you drop, museum hop or take in a ball game, you’ll find it all in this local’s guide to four of San Francisco’s neighbourhoods.

Union Square

Union Square is the name of San Francisco’s central shopping, hotel, and theatre district. The square itself – which is named after the rallies supporting the Union Army during the Civil War – benefitted from millions of dollars of redevelopment spending in recent years and now incorporates a stage for live performance.  

Union Square is home to speakeasies such as Bourbon & Branch, a 1920s-style affair that nods to Prohibition-era America.


Housed in a listed building that dates from 1920, the Sir Francis Drake hotel is famous for its red-costumed Beefeater doormen. It oozes old world charm and elegance, with grand staircases, soaring gilded ceilings, marble walls, and crystal chandeliers. For cocktails, there’s a glamorous nightclub on the 21st floor, or experience a fun ‘drag brunch’ on Sundays.

  • Discover the inside track at London Underground themed bar, Whitechapel

    Let the evening be gin 

    Home to North America’s largest selection of gin, every third Thursday of the month sees the Whitechapel floors shaking with live performances from the Gin House Blues Band.

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  • Find your way to San Fran’s bustling Union Square © Getty

    Don’t be so square 

    The city’s department store hub, Union Square is home to some of America’s biggest brands, from Saks Fifth Avenue to Macy’s and Bloomingdales.

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  • Try a taste of Thai at the Michelin-starred Kin Khao

    Did you know…?

    Kin, meaning to eat, and khao, meaning rice, combines to form the invitational Thai phrase for ‘let’s eat’. 

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For sheer drama, you can’t beat the underwater fantasy dining experience at Farallon – think glass-blown floating jellyfish chandeliers, and octopus-inspired seating. Enjoy house-cured caviar during happy hour at the Jellyfish Bar, or dine on locally sourced and expertly prepared seafood in the main dining room. Meanwhile, Kin Khao is an outstanding Michelin-starred Thai restaurant, where everything is made from scratch, including the chilli and curry pastes used in its dishes – don’t miss the signature rabbit green curry.


Union Square is home to San Francisco’s most upscale department stores including Barneys, and the flagship Williams Sonoma. It’s also known for speakeasies, such as Bourbon & Branch, a 1920s-style affair which nods to Prohibition-era America. Take a bar tour to discover the area’s drinking spots, or head to Whitechapel, a gin palace that feels like some kind of steampunk Tube station.


Soma, or South of Market, is home to some of the city's best museums as well as the AT&T ballpark. It’s also a tech hub, with high-profile digital brands headquartered here.


Get the right room at the W Hotel and you’ll enjoy a glittering light show as the Bay Bridge art installation twinkles all night long; or simply chill out under the illuminated Buddha in your room. The hotel is always buzzing, often hosting events such as DJ sets in the lobby bar, mixology classes, speaker series and special dinners.

  • Catch a game at one of America’s best-loved baseball stadiums, the AT&T Park © Alamy

    Striking out 

    Sign up for a Go San Francisco Card and you can enjoy discount on an AT&T Park Tour, plus several other city attractions.

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In addition to its celebrated steaks, Bluestem Brasserie offers plenty of vegetable-centric options. Don't miss the indulgent Take Six! cake, with layers of red velvet, chocolate mousse, and tiramisu.


In Soma you’ll find the famed San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Thanks to a 2016 extension by architects Snøhetta, the space now offers 170,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor galleries tailored to the world-class collection. You’ll also find the largest living plant wall in the USA here. Meanwhile, sports fans should head to AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, an old-school style baseball field with stunning views of San Francisco Bay.


Also known as the financial district, the compact Downtown is brimming with skyscrapers, but it’s conveniently close to the Embarcadero, North Beach and Chinatown.

  • Immerse yourself in the world of modern art at the new SFMOMA © Iwan Baan.

    Wired up

    With a host of works on display through the SFMOMA, Alexander Calder’s early love of tinkering turned into a legacy of wire mobile sculptures and abstract kinetic art. 

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  • Take a voyage into the city’s maritime history with a tour of the Balclutha © Getty

    Docked and loaded 

    The majestic Balclutha ship, now docked at Hyde Street Pier, spent its lifetime transporting trade across the continents before earning National Historic Landmark status. 

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  • Relax in the sumptuous setting of the Loews Regency hotel

    Sky’s the limit

    The Lowes Regency Hotel occupies the top eleven floors of a 48-story tower in the heart of the Financial District, offering unparalleled views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.

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The Loews Regency occupies the top 11 floors of a 48-storey building and offers some of the most jaw-dropping views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito, Alcatraz and the Bay Bridge.


Tadich Grill, opened as a coffee stand in a tent in 1849, the year of the Gold Rush, and is a San Fran classic – try local dishes like Hangtown fry (an oyster and bacon frittata), sanddab, Dungeness crab and Shrimp Louie salad.


From Downtown it’s an easy walk to explore the Embarcadero, well known for the vast farmer’s market at the Ferry Building on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings. Bordering Downtown is North Beach, the city’s Italian neighbourhood – home to coffee culture and the City Lights bookstore, spiritual home of the Beat poets. In nearby Chinatown, you can explore traditional Chinese markets and one of two working fortune cookie factories where you can watch cookies being made.

Fisherman’s Wharf

Established as a fishing hub back in the 1800’s, the area is still popular with fishermen, but also tourists, thanks to a variety of attractions including Pier 39, Ghirardelli Square, and the Musée Mécanique.


The Argonaut is a luxurious boutique hotel with nautical touches. Inspired by the Greek legend and Gold Rush-era adventurers, it’s located in the historic Haslett Warehouse.


At Fort Mason you’ll find one of San Francisco’s top restaurants, the harbour-facing Greens. It has an inventive menu, with signature dishes like fire-roasted poblano chilli and mesquite-grilled brochettes. Scoma’s is a classic San Fran seafood restaurant offering ‘pier to plate’ dining, with food that’s local, seasonal and sustainable.


San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park includes a fleet of historic vessels, a visitor centre and a maritime museum. Nearby, you’ll find a lovely beach and the Hyde Street Pier. For contemporary dance, art installations, book sales and more, visit the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture. The venue also hosts the Off The Grid food truck event on Friday nights to March to October – the largest gathering of food trucks in the USA.