While the actual “square” is a single block, bordered by Powell, Post, Stockton, and Geary streets, the name also refers to the immediate neighborhood, so a “Union Square hotel” may be a few blocks away from the square itself. The draw to this area is multifold: As the heart of bustling downtown San Francisco, it boasts the city’s largest number of hotels and the highest concentration of department stores and boutiques. It’s also convenient to a lot of interesting neighborhoods, including SoMa, Chinatown, and North Beach (as well as Fisherman’s Wharf and the less-intriguing, workaday Financial District). While most of the area’s restaurants aren’t exciting enough to lure locals, they are in abundance. One undesirable factor that comes with a downtown stay is exposure to a lot of homeless people lingering outside shops, asking for change, and perhaps muttering to themselves or doing hard drugs. That’s a saddening factor of urban life, but these people tend to be harmless.
Topping out at 376 feet, Nob Hill is the tallest hill in downtown San Francisco, surpassing Telegraph and Russian hills by nearly 100 feet. Railroad and mining barons began to build their mansions on the hill in the late 1870s, and the area has been posh ever since. A few very steep blocks away from Union Square, it’s also where most of the city’s finer veteran hotels are perched.
SoMa, which stands for South of Market, starts only a few blocks away from Union Square, stretches for several long blocks toward the Mission District, and gives way to what is now called South Beach, the newest happening area located just north of Third Street toward the bay. Both areas offer an eclectic mix of lodgings, from some of the highest thread counts in the city to budget motels. Hotels are generally located near the Moscone convention center, the Museum of Modern Art, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and AT&T Park.
North Beach/Fisherman's Wharf
The birthplace of the Beat Generation, North Beach is where Little Italy meets and mixes with neighboring Chinatown. You’ll find an energetic mix of authentic Italian trattorias, bakeries, and delicatessens on one side, and bars, historic bookstores, and topless clubs (mostly on one block, at the northern edge of the area) on the other. It also borders the busy Fisherman’s Wharf area, with all its kitschy-fun “attractions” and activities.
The Marina/Pacific Heights/Presidio
The Marina is an upscale, lively neighborhood full of young residents, Victorian houses, apartments, and some jaw-dropping luxury homes facing the Marina and bay. Unlike the neighborhood’s residences, many of its visitor accommodations are 1950-and-later motor inns that have been updated for the modern traveler. Up on the hill, Pacific Heights boasts old-money mansions (such as those belonging to the Gettys and Danielle Steel), quiet streets, and outrageous views. And for the nature-lover, the Presidio will make you forget that you’re just minutes from the urban hustle.
Japantown & Environs
Whether you’re drawn to the area for its Japanese culture and eateries or its relative peace and quiet compared to other parts of the city, the 6-block area that comprises Japantown and its neighboring community offer a very different kind of experience that is still very San Francisco. With Japan Center in the middle and the high-end shopping street of upper Fillmore to the north, there’s plenty of shopping, sightseeing, and eating to be had—all within walking distance. And if you stay in April, you may be lucky enough to take in the sights, sounds, and culture of the week-long Cherry Blossom Festival.
This area is another one of those locations where you get more bang for your buck. However, the area has a large and very visible homeless population, as well as drug addicts and dealers, and you can expect to weave your way past them if you walk the neighborhood, especially if you meander down Market Street between 6th and 10th streets. But, like everywhere else in the city, the area is rapidly becoming gentrified, and these denizens are used to tourists and tend to go about their business. Plus, with the Asian Art Museum, the opera, ballet, symphony, SFJAZZ venue, Hayes Valley shopping, and lots of restaurants and bars all close by, you’ll rarely find yourself alone.
Most businesses here cater to LGBTQ customers, but everyone is welcome in this lively neighborhood. Though located a few miles from most of the traditional tourist action, the Castro is centrally located for visiting the more hip neighborhoods, such as the Mission and Hayes Valley, and public transportation makes for an easy ride straight to the tourist-centric meccas of Union Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Ferry Building. Another perk of this area is that while most of the city is blanketed in fog, chances are it’ll be sunny and warm(er) in this colorful, walkable neighborhood filled with some of the city’s nicer (and well-maintained) Victorian and Edwardian homes. And if you need anything at all, visit Cliff’s Variety (479 Castro St.; cliffsvariety.com), a treasure trove of a variety store that manages to be both silly and practical, selling everything from office supplies to hardware to unicorn snot.
San Francisco’s summers of love are long gone, but open-minded folks wanting to escape the tourist scene and embrace eccentricity will dig the Haight. With Golden Gate Park right next door, an eclectic selection of tasty eateries, and unique and unusual shopping options (Fluevog fans—you know who you are—will make a beeline to John Fluevog Shoes at 1697 Haight Street; fluevog.com), this is yet another neighborhood in which to lose oneself.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.