The Mission: An Intersection of Latino & Hipster Culture, with Amazing Eats

Start: 24th and Alabama streets

Public Transportation: Bus no. 12, 27, 48 BART to 24th Street

Finish: Mission and 17th streets

Time: 2 hours

Best Times: Afternoons

Worst Times: Nighttime

Hills That Could Kill: None

Once known as “the Mission Lands,” referring to the land surrounding Mission San Francisco de Asís, this warm, sunny neighborhood was originally home to the Yelamu Indians of the Ohlone Nation, until the arrival of the Spanish missionaries. After the Gold Rush of the late 1800s, the area became home to a variety of immigrants, primarily of German, Irish, and Italian descent. Beginning in the 1940s, the Mexican immigrant population grew here as they were displaced from their old neighborhood by the construction of the western base of the Bay Bridge. Since the 1970s, the urban-industrial area has been best known for its colorful Latino culture. But starting around the first dot-com boom of the late 1990s, the gritty area has seen dramatic change again, with Latino culture increasingly giving way to hipsters who have commandeered the houses, apartments, storefronts, and even its plethora of late-night taco joints (some of which are the best north of Mexico). Now, colorful produce markets, taquerias, and dollar stores stand alongside hipper-than-hip bars, chic boutiques, trendy restaurants, and artisanal coffee houses. In fact, come at night and long stretches of the area feel more like Manhattan’s West Village than anything else in San Francisco. If you like your culture and history served with a dash of eccentricity, this stroll is for you!

Start at 24th and Alabama streets, the heart of the Mission’s Latino neighborhood. On the northwest corner, you’ll find:

1. Taqueria El Farolito

There’s much debate on which local Mexican joint serves the best burrito (San Franciscans’ unofficial favorite food), but this veteran joint always makes the handful of top picks. El Farolito (“little lighthouse”) is a local institution that has perfected this beloved local delicacy, according to Business Week, Bon Appétit, and residents at large. Taste for yourself and you’ll see there’s nothing quite like their gargantuan logs of savory meat, spicy rice, and tangy salsa wrapped in a large tortilla—giant all-in-one meals which some say were first created to feed hungry firefighters. If you’re not hungry enough to down a full burrito, a fantastic taco or two will give you the fuel you need to get the most out of your adventures. 

Cross the street and walk half a block west toward Harrison Street to:

2. Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center

This community-based organization, established in 1977, is awash with bright-colored local art. Besides running mural workshops and children’s art classes, it organizes guided mural walks. Pick up a souvenir mural postcard or poster at the store and prepare to see the real thing!

Continue west past Harrison Street and turn left down Balmy Alley.

3. Balmy Alley Murals
One of the things that makes the Mission District so colorful—literally and figuratively—is its street art and hundreds of murals. Some of the area’s oldest murals are along Balmy Alley, a block-long corridor between Harrison and Folsom streets. The murals started in the ‘80s, as a response to political and social abuses happening in Central America, and many more have appeared in recent years, addressing the influx of “techies” driving rents up and longtime locals out. See if you can spot the references to several internet giants, as well as a certain ubiquitous coffee chain. It’s actually quite heartbreaking.

Return to 24th Street and continue walking west, crossing Mission Street, to 3329 24th St.

4. La Mejor Bakery

If you haven’t already visited one of the many Mexican bakeries lining 24th Street, pop into this one for a quick bite of authentic Mexican pastry goodness. A cream-filled horn, a wedding cookie, or any of their freshly baked rolls and turnovers will sustain you on your journey. Prices are very reasonable, but be sure to bring cash. 

Continue west on 24th Street until you get to Valencia Street. Turn right on Valencia to start your stroll.

5. Valencia Street

As you’ll see, Valencia is the area’s hipster hub. Wander in and out of funky, vintage clothing and housewares stores or stop into one of the lively bars if you need a people-watching break. I love Wonderland (1266 Valencia St.); it sells art, clothing, and trinkets made by Bay Area artists, and the quirky T-shirt selection has something for everyone. 

Continue to walk north on the west side of the street until you come to: 

6. 826 Valencia

Yes, you have indeed entered a pirate supply store! While it is packed with nautical knickknacks, it’s much more than a captivating store. Author Dave Eggers (perhaps best known for his screenplays and his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) started this writing center to help local students with their reading and writing skills. Because of zoning issues, the space needs to operate as a store, which makes for an imaginative setting for the tutoring and classes that take place daily in the back. Check the pamphlets at the front for upcoming readings and meet-ups for the city’s bohemian, literary set.

Your next destination is just a few steps away at 824 Valencia.

7. Paxton Gate

If you’re put off by taxidermied animal heads and other formerly living parts, you might want to skip this stop, but it wouldn’t be the Mission without eccentricities to marvel at, and this is a prime example. Oddities inspired by science, taxidermy, and plants fill this mind-bending boutique.

Continue down Valencia Street 1 more block and turn left on 18th Street. On the south side of the street (but the view is better from the north, so you may want to cross), between Valencia Street and Guerrero Street, you’ll see:

8. The Maestrapeace Mural on the Women’s Building

San Francisco has a ton of street art, but this mural is one of the city’s largest and most colorful, spanning two sides of the Women’s Building. Painted in 1994 (and completely cleaned and restored in 2012), the mural is the work of a multigenerational and multicultural group of seven female artists. Paying homage to women everywhere, the vibrant painting portrays such female icons as Georgia O’Keeffe, Audre Lorde, Quan Yi, Yemeyah, and Coyolxauhqui. Inside the building, you can buy postcards and shirts inspired by the wall.

18th Street boasts one of the hottest food scenes in the city. On just 1 block, between Guerrero and Dolores streets, you’ll find some great noshing opportunities, including:

9. Tartine

This bakery is a San Francisco (and world!) favorite and it has the lines to prove it. People queue around the block to taste the award-winning cakes, tarts, croissants, and sandwiches. Pastry chefs and married couple Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt are at the helm of this beloved establishment, earning themselves the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef. If you can stand the wait, you’ll be rewarded with not only delicious baked goods, but also bragging rights that you’ve tasted what some consider the best bread in the world. Tip: Lines are considerably shorter weekdays before noon.

If it’s a full meal you’re after, stop in next door at:

10. Delfina & Pizzeria Delfina

One of San Francisco’s most famous restaurants, hip and relaxed Delfina is the place to go for James Beard Award–winning Italian fare served San Francisco–style (by a polished, professional hipster staff in industrial-chic environs). Run by chef Craig Stoll and his wife, Annie, who is one of the best front-of-house managers around, it has a neighboring pizzeria, which inspired three other locations serving upscale thin-crust pizzas and other deliciously simple provisions.

If the wait is too long at Delfina or you’re hoping to enjoy a meal alfresco (there’s a great picnicking destination in just two stops), head into Bi-Rite Market half a block away.

11. Bi-Rite Market

While this little grocery store is no bigger than most corner stores, meandering through its crowded aisles is like getting a crash course in the bounty that Northern California has to offer. Everything is locally sourced, from the fancy cheese and cured meats to the colorful selection of fruits, veggies, and fresh flowers. There’s also a wide selection of prepared food, made fresh daily. Expect to spend a pretty penny here on groceries (a chocolate bar can go for upwards of $10), but if you’re a serious foodie, this shop is a worthy stop.

If it’s ice cream you crave, cross 18th Street to:

12. Bi-Rite Creamery

If the sidewalk looks crowded, it’s not because a pop star’s in town—that’s just the line for the world-famous ice cream stand on the corner of 18th and Dolores streets. The legendary creamery makes small batches of delicious soft-serve and regular ice cream in unique flavors, such as balsamic strawberry, salted caramel, and honey lavender. Prepare to share in order to sample as many as you can, or splurge on one of the creative sundaes.

Now that you’ve had your fill, you might need to take a load off. On the corner of 18th and Dolores streets you’ll find one of the entrances to San Francisco’s popular:

13. Dolores Park

If San Francisco was a high school, Dolores Park would be the cafeteria—who you are largely dictates where you hang out. It’s sort of like a microcosm of the city’s young people, making for an entertaining scene. In the Southwest corner, you have what’s affectionately referred to as “Gay Beach,” where ripped, topless men congregate until the last rays of sun dip behind the hills to the west. As the park slopes down, the families of Noe Valley bring their strollers to the playground. And as you move North, the scene gets younger and rowdier, with spontaneous DJ parties, boozy lawn games, and even costumed theme parties—there’s always an occasion in San Francisco!

If you want to take in great views of the city skyline and enjoy a rest, head to the Southwest corner at Church and 22nd streets. Otherwise turn right and walk on the west side of palm tree–lined Dolores Street until you come to:

14. Mission San Francisco de Asís

The white building next to the cathedral is the city’s oldest structure, dating back to 1791, and is one of few structures not destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. The mission offers a rare glimpse into the origins of the city, and the troubled colonial history of California in general. Take a self-guided tour, starting with the chapel and the small exhibit room. Be sure to take some time wandering through the cemetery, where scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo were filmed. Of course, you exit through the gift shop, but it’s practically a museum in its own right.

Walk east down 16th Street where bars and tiny, expensive boutiques reign supreme (see the Nightlife chapter and Shopping chapter for recommendations in the area). Continue east on 16th Street until you return to Valencia Street and turn right. Walk 1 1/2 blocks on the east side of the street to come to:

15. Clarion Alley

Clarion Alley, bounded by Mission and Valencia streets and 17th and 18th streets, is more art-filled even than Balmy Alley. However, more than Balmy, this alley can be sketchy at times, so trust your gut and don’t enter alone if there doesn’t appear to be anyone else taking in the art. Most of the alleyway is indeed covered in art, thanks to the Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP), which was established in 1992. The group has worked with a diverse number of artists—from folk art painters to impressionists to graffiti artists—to transform the street into a gallery. Many of the masterpieces contain activist messages that speak to the area’s extensive history as a center of social consciousness.

Now that you’ve got a feel for the neighborhood, surely there are some places you want to revisit. You can do that, or hop on the subway at the underground metro and BART stations at 16th and Mission streets to get you downtown or anywhere else you’d like to go.

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.