San Francisco is a world-class city with a population that's nothing if not worldly. Its global denizens comprise a confluence of cultures, a fact that's rooted in the city's complex history of import and immigration. To fully experience each ingredient in this exciting melting pot, you'll have to know where to go.
1. North Beach. In any other city, this would be called Little Italy, but its name here derives from a onetime beach that was, years ago, filled in to become San Francisco's extensive waterfront. North Beach's streets, though -- especially bustling Columbus Avenue -- are still lined with sidewalk trattorias and ristorantes at which patrons linger over fresh, fragrant pastas and sip perfectly concocted cappuccinos, often conversing in Italian. This neighborhood is and was home to Francis Ford Coppola (he owns Cafe Zoetrope and wrote the Godfather screenplay in Caffe Trieste) and the Beat writers of the 1950s, including Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who still owns City Lights Booksellers. The imposing cathedral, Sts. Peter and Paul Church, is where Joe DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe. www.sfnorthbeach.org.
2. Chinatown. You'll feel as though you've been transported to Asia upon seeing the crowded streets, colorful grocery stalls, myriad restaurants (think dim sum and seafood), teahouses, and temples. Don't miss the small fortune cookie factory on Ross Alley, where you can get your own message folded into the crispy goodness. Tip: To see the local Chinese community sans tourists, head to the Richmond District and its Clement Street; it's less scenic, but you'll get a more realistic view of Chinese culture in San Francisco. www.sanfranciscochinatown.com.
3. The Mission District. Named for Mission Dolores (founded in 1776), the Mission is influenced by Mexican culture, what with storytelling murals, a taqueria on almost every block, relevant political demonstrations, and events honoring Mexican holidays. There's also a simmering hipster movement here, which means that there are spots of artistic gentrification. www.missiondna.org and www.missiondolores.org.
4. The Castro. The heart of San Francisco's -- and perhaps the nation's -- gay culture, the Castro always feels celebratory with a party for almost any occasion, rainbow flags, and canoodling same-sex couples. Restaurants and bars are always lively, while stores display the latest in men's fashions, LGBT-friendly erotica, and unique home decor. Look for scenery depicting the neighborhood's Victorian homes and theatrical landmarks in the film Milk, about gay-rights political activism. www.castroonline.com.
5. Japantown. Japanophiles will delight in a visit to this neighborhood filled with stores selling hard-to-find Japanese items (kimonos, quirky toys, origami paper, and foodstuff), spas administering traditional Japanese therapies (try Kabuki Springs), and sake and karaoke bars. There's also a 160-foot-high pagoda, sushi restaurants, noodle shops, and the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. To get the full experience, stay in the manga-themed Hotel Tomo. www.sfjapantown.org.
6. The Fillmore District. Also called the Western Addition, this is the place to go to soak in San Francisco's African-American culture. The neighborhood has a strong emphasis on jazz and nightclubs where the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Duke Ellington once performed. Today, the big names play jazz and blues at the Fillmore, Yoshi's, the Boom Boom Room, and 1300 on Fillmore, which hosts a gospel brunch the first Sunday of each month. Aside from music, you'll find Afrocentric bookstores, barbershops, and soul food restaurants. www.fillmorestreetsf.com and www.fillmorejazzfestival.com.
7. Belden Place. In San Francisco's tiny French Quarter (it's essentially just a very charming alley), the culture is mostly conveyed through dining establishments -- bistros and cafes with delightfully accented waitstaff serving food that is très European -- and Bastille Day celebrations on July 14. www.belden-place.com.
8. Little Saigon. One of the city's newer cultural districts, these two blocks of Larkin Street (part of the Tenderloin) were only officially designated as Little Saigon in 2004. But the Vietnamese-owned shops, restaurants (try the pho at Turtle Tower), and other businesses have been here for years. If you're around in mid-January, check out the Tet Festival for the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. www.vietccsf.org.
9. On the bus. Yes, on the bus. The new 74X, that is. Called the CultureBus and operated by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, it stops at many of the city's important cultural institutions. In addition to other major museums, riders can disembark to see the new Contemporary Jewish Museum, the Asian Art Museum, the Museum of the African Diaspora, the GLBT Historical Society, the Japanese Tea Garden, and the Museum of Craft and Folk Art. $7 for adults; 5 for seniors, youth, and people with disabilities; free for children younger than 4. www.sfmta.org.