The VICE Guide to San Francisco: Neighborhoods We Haven't Given Up On
Not every 'hood in SF is an overpriced wasteland filled with tech tools.
All photos Marko Knezevic
It's hard to keep track of neighborhoods when you're in San Francisco. The city is tiny (seven miles by seven miles, 7x7), but hungry realtors keep cutting it up into more and more micro-neighborhoods. (Oh, you thought you lived in Western Addition? Nope! It's NoPa now.) So don't be surprised if you take a turn and are suddenly in a part of town that has a name or a vibe that didn't exist just a few short years ago. Of course, you likely won't know either way.
If you believe the hype, San Francisco has turned into a tech haven filled with Google Glass–wearing millennials who fancy themselves innovators. And in the wrong neighborhood, you might overhear a conversation or two about seed funding and "Uber, but for small talk." But many special places remain if you look hard enough. The thing to remember when you're visiting is this: San Francisco, stripped away of all the artisanal bullshit, is a view city and nature city. We have tall hills, giant parks, and beaches. It's not LA, so pack a jacket, but don't let 55 degrees be an excuse to stay inside.
These are the San Fran neighborhoods we haven't given up on.
You might think of Haight Street as a must-see spot, the window into the Summer of Love and acid and Jerry and Manson and Janis! And it's true that you can see a crowded drum circle on Hippy Hill, shop at overpriced boutiques cashing in on the history, or even at the new Whole Foods that just opened! But then again, you can also not do any of that. Instead, go a few blocks east to the neighborhood of Lower Haight and get a drink at one of the beer-centric, slightly motorcycle punky bars that set the tone for the neighborhood. Molotov's was the site of the famous Google Glass incident, so don't wear your pair in there. Down the street, Toronado is a lively dive bar with an amazing selection on tap. And next door, Rosamunde has the best sausages in the city. Eat one there, or pick up some to go and walk to Duboce Park or Alamo Square Park (right next to the Painted Ladies/the Full House houses).
The Mission is tricky for San Francisco natives. The district is ground zero of gentrification in the city—the traditionally Latino neighborhood hosted first punks and artists, which then led to yuppies, and finally to techies, who have priced out many of the Latino families and artists that made the neighborhood desirable in the first place. But, even as much of the culture is being forced out, the Mission still has the city's best food, bars, and our only pirate supply store. Grab a burrito (at Taqueria Cancún or El Farlito), and bring it to Dolores Park to eat and people watch at the perma-crowded grassy hangout. There are more cops patrolling than there used to be, but you can usually still brown-bag a beer, and you'll almost definitely be offered some sort of baked edible. If you need a pickup, grab a drink at Four Barrel Coffee, and go roaming through 826 Valencia, Dave Eggers's amazing pirate supply store and tutoring center. For daytime boozing, go hangout in Zeitgeist's giant backyard patio.
Keep your eyes open while you walk around—the Mission is covered with incredible murals (make sure to see the one covering the Women's Building on 18th Street). Also, check out the Galería de la Raza on 24th Street and Bryant, which always has a free exhibition and hosts a bunch of events. People will tell you the Mission ain't what it used to be, and it's not, but it's still a highlight of the city. And hopefully, somehow, it will stay that way.
Potrero Hill, with its incredible bay views and constant sun, has a nice small town feel if that's your thing. Down the hill, in Dogpatch, the old industrial neighborhood has transformed into a home for hip cafes and design-centric bars and restaurants (an example of the transformation: "Toxic Beach" has been cleaned and redubbed "Water Cove Park"). Still, the best places in the neighborhood are the oldest. Plan ahead, and try to reserve a spot on the Anchor Steam Brewery Tour. For $20 with a reservation, you'll get a history lesson at the hundred-year-old brewery and then get to hang out and drink a bunch of beer in the tasting room. You should be able to find the brewery because when the winds right, a lot of the neighborhood smells like hops and barley. If you can't get on the tour, check out the Ramp, an old school San Francisco bar that used to be a 1950s bait shop, with a patio right on the bay. It's kept some of the bait shop character and is much less pretentious than your average waterfront bar.
For a long time, the city's southwest district was sleepy and residential. There are large swaths that still are, but down by Ocean Beach, the foggy, frigid strip of dunes where the city touches the Pacific, a little restaurant and cafe scene has started to pop up. On Judah, check out Outerlands for fresh baked bread, homemade soups and sandwiches, and a great brunch. Right next door is Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club, famous for espresso drinks and cinnamon toast. And if you're willing to venture away from the beach, Quan Ngon has some of the best pho in the city. This neighborhood is usually coated with fog, but on the rare sunny day, it totally changes. The beach gets packed, and everyone's out there. Most days, though, you'll find a few surfers and some old hippies out by the freezing cold water.
The northwest neighborhood, which is separated from the Sunset by Golden Gate Park, is another district underrated because of lack of sun. This neighborhood has a younger feel than the Sunset due to the University of San Francisco kids that live here. Geary and Clement Streets are home to a ridiculous number of great Asian restaurants. Make sure to walk around the Inner Richmond (between Arguello Blvd. and Park Presidio Blvd.): Get a full meal for $2.50 at Good Luck Dim Sum, check out Green Apple Books, and then sink into the bizarro fantasy world of collector toys and incredible ice cream at Toy Boat Dessert Cafe. But also make sure to get down by the beach for some of San Francisco's most underrated nature spots. There are hikes all along Land's End, the cliffs that sit above the point where the Pacific takes a turn toward the bay. The views of the Golden Gate Bridge are amazing, and if you're so inclined, plan ahead and bring a joint and some lunch. If you're not in the hiking mood, but want some outdoor time, check out the ruins of Sutro Baths, a giant public pool built at the turn of the century, and don't miss Sutro Heights Park—Adolph Sutro's regal-looking property—and the Cliff House, which once housed the strangest, best old arcade (it was moved to Fisherman's Wharf), but still is a site to see.
South Mission/Bernal Heights
The southern part of the Mission District has been a bit slower to gentrify and has kept some of the flavor that Valencia Street has lost (it's still ridiculously expensive). El Rio is the best spot for an outdoor drink (and sometimes food in the smoker-friendly backyard), and Chicken John's Chez Poulet is a beautiful gallery space. Check and see if there are any events going on there (and try to poke your head in, though you might get chewed out, depending on the day Chicken John is having). If you go up the hill to Bernal Heights, the neighborhood completely changes (it's nicknamed Maternal Heights). Cortland Avenue is the main drag in Bernal, and Progressive Grounds is a good spot for coffee and working. Bernal Heights Park has an insane 360-degree view of the city.
San Francisco is a view city and a nature city. But in terms of block-by-block, street-level beauty, no neighborhood rivals North Beach. San Francisco's Little Italy, this hood is packed with amazing restaurants, cafes, and gelato spots. It also was home to the beatnik movement and the late 70s art punk scene in the city. At night it fills up with Wall Street tech bros ("The gold rush is on, bro!"), but during the day, it can feel like a time machine. Grab a coffee at Caffe Trieste (or just peek in to check out all the old photographs). Then make sure to go to City Lights Bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's legendary bookstore/beat poet clubhouse. By now, you've earned a drink—go to Vesuvio Cafe right across Jack Kerouac Alley.
SoMa, or South of Market, is a large neighborhood to the south of downtown. As tech has moved into the area, the once shady neighborhood has started to morph, though there are still some rough patches. The monthly Tech Dude Complaining About Poor People on Medium Post usually focuses on SoMa.
While you're walking around the area, make sure to pop into the Museum of the African Diaspora and see the Grace Jones Project exhibit. A little farther away from the water at the site of the Folsom Street Fair—the annual celebration of leather and fetish culture in the city—is Brainwash Cafe, a laundromat with food, strong coffee, and pinball machines.
The Giants put their stadium in SoMa, and the area around has built up with bars, restaurants, luxury apartments, and grocery stores. But, right on the water, a few blocks from AT&T Park, is Red's Java House, an old-school diner from the 1930s on Pier 30. Get a greasy-spoon burger on a sourdough roll and a Bloody Mary, and look at the incredible view of the Bay Bridge. This neighborhood is huge and changes block to block, but don't wander around here at night unless you know where you're going. And please don't write a Medium article complaining about it after your trip.
This neighborhood/national park was a military base until the mid 90s, and San Franciscans will be quick to tell you stories about getting hassled for smoking by the MPs. There are a few stores and restaurants starting to pop up (mainly down by the base of the Golden Gate Bridge), but really, this is a neighborhood to chill outside in. If it's not too windy, Crissy Field has barbecue pits and touches the bay (swim at your own peril—the water is kind of gross, but most people we know have swum there and they're OK!). Baker Beach is the city's best beach spot, but if it's hot out, get there early, because it will get completely packed. The Presidio opens up to the Marina right by Lucasfilm, but don't go to the Marina. It's pretty, and there are some fine restaurants and cafes, but it's overrun with the worst kind of bros. Make sure to get to the Mission or Lower Haight when it's time to drink.