I left my heart in San Francisco, along with my overpriced apartment. I think that’s how the song goes, right?
In all seriousness, San Francisco – or SF as the locals call it (never say Frisco) – is one of the coolest cities in the world. I had the pleasure of living in the Bay Area for a couple years, and the city encapsulated my heart and soul.
There is a great food scene, amazing parks and nearby hikes on the weekends, and – despite major gentrification – so much character and history.
This is a city built by artists, outcasts, and hippies, though now shared with techies and engineers. It creates an interesting vibe, laidback nonetheless.
But there is no denying it’s also one of the most expensive places to visit in the world.
Don’t deter, however, as this guide will focus on where to stay in San Francisco, and covers plenty of free or cheap things to do in SF by neighborhood, like stroll along the beach overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, picnic in one of San Francisco’s many parks, and score some cheap bleacher seats to the Giants game; the list goes on!
And now, keep reading as we advise you on the best places to stay in San Francisco!
Table of Contents
- Quick Tips
- Where to Stay in San Francisco – Our 3 Favorite Lodges
- San Francisco Neighborhood Guide
- 5 Best Neighborhoods to Stay in San Francisco
- 1. Nob Hill and Union Square – Your First Time in San Francisco
- 2. South of Market (SoMa) – For San Francisco on a Budget
- 3. The Mission – The Best Nightlife in San Francisco
- 4. Haight-Ashbury – Coolest Place to Stay in San Francisco
- 5. Fisherman’s Wharf – Family-friendly San Francisco
- Where to stay in SF for first time – Nob Hill
- Where to stay in SF on a budget – South of Market (SoMa)
- Best area to stay in San Francisco for Nightlife – The Mission
- Coolest place to stay in San Francisco – Haight-Ashbury
- Best Neighbourhood in San Francisco for families – Fisherman’s Wharf
In a hurry? Here’s my top neighborhood for first timers:
- Sample gourmet delicacies from around the world at the Ferry Building
- See free summertime cultural performances at the square
- Discover quirky museums, like the Museum of Ice Cream and the Kiosk Museum
Where to Stay in San Francisco – Our 3 Favorite Lodges
Looking for a specific place to stay? We’ve listed our top picks for places to stay in San Francisco below!
Make sure to check out our post on the best hostels in San Francisco as well!
Best Hostel in San Francisco: USA Hostels San Francisco
Affordable, friendly, clean, and well equipped, USA Hostels San Francisco has four-bed mixed and female-only dorms as well as private rooms for two (both en-suite and with a shared bathroom). Dorm beds have privacy curtains, a power plug, and a light. Freebies include a city tour, breakfast, and Wi-Fi.
The fun and colourful game room has a pool table, foosball, games, and DVDs, and other common areas include a gleaming kitchen with multiple work spaces, the work-friendly lobby, a yoga space, and a reading nook with a large book exchange.
Best Hotel in San Francisco: The Willows Inn
A cost-effective hotel with private rooms and shared bathrooms, the common room at The Willows Inn helps to create a sociable and welcoming vibe. Located in the Castro neighbourhood, the hotel offers free Wi-Fi and a paid airport shuttle service. A delicious and filling breakfast is included in the price too.
Best Airbnb in San Francisco: Central loft – Walk to everywhere! Smart home!!
This stylish and beautiful apartment has two bedrooms, two full bathrooms, a modern kitchen, a dining area, and a comfy living room.
A sofa bed means the apartment can sleep up to six people. There’s free parking, though the apartment is within walking distance of many major sights and also close to public transport. It’s situated in trendy SoMa. The home has many innovative smart features.
Also, make sure to check out our Airbnb post for a 35% discount!
San Francisco Neighborhood Guide
Quick Summary: The Best Places to Stay in San Francisco
Nob Hill and Union Square
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South of Market
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San Francisco is a bustling city that is split into five main districts: Downtown/Central, Richmond (right of Golden Gate Park), Sunset (left of Golden Gate Park), Upper Market, and Bayview. Each district is further sub-divided into numerous neighbourhoods, some of which are pretty unique.
Below I’ve listed the best neighborhoods in San Francisco to visit.
Fisherman’s Wharf is an iconic pier. This is a fun area to go with kids, but it’s a bit of a tourist trap. Union Square is downtown, and where you’ll find large shopping stores and malls. It’s cool to visit during the holidays for ice skating. The Financial District is, as the name suggests, a thriving business area. It’s the only part of the city with skyscrapers.
Nob Hill neighborhood has more boutique shops and restaurants. It’s charming, and a must for anyone who wants to experience San Francisco’s glamorous side.
The Marina neighborhood is (rightly) stereotyped for its Lulu Lemon wearing yogis at Sunday brunch. That said, there is good shopping and eating here, and a post-college bar scene. It’s a great location though, near Fort Mason Park and the Marina by the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as the Palace of Fine Arts.
Arty and creative neighbourhoods include The Mission – the Hispanic neighborhood fully on its way to gentrification – Lower Haight, Hayes Valley, and Castro. The Castro is the heart of San Francisco’s LGBT community and Haight-Ashbury was where the hippie movement was born. It’s also home to the best vintage and record shops.
South of Market (SoMa) is trendy and hip. Many warehouses have been turned into breweries and clubbing venues, and it’s also where the San Francisco Giants call home.
Bernal Heights, Hayes Valley, and Cole Valley are low key with a community and family-friendly vibe. You can find some pretty great restaurants and bars here though.
Dogpatch has many cool places housed in old factories and warehouses.
Richmond is ideal for nature lovers as you are close to Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, and Baker’s Beach.
Sunset is as well since it’s on the other side of Golden Gate Park. Outer Sunset has a bit of a surfer vibe with Ocean Beach at their door step. Just bring your extra thick suit! Both of these neighborhoods are more affordable places to live in SF. (Well, as affordable as affordable goes in SF.) Moreover, Sunset and Richmond are the best place for those visiting with a car, since parking is a bit more abundant, along with the Presidio.
Alamo Square boasts beautiful Victorian architecture and great skyline views. (Think, the Full House houses!)
Belden Place was historically the French Quarter of San Francisco. Chinatown (home to the biggest community of Chinese people outside of Asia), Little Saigon, and Japantown offer a taste of Asia in SF. Other neighbourhoods with a strong multicultural feel include Little Russia, and North Beach with its large Italian community.
Clarendon Heights, Balboa Hollow, Balboa Terrace, Forest Knolls, Vista del Mar, Jackson Square, Lakeshore, Lakeside, and Westwood Highlands are mainly residential areas. Particularly affluent neighbourhoods include Ingleside Terraces, Noe Valley, and Presidio Heights.
Tenderloin and Civic Center have something of unsavoury reputations— but some of the better clubs are situated here. Best not to wander around at night, however.
There are many more San Francisco neighbourhoods to discover—make sure you allow plenty of time in this buzzing city!
5 Best Neighborhoods to Stay in San Francisco
The best area to stay in San Francisco, and where to hang out are two entirely different conversations. I personally love hanging out in the neighborhoods on the outskirts: Castro, Cole’s Valley, Richmond, etc., but there aren’t very many accommodation options, here!
Many of the best hotels and hostels are going to be downtown. Luckily, this means your pretty central and convenient.
It’s easy to move between the different San Francisco areas using public transport once you get the hang of it, although many locals use Uber and Lyft. San Francisco isn’t an enormous city, however, so it’s possible to walk between many major attractions are within walking distance of each other.
Below are the top 5 are best neighborhoods to stay in San Francisco.
I was deciding between these two neighborhoods in San Francisco for first-time visitors, and just decided to include both. They are right next to each other, and equally great areas in San Francisco for first-timers, but they have completely different atmospheres.
Union Square is central, and has a wide variety of options for accommodation, eating, and drinking. Most hotels are around Union Square. It’s especially nice during the holidays when the ice skating rink and Christmas tree are on display. Plus, it’s easy to get to other parts of the city here, with BART and the bus system.
That said, it can be a bit generic. This is where you’ll find the same department stores you can find in any city. Union Square doesn’t have the San Francisco character you will find in other neighborhoods.
Nob Hill is also central, and Lower Nob Hill ios right next to Union Square. It’s one of the most affluent areas of San Francisco, and while that drives prices up, it’s also charming, hilly, and aestically pleasing. You also have Russian Hill and North Beach at your doorstep, also charming neighborhoods with a similar atmosphere.
Here, you’ll find iconic views, including San Francisco’s most “crookedest street,” Lombard Street. There are plenty of boutique shops and restaurants in Nob Hill too, and Polk Street is lined with a variety of bars.
Top Things to do in Union Square
– Shop till you drop in big-name stores like Neiman Marcus and Macys and treat yourself at one of Maiden Lane’s boutiques.
– Sample gourmet delicacies from around the world at the Ferry Building.
– Admire the striking Frank Lloyd Wright Building.
– See free summertime cultural performances at the square.
– Ride the historic cable cars and watch as people turn the cars by hand at the Cable Car Turn Around on Market Street and Powell Street.
– Discover quirky museums, like the Museum of Ice Cream and the Kiosk Museum.
– Snap a picture of the Dewey Monument and take a selfie with the hand-painted hearts in Union Square Park.
– See historic pre-earthquake architecture at The Flood Building and The Westin St. Francis Hotel.
Best Hostel in Union Square: HI San Francisco Downtown
Join free or cheap tours and activities, start each day with a free breakfast, and surf the free Wi-Fi. There’s a fully equipped kitchen and a comfy common room complete with a book exchange and games. Other perks include laundry facilities, lockers, and 24-hour security, and there are both mixed and single-gender dorms.
Best Hotel in Union Square: Hotel Nikko San Francisco
The modern four-star Hotel Nikko San Francisco is just a five-minute stroll from Union Square. There are various room types, each with an en-suite marble bathroom with a deep-soaking tub, a sofa, a TV, a phone, a safe, and a fridge. The hotel has a fitness centre, an indoor swimming pool, a seafood restaurant, and a lovely rooftop terrace.
Best Airbnb in Nob Hill: The Sutter Apartment Front
This modern, newly furnished, 2 bedroom in-law unit is located in the heart of San Francisco. You are walking distance to Union Square, the Financial District, China Town, Polk St, and Little Italy (North Beach).
The apartment features plenty of sunlight, a tea and coffee setup and complimentary snacks. You also have access to the Rooftop Deck (public space) to enjoy iconic views of San Francisco!
SoMa is one of the best places to stay in San Francisco on a budget. That said, you can find apartments in Richmond, Sunset, and other outskirt neighborhoods as well! SoMa, however, has more hotel and hostel options.
South of Market, usually abbreviated to SoMa, is a hip and happening neighbourhood close to Union Square. The area has been through its fair share of ups and downs but is flourishing today.
Trendy and diverse, the large neighbourhood is home to a variety of attractions and leisure options. It is also one of the cheapest places to stay in San Francisco.
Top Things to do in SoMa
– Cheer for your favourite baseball team at AT&T Park.
– Sink a few bears at ThirstyBear Brewing Company or 21st Amendment.
– Spend a night hopping between SoMa’s cool bars and clubs, party for 30 hours straight at The EndUp, and enjoy live music at Mezzanine.
– Visit San Francisco Railway Museum, the Museum of African Diaspora, the Cartoon Art Museum, and the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
– Climb to the top of the Revelations Waterfall in Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Gardens for great views over SoMa.
– Admire local and international art at 111 Minna.
– Snap a picture of the historic St. Patrick’s Church.
– Take younger members of the family to the Children’s Creativity Museum.
– Hunt for literary treasures at Thomas A. Goldwasser Rare Books.
– Eat your heart out at the many inventive and innovative restaurants around SoMa.
– Wander around the newly formed LGBTQ and Leather Cultural District.
– Watch a show at small theatres like the Boxcar Theater, The Garage, and the Crowded Fire Theater, and catch a screening at Ninth Street Independent Film Center.
Although hostels are a bit thin on the ground in SoMa, you can still enjoy the area with a stay in a cool Airbnb or a hotel.
Best Hotels in South of Market (SoMa): Americania Hotel
The pet- and family-friendly Americania Hotel has rooms that can sleep between two and six guests. Each room has a private bathroom, a TV, Wi-Fi, an iPod docking station, and a safe.
This is a fab place for leisure, the hotel has an outdoor pool and sundeck, a gym, and a classic burger joint that sells traditional American fare.
Best Airbnbs in South of Market (SoMa):
Sleeping up to three guests in a double bed and on the sofa, this apartment has a modern kitchen and bathroom. There’s a resident cat to keep you company too! A desk, TV, Wi-Fi, washer, and dryer add to the convenience.
This private loft room has a queen-sized bed and can sleep two people. You’ll share the bathroom and kitchen. Breakfast is provided.
There’s plenty of storage space and access to laundry facilities if required. The owners are on hand most days, working from home, ready to give you tips and tricks to have a terrific stay in San Francisco.
If you’re more into swanky clubs, SoMa may suit you more, and those who love sitting in classy cocktail bars will be right at home around Union Square.
If, however, your idea of an ideal night out is getting right into the local scene, hopping between cheap and cheerful dive bars, hitting up live music joints, and enjoying an eclectic and fresh vibe, The Mission is one of the best neighborhoods in San Francisco to stay in for nightlife.
Even during the day, Delores Park can be quite a party on a Saturday afternoon. Many locals bring their booze and goodies and set up with some music. Pretty much anything goes at Delores Park.
This neighborhood is traditionally the Hispanic Neighborhood, though like much of the Bay Area, it’s experiencing its share of gentrification. Still, the Mission is where you will find the best Mexican and Central American food in San Francisco.
Top Things to do in The Mission
– Shoot some pool at Bender’s Bar and Grill or Shotwells.
– Rock the tunes on the jukebox at The 500.
– Pay a visit to San Francisco’s oldest building: Mision San Francisco de Asis, AKA Mission Dolores.
– Hang out on a sunny afternoon in Delores Park. Bring your food and drink!
– Sample delicious latin dishes in one of the best neighborhoods in San Francisco for foodies.
– Pick up some bargains at the many thrift and vintage stores.
– Admire the eye-catching murals and street art.
– View the collections at art galleries like Galeria de la Raza, City Art, and Southern Exposure.
– Catch a film at the Roxie Theatre and its far-out next-door neighbour, the Little Roxie.
– Perfect your swing at Urban Putt, a quirky themed indoor minigolf course housed in a Victorian mortuary.
– Get into the groove and start nights out at Public Works.
– Browse unusual goods and curiosities at Paxton Gate.
Best Hostel in The Mission: Union Hotel
A budget-friendly accommodation with private double and single rooms, Union Hotel is a friendly base in The Mission.
Built in a European style, the no-frills hotel has a tour desk, luggage storage, and free Wi-Fi. Rooms share bathrooms, though each room does have a hand basin. Rooms also have a TV. It’s better suited to people who plan to be out and about exploring San Francisco for most of the day and just want a comfy and safe place to crash.
Best Hotel in The Mission: Inn San Francisco
In the heart of The Mission, Inn San Francisco has double, queen, and family rooms, some with spa baths and some with terraces. All rooms have a private bathroom.
Other room facilities include a TV, Wi-Fi, hairdryer, fridge, and wardrobe. Take a stroll through the garden, soak in the hot tub, unwind in the lounge, and have fun in the games room. A buffet breakfast is included in the room price.
Best Airbnb in The Mission: Charming Garden Studio Dolores Park
This compact studio is a quiet and peaceful place to stay close to all the fun and frenzy of The Mission.
There’s a queen-sized bed, a desk, TV, and modern bathroom, and the room has basic self-catering facilities, such as a kettle, fridge, and microwave. The large glass doors let plenty of light inside and the room opens up onto a lush and leafy garden.
Although many of the hippies have long moved on from Haight-Ashbury, it’s still one of San Francisco’s coolest neighbourhoods. Freedom, peace, and free love can still be felt, and the area attracts people from varied subcultures to bring plenty of flavour to the streets.
From alternative and punk to hip, hipster, and hippie, almost anything goes in Haight-Ashbury. The neighbourhood has plenty of local vibes and quirky places to discover, and there are charming old Victorian-era buildings that are now home to colourful and modern enterprises.
This is also the best neighborhood for vintage shopping! You are also an arm’s throw from the Castro, another alternative neighborhood and the center for the LBGTQ+ community in SF.
Top Things to do in Haight-Ashbury
– See where the Summer of Love began at the corner of Haight and Ashbury and snap a selfie in front of the street signs.
– Stand outside the home where the band the Grateful Dead lived in the 1960s: 710 Ashbury Street.
– Enjoy delicious pizza and live jazz music at Club Deluxe.
– Add to your vinyl collection at Amoeba Music.
– Unwind in the hill-top Buena Vista Park, the oldest park in San Francisco, and enjoy the great views.
– Pick up a good book at the olde-worlde store, The Booksmith.
– Browse in up-market vintage shops and second-hand stores.
– Experience flower power at the Peace Arts Center.
– Choose from more than 150 beers at Mad Dog in the Fog.
– Admire the Victorian buildings and street art.
– Ride the Magic Bus to travel back in time to the Swinging Sixties.
– Join the Haunted Haight night tour for a spooky sensation.
– Grab a quick lunch on the go at Haight Street Market.
– Try a range of holistic healing and alternative therapies, including yoga, Reiki, and massage, at Sacred Space Healing Center.
– Feast on veggie- and vegan-friendly ethnic dishes in various cool restaurants and cafes.
Where to Stay in Haight-Ashbury
Haight-Ashbury may not have a vibrant hostelling scene, but that’s perhaps the only things that this eclectic neighbourhood is lacking. Check into a hotel or Airbnb instead.
Best Hotel in Haight-Ashbury: Stanyan Park Hotel
A romantic hotel with lashings of olde-worlde charm and luxurious rooms, the Stanyan Park Hotel is a top hotel in Haight-Ashbury.
There are en-suite rooms and suites that have kitchenettes and can sleep up to six. Staying during the week? Enjoy wine and cheese and evening tea. There’s a shared TV lounge, though all rooms also have a TV if you want a more intimate evening.
Best Airbnbs in Haight-Ashbury:
This stylish two-bed studio can sleep three people. The separate bedroom has a queen-sized bed and there’s a sofa bed in the cosy living room. You’ll also find a well-equipped kitchen for complete convenience.
This two-bed apartment is ideal for a couple, small family, or four close friends. There’s a kitchen and a yard and the apartment comes with a washing machine, a TV, and Wi-Fi.
One of San Francisco’s most famous tourist areas, Fisherman’s Wharf is an ideal neighbourhood for families, especially those with younger children.
Stay close to a bundle of fun attractions and activities. Here you can take a stroll on the pier, check out the local sea lions, watch street performers perform magic and break dancing moves, and visit the Musée Mécanique to play historic arcade games. This is also where you can board a ferry to Alcatraz Island – just make sure to book tickets in advance! – and visit Saulcilito across the bay.
Plus, this area has fresh seafood available almost right on your doorstep.
Top Things to do in Fisherman’s Wharf
– Watch the sea lions basking in the sunshine at the Sea Lion Center.
– Discover the underwater world at the Aquarium of the Bay.
– Play historic games at the Musée Mécanique.
– Feel shivers down your spine at the eerie San Francisco Dungeon.
– See your favourite stars immortalised in wax at Madame Tussauds.
– Learn more about San Francisco’s seafaring heritage at the Maritime Museum.
– Descend into the depths of an original WWII submarine at USS Pampanito.
– Board the historic Liberty Ship, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien.
– Sink your teeth into freshly caught mussels, clam chowder, and crab.
– Take a trip to the infamous Alcatraz Island.
– Have heaps of fun at Pier 39, with diverse street performers, musical stairs, a mirror maze, a quaint carousel, and more.
– Ogle at the oddities at Ripley’s – Believe It or Not!
Best Hostel in Fisherman’s Wharf: HI-San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf
A short walk from the neighbourhood’s many delights and close to public transportation links, HI-San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf couldn’t have a better location.
There’s an onsite café-bar and you can chill on the sunny terrace, watch a movie in the mini cinema, and mingle in the cosy lounge. Breakfast is free and the hostel has a tour desk, lockers, laundry facilities, a kitchen, free Wi-Fi, and everything else that you’ll need for a comfortable and convenient stay.
Best Hotel in Fisherman’s Wharf: Courtyard by Marriott Fishermans Wharf
This fairly swanky hotel has spacious rooms with en-suite facilities, a hairdryer, a TV, a fridge, a seating area, and free Wi-Fi. Family rooms are available. Onsite facilities include a gym, business centre, and bistro.
Best Airbnb in Fisherman’s Wharf: San Francisco Home with a View
This lovely two-bedroom apartment for four has a compact but well-equipped kitchen, a dining table, TV, and sofa in the living room, a balcony, and a communal yard with a fire pit. Guests can access free Wi-Fi throughout their stay.
Every neighborhood in San Francisco has its unique sub-culture. You can find affluent neighborhoods lined with three-story victorian houses, amazing food just about everywhere, historic streets where the 60s hippies make their mark. There are plenty of places to eat and drink — dive bars, wine bars, breweries, and under-ground clubs galore.
There is something in SF for everyone, and that’s why we’ve written our picks for the best areas to stay in San Francisco within different categories. This guide will help you figure out which nieghborhood is right for you, whether you are visiting San Francisco on a budget, with kids, for nightlife, etc.
And remember, while each neighborhood in SF is unique, it’s not a huge city, so you will be able to get around and visit many parts of SF with ease.
Don’t forget to sort your travel insurance! We’ve put together a roundup of the best travel insurance for backpackers – check it out here, or if you’re low on time, get a quote from World Nomads now, our favourite travel insurance provider.
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Need More Inspiration?
- Backpacking San Fransico City Guide
- 3 Days in San Francisco: Detailed Itinerary
- Awesome Insider Guide to the 12 Best Hostels in Chicago
- Best Hostels in San Francisco (Ultimate Guide)
- Epic Backpacker’s Guide to the Best Hostels in Washington DC
- Best National Parks in the USA
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