Where to Stay in San Francisco: The Best Neighborhoods for Your Visit

Posted: 5/16/24 | May 16th, 2024

I love visiting San Francisco. It boasts amazing food (especially in Chinatown, Japantown, and the Mission), lots of gorgeous hiking trails, and plenty of top-notch attractions that make passing the time here a breeze (don’t miss visiting Alcatraz during your visit!).

While it’s not very big, choosing the right neighborhood to stay in can greatly impact your visit. Each area of the city is very different and it can take some time to get around town, so you’ll want to stay close to the activities and attractions that appeal to you.

Plus, some areas are safer than others. San Francisco has a large community of unhoused people (particularly in the Tenderloin and parts of the Mission), which some visitors may be unused to encountering.

So, to help you have fun and stay safe, I want to break down the best neighborhoods in San Francisco and the best places to stay in each, so you can pick the ideal accommodation.

Area
Best for
Best Hotel
Fisherman’s Wharf
Sightseeing and Families
Union Square
Shopping and Convenience
North Beach
Foodies
The Mission
Food & Nightlife

 

Where to Stay for Sightseeing and Families: Fisherman’s Wharf

This iconic waterfront neighborhood is famous for its seafood restaurants (though I don’t recommend eating here, as everything is overpriced), souvenir shops, and attractions like Pier 39 and Ghirardelli Square. Here you can enjoy scenic views of the bay, see the sea lions, take boat tours to Alcatraz or around the Golden Gate Bridge, and explore nearby attractions like the Maritime National Historical Park.

It is the most touristy area in town though, which comes with some downsides: it’s expensive and crowded. I wouldn’t stay here for an extended period, but it’s perfect for a few days if you want to easily hit all of San Francisco’s most iconic sights.

Best places to stay in Fisherman’s Wharf:

BUDGETHI San Francisco – Fisherman’s Wharf – This is a great hostel with lots of common areas, a huge and fully equipped guest kitchen, free breakfast, and even a small movie theater. The beds aren’t anything special (the mattresses are thin and there are no curtains or individual outlets), but there are female-only dorms, as well as a café on-site (with reasonable prices). The hostel is always kept clean and tidy and the staff organizes a lot of free events too (like bike tours, museum tours, and pub crawls). It’s easy to meet other travelers here.
MIDRANGE: Argonaut Hotel – Everything in this award-winning four-star boutique hotel is nautically themed. The spacious rooms feature historic brick walls and timber beams, and I love all the naval décor (like large compasses or mirrors shaped like ship windows). Each room has a minifridge and minibar with local goodies, a 50” HDTV, and a coffee maker with complimentary locally roasted coffee. The bathrooms are a bit small and dated, but the water pressure in the showers is good. There’s also a 24-hour fitness center, in-room spa services, and a seafood restaurant in which you get a $15 USD daily credit with your room.
LUXURY: The Fairmont Heritage Place Ghirardelli Square – This five-star hotel is located in the former Ghirardelli Chocolate factory, just steps from Fisherman’s Wharf. All of the loft-style apartments retain industrial elements from the building’s past, with exposed brick walls and huge warehouse windows that bring in a lot of natural light. The luxurious one- to three-bedroom apartments have a fully equipped gourmet kitchen (there’s no breakfast or restaurant on-site), spacious bathrooms, two flatscreen TVs, a fireplace, soundproofing, and a washer and dryer. If you’re traveling by car, there are two complimentary valet parking spots included in your room too (this is virtually unheard of in SF and a nice perk).

Where to Stay for Shopping and Convenience: Union Square

Known as the heart of downtown San Francisco, Union Square (the neighborhood surrounding the bustling plaza of the same name) is a shopper’s paradise. You can find everything from high-end department stores to smaller boutiques here. Even if you’re not interested in doing much shopping, Union Square is a good choice for travelers looking for a convenient stay: there’s the biggest variety of hotels in this area, and it’s well connected via public transportation, making it easy to get around town. Just know that this is not the most picturesque area (it’s a lot of high rises and concrete). But what it lacks in charm, it definitely makes up for in convenience.

Best places to stay in Union Square:

BUDGET: HI San Francisco – Downtown – Located in a renovated early 20th-century hotel, this fun hostel is similar to the HI facility in Fisherman’s Wharf, offering free breakfast, lots of organized social activities (like pub crawls and walking tours), decent beds with big lockers and outlets (but no privacy curtains), fast Wi-Fi, and a fully equipped kitchen. There are large private rooms and female-only dorms, and the property is wheelchair accessible too.
MIDRANGE: Hotel Emblem – As a fan of the Beat Generation (On the Road is one of my favorite travel books), I think this beatnik-themed four-star hotel is super fun. There’s a book nook in the lobby, giant quotes printed on the walls, and a writing desk in every room. The eclectic rooms all feature velvet chairs, pillowtop mattresses, a smart TV, a Nespresso coffee machine, a safe, and bedside USB outlets. There are nice complimentary bath products and plush bathrobes in the large bathrooms too. I especially love the hotel’s speakeasy bar and adjoining café, which serves healthy breakfast options.
LUXURY: Hotel Nikko – This five-star hotel is part of a Japanese brand (the SF location is its only one in the US). I’m a bit of a Japanophile, so I love that the entire place has a chic Japanese design and a fine-dining fusion restaurant melding Japanese and Californian cuisines (even in the breakfast buffet). The spacious rooms and suites feature seating areas, desks, minibars with complimentary bottled water, and coffee makers. The large, sleek marble bathrooms have oversized showers, a bidet, complimentary bath products, bathrobes, and slippers. The hotel also boasts two fine-dining restaurants, a 10,000-square-foot fitness center, a spa, and a pool with a jacuzzi. Make sure you go up to the rooftop terrace for panoramic views over the city!

 

Where to Stay for Foodies: North Beach

Often referred to as San Francisco’s “Little Italy,” North Beach is a compact area known for its Italian cafés and trattorias (there’s no actual beach here). There’s no shortage of mouthwatering Italian food nearby, and just to the south is the oldest and the biggest Chinatown in the entire country. (On this food tour, you’ll visit the best spots in both neighborhoods.)

I also love all the literary history here. It used to be the epicenter of the Beat Generation in the 1950s, and today you can visit the still-operating independent City Lights Bookstore from that time, as well as the Beat Museum (one of my favorite museums in town). Plus, it’s a convenient place to base yourself. The neighborhood stretches between Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square and you’re close to the Embarcadero as well as important landmarks like Coit Tower.

This is the best area overall in which to stay, in my opinion. The entire neighborhood is a nice blend of Old World charm and modern urban life that defines San Francisco.

Best places to stay in North Beach:

BUDGET: Green Tortoise – This hostel is an institution in San Francisco. It’s my favorite in SF (and one of my favorites in the entire country). It offers free breakfast, free dinners multiple times per week, and even a free sauna! It has a huge common room, so it’s easy to meet people, and has a very fun, social atmosphere. The wooden bunks are basic (thick mattresses, no curtains) but comfy. I’ve stayed here a bunch, and it never disappoints.
MIDRANGE: Hotel Boheme – This three-star historic hotel offers a unique and comfy stay right on Columbus Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares of the neighborhood. The rooms are homey, with a vintage 1950s charm thanks to the colorful walls, artwork, and soft lamp lighting. Room amenities are basic, with a small flatscreen TV, a wooden wardrobe, and a small seating area. The tiled bathrooms are a bit small, but the showers have fantastic pressure. I love the complimentary glass of sherry served in the lobby every afternoon. It’s a nice, unique touch.
LUXURY: As this is more of a residential neighborhood, there aren’t any higher-end hotels here. If you’re looking for luxury, head to nearby Union Square for a plethora of options, including The Ritz-Carlton, a five-star hotel on the northern side.

 

Where to Stay for Luxury: Nob Hill

Nob Hill is an upscale residential area perched atop one of the city’s prominent hills. Historically known as a prestigious enclave for the elite, Nob Hill boasts grand mansions, luxury hotels, and exclusive clubs. Its tree-lined streets are filled with elegant architecture, including the famous Grace Cathedral and the historic Fairmont Hotel. The neighborhood exudes sophistication and charm, attracting residents and visitors seeking a taste of San Francisco’s high life.

This area is clean and safe, and while it’s a steep climb no matter which way you slice it, you can take the historic cable cars to get around (one of the best things to do in San Francisco anyway). Plus, you get stunning views over the surrounding cityscape from nearly everywhere you look.

Best places to stay in Nob Hill

BUDGET: Music City Hotel – This music-themed hotel/hostel is super fun. All the décor is bold and music-oriented, with band posters and framed records on the brightly colored walls. There are both private rooms and modern capsule pods with individual reading lights, privacy curtains, and lockers (female-only pod rooms are available too). The private rooms are themed after different legendary musicians, like Janis Joplin or the Grateful Dead, and include Bluetooth speakers, an electric guitar and amp, a flatscreen TV, boxed water, and chocolates. All bathrooms are shared (unless you stay in the Janis Joplin room), and custom complimentary bath products are available to all guests. There’s free coffee, tea, and fruit in the lobby at all times too.
MIDRANGE: Petite Auberge – I love this French-style bed-and-breakfast on the edge of Nob Hill and Union Square. The décor makes you feel like you’re staying in a farmhouse, with uniquely patterned walls, hardwood floors, antique wooden furniture, and a fireplace in some rooms. All rooms are spacious and include a desk and flatscreen TV. Rhe bathrooms are a bit small and the shower pressure kind of weak, but I do appreciate the complimentary continental breakfasts (with pastries, cereals, yogurt, eggs, juice, and coffee) and happy hour with wine and snacks in the evenings.
LUXURY: The Fairmont San Francisco – I love the timeless grandeur this five-star hotel exudes, with opulent décor such as marble floors, sparkling chandeliers, and ornate furnishings. The rooms are spacious, with high ceilings and windows that let in a lot of natural light. Amenities include a flatscreen TV, a desk with built-in USB ports, a tea/coffee maker, and a safe. The bathrooms are large too, featuring marble bathtubs, plush bathrobes and slippers, and complimentary toiletries. The entire place feels like a resort, with a spa, gym, and several restaurants, including the kitschy Tonga Room, the legendary tiki bar in the basement (it’s so cheesy — and I absolutely love it!).

 

Where to Stay for Nightlife & Food: The Mission District

The Mission District is one of the oldest neighborhoods in San Francisco. In fact, it’s home to the oldest building in the city: Mission San Francisco de Asís, a Catholic church built in 1791. The neighborhood is the epicenter of the Mexican community and has long been an artists’ enclave as well (many beautiful murals line the streets). After a busy day, I like to relax in Dolores Park for great views of the city (the famous “Full House” house is here too) and dig into incredible Mexican food (my favorites for burritos are Taqueria Cancún and Papolete). It’s a great place to take a food tour to try a bunch of different spots at once.

I think the Mission also offers the most diverse nightlife scene in town. You can find everything from trendy cocktail lounges (I like Dalva on 16th) to dive bars, along with live music venues and dance clubs. Valencia and Mission Streets are particularly popular for barhopping; they are also the safest areas of the neighborhood too.

I do want to mention that the Mission has a high presence of unhoused people, and while they are simply dealing with their own struggles and usually don’t pose any real danger, a lot of visitors aren’t comfortable in their presence. If that’s the case, I would not stay in the Mission. Another good neighborhood for nightlife is The Castro (the LGBTQ+ district), but there are very few places to stay there (The Hotel Castro is pretty much the only option — luckily it’s a good one).

Best places to stay in the Mission:

BUDGET: 1906 Mission – This eco-friendly bed-and-breakfast is a no-frills property with private rooms that have shared bathrooms. I really appreciate how the property prioritizes the environment, using energy efficient lighting and repurposed building materials throughout (the wooden headboards are especially cool). Everything is clean and comfortable, and the rooms have hypoallergenic bedding, flatscreen TVs, and desks (in most). While the bathrooms are shared, they’re always kept clean and feature rainfall showerheads and free organic toiletries.
MIDRANGE: Inn San Francisco – This cute bed-and-breakfast is situated in classic SF Victorian mansion from the 1870s. You can really feel the history here: the grand double parlors are adorned with woodwork, marble fireplaces, and stained-glass windows. All of the rooms are uniquely decorated with antique furniture and décor yet feature modern conveniences, like an HDTV, a minifridge, and comfy beds. All the bathrooms are different (some have claw-foot tubs), but all are beautifully tiled and offer complimentary toiletries. There’s also a tasty complimentary breakfast buffet as well as a rooftop sundeck and hot tub in the tranquil English garden out back. If you’re looking for a place to stay that truly captures the historic essence of the city, this is it.
LUXURY: The Mission is a bit of a grittier area, so it’s not the best place to stay if you’re looking for luxury. There are no four- or five-star hotels here, so if you’re looking to stay in one, I’d recommend Union Square or Nob Hill (see above).

***

San Francisco offers amazing food, lively nightlife, and proximity to the outdoors, all of which I love. There’s such an array of neighborhoods here too, each with a different vibe. By choosing the best one for your needs, you’ll be sure to have a fantastic stay!

Book Your Trip to San Francisco: Logistical Tips and Tricks

Book Your Flight
Use Skyscanner to find a cheap flight. They are my favorite search engine because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned!

Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the biggest inventory and best deals. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels.

Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:

Safety Wing (best for everyone)
Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
Medjet (for additional evacuation coverage)

Looking for the Best Companies to Save Money With?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use to save money when I’m on the road. They will save you money when you travel too.

Need a Guide?
San Francisco has some really interesting and detailed tours on offer. For tons of walking tour options, check out tour marketplace Get Your Guide.

Want More Information on San Francisco?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide to San Francisco for even more planning tips!

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