San Francisco packs a lot of punch for a city that’s only 7×7, or 49-square miles. With its iconic Golden Gate Bridge, colorful Victorian row houses, and funky, diverse neighborhoods, the City by the Bay is a great place to live if you can afford the hefty price tag.
San Francisco neighborhoods are a mix of trendy, seedy, and old-school, with more parks and restaurants per capita than any other city in the U.S. With the population here trending younger and richer, you’re more likely to see someone walking a dog than pushing a stroller.
The good news about SF neighborhoods is this: they are all walkable (if you don’t mind some major hill climbs), they are close to public transit, and each has a unique flavor.
If you’re thinking about moving to San Francisco, or just relocating to a new part of the Bay area, you’ll probably need a little help choosing the best neighborhood to live in. Whether you’re looking for family-friendly, artsy, affordable (relatively), or trendy, we have you covered. And while you’re in the process of looking, you can start planning how you’ll make your move with our guide to surviving moving day in San Francisco.
About moving to San Francisco
San Francisco, with a population under 1 million, is a hilly peninsula bordered on three sides by sparkling water. Surfers, kiteboarders, hikers, and restaurant-goers will love the mix of nature and culture, with miles of forested trails and beaches just a short drive away.
You’ll find distinct cultural groups and neighborhoods in San Francisco, from Chinatown, to Japan town, to Little Italy, to the Latino-infused Mission District. Top-notch restaurants mimic this cultural blend, so you’ll be able to find a cuisine to tempt your taste buds every night of the week.
While every neighborhood is walkable, be prepared for some steep hill climbs in the City by the Bay – San Francisco is home to 48 hills. ranging from 200 to nearly 1,000 feet.
The Museum of Modern Art, the California Academy of Sciences, and the DeYoung museum attract world-class rotating exhibits, and you’ll be able to find a hearty mix of live music, Broadway shows, plays, and outdoor street festivals.
If you have the salary to call San Francisco home, there are over 30 neighborhoods to choose from.
Cost of Living in San Francisco
Even if you’re relocating to San Francisco from across the country, there’s no doubt you’ve heard about how expensive it is to live here – with a cost of living that’s second only to New York City, according to Investopedia. Here’s how it breaks down:
|Rental and home prices in San Francisco|
|1-bedroom apartment average rent||$3,400|
|2-bedroom apartment average rent||$4,483|
|Median sales price for homes||$1.4 million|
|Sources: Rent Jungle and Zillow|
Looking to buy?
San Francisco’s single-family homes and condos are highly coveted, and you’ll be hard pressed to find one under a million dollars. If you do find your dream home, be prepared to get in a bidding war with other potential buyers.
If you do end up buying in San Francisco, you probably won’t have a yard.
Many young professionals tend to move to the East, North, or South Bays when they decide to have children, where home prices are more affordable, relatively speaking.
Things to think about before choosing an SF neighborhood
Choosing the best San Francisco neighborhood to live in is a highly personal decision. Think about whether you’d like a quiet tree-lined street or a bustling hotspot. Do you want to be by the best burritos in San Francisco, or by the most iconic row houses? How much does fog, lovingly known as Karl the Fog by San Francisco residents, bother you? How much money are you willing to fork over?
There’s a lot to consider when you’re moving to San Francisco, and we hope these questions help you narrow down your choices.
Do you have a car?
If you’re bringing a car with you to San Francisco, you’re better off living in a neighborhood further away from the city center. Parking is a bear in many parts of this highly populated city, and many vehicle owners end up circling the block endlessly to find a spot. If you’re bringing a car, look at outer areas like the Sunset, Richmond, Cole Valley, Noe Valley, and Bernal Heights neighborhoods.
Where are you commuting?
A large number of people who live in San Francisco either commute to the downtown Financial District or down to Silicon Valley. San Francisco’s transit system is called MUNI, which is notoriously slow and overcrowded. Think about your max limit for the number of hours you spend on MUNI and choose a San Francisco neighborhood accordingly. If you’re relocating for a job in Silicon Valley at a place like Facebook or Google, you’ll likely get your own fancy commuter bus complete with Wi-Fi and designated stops in San Francisco.
What type of weather do you want?
San Francisco is known for its microclimates. For example, Dolores Park in the Mission District can be warm and sunny while freezing fog is blowing its way through the Outer Sunset. Think about how much fog and cold weather you can handle. If the answer is “none,” you may want to consider living in a neighborhood outside San Francisco, like the South Bay or East Bay.
Looking for good schools in San Francisco?
While the city tends to attract more singles than families with children, overall, students at public schools in San Francisco tend to enjoy more success than those at most other highly urban school districts across the country. For example, San Francisco Unified School District students scored higher proficiency levels than California students statewide in both English Arts and Math.
However, school rankings still vary significantly across the district, and parents will need to do a lot of homework to navigate the system and find the schools that best match the needs and interests of their children. That’s because children are assigned to schools based on a controversial lottery system that means there’s no guarantee your child can attend their closest neighborhood school, or their top school choice, although there is more weight given to placing students in schools closer to home. On the other hand, you’re not restricted to the schools in your neighborhood, so your child has the chance to “win” a spot in a school that’s highly rated for academics and other special programs in the arts and languages. Sound complicated? It is. Here’s where you can start your education process on San Francisco school choice.
Private schools also have a strong presence in San Francisco, with 116 schools enrolling about 26,000 students – nearly half as many as the 53,000 students attending public schools. Besides the expense, you’ll have to do just as much research as with public choices to vet the private options.
The best neighborhoods for San Francisco living
If you want to be close to the water
This San Francisco neighborhood is perched on the north shore of the city, and is known for its trendy bars, restaurants, and boutiques along Chestnut Street. A flat and easy stroll brings you down to Marina Boulevard, a popular spot for runners and walkers with stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay, and Alcatraz. You’re also a quick walk away from The Presidio, Palace of Fine Arts, and trails that lead to Fort Point.
The Outer Richmond and Sunset Districts
These two outer SF neighborhoods are also known as “The Avenues” and aren’t too far from the windy spread of sand that’s Ocean Beach. The Golden Gate Park separates these two communities which each feature an eclectic mix of Russian, Chinese, Burmese, and Indian restaurants. Burma Superstar on Clement Street is a standout. Expect a more peaceful vibe in these neighborhoods, which are a longer haul from downtown.
If you’re looking for affordability
While nothing in San Francisco is super affordable, a studio apartment in a Tenderloin high rise will be one of the best deals you’ll find. This San Francisco neighborhood is in the thick of it, bordered by Union Square and Polk Street. You’ll be a quick walk or MUNI ride from the Financial District, but you will have to deal with plenty of homelessness on city streets.
Located in the southern end of the city, this San Francisco neighborhood is a working-class burb where rents and incomes are significantly lower than other parts of the city. You’ll find a lot of single-family homes here and an easier commute if you work in the Peninsula. McClaren Park offers hiking trails and beautiful views of the Bay, but if you’re looking for a hip nightlife, this isn’t the spot for you.
If you want a neighborhood with a colorful past
You’ll still find vestiges of the 1960s hippie counterculture in this San Francisco neighborhood, home to musicians like Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. Haight pays homage to its colorful past with splashy murals, vintage boutiques, and funky bars. Its proximity to Golden Gate Park makes it a great spot for those who like to be near museums, picnic areas, and trails.
Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg called North Beach home in the 1950s and gathered at City Lights Bookstore, where you can still find books by local authors. North Beach, also known as “Little Italy,” bustles with tourists and Bay area crowds on weekends. You can find tons of hidden treasures here, and North Beach’s proximity to downtown makes it a popular spot for folks who don’t want to spend too much time commuting on a bus.
The Castro was one of the first gay neighborhoods in the United States and has an open-minded and LGBTQ-friendly attitude. This San Francisco neighborhood’s main drag includes bars, dance clubs, and top-notch restaurants where you’ll find people sitting outdoors in sunny days. Walkable neighborhoods feature adorable Victorian homes. A quick ride on the underground MUNI train or the above-ground F-line gets you downtown in no time.
If you want hip restaurants and nightlife
Into that see and be seen crowd? Hayes Valley is for you. This revitalized neighborhood between Van Ness Avenue and Western Addition is a major hotspot, with upscale boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants with lines a block long. Despite its haute couture style, this San Francisco neighborhood isn’t snotty, and maintains its community feel. Glug a German pint at the outdoor Biergarten before grabbing a cone at Smitten Ice Cream’s outdoor stand.
If you like hip with a Latin flair, you’ll be happy as a clam in San Francisco’s Mission District. Sixteenth and 24th streets are lined with taquerias and pupuserias, home to the best burritos in the city. Traditionally a Latino neighborhood, this area has undergone a major gentrification in recent years thanks to the tech industry. Among the taco joints and check cashing counters you’ll find upscale bars, restaurants, and music venues. Another plus is Dolores Park, the perfect place to stretch out with friends on a sunny afternoon.
On a sunny weekend afternoon, the people of Cow Hollow look like they came straight from the pages of a GQ magazine. The patio-lined Union Street is popular for Sunday brunch, with mimosas and white decorating every table. You’ll find upscale yoga studios, clothing stores, and restaurants in this San Francisco neighborhood, where people live in apartment buildings and Victorian homes. It’s a short stroll to the Presidio and the Marina District, and buses 45 and 41 go straight downtown.
If you like historic character….
One of the most popular sights on Russian Hill is Lombard Street, known as the “crookedest street in the world.” Residents of this upscale neighborhood also love the tinkle of the famous cable car as it lumbers down Hyde Street day in and day out. Walk down to Polk for restaurants, bars, and clothing stores. A hidden treasure on Russian Hill are the pedestrian walkways and stairs lined with tropical-looking plants – perfect for an afternoon stroll or workout.
The iconic Coit Tower is perched on the top of Telegraph Hill, which boasts narrow streets, Victorian architecture, and wild parrots. You’ll get used to the squawking of these colorful birds, which were brought to the city as part of the exotic pet trade in the 1980s. Telegraph Hill isn’t a cheap place to live, with postcard-size apartments asking a pretty penny. But it’s walking distance to North Beach and a steep staircase away from The Embarcadero, which runs along the Bay.
You’ve most likely seen pictures of The Painted Ladies in Alamo Square, a jaw-dropping block of popsicle-colored row houses overlooking downtown San Francisco. Dog walkers and picnickers love hanging out at Alamo Square Park with its rolling green hills and Bay views. This peaceful neighborhood is walkable to many bars and restaurants and is home to both young professionals and retirees.
If you’re looking for a family-friendly neighborhood
Just south of San Francisco’s Mission District, Noe Valley just might be the definition of suburbia within a city, if there is such a thing. The heart of this family-oriented neighborhood is along 24th street, lined with bakeries, restaurants, quaint boutiques, and bars. If you end up living in Noe Valley, you’ll most likely be renting an apartment in a stunning Victorian or Edwardian home. Grab a cupcake or fresh loaf of bread at Noe Valley Bakery or nosh on a burger at Barney’s before a hike up to the top of nearby Twin Peaks.
If you have school-age children, there are plenty of highly rated public schools in and near Noe Valley, according to GreatSchools.com and Niche, as well as a healthy selection of private schools. (While you’ll still need to use the lottery system, more weight is given to placing students in nearby schools.)
If you want more access to the outdoors, a place in Cole Valley might be the perfect fit for your family. This small neighborhood is nestled near Mt. Sutro Forest, Golden Gate Park, and Twin Peaks. You’ll enjoy a leisurely walk down leafy streets lined with old Victorian homes as you head for morning coffee at La Boulangerie. Even though Cole Valley is the smallest neighborhood in San Francisco, it’s home to one of the best brunch spots, Zazie, which has a line a block long every weekend.
As one resident, Amit Melwani, put it: “At surface level it’s a quaint little neighborhood for 30-40-year-olds with strollers and dogs. After a while as a resident though, you realize how friendly the community is, how locals constantly stop to make conversation with each other passing by or in the cafes, and how the businesses feel really local. Add to that the proximity to GG Park, Sutro Trails, and Twin Peaks and it does feel like a secret valley nestled away in a corner of San Francisco.”
Although there are no public schools directly in Cole Valley, there are highly rated schools nearby, both public and private. For example, Claire Lilienthal Elementary, which serves grades K-8, gets an A rating from Niche and is rated 9 out of 10 by GreatSchools. (Again, public schools are assigned by a lottery system, but students have a greater chance of attending nearby schools.)
Making your move to San Francisco
Whether you’re moving long-distance or relocating locally, we hope this guide to San Francisco neighborhoods helps you make the best choice for you and your family. If you can, we highly recommend you go walk the San Francisco neighborhoods you’re interested in before you rent or buy. Check out the coffee shops, nightlife and restaurant scene. Test out your commute by hopping on a MUNI bus or BART train. Before long, you’ll find an awesome San Francisco neighborhood to call home.
Kristin Hanes is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in SF Gate, Marie Claire, and Realtor.com, among other publications.