Discover the best accommodation options in a variety of San Francisco’s most intriguing central neighborhoods.
San Francisco’s reputation precedes it. The internationally recognized landmarks, along with its movie-backdrop hills, vistas, bay and buildings, create a special place for the city in the global consciousness. But when it comes to finding a good place to stay in Frisco, the selection is surprisingly threadbare for a city of such stature. Luxury travelers are well catered to with many top-of-the-range hotels, while the better value hostel options are often located in the city’s less salubrious corners.
Less positive is the city’s “dangerous after dark” reputation. But how is the security situation in San Francisco at night, really? The honest answer is: it’s fluid and complicated but mostly safe. For the most part, in the daytime you are safe wherever you are in the city. Naturally, this comes with the caveat of respecting all the usual common-sense precautions regarding your possessions, and of avoiding overt displays of wealth et cetera.
But the truth is, there are neighborhoods where many people without fixed residence – in need of the kind of help the American system simply doesn’t care to provide – tend to amass with little intervention by the authorities. The resulting extremes of poverty and deprivation, and their associated vices, can be alarmingly prevalent in parts of the Tenderloin, SoMa, and Mission District neighborhoods. Within the space of a few blocks, the vibe can change quite significantly in these areas. For anybody keen to explore after dark, staying in a safer neighborhood is advised.
Here’s a selection of San Francisco’s five best and safest neighborhoods (some of them coupled up for better coverage), celebrating its diversity, its important place in social history, and providing access to the city’s top sights. Each one makes for an ideal base during your stay, while the range of accommodation options ensures you’ll find the right hotel for your trip.
Union Square / Nob Hill for a well-connected base
Union Square is among the more recognizable parts of San Francisco, having featured in movies by Coppola and Hitchcock. This key downtown meeting point remains vital thanks to being the epicenter of various transport networks. These days, areas to the west and south of Union Square are sketchier at nighttime, although to the north, as the land slopes upward forming Nob Hill, you’ll still find a genteel and historic district packed with theaters, such as the century-old Curran, and upscale restaurants.
While Union Square is the ideal area to stay if you’re looking for good transport connections to get elsewhere, Nob Hill is the kind of place to explore. But prepare to climb because the streets are rarely flat in this area. It’s a great workout, if you’re willing to take it on, and the views from the top around Grace Cathedral are textbook Frisco.
This area enjoys the city’s densest cluster of hotels. For a charming escape from the bustle of the city, Petite Auberge (863 Bush Street) is ideal, with its period furnishings, including an open fireplace and millefleur wallpaper. Service is jovial and amenities are shared with sister hotel the White Swan Inn (845 Bush Street), which plays the Anglophile to the Petite Auberge’s Francophile. If you opt for one of the many upmarket hotels around Union Square try the Hotel Nikko (222 Mason Street), which has an indoor rooftop pool and a great location close to Powell Street Station. On the budget end, each private room at Music City Hotel (1353 Bush Street) is dedicated to a musical legend, such as Queen or Janis Joplin.
North Beach / Chinatown for great dining
There’s no sand or open water at North Beach, but what you will find are loving odes to the Beat Movement. Landmarks that played a crucial role in the literary movement’s formation, such as City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, sit cheek by jowl with both North Beach’s Little Italy cafes, and the restaurants and markets of Chinatown. The combined force of social history and great dining options make this area a popular place to stay in San Francisco.
While North Beach is by no means a flat area, it is not blighted quite so much by the steepness of the hills surrounding it. For example, the Telegraph and Russian hills neighborhoods loom over North Beach, whose central artery, Columbus Ave, connects the Financial District to Fisherman’s Wharf. Despite the attractive nature of North Beach to visitors, it’s slim pickings when it comes to finding a quality hotel room in the area. The largest cluster is around the intersection of Columbus Ave and Broadway.
The Green Tortoise (494 Broadway Street), has been a reliable budget option for nearly 50 years. Dorms and private rooms are available. Breakfast is included with both options. Touches of East Asian design flair and Chinese art remind guests at the SW Hotel (615 Broadway) that they’re in Chinatown. Rooms are refined yet simple. A little deeper into North Beach, Hotel Bohème (444 Columbus Avenue) is in a Victorian building typical of the city, sometimes known as painted ladies. The 15 rooms of this pretty hotel exude the style of the Beat Generation, with visual motifs and artwork nodding towards the literary movement throughout.
Fisherman’s Wharf for Frisco landmarks
Many of San Francisco’s most celebrated sights are located in, or are best accessed from, the Fisherman’s Wharf region of San Francisco. The sea lions are a major draw at Pier 39, which is packed with restaurants, gift shops and attractions, such as the Aquarium of the Bay, that are common to this area. The emphasis is mainly on family fun, but the assortment of historic steam and warships, plus boat tours around the Bay or to Alcatraz Island, make it a popular spot with all visitors.
Hugging the shoreline, the Fisherman’s Wharf mostly occupies flatter land. This, combined with the tourist infrastructure, places it among the best hotel regions for those who wish to find plenty of top amenities and sights, while avoiding steep climbs at the end of a long sightseeing day. As such there are many excellent hotels, although most are targeted towards the pricier end of the market. It’s worth noting that a larger concentration of budget accommodation is located further along the northern coast of San Francisco in the Marina District (see below).
For rooms with great views, Hotel Zephyr (250 Beach St) is tough to beat in this part of Frisco, where the nautical theme with porthole style windows and buoy ceiling lights smartly steers clear of tacky. Nearby Hotel Zoe (425 North Point St) enjoys crisp rooms decorated in lighter earth tones and an on-site Italian seafood restaurant. Meanwhile, over on the western side of the neighborhood, the Argonaut Hotel (495 Jefferson St) is an impeccable four-star property located a block from Hyde Street Pier, where the maritime theme is subtly woven in with a painted wood and bare brick motif.
The Castro / Haight-Ashbury for effortless cool
Nobody is going to hold the US up a beacon of equality any time soon, but you can’t deny that the country has produced some brilliant social warriors through the years. And many of them emanated from two small, connected regions of San Francisco: The Castro and Haight-Ashbury. That heritage continues today, with the Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ movements proudly represented and spearheaded by the newest generation of locals around here.
This broad swath of central San Francisco consists of mostly residential neighborhoods, broken by the occasional high street, where you’ll find some great shopping and dining options. The Haight-Ashbury high street is one of the best areas in the States to find vintage clothing, and both areas are laden with cafes, bars and restaurants. Castro also benefits from being linked in on the city’s metro network on the K line, while the N line runs a few blocks south of the Haight-Ashbury high street. Haight-Ashbury is also a great access point for the sprawling garden-, lake- and museum-filled Golden Gate Park.
Hotels in this region are hard to come by, but the few that do exist are charming and stylish. Take The Hotel Castro (4230 18th St) for example, where modern floor to ceiling windows and photo collage walls of gay icons make this a truly unique design highlight. Facing Golden Gate Park, Stanyan Park Hotel (750 Stanyan St) is in a Victorian building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. During weekday evenings guests are treated to a wine a cheese hour. Twin Peaks Hotel (2160 Market St) has nothing to do with the TV show of the same name, rather it’s named after a Frisco neighborhood nearby. But this downhome budget option is handily located near the metro line, bordering The Castro, Lower Haight and Mission District.
Marina District for budget-friendly motels
West of Fisherman’s Wharf, the bayfront becomes fragmented by genteel communities, fancy marinas and former military and world expo sites repurposed for modern, civilian usage. A burst of classical architecture belongs to the Palace of Fine Arts. It’s all that remains of the Panama–Pacific International Exposition of 1915, which was held to inject new life into San Francisco after around three quarters of the city was leveled by the 1906 earthquake.
The Marina District may not hold many top sights, but its pleasant location, good access to the Golden Gate Bridge (to the west), and to the major sights further east has turned this urban stretch of Highway 101 into prime motel territory. Staying in the Marina District is easier for those with their own transportation who are looking to combine a free parking spot with lower-priced accommodation than the other neighborhoods on this list.
No hotel sums up the sunny San Francisco disposition like the Hotel del Sol (3100 Webster Street), which then packages it up neatly in a 1950s-inspired veneer where everything is bright and designed with care and positivity down to the tiniest detail. Please note, parking is not free here. The tone over at the Chelsea Inn (2095 Lombard St) is a little more reserved, with cozy earth tones and wooden furniture bringing a touch of elegance and free parking. Spacious rooms and competitive prices are the hallmarks of Cow Hollow Inn and Suites (2190 Lombard Street), and all of that comes with free parking and friendly service.
Getting Around San Francisco: When getting to and from San Francisco International Airport, nothing beats the BART, the city’s metro system that connects it to the city center, as well as the wider Bay Area. For ease of access to the BART, consider staying around Union Square, which also links with the historic San Francisco cable cars that rattle up and down some of the city’s steep hills. Those still in operation connect to Fisherman’s Wharf and are covered by the Muni Pass, a public transport card that also covers Frisco’s buses, metro and trolley coaches.