The Haight (credit: Randy Yagi)
With more than 100 neighborhoods, San Francisco is one of the most fascinating and culturally diverse cities in the world. Yet unlike many other major destinations, it’s difficult to visit much of the City by the Bay in mere days. While Fisherman’s Wharf, Golden Gate Park and the Golden Gate Bridge are all popular choices, it’s worthwhile to visit other sections of the city, some obvious and some not so obvious. Here is a breakdown of five of San Francisco’s neighborhoods, each marvelously unique and each within a few miles of each other.
The San Francisco Chinatown is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia and the oldest in North America. Located a few blocks from Union Square, the historic neighborhood not far from Union Square runs 10 blocks long and about three blocks wide. The most traveled section in Chinatown is along Grant Street from the iconic Dragon Gate to Broadway, where the streets are filled with souvenir shops, scores of Chinese restaurants and thousands of people who come to visit or live in the neighborhood. Chinatown annually hosts a number of festivals and noteworthy events, such as the Chinese New Year Parade, which draws an estimated 2.2 million spectators, making it the largest Asian event on the continent. It also hosts the San Francisco Chinatown AT&T Autumn Moon Festival.
Once described as the Harlem of the West, the Fillmore District has long been a popular destination for live music, dining and culture. Not far from the city’s Japantown, the Fillmore District drew many of the most famous jazz artists in history, such as Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and John Coltrane. By the 1960s, the iconic Fillmore Auditorium made the neighborhood even more famous, attracting a host of legendary rock bands like The Doors, The Grateful Dead, Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Who. After a lengthy hiatus in part due to the 1989 earthquake, the Fillmore Auditorium reopened in 1994 and continues to draw top acts, with past appearances by No Doubt, Radiohead, The Cure, Prince and The White Stripes. The Fillmore District continues to be the city’s premier center for jazz at top venues such as The Boom Boom Club, 1300 on Fillmore and Sheba’s Piano Lounge and Restaurant. The Fillmore District is also home to the Fillmore Jazz Festival, African American Art and Culture Complex and the Jazz Heritage Center.
The Haight-Ashbury district will be forever known as a center for the hippie counter-culture movement of the 1960s and arguably the world’s most famous intersection at the time. In 1967, approximately 100,000 people descended upon the Haight-Ashbury district in an unprecedented cultural gathering known as the Summer of Love, during a time when many famous music artists were living in the neighborhood, such as Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin. Today, the Victorian homes continue to line Haight Street and the popular neighborhood still retains its bohemian characteristics. Visitors will be greeted with an eclectic array of restaurants and shops, featuring one of the city’s best spots for vintage clothing and vegetarian cuisine. The annual Haight Ashbury Street Fair was held recently, featuring food booths and more than 10 live acts, including the headliner It’s a Beautiful Day, a San Francisco-based band that first achieved nationwide success during the 1967 Summer of Love.
Known for its exceptional ethnic food, music, dancing and vintage clothing stores, the Mission District is home to the oldest surviving structure in the city. Mission San Francisco de Asis, otherwise known as Mission Dolores, was founded in 1776 as part of the series of Spanish Missions that were built in California prior to its statehood. In the 1960s, this neighborhood was credited for popularizing the now ubiquitous yet delicious Mission burrito, typically a flour tortilla filled with rice, beans, lettuce and meat and other fillings such as guacamole, cheese and salsa. The Mission District hosts a number of popular annual festivals and street parades, including Carnaval, Sunday Streets and Day of the Dead.
Also known as Little Italy, North Beach features a wealth of Italian restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries and entertainment. Located just beyond Chinatown, North Beach was the birthplace of the Beat Generation of the 1950s, a literary movement that included prominent writers such as Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey and Richard Brautigan. San Francisco’s most famous bookstore and the center of that era’s San Francisco Renaissance – City Lights Books – is located in North Beach and was co-founded by one of the Beat Generation’s founders, the acclaimed poet and activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Also in North Beach is America’s longest-running musical revue and a San Francisco tradition – Beach Blanket Babylon at Club Fugazi. In addition to the enormous North Beach Fair, the neighborhood also hosts the annual Italian Heritage Parade, the oldest Italian-American parade in the country.
Randy Yagi is a freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he was awarded a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com Examiner.com.