Travel Guide to San Francisco Neighborhoods: SF Mission District
Visit the SF Mission District
The SF Mission District is, in my opinion, one of the best neighborhoods to tour in San Francisco. The districted is located roughly within the borders of Cesar Chavez to the south, the Central Freeway of 101 in the north, Route 101 in the east, and Sanchez Street to the west.
In terms of districts, it is to the east of the LGBT-destination Castro and to the west of the mostly residential Portero Hill. It's a fair bit sunnier and warmer than the rest of the city - I think Twin Peaks stops the fog right at the border of the SF Mission. The "SF Mission District" I'm referring to is also known as the Inner Mission and should not be confused with the Outer Mission (which confusingly doesn't even border the Inner).
With its thriving Latino culture, hipster community (more on them later), delicious food, and just overall artistic vibe, it's impossible to have a complete view of San Francisco without a visit to the Mission. In this article, I'll give my suggestions on visiting the Mission; what to see, what to do, and of course what to eat. Comments and feedback are as always appreciated. Enjoy!
SF Mission by Sub-District
Though geographically not large, the Mission is incredibly diverse. It's actually roughly subdivided into what I would say are three distinct areas, which I'll briefly cover individually.
El Corazón/ 24th Street
This area is literally called “The Heart” (El Corazón) of the Mission District. If you’re not very familiar with the Mission, the images that come to mind probably originated here. Consisting only of the bit of 24th from Potrero St to Mission St, El Corazón packs a lot of great restaurants and shops into a relatively small area, making it dense in food and culture. This is the section of the Mission rich in history and Latino culture.
Valencia and 16th, Dolores Street
This section of the Mission used to be filled with Latino shops, restaurants, and car repair shops, but in recent years the region has picked up more of a hipster vibe. The region is full of galleries, coffee shops, thrift stores, and book shops.
If you don’t know what a hipster is... To be honest, I can’t really explain. A hipster is a hipster is a hipster. Generally, they sport “not-mainstream” attire and listen to “not-mainstream” music and enjoy “not-mainstream” entertainment. That’s the best I can do; any hipster readers, feel free to contribute in the comments. if you’re still curious, do some Googling to get a feel for hipster-ness.
A sub-region of this region of this district (Still with me?) is Dolores Street, specifically the area around Dolores Park. Dolores is far more quiet than the rest of the Mission district and is a good place to recharge after a morning of bustling about. If you walk around this park on a sunny day, you will likely see families having a picnic or barbeque with a great view of the East Bay. This region also has Mission Dolores, the oldest building in San Francisco. More on them later.
The Potrero side
The Potrero side of the Mission was mostly residential until (relatively) recently, but due to the dot-com bubble and consequent start-ups, trendy bars and restaurants have cropped up all over. Nowadays, the Potrero side is famous for the Mission’s artist lofts and hip restaurants. There are also many galleries in this area, and local artists often are happy to share their work (and their stories, if you ask politely).
Landmarks and Attractions
Now, onto the must-see attractions! Even if you can't stay long, you should see the historic Mission Dolores (3321 16th Street). This is the oldest standing building in all of San Francisco, and is part of the chain of missions established under Father Junipero Serra in the late 18th century.
The guided tours are fantastic, though they only accept parties of 10 and over for their official tours. No worries, though, if you travel in smaller groups - the volunteer docents are friendly and helpful. Additionally, Mission Dolores has a historic cemetery (the only cemetery still within the city limits) as well as a lovely garden of roses and native plants.
Another must-see is Dolores Park (western edge of the Mission district, by Twin Peaks). It's large enough that you can't really miss it. This grassy almost 14-acre park is a nice break in the city's concrete jungle and is usually sunnier and warmer than the rest of the city. It's an excellent spot to people-watch, as everyone from hipsters to hippies to families to dog-walkers come together to enjoy the beautiful views from the hills.
However, as a note to more conservative visitors as well as those with young families, this park represents San Francisco in all of its odd glory. Especially on crowded sunny days, the park may have some questionable characters. But hey, that's San Francisco for you! If people-watching is something you enjoy, Dolores Park is an excellent place to rest and/or enjoy a picnic lunch.
SF Mission Murals
I suppose the murals fit nicely into the must-see landmarks category, but I felt like they deserved a section of their own. The Mission District is famous for the colorful murals that cover many of its walls.
The most famous area seems to be Balmy Alley (between 24th Street and Garfield Square), and I feel it well deserves its fame. The murals in Balmy Alley, like many of the mural projects in San Francisco, depict social or political messages; in this case, they depict "the common theme of a celebration of indigenous Central American cultures and as protest of US intervention in Central America."
The quote is from the Balmy Alley Wikipedia article, which has a nice summary of the murals. (Unfortunately, if you're interested in the history behind the murals, you'll have to look beyond this hub. I recommend a guided tour of the Mission, which would give you all the info you want.)
Another great mural site is Clarion Alley (a small street between Valencia and Mission Sts.). The murals at this site are newer than the ones at Balmy Alley, but are equally colorful and have the same degree of cultural significance. As the project is street art, the murals are always changing and often show the political mood of the time. The murals at Clarion Alley are funded by the Clarion Alley Mural Project, a collective artist group.
The final place I would recommend for murals is the CELLspace building (2050 Bryant Street). Before I get onto the murals, let me say something just about CELLspace. CELLspace is a multi-purpose art gathering center, with a woodshop, a gallery, welding classes, tango classes, a skating rink, and most famously, a theater with live performances. If you are interested in trying any of that stuff out, this could be a great place for you. And no, I don't work for CELLspace or get paid by them; I just think it's a cool spot.
Now onto the murals there. Most of them are painted organically, without coordination by CELLspace. The walls of the building and some of the surrounding walls all have colorful murals and graffiti pieces covering them, making the entire street vibrant and energetic. The CELLspace website has a living webpage that details the volunteer artists who contribute, as well as their work.
Food and Restaurants
The Mission has incredibly diverse, delicious food. This section really could be a hub of its own, but I'll keep it brief for the sake of the casual eaters among us.
Of course, its Mexican food is legendary. The SF burrito, a large burrito stuffed with at least twice the filling of a standard burrito, was invented here in the Mission District before spreading across the United States. If you're interested in food history and the nuances of the eating style, there is an excellent Wikipedia article on the SF burrito here.
The best places (in my humble opinion; almost literal battles have been fought over this) to get these legendary burritos would be El Farolito (2779 Mission St.) and El Metate (2406 Bryant St.). El Farolito has very fresh ingredients and is open later than most of the bars, so it's an excellent place to stop late at night. Bear in mind, however, that they don't accept credit cards.
El Metate is famous for their specialty in seafood. It's all delicious, but I especially recommend the shrimp burrito and anything pork as well. Both these places have free chips and excellent salsa bars, both of which are also delicious. Which is the best burrito place in the Mission? If you have the time and interest, try them both (and others), decide for yourself, and contribute to the burrito debate!
But the burritos are not the only food draw from the Mission District. Lesser known but equally delicious restaurants offer foodstuffs from a slew of cuisines. For Italian, Delfina (3621 18th Street) is justly famous place. Divided into a classic sit-down on one side and a pizzeria on the other, it's got all the Italian-ness you could want. Reservations are definitely recommended. For delicious Indian, try Dosa (995 Valencia Street). I've been told the flavors are very authentic and true to the original South India flavor. Cool. All I know is that it's delicious. :D
As an honorable mention, there is a vegan Japanese place called Cha-Ya (762 Valencia Street). It's a Japanese place that's vegan. Vegan. No beef. No fish. What the heck? If you enjoy Japanese cuisine and/or you've ever been a vegan, you know what I mean.
There are plenty of other fantastic restaurants that I don't have space to mention here. The Mission's food is excellent, and both El Corazón and the Potrero Side have excellent selections.
Festivals and Celebrations
The Mission is the setting for a great number of festivals, but a couple are especially prominent and attract a large amount of people, so plan according to whether you'd like to be among them.
The most famous of all the Mission's festivals is probably the Carnaval celebration. Taking place annually on Memorial Day weekend, Carnaval includes salsa competitions, continuous live music, art booths, and a lot of people.
Another popular festival is the San Francisco Food Fair, which takes place on Folsom Street in the 3rd weekend of September. Ridiculous numbers of people get diverse and delicious food from ridiculous numbers of food trucks. If this tickles your fancy, come and join in. If it doesn't, stay away; this will make parking even less fun than usual.
Final Neighborhood Notes
The Mission is a fantastic place, and a district that shouldn't be missed for anyone looking to get a complete view of San Francisco. Just a final note, however, you may have heard some concerns about safety in the Mission. At night, some streets can and do become rather sketchy, as with streets across the city. Use common sense and keep safety in mind, and there should be no problems.
I hope you enjoyed this hub, but there's far more to say about the Mission, and San Francisco in general, than I can fit into one article. Come and see for yourself - enjoy your trip if you make one!