The Mission has a number of distinct personalities: it's the Latino neighborhood, where working-class folks raise their families and where gangs occasionally clash; it's the hipster hood, where tattooed and pierced twenty- and thirtysomethings hold court in the coolest cafés and bars in town; it's a culinary epicenter, with the strongest concentration of destination restaurants and affordable ethnic cuisine; it’s the face of gentrification, where high-tech money prices out longtime commercial and residential renters; and it's the artists' quarter, where murals adorn literally blocks of walls long after the artists have moved to cheaper digs. It's also the city's equivalent of the Sunshine State—this neighborhood's always the last to succumb to fog.
Packed with destination restaurants, hole-in-the-wall ethnic eateries, and hip watering holes—plus taquerias, pupuserias, and produce markets—the city's hottest hood strikes an increasingly precarious balance between cutting-edge hot spot and working-class enclave. With longtime businesses being forced out by astronomical rents and even the merchants’ association begging the city to stem the tide of restaurants into the neighborhood, the Mission is in flux once again, a familiar state for almost 100 years.
The eight blocks of Valencia Street between 16th and 24th streets—what's become known as the Valencia Corridor—typify the Mission District's diversity. Businesses on the block between 16th and 17th streets, for instance, include an upscale Peruvian restaurant, a tattoo parlor, a Belgian eatery beloved for its fries, the yuppie-chic bar Blondie's, a handful of funky home-decor stores, a pizzeria, a Vietnamese kitchen, a trendy Italian place, a sushi bar, bargain and pricey thrift shops, and the Puerto Alegre restaurant, a near dive with pack-a-punch margaritas locals revere. As prices rise, this strip is losing some of its edge as even international publications proclaim its hipness. At the same time, nearby Mission Street is morphing from a down-at-the-heels row of check-cashing parlors, dollar stores, and residential hotels into overflow for the Valencia Corridor's restaurant explosion.
Italian and Irish in the early 20th century, the Mission became heavily Latino in the late 1960s, when immigrants from Mexico and Central America began arriving. Since the 1970s, groups of muralists have transformed walls and storefronts into canvases, creating art accessible to everyone. Following the example set by the Mexican liberal artist and muralist Diego Rivera, many of the Latino artists address political and social justice issues in their murals. More recently, artists of varied backgrounds, some of whom simply like to paint on a large scale, have expanded the conversation.
The actual conversations you'll hear on the street these days might unfold in Chinese, Vietnamese, Arabic, and other tongues of the non-Latino immigrants who began settling in the Mission in the 1980s and 1990s along with a young bohemian crowd enticed by cheap rents and the burgeoning arts-and-nightlife scene. These newer arrivals made a diverse and lively neighborhood even more so, setting the stage for the Mission's current hipster cachet. With the neighborhood flourishing, rents have gone through the roof, but the Mission remains scruffy in patches, so as you plan your explorations, take into account your comfort zone.
Be prepared for homelessness and drug use around the BART stations, prostitution along Mission Street, and raucous bar-hoppers along the Valencia Corridor. The farther east you go, the sketchier the neighborhood gets.