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San Francisco Travel Guide

  • Photo: Levent Konuk / Shutterstock

SoMa and Civic Center

The best Vietnamese food in the city can be found along Larkin Street between Turk and O'Farrell streets, where Vietnamese Americans own most of the businesses. Marketing types call this corridor Little Saigon; locals associate it with the Tenderloin, aka

the hood. If working girls and drug dealers can't come between you and your pho (beef-broth noodle soup), you can find cheap, often fantastic food here. Check out Bodega Bistro for pho, Saigon Sandwich for bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwiches), and Pagolac for excellent everything.

To a newcomer, SoMa (short for "south of Market") and the Civic Center may look like cheek-by-jowl neighbors—they're divided by Market Street. To locals, though, these areas are separate entities, especially since Market Street itself is considered such a strong demarcation line. Both neighborhoods have a core of cultural sights but more than their share of sketchy blocks. North of the Civic Center lie the western sections of the frisky Tenderloin neighborhood, while to the east is hip Hayes Valley.

An offbeat neighborhood due west of Civic Center, Hayes Valley has terrific eateries, cool watering holes, and great browsing in its funky clothing, home-decor, and design boutiques. Locals love this quarter, but without any big-name draws it remains off the radar for many visitors, though that may change with the opening of the SF Jazz Center on Franklin Street.Bisected by the Central Freeway until the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, Hayes Valley was nondescript and not particularly safe, about as far from a destination neighborhood as you can get. Years of political and legal jockeying resulted in the demolition of the damaged freeway and the creation of Octavia Boulevard as a thoroughfare connecting the freeway with the city's main east–west arteries in Hayes Valley.Freed of the shadow of the freeway, Hayes Valley has thrived. You feel it on a sunny day in Patricia's Green (Octavia Boulevard, between Hayes and Fell streets), with kids climbing the play dome, chic moms sipping Blue Bottle, and maybe a homeless guy taking a nap. You feel it in the Great Adventure mural over the community garden at Octavia and Page Street, and in the Biergarten (Octavia, near Fell Street) over a liter of German brew. This is a real neighborhood where real folks live, and a favorite destination for locals. The hipsters have the Mission, the yuppies have the Marina, the edgy indie crowd has the Haight, and now the artsy-design people have modish Hayes Valley. Swing down main drag Hayes Street between Franklin and Laguna streets and you can hit this neighborhood's highlights, including two very popular restaurants, Absinthe and Suppenküche).SoMa is less a neighborhood than a sprawling area of wide, traffic-heavy boulevards lined with office high-rises and pricey live-work lofts. Aside from the fact that many of them work in the area, locals are drawn to the cultural offerings, smattering of destination restaurants, and concentration of dance clubs. In terms of sightseeing, SoMa holds a few points of interest—with SFMOMA closed until 2016, the specialty museums within a block or two of the Yerba Buena Gardens area top the list.SoMa was once known as South of the Slot (read: the Wrong Side of the Tracks) in reference to the cable-car slot that ran up Market Street. Ever since gold-rush miners set up their tents here in 1848, SoMa has played a major role in housing immigrants to the city.SoMa's emergence as a focal point of San Francisco's cultural life was more than three decades in the making. Huge sections of the then-industrial neighborhood were razed in the 1960s, and alternative artists and the gay leather crowd set up shop; the legacy of that time is the still-raucous annual Folsom Street Fair. The neighborhood lost many artists to the far reaches of SoMa and to the Mission District when urban renewal finally began in earnest in the 1970s, and still more fled when the 1990s dot-com boom sent prices skyrocketing.Life in the SoMa of the mid-to-late 1990s was what the gold rush must have felt like. Young prospectors flooded in to take their pick of well-paying jobs at high-tech startups. Gaggles of gadget-toting twentysomethings spent their evenings wandering from launch party to marketing event, loading up on swag. Rents—commercial in SoMa and residential citywide—went through the roof.The electric buzz of the dot-com heyday changed the face of the neighborhood forever. The thousands of kids rich on paper have been replaced with substantially wealthy people staking out luxury dwellings in striking residential towers, such as 62-story One Rincon Hill, the pencil-thin building at the end of the Bay Bridge. The area may still have more than its share of seedy pockets, but even in earthquake town, the 20,000-square-foot penthouse atop the chic St. Regis sold for a record-breaking $28 million in 2011.The eye-catching, gold-domed City Hall presides over this patchy neighborhood bordered roughly by Franklin, McAllister, Hyde, and Grove streets. The optimistic "City Beautiful" movement of the early 20th century produced the Beaux Arts–style complex for which the area is named, including City Hall, the War Memorial Opera House, the Veterans Building, and the old public library, now the home of the Asian Art Museum. The Main Library on Larkin Street between Fulton and Grove streets is a modern variation on the Civic Center's architectural theme.The Civic Center area may have been set up on City Beautiful principles, but illusion soon gives way to reality. The buildings are grand, but there's a stark juxtaposition of the powerful and the powerless here. Many of the city's most destitute residents eke out an existence on the neighborhood's streets and plazas. Despite the evidence of social problems, there are areas of interest on either side of City Hall. East of City Hall are the Asian Art Museum, the Main Library, and United Nations Plaza, which twice weekly hosts a farmers' market that reflects the neighborhood’s large Asian population. On the west side of City Hall are the War Memorial Opera House, Davies Symphony Hall, and other cultural institutions. A few upscale restaurants in the surrounding blocks cater to the opera and symphony crowd. Tickets to a show at one of the grand performance halls are the main reason many venture here, though the Asian Art Museum and City Hall are worthy sightseeing stops.Stretching west of Union Square and north of Civic Center, the Tenderloin could be the city's poster child for urban challenges: low-income families huddle in tiny apartments; single-room-occupancy hotels offer shelter a step up from living on the street; drug dealing and prostitution are rampant and visible; and very few green spaces break up the monotony of high-rises. So why in the world would anyone go out of the way to come here? Well, exceptional Vietnamese food, for one thing, but these days more than just the great pho is luring people the Tenderloin. Trendy watering holes and coffee shops are springing up, with a handful of intrepid hipsters moving into the hood after them. The Tenderloin may be slowly on its way to becoming the next Mission, though for now it remains a gritty slice of San Francisco: come hungry and take a cab, especially at night. Some parts of the Tenderloin are more dangerous than others, and a single street can change from block to block. Little Saigon’s Larkin Street corridor is relatively safe during the day, as are most streets north of Eddy (an area that realtors insist on calling the TenderNob for its proximity to Nob Hill). Absolutely avoid the last two blocks of Turk Street and Golden Gate Avenue before they meet Market Street.

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