Inside the Neighborhood: San Francisco's Mission District

By Chris Biggs

Moving to San Francisco last year wasn’t easy. Well, technically, that’s not true: a bunch of burly men did all the heavy lifting (Lori was really fortunate to be given corporate relocation benefits by her then new employer). The hard part was finding a place to live.

In what must have been a sign of the pending apocalypse, last summer in San Francisco was a housing nightmare. In a nutshell: we visited nearly 25 different apartments, most of which were too small for two people to coexist, and saw renters fighting each other for the privilege of paying $4,000 per month for a one-bedroom shoebox. There were at least three occasions where we submitted our application booklet (yes, a literal booklet, which our relocation advisor suggested we build and featured cute couple photos, credit score details, and bank account snapshots) and were declined just due to the overwhelming competition.

We searched the city for the right digs, from the Castro to Russian Hill and almost every neighborhood in between. When we finally found our future apartment, nestled in the vibrant Mission District, we knew we were home. Like the old saying goes: home is where you can find the best burritos.

And yes, the Mission has undisputedly the greatest quality and selection of delicious burritos. What we found in the neighborhood, however, was so much more, including a wonderful and rich cultural history, high-quality independent bars and restaurants, and tremendous diversity in every sense. While we only had the opportunity to spend one year in the Mission, it will always be one of those places we can visit to get that “we’re home” feeling.

As travelers, we always feel out of place when we first arrive in a city. We don’t know where to find good food, how to use public transportation, and how to blend in with our surroundings. That’s why I always look for tips from locals to help accelerate that process, and it’s exactly why we’re doing a blog post about the Mission - the one neighborhood you need to visit when you make your way to San Francisco (especially when you’re physically exhausted from the mob of tourists crowding Fisherman’s Wharf).

This post will be one of many deeper dives we do into neighborhoods we love, and I hope it’ll serve as a helpful guide on your travels.

Best Food and Drinks

They literally have all of my favorite foods. #winning

They literally have all of my favorite foods. #winning

  • La Taqueria: I’ll admit it: I’m obsessed with La Taqueria. In fact, I love their juicy mission-style burritos so much that I rarely venture outside of our neighborhood for food. I’ve had impassioned debates with other burrito lovers about whether La Taqueria’s burritos are merely good or simply great, but the bottom line is that they’re worth trying. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight called them “America’s Best Burrito,” and you can get a veggie burrito for less than $6. A few things to know: first, the lines can get long around mealtime, so be prepared to wait up to 20 minutes. Also, the burritos are sans rice - yes, no rice! - and are still absolutely filling. Buen provecho.

  • Tartine Bakery: This neighborhood bakery is no secret; if you’ve visited San Francisco it’s likely you’ve waited in the early-morning line to grab a fresh pastry or sweet. So why would I recommend a place overrun with tourists? Because somehow their food is just a little bit better than your average; the rolls are a bit flakier and the cakes are a tad more rich (in a good way!). I’d highly recommend both a chocolate croissant and a vegetarian quiche, which rotates regularly based on the season. There’s also a new Tartine location recently opened in the Mission with a larger savory menu, but be prepared to wait just as long there for a seat.

  • Arizmendi Bakery: This local co-op sells world-class pastries, but the main attraction is their unique pizzas (always vegetarian!) that rotate daily. For example, a recent pizza masterpiece featured roasted sweet potatoes, spinach, feta cheese, and garlic oil. I’ve been on at least five separate occasions, and each pie has been a unique experience - and always delivered on taste. The best part is that you can buy a half pie for just $10 (equal to roughly five slices, or the perfect amount for a hungry couple). Bites on a budget!

  • Bi-Rite Creamery: On a hot Sunday afternoon in the Mission, the line for Bi-Rite can wrap around the building. There’s a reason for such devotion: the ice cream is addictive. It’s not simply the diversity of flavors, although featuring Cookies and Cream with pieces of Newman-O’s doesn’t hurt, nor does their mouth-watering Ricanelas (cinnamon) or rotating seasonal fruit sorbets. The real motivation is just how rich, creamy, and well-made each scoop of ice cream tastes.

  • Great neighborhood bars: Two favorites of mine include Shotwell’s and The Homestead, and both feel like old San Francisco (translation: before the techies and other yuppies like us showed up). Shotwell’s is a great place to hang with friends you want to catch up with, meaning that the vibe is laid back and the music is low enough to actually hear each other. Check out their cider selection, as well as an assortment of sour beers - and you can even bring your dog! Nearby at The Homestead, get ready to feel the buzz off $2 cans of Olympia beer while taking the tasteful-yet-cheeky old fashioned nude paintings that sit atop 1970s wallpaper. I watched the 2016 NBA Finals game 7 here and, at halftime, locals started an impromptu potluck dinner - it’s that kind of place.

Can’t Miss Activities

An absolute treat: taking in native dance during one of the mission's many annual festivals.

An absolute treat: taking in native dance during one of the mission's many annual festivals.

  • Hangin’ in Dolores Park: During the week, Mission Dolores Park is an unassuming, hilly patch of earth with spectacular views of downtown San Francisco. You can do yoga while peaceful dog-walkers and stroller-pushers meander through the park. However, everything changes on Saturday and Sunday: the park turns into San Francisco’s main outlet for millennial hijinks, meaning that you can lay down a blanket, take off your shirt, and toss around a frisbee while downing drinks (and hitting blunts, which are sold very publicly in the park, along with edible goodies). If you’re looking for the quintessential adult Dolores Park experience, hightail it over there on a Sunday around 3 pm assuming the weather holds up, and then brace yourself for a mini-carnival.

  • Street murals: Hey, the mania of Dolores Park isn’t for everyone. If you’re more interested in taking a leisurely stroll through the neighborhood to peruse the street art, I’d recommend taking in the murals between Harrison and Mission Streets (especially along 24th and 25th). Here, you’ll find a rainbow’s worth of color splashed on walls, often depicting the deep Latino heritage for which the Mission is best known.

  • Walk Mission Street: You haven’t truly understood the Mission until you’ve walked Mission Street, especially the strip between 14th and 26th streets. On the northern end, expect to be smack-dab in the middle of some of the most pervasive mental health and homelessness challenges you’ve seen (note: if you don’t take a serious look at the Mission’s homelessness, you’re whitewashing the most important cultural issue affecting the city’s residents - it is a real problem and worthy of your attention, even if it makes you feel temporarily uncomfortable). Mission Street isn’t all social ills, though. It’s also block upon block of family-run tiendas, and a mix of old, seedy bars interspersed with new apartment and condo developments. Sound interesting and different? It is.

  • Heath Ceramics: Our home was a few blocks from the infamous Heath, which is where you go when you want to ogle beautifully-designed, artisan-crafted plates, bowls, dishes, and other home goods that are just a little bit out of your price range. I’ve walked the aisles at Heath on a handful of occasions but never pulled the trigger - although I’ve always thought it’d be the perfect place to drop $100-plus on a handsome vase if the mood struck you. In any case, Heath is wonderful simply for the window shopping experience it provides.

As you can see, there’s a ton to do in this action-packed neighborhood, and it’s hard to leave a place that has become the pulse of one of the world’s most vibrant cities. The Mission District will always hold a special place in my heart, and as long as they keep pumping out such amazing burritos, it won’t be long until my next visit.

A typical mission scene: cool old car in front of rowhouse-style single-family homes.

A typical mission scene: cool old car in front of rowhouse-style single-family homes.