San Francisco’s Mission District has its roots in Latino culture, with a bohemian subculture. During the 1980s and 1990s, refugees fleeing civil wars in Central America joined the largely Mexican population of the Mission. For many years, it was an area you avoided, thanks to rampant gang violence — until young professionals and hipsters started moving in. Despite creeping gentrification, it’s maintained its edge, where you’ll find trendy bars next door to divy taquerias. GuideAdvisor’s crew spent 24 hours in the Mission recently and met up with city walking guides and food guides, such as Lisa Rogovin of Edible Excursions, to get the lowdown on what can’t be missed in this historic district.
1. Go on a graffiti walk
Wander the streets and you’ll see graffiti everywhere — not your typical graffiti, but elaborate murals that are often politically charged, like the scene of a bloody Honduran massacre. Don’t miss Balmy Alley, a one-block alley of murals that aim to promote peace in Central America. The Precita Eyes Mural Arts Centre offers guided tours, as well as maps for self-guided tours.
2. Chow down a burrito
The Mission is synonymous with burritos. There’s a taqueria on almost every corner — no matter how divey the place looks, it’s a safe bet you’ll bite into one of the best burritos of your life. A Mission burrito tends to be larger than the average burrito, stuffed with any combination of rice, beans, cheese, sour cream, salsa, guacamole, jalapeño peppers and pico de gallo — all for about $4 or $5.
3. Take in a show
Catch a performance at the Marsh, a theatre devoted to small productions in an intimate performance venue. But it’s staged some big productions, such as the award-winning “Squeezebox” and “Tings Dey Happen.” It’s not Broadway — seating is first come, first served, so buy your tickets in advance and arrive early. Fortunately, the prices aren’t Broadway either; tickets range from $8 to $50.
4. Thrift store and vintage shopping
You won’t find big brand names here, but you’ll discover plenty of thrift shops and vintage stores that once catered to low-income residents — and now cater to hipsters and vintage-divas on the lookout for retro finds. Nowadays you’ll also find quirky boutiques, offering furniture, home décor and art. Head to Valencia (between 16th and 24th); plan to spend a few hours strolling and browsing to find that one-of-a-kind item.
5. Beet ice cream, anyone?
One of the Mission’s latest food fetishes is ice cream — not just vanilla, but wacky, creative flavours that sound like they won’t work … but do. Head to Humphry Slocombe, which offers unusual flavour combinations such as Boccalone Prosciutto and Golden Beet Saffron (and has a loyal Twitter following, awaiting the latest flavour “scoop”). Bi-Rite Creamery is another local favourite, making small-batch ice cream using organic ingredients from Straus Family Creamery, just 45 miles away. The toppings are homemade, too, such as almond toffee, spiced pecans and hot fudge.
6. Bite into San Fran’s best sourdough bread
Most tourists head to Fisherman’s Wharf to get their sourdough fix, scooping clam chowder out of a hollowed-out sourdough bowl. But the locals head to the Mission’s Tartine bakery, where lineups (of locals, not tourists) often wrap around the street and fresh loaves of sourdough typically sell out in less than an hour. But no need to down an entire loaf — try one of the bakery’s croques-monsieurs instead.
7. Eat, eat and eat
The Mission was once known for big burritos and divey bars. While those still exist (and are definitely worth visiting), they now stand alongside some of the city’s trendiest restaurants, bars, cafes and bakeries. Philz, a Mission institution, serves brewed-to-order coffee, while Craftsman and Wolves bakes up stylized cube cakes. Expect to wait in line at Flour and Water, a contender for San Fran’s best pizza, or hang out with hipsters at Mission Chinese Food. Or try a chocolate rose geranium hazelnut donut at Dynamo Donut + Coffee. There are dozens of options — ask a local for the latest hot spot.
8. Check out the local art
The Mission, with its bohemian roots (you can smell the patchouli in the air) is home to many of the city’s artists, so it’s a great place to check out the local art scene. The City Art Cooperative Gallery is owned and operated by almost 200 local artists, showcasing a range of styles and mediums from both new and well-known artists. Or, head to the Artist Xchange, another gallery that promotes artists, sells art and sponsors charity events.